On September 18, the Senate voted 78-22 to approve H.J. Res 124, a continuing resolution (CR), and President Obama signed the measure into law the following day. This measure will avoid a government shutdown by extending current funding levels from the start of fiscal year 2015 on October 1, through December 11, 2014. See recent disability-related discretionary funding levels on The Arc’s website.
Last week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) called on his colleagues in the Senate to vote on the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) treaty. Senator Harkin called for a unanimous consent vote that was opposed on the floor, preventing the vote from taking place.
The Arc has been working with numerous other disability advocacy groups and Senators to garner support for the ratification of this treaty, which will promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities. For years, The Arc’s Public Policy team and grassroots advocates across the country have been working to promote the CRPD and ensure ratification. The United States signed the CRPD on July 30, 2009, joining the 141 other signing nations. As of June 2012, the Convention had 113 ratifications and 153 signatures. On May 17, 2012, following almost three years of thorough review, the Obama Administration submitted its treaty package to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent for ratification.
On September 19, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) released a joint statement updating the public on the Achieving a Better Life Experience (S.313 and H.R.647) ABLE Act status. They indicated that the Senate has generated momentum and positive progress on passage of the bill. The four Senators announced that as a result of bi-partisan collaboration, a policy agreement has been reached that will be the foundation for passing this legislation and obtaining Presidential signature in the lame duck Congressional session, which begins November 12, 2014. Although no plan has been developed yet to pay for the $2.1 billion cost over 10 years, legislators are optimistic that agreement can be reached. The ABLE Act legislation, to allow people with disabilities to open tax-advantaged savings accounts, has been in development for eight years.
Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) have introduced the Debt Collection Improvement Act (S. 2896) to limit the amount the federal government can garnish from monthly federal benefits. In 1998, Congress set this amount at $750 per month; since then, it has not been raised or adjusted for inflation. As a result, the federal government can garnish Social Security benefits so long as the beneficiary is not left with less than $750 per month. A recent report by the Government Accountability Organization (GAO) found that 155,000 people had their Social Security benefits garnished in 2013 because they had defaulted on their student loan payments. The vast majority – 71 percent – were receiving Social Security disability benefits. According to the GAO, if the garnishment limit had been indexed to match the rate of increase in the poverty threshold, in 2013, 68 percent of all borrowers whose Social Security benefits were garnished for federal student loan debt would have kept their entire benefit. Earlier this month, the Senate Special Committee on Aging (Chair: Sen. Nelson; Ranking Member: Sen. Collins) held a hearing on older Americans and the impact of student loan debt on retirement security. The Debt Collection Improvement Act would adjust the current $750 garnishment floor for inflation and index it going forward. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced S. 2789, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Full Funding Act, on September 10. This bill would increase spending over the next decade to bring the federal share of funding for special education up to 40%, the amount promised when the law was first enacted in 1975. To date, the federal government has never covered more than 16% of these costs per year. The increased funding would be paid for through increased taxes on individuals earning over $1 million per year. The House version of the bill, HR 4136, was introduced in June by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). Learn more at help.senate.gov.
Last week, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing on “Overcoming Persistent Barriers to Economic Self-Sufficiency for People with Disabilities.” In a statement, The Arc’s Marty Ford said: “Today a legend in the disability community held what is likely his final Senate Committee hearing on disability issues, advocating for individuals with disabilities until the very end of his final term in Congress. Senator Harkin has been a longtime advocate for individuals with disabilities, supporting or spearheading all major disability legislation in the last 40 years. His final hearing focused on poverty, a huge problem facing many individuals with disabilities. This hearing, like so many before, highlighted one of the key issues facing people with disabilities, and challenged legislators to look for solutions. Senator Harkin is a hero to The Arc and our advocates across the country, and his legacy will live on. We thank him for his years of service, and friendship to our community.” Read more on The Arc’s blog.
Last week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced three bills as part of his “Access for All” agenda to help people with disabilities achieve economic independence and reach the middle class. The “Universal Home Design Act” (S. 2889) would seek to increase the availability of accessible housing for people with disabilities by requiring certain accessibility features for single family homes and townhouses built or purchased with federal financial assistance. The bill was referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. The “Accessible Transportation for All Act” (S. 2887) would seek to expand access to accessible taxi services and ban discrimination based on disability by taxi companies and drivers. The bill was referred to the Committee on Finance. The “Exercise and Fitness for All Act” (S. 2888) would encourage exercise and fitness service providers to provide exercise and fitness equipment that is accessible to people with disabilities. The bill was referred to the Committee on Finance.
The Paul Marchand Internship Fund will provide $3,000 per semester or summer session to assist interns interested in pursuing careers in public policy advocacy for people withintellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). See Application information and Internship FAQs for more information. For 38 years, Paul Marchand was a dedicated disability policy advocate and recognized leader working on behalf of people I/DD and the larger disability community. Upon his retirement in 2011, The Arc, with substantial contributions from United Cerebral Palsy, other organizations, and individuals with whom Paul worked during his decades in Washington, established an internship to honor Paul and to continue to cultivate disability policy advocates.
On September 10, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced S.2790, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Fairness Restoration Act. This legislation would ensure parents who successfully challenge a school district under IDEA can recoup costs for psychologists, behavior specialists, physicians and other experts they engage in order to bring their case. Currently, families can challenge schools if they do not believe that their child is being provided a free and appropriate education (FAPE) under the law. While attorney’s fees can be recovered by whichever party prevails, a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision determined that costs for expert witnesses cannot. The IDEA Fairness Restoration Act would remedy this problem by overriding the Supreme Court’s decision and restoring IDEA’s original intent, allowing prevailing parents to recover expert fees just like prevailing plaintiffs in the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII, and other civil rights laws.
Last week, the Senate confirmed three nominees to the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB). The SSAB is an independent, bipartisan board created by Congress and appointed by the President and the Congress to advise the President, the Congress, and the Commissioner of Social Security on matters related to Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution will Chair the Board; his term goes through 2020. Lanhee Chen of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University will serve as a member for a term ending in 2018 and Alan Cohen of the Center for American Progress will serve as a member for a term ending in 2016. With the addition of these three new members, the Board now has full membership for the first time since 2008.