September/October POAM Washington Report

After weeks of debate, Congress failed to reach a deal to avoid a government shutdown. One week into the shutdown, hundreds of thousands of government employees remain without jobs, national parks are still closed and organizations and agencies who rely on federal dollars are watching their source dry up. With little movement in the House or Senate, it remains unclear how long Congress will keep the government on lockdown.

Government Shutdown Developments

On day seven of the federal government shutdown, Congress continues debate and prepares for the looming debt limit deadline on October 17th. With neither side showing a willingness to compromise, potential solutions to the government shutdown will likely become increasingly tied to the debt ceiling debate this week. Each body has been intent on making the other cave regarding a stopgap plan to fund federal agencies and House Majority Leaders have attempted to shift the debate from President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul to broader budget and spending issues. Both chambers remained in session for the second consecutive weekend, locked in a game of legislative ping-pong in which House Majority Members followed a strategy of advancing narrow spending bills that would restore funding to popular government agencies. Senate Majority Leaders threatened to reject the measures, as they had for most of the previous week, and continued to insist on a “clean” fiscal 2014 continuing resolution (CR) to provide appropriations for the entire government, at least on a temporary basis.

The fight over funding the government appears increasingly likely to be lumped into a broader deal to raise the debt limit ahead of an Oct. 17 deadline set by the Treasury Department for expanding the government’s borrowing authority. Pulling the debt limit and the stopgap spending plan together may provide an opportunity for each side to budge from seemingly entrenched positions, leaving lawmakers with only one vote that some sources claim will carry politically painful concessions, on both sides of the aisle. Even though some agree on the likely linkage of a continuing resolution to raising the government’s borrowing authority, both sides remain divided on what would be included in such a combined package, and there is little time to work out the details. With the government already shut down over House Majority Members’ insistence that the stopgap funding bill include a provision to defund the health care law — and Senate Leadership’s resistance to major statutory changes within an otherwise straightforward continuing resolution — the Treasury Department is nearing the point where it will need new borrowing authority to continue paying the country’s obligations. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has estimated that the department will reach the $16.7 trillion debt limit on Oct. 17. The consequences of reaching a debt ceiling are not clear, but many experts have warned of serious economic impacts, comparing it to the 2011 tumble caused by Congress waiting until the last minute to address the critical debt ceiling deadline.

Senate Panel Approves “Blue Alert” Measure

On September 19th, the Senate Judiciary Committee backed the National Blue Alert Act (S. 357) authored by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). The National Blue Alert Act has received the endorsements from numerous local and national police organizations. The National Blue Alert Act would create an alert system for cases when police officers are harmed in the line of duty. By sending out information about at-large perpetrators, including physical descriptions of suspects or their vehicles, the law seeks to disseminate critical information about relevant suspects to both law enforcement agencies and the media to help catch the perpetrator. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), cosponsor of the bill, said the legislation is part of an effort to connect existing state Blue Alert systems. Under this legislation, the United States Justice Department would designate a coordinator at the national level to manage the existing networks and work with states and other localities using Blue Alert plans to make the system run effectively and create a more coordinated system to catch the perpetrators.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Members passed the measure on a 15-3 vote with little debate as the bill will now move to the full Senate for consideration. In May, the House passed identical legislation on a 406-2 vote.

Bill Introduced to Improve Public Safety Through Increased Law Enforcement

On September 9th, Congressman John Conyers (D-MI-13) introduced the Shield Our Street Act, which seeks to ensure local law enforcement agencies have the necessary funds to keep their officers employed and the streets safe. With dwindling law enforcement budgets as a consequence of state and budgetary cuts, police departments and law enforcement agencies are being forced to stretch their resources thinner than they have ever been and Congressman Conyers and his colleagues, Congressman Gary Peters (D-MI-14), Congressman Steven Cohen (D-TN-9) and Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA-4) are leading a fight to ensure law enforcement agencies have the funds to police the city streets.

Under the Shield Our Streets Act, a program would be created to offer additional law enforcement grants to local communities and enforcement agencies to provide communities with the resources to keep police officers on the job with the tools they need to keep the country safe.

The legislation seeks to create two new types of funding grants for law enforcement including the Shield Police Hiring Grants and the Shield Public Safety Enhancement Grants. The Shield Police Hiring Grants would be implemented by the Attorney General and provide additional funding to agencies that operate in Elevated Need Localities which are defined by crime rates being above the national average and budget reductions in the last 5 years. The Shield Public Safety Enhancement Grants would also be implemented by the Attorney General and provide grants to units of government that have jurisdiction over the Elevated Need Locality. This would help local governments cover the costs of public safety equipment, public safety program, and installation of infrastructure that seeks to improve safety of local communities.

Senate Committee Holds Hearing State and Federal Marijuana Laws

On Tuesday, September 10th, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing in response to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on the decision of the federal government choosing to not interfere with state laws that allow medical marijuana or legalize the drug entirely. The hearing was requested by Committee Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy who wanted to discuss the ongoing conflicts between state and federal laws as several states have decided in recent years to allow medical marijuana. Senator Leahy argued the criminalization of marijuana use as led to a rising prison population, while opponents argued states could not be trusted to properly regulate the marijuana use and selling of the product across state borders.

In August, the Justice Department announced it would honor state laws but continue to prosecute those who sell marijuana to minors or abuse state laws and move marijuana across state borders to states where marijuana use is not legal.

As always, the Washington, DC office of POAM will be closely following legislation pertinent to the police and peace officers of Michigan. If you have any questions or need additional information regarding federal initiatives regarding the law enforcement community, please do not hesitate to contact us at (202) 544-9840.

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