WASHINGTON(December 20, 2004)—In the final weeks of this Congress, several issues of major importance to the Catholic Bishops were addressed. These provisions, which were enacted, or in some instances rejected, because of major lobbying efforts by the USCCB, came in the areas of "conscience protection amendment" for health care providers; restoration of funding for Catholic school students; new requirements to serve disabled students; legislation dealing with the death penalty; and immigration.
The 108th Congress adjourned after two post-election "lame duck" sessions were called to pass the massive appropriations bill, which funds most of the Federal government, and legislation to reform the nation's intelligence system. As Congress finalized its work, the USCCB Office of Government Liaison urged it to take action on a number of issues of importance to the Bishops.
Following is a brief description of those issues from a report prepared by the Office of Government Liaison and sent to the Bishops on December 17.
Passage of Hyde/Weldon "Conscience Protection Amendment"
The bill included the Hyde/Weldon "Conscience Protection Amendment" that prevents any institutional or individual health care entity from being discriminated against for refusing to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions. It protects not only physicians and other health care professionals but any kind of health care facility, organization or plan. It culminated a four-year campaign led by the USCCB, the Catholic Health Association, and the Catholic Medical Association, with grass roots support engendered by the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment.
Funding for Catholic School Students Restored
Funding for a long-standing program of assistance to Catholic school students, Title V, "Innovative Programs," was nearly eliminated by the House and had been completely eliminated by the Senate. A broad based lobbying effort led by the USCCB, and including Bishops and parents, convinced the Congress to restore $200 million of the funding for this program.
Preventing Expansion Of the Death Penalty
On December 8, the Congress passed S. 2845, the "Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act." The original bill that passed the House (H.R. 10) included eight new federal death penalty expansion provisions for terrorists. The USCCB publicly opposed and worked to eliminate these provisions. The final bill did not contain any expansion of the death penalty.
As the 108th Congress drew to a close, USCCB led an effort to defeat 12 far-reaching immigration provisions that were contained in the intelligence reform act. Among them were provisions that would have prohibited states from issuing drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, required immigration authorities to summarily deport without judicial review persons suspected of being undocumented, made it more difficult for refugees to obtain asylum in the United States, and permitted the government to deport aliens to countries where they are likely to be tortured.
"As a result of interventions by USCCB and allied organizations, Congress rejected each of these provisions," the report noted. "However," it continued, "the fact that the House of Representatives gave preliminary approval to them earlier suggests how vulnerable immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are to the immigration restrictionist agenda, a vulnerability that will likely continue into the 109th Congress."
Earlier in the fall the Congress enacted two other laws, one addressing new requirements to serve disabled students, the other, passage of the "Justice for All Act."
New Requirements to Serve Disabled Students
The law providing special education services to disabled elementary and secondary students was recently reauthorized by Congress. The USCCB was able to convince Congress to incorporate into the new law a number of procedural changes that will significantly strengthen requirements that children in Catholic schools with special needs will be able to access government services while remaining in Catholic schools.
Passage of the "Justice for All Act" (Death Penalty)
Congress approved the "Justice for All Act" which included the Innocence Protection Act, a package of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the risk of innocent persons being executed by encouraging and enabling states to provide competent counsel to indigent defendants, and ensuring that inmates who have been wrongfully convicted have access to evidence (DNA) that could establish their innocence. This culminated a six year campaign by the USCCB, which regarded the effort as not only saving innocent lives but as a positive step towards educating people and ultimately eliminating the death penalty.
More details on this legislation can be found in the Office of Government Liaison year-end legislative report, which will be posted on its Web site at www.usccb.org/ogl by the end of the month.