The 116th Congress has already made history.
There were a number of firsts in this freshman class, which was sworn in on January 3. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) became the first Muslim American women elected to Congress. Sharice Davids (D-KS) and Deb Haaland (D-NM) are the first Native American women to serve. Davids is also the first openly LGBTQ person sent to Congress by the state of Kansas. Veronica Escobar (D) and Sylvia Garcia (D) became the first Latinas to represent Texas.
Overall, a record 117 women — 102 in the House and 15 in the Senate — will serve in the 116th Congress. Twenty-four of the new House members are people of color, including 13 women of color. Six states now have two female senators: Arizona, California, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Washington. In Arizona, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) narrowly defeated Rep. Martha McSally (R) for the seat of retiring Senator Jeff Flake (R). McSally was later appointed to replace Sen. Jon Kyl (R), who had agreed to serve temporarily after the August death of Senator John McCain.
The election results mean there is now a solid pro-family planning majority in the House. The Senate remains another story. However, with Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) maintaining their seats on the powerful Appropriations Committee, that committee still has a pro-family planning majority. We will be watching with great interest as the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations process unfolds (eventually, one presumes — see below).
Now that the new Congress is in place, we expect the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights Act (Global HER Act) to be reintroduced in both the House and Senate in early February. During the 115th Congress, the bill had 165 cosponsors in the House and 47 in the Senate.
Trump Rollback of Birth Control Benefit Stymied by Courts
The day it was set to take effect, a federal judge in Pennsylvania issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the Trump administration’s rollback of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) birth control benefit. The benefit requires that insurance plans cover all FDA approved methods of birth control without co-pays. The Obama administration had previously allowed some narrow exemptions to the rule for churches and other religious institutions, but the Trump administration has sought to allow any entity to opt out of the requirement based on religious or moral objections. The preliminary injunction is not permanent. Rather, it delays implementation of the policy until the remaining lawsuits are settled.
Budget Impasse Leads to Record-Setting Shutdown
At the time of our press deadline, the United States was a month into a partial government shutdown. It’s a new record, easily eclipsing the previous mark of 21 days set in January 1996.
A quick recap of how we got here:
Back in September, Congress approved a full-year budget package for several parts of the government, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Title X, the nation’s family planning program for low-income people. The State Department, however, which has jurisdiction over our international family planning programs, was among the agencies that did not see its Fiscal Year 2019 budget passed.
Instead, Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR), extending funding for those agencies at FY 2018 levels through early December. The expectation was that after the November elections, the lame-duck Congress would either pass the remaining full-year bills or agree to another CR, keeping the government open until the 116th Congress was seated.
For a time, they appeared to be on track to follow the first course. Believing they were on the verge of an agreement, legislators passed a short CR extending funding through December 21, in order to give themselves more time to finalize the details. Although Donald Trump had previously claimed he would not sign any bill that did not appropriate billions of dollars for a wall on the United States/Mexico border, congressional leadership had assurances that he would sign the package when it was ready.
At the last minute, however, egged on by voices from the far right, Trump reneged on his agreement and announced he would refuse to sign the measure due to its lack of funding for a border wall. Legislators scrambled for a solution, but the government entered a partial shutdown at midnight on December 22.
Approximately 75 percent of the government was funded through the bills passed in September, but the shutdown is nonetheless having significant and growing effects. Many national parks are closed, some food inspections have stopped, and the Internal Revenue Service has indicated that tax filings and refunds may be delayed if the shutdown continues. Personnel deemed “essential” are required to work during the shutdown, though they are not being paid. Affected employees include TSA and air-traffic control personnel, along with members of the Coast Guard and some 13,000 FBI agents. As has happened during previous shutdowns, government workers are expected to receive back pay once the government reopens, though most contractors will not.
What does all this mean for international family planning programs? Right now, the shutdown means no new money is flowing, and many of the people who administer the programs are furloughed. Going forward, the situation is murkier. The bill negotiated before the shutdown maintained the status quo for international family planning — no change to the Global Gag Rule, $575 million for bilateral programs, and a U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) of $32.5 million — although the current Kemp-Kasten determination barring funding to UNFPA means that money would be “reprogrammed” to other women’s health initiatives.
The new House of Representatives, however, wasted no time in signaling where it stands on these issues, passing a funding bill that included the Senate Appropriations Committee’s family planning language — higher funding than had been passed by the previous House, a repeal of the Global Gag Rule, and funding for UNFPA.
Anti-family planning members immediately offered a motion to strip those provisions from the bill, but, fortunately, it failed 199-232. Democrats Collin Peterson (MN) and Dan Lipinski (IL) joined all Republican members of the House in voting for the motion. The Senate declined to take up the measure.
Whatever ultimately happens, we’ve all been put on notice that this new House of Representatives is willing to fight for these priorities, and it’s a thrilling thing to see.