Happy New Year! Legislators opened the second session of the 115th Congress by welcoming two new Senators to Capitol Hill. Doug Jones, a Democrat and attorney general from Alabama replaces Jeff Sessions, who vacated his seat to take the Attorney General position at the U.S. Department of Justice. The new addition changes the partisan make-up of the Senate to 51-49 narrowing the Republican majority. Another new Democratic Senator, Tina Smith, joins the chamber. She replaces Al Franken (D-MN), who announced his resignation over allegations of sexual harassment earlier late last year. Smith’s interests include paid family leave and child care issues.
Other changes announced over the break include the retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican from Utah, a high-ranking Republican leader in the Senate and Chair of the Finance Committee with jurisdiction over health care and entitlement programs important to people with disabilities. Possible replacements as chair of that important committee include Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, Sen. Michael Crapo of Idaho and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.
Speaking of the Senate Finance Committee, senators plan to hear from former Eli Lilly & Co. executive Alex Azar, the Administration’s choice for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services this week. At a November appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Azar faced tough questions about his background as a pharmaceutical industry executive and plans for tackling high drug prices.
The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee plans Thursday to consider Education Department nominees Mitchell Zais to be deputy secretary, Kenneth Marcus to be assistant secretary for civil rights, and James Blew to be assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development.
Appropriations and Other Upcoming Priorities
House and Senate congressional leaders met with White House officials last week to discuss the possibility of a deal to raise the self-imposed caps on discretionary spending levels. This is important because our government programs are currently operating under a continuing resolution that expires on January 19. The continuing resolution was needed because none of the 12 annual appropriations bills have been passed. The main obstacle to passing the bills is the politically unrealistic, austere caps on discretionary spending. If Congress and the White House do not come to agreement to raise the caps, significant cuts would have to take place across-the-board to programs, including health, education, employment, and other programs important to people with autism and families.
Other priorities coming down the pike include the need to pass a law allowing the approximately 700,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought here in their youth and could be a risk for deportation if legislation is not passed. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) also must be reauthorized to prevent almost 900,000 low-income children from losing coverage. Mental health treatment, opioid addiction, health market-place stabilization, and disaster aid are other high priorities for the Administration and Congress.
These agenda items will come into conflict with the Administration and Congress’ priorities to control and reduce federal government spending. Immediately following passage of the tax cut bill, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and President Trump announced their intention to move next to dealing with “welfare reform.” Given the Budget Resolution’s significant cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security Income programs, the Autism Society and other national disability advocates are extremely concerned and getting prepared to defend any proposals that further reduce the health care and long term services and supports for people with autism and other disabilities.
The Autism Society policy staff is currently updating its advocacy website and adding tools for affiliates and allies to be fully informed and to be able to more easily participate in efforts to educate Members of Congress and the Administration about the needs of individuals on the spectrum and their families.