Domestic Policy Action Network Newsletter Nov. 2014
Welcome to the Domestic Policy Action Network Newsletter! This monthly primer will keep you updated on the latest federal legislation addressing national issues related to poverty, criminal justice reform, and the environment. Although this briefing is by no means comprehensive, it will highlight relevant legislation in Congress that corresponds to Episcopal Church policy so that readers can take action on these pressing issues.
The President's Carbon Rules
When President Obama announced his Climate Action Plan in June of 2013, he foreshadowed a sweeping carbon reduction campaign that is now underway. The EPA is currently creating a regulation for existing power plants that would curb carbon emissions by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030 and developing a second rule to reduce emissions from power plants that have yet to be built. Together, these rules would curb 17% of U.S. carbon emissions by 2020.
The carbon rule for existing plants gives each state a customized emission reduction target; targets vary widely between states and are determined by each state's 'emissions rate'. The emissions rate is the total amount of carbon emissions from power plants in a particular state, divided by these plants' electrical output. This formula allows the government to grant lower emissions targets to states with economies that would suffer disproportionately from emission cuts. The Administration is trying to make the transition to a lower-carbon economy financially feasible for all states regardless of their chief industries.
States can use a number of tactics to reach their emissions reduction target, including investing in renewable energy sources like wind or solar, making their plants more energy efficient, developing a cap and trade program, or instituting a carbon tax. It's up to individual states -not the Administration --to determine how to meet each specified target.
In our General Convention, The Episcopal Church urges the President to collaborate with other nations to lower worldwide carbon output by 25% by 2020. While President Obama's carbon rules fall short of this goal, these rules are the first action that an administration has ever taken to restrict carbon emissions from power plants and represent a significant step forward in U.S. climate change policy.
On June 2nd 2014, the EPA released a draft of its rule for existing power plants and asked the public to comment on it. The final version of the rule is due in June of 2015 and will likely be heavily revised before then. The EPA will read your feedback and take it into account when drafting the final rule, so be sure to submit a comment by December 1st!
Resources on Carbon Reduction and Climate Change:
Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stands unparalleled in its unique beauty, biological diversity, and unspoiled ecosystem. While most of the Refuge is designated as "wilderness", and therefore protected from harmful oil exploitation, the coastal plains of the Refuge remain outside the National Wilderness Preservation System. These plains are the birthing ground of the Porcupine Caribou herd, which the Gwich'in Nation (an indigenous people of Alaska) depend upon for their daily subsistence. Oil drilling on the coastal plain would disrupt the birthing patterns of the caribou, endangering both the survival of the caribou herd and the livelihood of the Gwich'in people.
In January of 2013, former Representative and now-Senator Edward Markey introduced legislation (HR 139) that would designate 1.5 million acres of wilderness along the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a component of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Senators Maria Cantwell and Mark Kirk introduced a companion Arctic bill (S. 1695) in the Senate this year.
The Episcopal Church advocates protecting the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain due to our concern for and stewardship of God's creation, and because of our commitment to standing with the Gwich'in Nation. The exploitation of fossil fuels threatens the subsistence rights of the Gwich'in people-the majority of whom are Episcopalian-and their culture as well. HR 139 currently has 121 cosponsors, but it needs more, and The Episcopal Church is centering its advocacy on collecting additional cosponsors for the bill.
Take Action: Call or write your representative and ask them to cosponsor HR 139!
Resources on Protecting the Arctic:
Transforming the Criminal Justice System
The United States accounts for 5% of the world's population, yet it imprisons 25% of the world's prison population. This adds up to over 2.2 million people in total, or nearly 1% of all people in the United States. The Bureau of Prisons inhales one-third of the Department of Justice's budget and with the exception of Medicaid, corrections facilities are states' fastest growing expense. Reforming the expanding prison industrial complex is a national challenge that cannot be ignored.
Rising prison costs are exacerbated by the difficulty of reintegrating former offenders back into society. After serving their time, a former inmate's job options are scarce. Not only have they been out of the labor force for a while, but they are also discriminated against in the employment sector based on their criminal record. These factors influence many former prisoners, who are unable to provide for their families through gainful employment, to engage illegal means to survive.
The most recent study on recidivism from the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked offenders released from prison in 2005 through 2010. Researchers reported that 76.6% of ex-offenders are re-arrested at least once during these five years, and 55.4% of ex-offenders commit a new offense during this time period. Education, rehabilitation, and job placement opportunities are crucial to ensuring that ex-offenders are not re-incarcerated.
The Episcopal Church seeks to promote policies that will restore, sustain, and empower vulnerable populations affected by the criminal justice system. Our General Convention and Executive Council policies recommend the following actions on this issue:
- Call on The Episcopal Church and its members to urge Congress and other elected officials to support reentry programs for prisoners and ex-offenders. (EC 3/07)
- Urge Congress to repeal the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and restore the discretion of federal trial judges. (GC '03)
- Urge the Church to be active in public policy decisions affecting the growing prison industrial complex on the local, state and national levels. (GC '00)
- Urge resources to be allocated for rehabilitation, education, housing health care, productive employment and other basic human needs for those imprisoned (GC '94)
Guided by these policies, The Episcopal Church supports The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410/H.R.3382). This bipartisan legislation modestly reforms sentencing policy for low-level drug offenses through reducing mandatory minimum sentences and restoring some discretion to federal trial judges. In many drug-related cases, judges are legally obligated to impose mandatory minimum sentences determined by the type of drug and the amount of it involved in the crime. The Smarter Sentencing Act would cut these minimums in half, reducing the number of inmates in federal prisons and decreasing prison operating costs. In addition, this bill would allow federal judges the personal discretion to grant individualized sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders.
The Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013 (S. 1690/HR 3465) helps ex-offenders to reintegrate into their communities after being released. This Act provides mentoring, career training, and substance abuse programs for former inmates, granting them personal and professional skills to succeed after their time in prison. Such programs provide support for former inmates and their families in times of great uncertainty, helping them to smoothly navigate a challenging period of transition.
The behemoth of the prison industrial complex is imposing, and some of us may wonder what good we can really do to alter the system. Even so, perhaps the enormity of the problem may actually help us to address it. This issue is so immense that it affects all of us, whether directly or indirectly. Many of us know someone who has served time in prison. We all pay taxes that sustain the U.S. prison system. Each one of us has a stake in the process, as well as a representative to whom we can advocate.
Take Action: Don't hesitate, call your member of Congress today and ask them to support the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Second Chance Reauthorization Act
Resources on Criminal Justice Reform:
Raise the Wage
The Episcopal Church supports a living wage, or the hourly wage that would keep a family of four above the federal poverty line. Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller's Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 (HR 1010/S 460) falls short of achieving a federal living wage, but it does bring us a step in the right direction.
This bill would raise the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour and index it to inflation. Tipped workers would also see a significant increase in their hourly wage through this bill, along with a provision that would ensure that the tipped wage remains no less than 70% of the minimum wage. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise 900,000 persons above the federal poverty line, granting low-income employees and their families some financial security in a challenging economy.
And who exactly are the low-wage employees who earn $7.25 per hour or less? This demographic constitutes 3.6. million Americans or 4.7% of all hourly workers in the United States. Teenagers are overrepresented in the low-wage workforce, as 20% of all workers age 16-19 earn the minimum wage or below while only 1.6% of workers age 55-59 fall into this category. Women are also more likely to be low-wage workers, with 2.3 million or 6% of all female hourly workers receiving the minimum wage (only 3.4% of their male counterparts are low- wage workers).
Many are skeptical of the minimum wage hike, questioning whether this will force businesses to hire fewer works and ultimately lead to unemployment. This is a legitimate concern and one that has caused a great deal of study and debate in the research community. Even so, most economists agree that small minimum wage hikes affect employment only marginally, if at all. Certain factors ameliorate the impact of a small wage hike, including less turnover (fewer workers leave their jobs after a higher wage makes their position more attractive) and increased efficiency (workers raise their productivity in response to a higher wage).
The Fair Minimum Wage Act has stalled in both the House and in the Senate, and as the 113th Congress is drawing to a close, now is the time to ask your senators and representatives to act on this bill. No worker should be faced with difficult decisions such as whether to have an apartment or to have a bed; whether to pay for phone service or to fund an extracurricular activity for their child, yet this is the reality of life on the minimum wage.
Take Action: Call your member of Congress today and ask them to support the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013.
Resources on Raising the Wage:
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Please contact Jayce Hafner, Domestic Policy Analyst, at [email protected] for more information related to domestic policy.