Public Policy

Organizing — and reorganizing — during a chaotic time for federal policy

An update from the APA Public Interest-Government Relations Office (PI-GRO)

By Micah A. Haskell-Hoehl

Micah A. Haskell-HoehlAs noted in my December newsletter column, November's election caused the ground underneath the feet of advocates and lobbyists of every stripe to shift—regardless of the issues or constituencies they cover or represent. Now, over three months into the 115th Congress and Trump administration, the situation remains much the same. Winners and losers under the new political landscape certainly are emerging clearly; however, the chaos defining of this moment in Washington is making it hard even for those whose issues are in favor.

For example, the American Health Care Act (AHCA) landed with a thud in the U.S. House chamber, and House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the legislation from consideration before it went to a vote. After years of GOP votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the process and lack of deliberation around AHCA surprised those on all sides of the issue. Given the clarity, though, on certain core issues — such as coverage, Medicaid, reproductive health, and others — APA and other groups found the decision to oppose the bill easy, while organizations and advocates seeking ACA repeal were left on their heels.

Issues surrounding federal spending present a similar guessing-game. In mid-March, President Donald Trump released his fiscal year (FY) 2018 “skinny budget,” a brief outline of the administration's priorities for federal agencies. The proposed cuts are considered to be so draconian that many Republican members of Congress do not consider them serious. Even when both the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party, tension exists around what the former wants and the latter intends to provide. However, eaction from the Hill to the Trump “skinny budget” was unusually swift and skeptical, which makes it particularly difficult to pin down congressional appropriators on where they will land with funding for agencies, offices and programs. Given the drastic top-line cuts to critical agencies, such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development—APA here, as well—opposed the proposal.

Programs that help meet the needs of America's children, youth, families and caregivers face a tough road ahead. The White House is likely to release its full fiscal year 2018 budget request in May. This document should contain much greater detail than the skinny budget, and APA anticipates proposed cuts to many programs of key importance to our efforts. A rumor floating around Washington at the moment is that expired laws could be defunded entirely (for example: the relevant U.S. House subcommittee over the last two years has zeroed out funding for activities under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which expired in 2007. At the same time, House members last year overwhelmingly approved JJDPA reauthorization by a vote of 382-29, revealing a misalignment between support for the law and funding for it. This puts advocates in a difficult spot. Though highly unlikely, the community is concerned about potential defunding of a host of expired laws supporting children and family that includes the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Head Start, JJDPA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and others. At the same time, attempting to renew these critical programs could open them up to damaging provisions.

Because of this pickle, APA and partner organizations and coalitions are focusing attention and energy on federal funding for priority programs. We have decided that the potential political liabilities for members of Congress, should they defund expired laws, are too high. In addition to APA's regular submission of recommendations for federal funding, PI-GRO has been involved much more over the last six months with the Children's Budget Coalition and in appropriations efforts being led by the National Child Abuse Coalition. At the same time, our office is working to ensure our ability to defend the purpose and structure of critical programs. To that end, for example, I am working currently with our graduate scholar, Annie Davis, to prepare a policy brief on child development and the effectiveness of early childhood education, to help beat back attacks on Head Start.

We need to be able to respond to ever-changing circumstances in Washington. While it may be tempting to settle in and do business as usual, too many things we thought we could take for granted over the last several months have gone in entirely different directions. PI-GRO will continue to give psychology a strong voice at the children, youth, and families policy table, and I encourage you to join in these efforts, help inform our actions, contact me with any questions, concerns, or ideas, and participate in the APA Federal Action Network.