On the Hill Update: December 20, 2019
Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice
Restrictive abortion coverage rule finalized
On December 20, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized a rule requiring insurers offering abortion coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) exchanges to issue two separate bills to patients: one for abortion coverage and one for all other health coverage. This rule was blatantly designed to further restrict abortion coverage by dissuading insurers from offering it and by confusing consumers. NCJW knows that coverage for the full range of reproductive health care services, including abortion, helps families and communities thrive and submitted a comment strongly opposing this rule.
Federal court strikes down part of ACA
On December 18, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declared the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) individual mandate unconstitutional. The court reasoned that because Congress has zeroed-out the monetary penalty for not purchasing health coverage, the individual mandate is no longer valid as part of the congressional power of taxation. Furthermore, rather than deciding if the rest of the law is still constitutional, the Fifth Circuit sent the case back down to the lower court. Significantly, the district court — namely, Judge Reed O’Connor — already deemed the entire ACA legally invalid just over a year ago. Jewish tradition teaches that each of us is made in the image of the divine, b’tselem Elohim (Genesis 1:26), meaning every single person’s health is paramount and unassailable. We have an obligation to care for and protect our bodies and to ensure all others can do the same. NCJW was proud to play a role in the enactment of the ACA, and we won’t stop fighting for it now.
SCOTUS to examine religious exceptions to civil rights laws
On December 18, the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear two cases involving the “ministerial exception” to federal employment discrimination laws, which protects religious institutions from certain discrimination claims from its “ministers” based on the First Amendment’s guarantee of religion/state separation. The two cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, ask the Court to determine whether school teachers with limited religious duties are considered ministers for the purpose of this exception. If the Court defines minister broadly, these cases will have far-reaching consequences for all employees of religious institutions, who may no longer benefit from vital civil rights protections against nearly any type of unlawful mistreatment solely because their employer is a religious institution. NCJW will be watching this case closely and strongly opposes all laws and policies that permit discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.
Mississippi 15-week ban declared unconstitutional
On December 15, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, affirming that “[p]rohibitions on pre-viability abortions . . . are unconstitutional regardless of the State’s interests.” Judge Patrick Higginbotham also noted that the obstacle to securing an abortion created by the law “is insurmountable, not merely substantial.” Significantly, none of the gestational age bans passed in nine states this year have taken effect. What’s more, the Guttmacher Institute reports that 36 state measures protecting abortion rights were enacted this year, more than in the entire previous decade. NCJW opposes all measures that restrict access to abortion, shutter licensed clinics, and prevent patients from receiving care and will continue to advance proactive legislation safeguarding abortion rights and access.
- Take action! President Trump recently nominated Cory Wilson to a lifetime federal judgeship in Mississippi. Wilson is a proponent of six-week bans or so-called “heartbeat bills” that are even more restrictive than the Mississippi law just struck down. Tell your senators to oppose Wilson’s nomination!
Senate rushes to confirm 13 judges before year’s end
Before adjourning for its holiday recess, the Senate confirmed 13 lifetime nominees to the federal bench in just two days. On Monday, December 16, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) filed cloture on 13 nominees, three of whom would not even state that the landmark civil rights decision Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided. On December 18 and 19, the Senate confirmed all 13 nominees, bringing the total number of lifetime confirmations under President Trump to 187, or 21% of the entire federal judiciary. NCJW will continue to advocate for qualified, independent, and diverse federal judges.
Federal paid parental leave becomes law
This week, the Senate passed (86-8) the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, S 1790), which funds the military; the House of Representatives passed the bill last week. While the bill lacks protections for immigration enforcement spending and does not overturn the transgender military ban, both of which advocates faught for, it does establish 12 weeks of federal paid parental leave. While it falls short of the FAMILY Act (HR 1185/S 463), which would establish 12 weeks of paid family leave to care for a new child, an ailing family member, or yourself, NCJW supports this first step toward a national standard for paid leave.
- Take Action! Tell your lawmakers that federal paid parental leave is just the first step. It’s time to pass the FAMILY Act!
Massive spending bill passes; awaits president’s signature
On December 17, the House passed two spending bills totaling $1.4 trillion to keep the government funded through September 30, 2020: HR 1158 (280-138) to fund the military and several non-defense departments (Homeland Security; Commerce, Treasury, and Justice; IRS; and the National Science Foundation) and HR 1865 (297-120) that would fund the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor, State, Agriculture, Transportation, Veterans Affairs, Energy and Housing and Urban Development, as well as water projects, the FDA, congressional operations and military construction projects. The Senate approved the spending package (81-11 and 71-23) on December 19, and as of this writing awaits the president’s signature to avoid a government shutdown tonight. While the package includes $49 billion in extra funding for most government agencies, it’s a mixed bag for the issues NCJW cares about. In some positive news, the deal includes:
- $25 million toward gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health;
- Funds for initiatives to improve election security;
- Extra food to low-income families through programs like food stamps and WIC; and
- Subsidizes energy bills for people who can’t afford to keep the heat on.
NCJW is disappointed the budget deal includes:
- Increased budgets for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP);
- No provisions curbing the president’s authority to transfer funds from other accounts or agencies to spend on immigrant detention and/or the border wall;
- Funding for the border wall;
- Hyde language throughout government programs and agencies:
- No new funding for international efforts to aid family planning and reproductive health; and
- Permanently repealing three major health taxes that were supposed to help pay for Obamacare, including the Cadillac tax on pricey employer plans, a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices, and a health insurance fee.
Immigration and Refugees
New Rule Targeting Asylum Seekers
On December 18, the New York Times reported on a new rule proposed by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security that would include misdemeanor offenses on the list of crimes that bar migrants from asylum. Currently, asylum is blocked for those who commit violent crimes, like murder. Under the proposed rule, the list would expand to include minor crimes like having a fake ID or marijuana possession. The rule is expected to be published soon, meaning that it will be open for comment. NCJW opposes the administration’s relentless attacks on asylum.
Gender-Based and Sexual Violence
Measure reauthorizing funding to test rape kits passes Senate
On December 17, the Senate passed the House version of the Debbie Smith Act (S 820) by unanimous consent. The measure reauthorizes funding to help end the backlog of untested rape kits, and was also included in the House-passed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA, HR 1585). Because the Senate has yet to consider VAWA, the House passed a stand-alone version of the Debbie Smith Act on October 23 to ensure continuation of this critical program. NCJW supports efforts to seek justice for survivors of rape.
- On December 13, NCJW joined two faith letters urging Temporary Protected Status (TPS) be redesignated and extended for Somalia and Yemen.
- NCJW joined faith organizations on an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in HIAS v. Trump, a case challenging the president’s executive order limiting refugee resettlement.