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Lecia Imbery's picture

Congress had a big week last week, passing the FY16 omnibus spending bill, which included important gains for low-income people, and passing a large tax package that made permanent tax credits for low-income working families. Before heading home for its holiday recess, Congress took care of a few other pieces of business, too. Unfortunately, they also left others to be dealt with next year.

President Obama signed into law a bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on December 10, following passage of the measure in the Senate (85-12) on December 9 and the House (359-64) on December 2. The law is a compromise of the two versions of the bill passed by the different chambers back in July. This is the first rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, which technically expired in 2007. However, Congress’s failure to pass a new education law meant that NCLB remained intact until now. The new Every Student Succeeds Act will shrink the federal government’s role in public school systems while giving more power to state and local agencies. It will also reduce annual testing requirements for high school students.

The House and Senate both passed a compromise transportation bill on December 3, which was signed into law by President Obama the following day. The law reauthorizes highway and public transit programs, as well as Amtrak, for five years, with a total cost of $305 billion. This is the first time Congress has passed a long-term highway bill in a decade.

Advocates had hoped Congress would complete reauthorization of child nutrition programs this fall, as the law governing them expired on September 30. While there were some efforts to attach a full reauthorization bill to the omnibus, that didn’t happen. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which sets the policy and funding structure for all of the federal school meal and child nutrition programs, including National School Lunch, Summer Food Service Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and others, is now expected to be considered by Congress early next year. Many of these programs are permanently authorized (subject to Congress funding their operations), but Congress reviews the laws governing them every five years. While a full reauthorization bill wasn’t included in the omnibus, funding for FY16 for these programs was. For example, the WIC program received $6.35 billion, which is less than last year’s funding level and the level requested by the President but is expected to support the anticipated caseload at this time. The summer EBT program, which provides debit cards to families with children who receive free or reduced-price meals at school to use during the summer, received $23 million, up $ 7 million from FY15 levels. The omnibus does, however, maintain existing language that allows waivers of the school whole grain requirement and postpones full implementation of the sodium requirement. For more information on what else was included in the omnibus, see this related article.

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources re­leased a discussion draft of reauthorization legislation for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in July. The TANF block grant has not been fully reauthorized in recent years, but has instead been temporarily extended a number of times since it was last due for reauthorization in 2010. While the omnibus did not include a full reauthorization of TANF, it did include an extension of the funding for TANF through FY16. A full reauthorization of the program may or may not be taken up next year.

Advocates had hoped to see further movement of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in October. As noted in the October 26 Human Needs Report, the bill would eliminate the harsh three-strike mandatory life sentence, reduce federal penalties for some drug-related and other crimes, and address the extreme disparities in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine offenses, among other reforms. Despite having strong bipartisan support, the bill has yet to be brought up for a vote on the Senate floor. There is still hope it will be taken up in the new year.

This article is from the latest edition of the Human Needs Report, the regular newsletter on national policy issues affecting low-income and vulnerable populations, from the Coalition on Human Needs. Sign up to get the Human Needs Report delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe to our blog, and follow CHN on Facebook and Twitter.

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