Do Kids Count in Congress?

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By Sue Badeau

Members of Congress want us to believe that children are a very high priority. So day after day they introduce measures that are touted as benefiting kids. Since the 106th Congress began in January of 1999, 1,189 bills have been introduced, amended, revised and discussed that include the word "children." Another 991 bills include the word "child," and still another 330 include "youth." Lest we think "family values" have gone out of style, rest assured - a whopping 1,147 of the 106th Congress' bills contain the word "family."

Now let's look at how much of this kidspeak moves to the stage of the legislative process where it can make a difference for children and youth - and at how many of these self-identified "kids bills" would actually do anything positive for kids.

Of the 182 bills that have wound their way into law during the 106th Congress, only eight have had anything to do with kids. This includes the overall omnibus appropriations bill (which funds far more than just kids programs), two education bills (one limited to a particular school district), one child care bill (related to the child care provided for children of House members and their staff), and one allowing adopted alien children under 18 to be considered children. That leaves three slightly more substantive bills: the reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and its companion Missing Children's Assistance Act (which mostly funds the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children), and the only two kid-related bills signed so far in this Congress - the John Chafee Independent Living Program and the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act.

This about equals the number of bills passed to confer awards, medals or other honors on individuals, and pales in comparison to the 37 bills whose sole purpose is to name, re-name or designate a federal building, post office or other parcel of federal property.

Some kids' bills sound good but miss the mark. One example this year is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers legislation, which authorizes funds (President Clinton proposes $1 billion next year) for after-school efforts. It is a much-needed program, but it doesn't give kids and parents any choice in selecting service providers. It keeps the money in the control of - and under the auspices of - schools.
And last month, the House Education and the Workforce Committee passed a provision allowing schools to shift money from after-school programs to projects like buying metal detectors.

As Lynne Vaughan, director of program development at the YMCA of the USA points out, many schools in the poorest communities "feel they don't have the resources to even apply for, much less operate" programs providing after school services. But by keeping community organizations like the Ys, Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs, Save the Children, and others, out of the pool of eligible grantees, the 21st Century Community Learning Center program loses opportunities to cost-effectively serve the neediest communities.

Hope for Kids

The first substantive kids' bill to pass Congress this year was the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act (H.R. 764), originally introduced by Congresswoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio). The legislation includes "Jennifer's Law," which has three purposes: first, help states improve access of child protective workers and child welfare workers to criminal conviction information and orders of protection based on claims of child or domestic abuse; second, allow state use of federal grants "to enforce child-abuse and neglect laws and programs designed to prevent child abuse and neglect"; and third, to double the amount of federal funds earmarked for child abuse and domestic assistance programs from $10 million to $20 million.

This law will help communities address significant issues, such as those identified by the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law Associate Director Robert Horowitz: better handling of child abuse cases that cross jurisdictional boundaries, improved representation of abused children in court, coordination of child abuse and domestic violence cases, and how the legal system responds to children exposed to domestic violence.

Other promising legislation is brewing. On kids' health, the Family Opportunity Act of 2000 was recently introduced by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). It is wonderful news for kids that powerful Republican Finance Committee member Grassley is joining forces with arch-Democrat Kennedy to build on the themes of the Workforce Investment Act, which passed late last year. This bill, being shepherded by staffers Connie Garner (in Kennedy's office) and Hope Hegstrom (in Grassley's), allows families raising children with disabilities to purchase medical care through Medicaid, if their incomes are too high to otherwise qualify. It would go a long way to prevent families from being forced to give up their jobs, sell off their assets and sink into poverty - or even worse, to place their kids in foster care - in order to get health care they need often just to survive, never mind thrive.

Other bills to watch:

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) is readying (again) legislation that would help ensure that child support money paid by non-custodial parents actually gets to the kids. Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) recently introduced legislation (S. 2435) that would require substance abuse and child welfare agencies to work together on behalf of kids who surface in both systems. Sens. DeWine, Rockefeller, Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and others are pedaling (again) legislation that will provide much-needed resources to vastly improve the nation's abuse and neglect court system. The "Immigrant Children's Health Improvement Act" (S. 1227), a legacy of the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), is being championed by his son, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.); it would undo one of the harsher provisions of 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which disallowed states from providing federally funded Medicaid or CHIP health-care benefits to legal immigrant children and pregnant women.

It remains to be seen whether these bills will become law, get mired in controversy or stuck in committee. The best bills often die because no one can find the money ("offsets") to pay for them. Will that be an excuse at a time when the economy is roaring and Congress is fighting over budget surpluses?

Out by Vote

Youth issues played a role in the recent unseating of Rep. Matthew Martinez (D-Calif.). Martinez was soundly defeated in a March Democratic primary by State Sen. Hilda Solis, by 69 to 31 percent. Advocates and politicos have characterized Martinez as a laid-back, Beltway-entrenched pol who is out of touch with the concerns of his constituents.

Martinez, first elected to Congress in 1982, is ranking minority member on the Post Secondary Education and Lifelong Learning Subcommittee of the Education and Workforce Committee. While he has continually pushed for full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, his approach to issues related to youth violence and gun control have been troubling to many in the youth field. He once tried to amend the Juvenile Justice Act to set national standards for rent-a-cop companies. (Among other things, he's a long time member of the National Rifle Association.) Solis, whose campaign received a boost from both organized labor and Emily's List (a nonprofit that finds female candidates for political office), has championed youth concerns, along with domestic violence, as two of the chief issues of her campaign.

Solis recently became the 11th - and first female - recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage award. She received the award for her on-going efforts to "protect poor and minority communities" in California. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg calls Solis a person who "is a source of inspiration for those who share my father's belief that one person can make a difference."

Out by Choice

Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the powerful House Committee on Commerce, has announced his retirement after serving 10 terms. Bliley is the 23rd Republican House member (as compared to only seven Democrats) and fourth chairman of a committee to retire in this Congress. Others include Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), Education and the Workforce Chairman Rep. William Goodling (R-Pa.), and Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio).

Bliley has made adoption-related legislation an important goal of his tenure, and he is stepping up efforts to leave a legacy. He added an "Adoption Awareness" provision to the Children's Health Research and Prevention bill (H.R. 3301), which became quite contentious. This provision posed serious concerns to adoption and family planning advocates alike. It was a strange day when both the conservative, pro-life adoption lobbyist Maureen Hogan and family planning advocates, including Planned Parenthood legislative representatives such as Jodie Leu, were in agreement. All had legitimate concerns about the use of family planning clinics for the delivery of adoption services.

Bliley staffers Jason Lee and Mark Wheat engaged advocates in some of the "I'll give you some of this, if you be quiet about that" gamesmanship that is more often found in the world of cash-drenched corporate lobbyists. In the end, a compromise version of the adoption language survived, and while everyone is not completely happy, the worst language - related to abortion "gag" rules, and out-of-fashion models of adoption practice - have been removed while some good language was added (particularly around recruiting families to adopt children with special needs). The bill has yet to be marked up.