Category Archives: Domestic Peacemaking

Blog: Women United against Gun Violence

Women United against Gun Violence

Jean Sammon
February 19, 2013

Women, nearly unanimously, support a multi-pronged response to gun violence that includes stronger gun laws and anti-bullying measures, mental health services and counseling hotlines. This is one of the major findings from a poll initiated by Women United for Gun Violence Prevention.

I attended the meeting of this new group in Washington on February 5, and came away convinced that this group of determined women will make a difference in the gun violence debate. Many who spoke at the meeting, including several congresswomen, were personally affected by gun violence. The take-away message is that Congress needs to hear from women.

The media also needs to hear from us, said a communications consultant, because media commentators are trying to prolong the fight. I expressed concern about pundits who keep saying that Congress won’t do anything about guns. He suggested we tweet them to tell them to stop saying that.

We also need to use social media to get the message out that gun laws work: state gun laws have reduced gun violence. (See and )

The poll shows that women, across party lines, understand the problem and are ready to take action. We got a short lesson on how to be heard: be grounded, be personable, smile with your eyes and be serious with your mouth, tell a story and put a face on the issue. And if you are talking to a member of Congress, remind them that women vote!


I also attended the session on gun violence at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering where Vincent DeMarco, leader of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence spoke about the importance of advocacy for the following points:

  • Every person who buys a gun should pass a criminal background check.
  • High-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines should not be available to civilians.
  • Gun trafficking should be made a federal crime.

Also last week, our friends at Americans United for Change sent me some questions to ask members of Congress at town hall meetings or other occasions.

I hope this blog entry gives you some additional resources and incentives to join the effort to reduce gun violence.

Blog: The Guys With The Guns, and The Money, Won This Round

The Guys With The Guns, and The Money, Won This Round

Rachael Travis
April 18, 2013

This has been an unbelievably difficult week, feeling a bit like a nightmare that concluded with a cold bucket of water being thrown on me. That cold bucket of water was the reality that money really can speak louder than the voices of constituents. When it became apparent on Wednesday evening that the Manchin-Toomey amendment was going to fail my heart sank.

My heart didn’t sink because I necessarily thought the amendment would pass; instead it sank because I realized that those 45 Senators who voted against it weren’t representing their constituents in voting against the amendment, they were representing the NRA.

Attached is a list of the 45[1] Senators who voted against the Manchin-Toomey amendment on Wednesday April 17. Along with their picture is included the number of people from their states who have been killed due to gun violence as well as the amount of money they accepted from the National Rifle Association in their most recent election. We have also provided their office phone number and their Twitter handles, we encourage our members who are represented by these Senators to contact them and tell them that their vote was unacceptable.

We at NETWORK believe that the Manchin-Toomey amendment was not perfect. But, it was a good first step towards reducing gun violence in our country. The result of this vote exposed just how powerful the gun lobby is in Washington, D.C.  Leading up to the vote it was reported that 90% of Americans supported extending background checks, meaning that the Manchin-Toomey amendment should have passed not with a simple majority, but with an overwhelming majority. Instead the amendment failed to get the 60 votes needed.

As the previous paragraph would suggest, it has been a frustrating couple of weeks to be a small lobby with not a lot of money to spend. The silver lining to all of this frustration is that we now know which Senators were more interested in representing their corporate donors than their voting constituents, and now that we know who they are, it will be easier for constituents to go after them. And that is just what we at NETWORK are asking you to do. Continue to tell your Senators that, as a constituent, you demand they support the Manchin-Toomey amendment when it returns.

Senator Reid has pulled the amendment from being considered for the time being and has said that the Senate will come back and work on this bill.

[1] Harry Reid is excluded from this list because his no vote was a procedural vote that would allow the amendment to be brought back up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Blog: NETWORK Lauded on Senate Floor Twice in One Day!

NETWORK Lauded on Senate Floor Twice in One Day!

By Stephanie Niedringhaus
February 12, 2014

On February 11, 2014, Senator Dick Durbin and Senator Barbara Boxer praised NETWORK, Sister Simone Campbell, and NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus in front of the U.S. Senate. We are deeply grateful for their acknowledgment of our faith-filled work for justice.

Their remarks also included direct quotes from Sister Simone Campbell’s op-ed on the Child Tax Credit in Roll Call, which appeared on February 10.

I tell you, I have such respect for Sister Simone Campbell and the work of NETWORK. Because they don’t just read the Gospel, and go to church, and practice their religion; they live it. They live it.  And when they see things happening on this floor, that hurt the most vulnerable people, they speak out. That’s what Nuns on the Bus did. That’s what Sister Simone Campbell is doing.Senator Barbara Boxer, 2/11/14, speaking to the U.S. Senate

Blog: Bipartisan Invitations to Pope Francis

Blog: Bipartisan Invitations to Pope Francis

Laura Peralta-Schulte, NETWORK Lobbyist
Mar 13, 2014

I was pleased to read that today, the first anniversary of Pope Francis’s leadership of the Catholic Church, Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi invited him to address Congress.  Both are Catholic and grasp the profound call for transformation that Pope Francis has urged.

In his Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis asks us to be people of hope and to engage in dialogue to find ways to heal our fractured world and counter “the globalization of indifference.”  Representative Pelosi praised Pope Francis, saying “he has lived his values and upheld his promise to be a moral force, to protect the poor and the needy, to serve as a champion of the less fortunate, and to promote love and understanding among faiths and nations.”

Pope Francis would likely be pleased indeed to hear that today a bipartisan group of senators agreed on a way to extend unemployment benefits to those in need.  Amen.

This is Speaker Boehner’s statement requesting that Pope Francis address Congress:

“It is with reverence and admiration that I have invited Pope Francis, as head of state of the Holy See and the first Pope to hail from the Americas, to address a joint meeting of the United States Congress.

“Pope Francis has inspired millions of Americans with his pastoral manner and servant leadership, challenging all people to lead lives of mercy, forgiveness, solidarity, and humble service.

“His tireless call for the protection of the most vulnerable among us—the ailing, the disadvantaged, the unemployed, the impoverished, the unborn—has awakened hearts on every continent.

“His social teachings, rooted in ‘the joy of the gospel,’ have prompted careful reflection and vigorous dialogue among people of all ideologies and religious views in the United States and throughout a rapidly changing world, particularly among those who champion human dignity, freedom, and social justice.

“These principles are among the fundamentals of the American Idea. And though our nation sometimes fails to live up to these principles, at our best we give them new life as we seek the common good. Many in the United States believe these principles are undermined by ‘crony capitalism’ and the ongoing centralization of political power in the institutions of our federal government, which threaten to disrupt the delicate balance between the twin virtues of subsidiarity and solidarity. They have embraced Pope Francis’ reminder that we cannot meet our responsibility to the poor with a welfare mentality based on business calculations. We can meet it only with personal charity on the one hand and sound, inclusive policies on the other.

“The Holy Father’s pastoral message challenges people of all faiths, ideologies and political parties. His address as a visiting head of state before a joint meeting of the House and Senate would honor our nation in keeping with the best traditions of our democratic institutions. It would also offer an excellent opportunity for the American people as well as the nations of the world to hear his message in full.

“It is with deep gratitude that I have asked Pope Francis to consider this open invitation on behalf of the Congress and the millions of citizens of the United States we serve.”

Blog: Overseas Contingency Operations: How the Fund is Used

Overseas Contingency Operations: How the Fund is Used

Carolyn Burstein
May 9, 2014

The Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund is money set aside in the DOD portion of the federal budget for expenses such as: crisis response, infrastructure and coalition support for operations in Iraq/Afghanistan, humanitarian assistance in parts of the Middle East and North Africa and embassy security, among other needs abroad.

The OCO fund is the name given to it by the Obama Administration in 2009 when the nomenclature used by President George W. Bush — the “Global War on Terror” — was discarded.

Although the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan has shrunk to about 37,000 troops and will continue to recede as the year progresses, the OCO fund has remained robust. In 2013 outlays/expenditures were $93 billion; in 2014 funding has been approved at $85 billion and troops are to be withdrawn by the end of the calendar year. $79 billion is requested for the OCO in 2015. The president is planning to leave a force of about 10,000 or none at all, depending on whether a troop deal is reached with Afghan authorities. At the present time, the Administration and the Pentagon are calling the $79 billion a “placeholder;” the budget also calls for $30 billion in OCO funding “placeholders’ from 2016 through 2019.

According to the Defense News, the OCO budget has ballooned over the past decade, hitting $187 billion in 2008 at the height of the Iraq War. But the OCO budget has often been used to fund various needs outside its original definition, especially after sequestration became law three years ago. This year OCO funding is paying about $20 billion in regular Army and Air Force operations and maintenance, and the Army and Marine Corps are using it to fund pay and benefits for 38,000 troops. Because it is an uncapped fund, both the administration and Congress use it to soften the impact of sequestration.

A word about the sequester, or BCA caps, as they are sometimes called. The sequester is the product of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which enacted limits on discretionary spending. These caps are enforced by automatic cuts if appropriated funds exceed the year’s cap, a process known as sequester. The BCA-mandated savings are split evenly between defense and non-defense spending. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (sometimes referred to as the Murray-Ryan Bill) revised the caps slightly upward. The caps for national defense discretionary spending extend through 2021, rising approximately 2% annually to reach $590 billion in 2021. However, OCO funding, because it was not deemed “discretionary,” is not subject to the BCA caps. Under the BCA caps, the DOD base budget is capped at $496 billion in 2015, before rising steadily to about $554 billion in 2021.

Lawrence Korb, currently with the Center for American Progress and formerly with the Council on Foreign Relations and a frequent critic of DOD spending, points out that since OCO funding is not subject to the BCA caps, many budget analysts have raised concerns that additional OCO funding may allow the DOD to get around the caps on its base budget.

As we have seen, OCO funding actually increased from 2013 to 2014 despite decreases in the number of deployed troops in Afghanistan and has been used for purposes other than overseas operations. Even consistent advocates for higher defense funding such as Senator John McCain (R-AZ) have condemned this practice.

How the OCO is being used as a “slush” fund by both the DOD (see above) and the Congress, one only has to observe what happened on May 7 when the House Armed Services Committee voted to adopt Representative Ron Barber’s (D-AZ) amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to keep the Air Force’s A-10 “Warthog” aircraft flying through the next fiscal year by moving $635 million from the DOD base budget into the OCO fund on the pretext that the A-10 is needed to support ground troops.

Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh had already clarified in a recent prior Senate Committee hearing that the Air Force used the F-16 as the primary replacement for the A-10 on the battlefield and indicated that Air Force officials planned to cut more than 300 A-10s for a savings of $4 billion. Nevertheless, Barber also called for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the best platform the Air Force should use for its close air support missions. Seemingly, the opinions of the professionals counted for little (although it is also widely known that DOD officials also often depend on Congress to fund [save] their favorite systems).

The Barber amendment passed on a bipartisan vote of 41-20 and moves to a full vote in the House in about two weeks. The Senate will take up its version of the NDAA around the same time.

It is important to note that the 2015 budgets of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus both call for the elimination of the OCO account after the Afghan withdrawal at the end of 2014. In other words, there would be no discussion of an OCO budget in 2015 if either of these budgets were adopted. Unfortunately, President Obama’s budget for 2015 uses the $79 billion “placeholder” for 2015, and, as indicated above, uses a $30 billion “placeholder” for later years. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget, officially adopted by the House with only Republican votes, also uses a “placeholder” to continue funding the OCO.

We at NETWORK oppose the continuation of OCO funding after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year because we do not believe in a culture of violence and war, but rather on relationship and community. We do not rely on military solutions to solve problems, but on dialogue and service. We are appalled that half our discretionary budget is still funding the Pentagon and its weapons systems, while safety net programs continue to be cut. If we are to truly address human security, we must proactively invest in programs and policies that promote peace and justice. And this is not accomplished by men and women ‘warriors’ in uniform.

We should never again fund any conflict through an OCO-type (off-budget) process, which several inspectors general have strongly criticized for waste, fraud and a lack of accountability. Let’s set our priorities straight — the Pentagon budget is so large it dwarfs the military budgets of all other developed countries (most of which are our friends). We are sorely in need of investment in education, affordable housing, treatment centers, infrastructure, job training and so many more. What we do not need are more “slush funds” for the military.

Blog: Opposition to Gun Violence in America

Opposition to Gun Violence in America

By Carolyn Burstein
June 09, 2014

As The Faithful Budget 2014 makes clear, our society, and especially our youth, suffer from the prevalence of guns and violence in our nation. “As the most heavily-armed society in the world, the firearm-related death rate among U.S. children younger than 15 years of age is nearly 12 times higher than among children in 25 other industrialized countries combined. Research shows that our habits of violence are socially and financially costly compared to other nations.” (p. 43). For many years, NETWORK has supported efforts in Congress to counter gun violence along with many other groups.

Since January 2011, when 24 national faith groups announced the formation of “Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence,” NETWORK has worked with this group to confront America’s gun violence epidemic and to rally support for policies that reduce death and injury from gunfire. By 2014 the group had grown to more than 50 supporting members, including Jewish, Sikh and Muslim supporters, representing over 80 million Americans in faith communities across the nation — far, far more than NRA members.

With each passing year more gun violence is perpetrated in our communities, and the call to confront this unbridled gun violence has grown ever more urgent. In light of mass-shooting tragedies in Newton, Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Oak Creek, Isla Vista and so many more communities, NETWORK and others who are part of “Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence” believe that we have a moral obligation to keep guns out of the hands of people who may harm themselves or others.

While we continue to pray for the families and friends of those who died as a result of gun violence and share in their grief, we must also support our prayers with action. And that action requires legislators, especially in Congress, to support gun control laws.

After the Newton, CT massacre, President Obama charged Vice President Biden (December 2012) with overseeing an administration-wide process to develop proposals for Congress to pass. Those proposals were unveiled in January 2013 when the president announced a series of executive actions he could take administratively along with several legislative proposals for Congress. Together, they involved not just access to firearms and ammunition but also school safety and mental health care. His own executive actions were relatively modest since the main problems demanded legislative changes.

However, Congress took up only one of the many proposals of Vice President Biden’s task force, the Manchin-Toomey bill, which failed to receive sufficient votes in the Senate in April 2013. The bill attempted to expand background checks at gun shows and for online sales. Unfortunately, the Senate has never revisited this issue, despite strong public support. (Ninety-two percent of Americans supported universal background checks in late 2013.) Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) initially said he would try to bring the background checks bill back for a vote by the end of 2014, but has since acknowledged that the votes are not there. Currently, background checks – aimed at preventing criminals and people with mental illness from acquiring weapons – are required only for sales handled by licensed federal gun dealers.

An attempt in early 2014 by a small number of Democrats in the House to expand background checks for all commercial gun sales and make gun trafficking and “straw purchasing” (those in the business of reselling weapons) a federal crime, ended up merely as a resolution and never made it to the floor of the House. The official position of House Republicans has been that existing gun laws are not being adequately enforced, an issue that is strongly debated by gun control advocates.

Research demonstrates that in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where background checks are required for private sales, gun trafficking is 48% lower, the rate at which women are killed with a gun by an intimate partner is 38% lower, and the gun suicide rate is 49% lower.

Four Senate Democrats are up for reelection in conservative states this November, making it less likely that Reid will force a controversial vote, according to the Huffington Post. We believe that the price of political inaction is unconscionable because innocent lives must be protected.

Only modest proposals that can garner votes on both sides of the aisle will probably be considered this year (2014) – such as one by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D- MN) that would add convicted stalkers to the list of criminals barred from acquiring guns. This type of caution has characterized Democratic bills even in years when no elections took the spotlight, but the NRA had spent millions of dollars fattening campaign chests of both parties.

Another modest bill that was introduced in the Senate by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and in the House by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) on May 22, 2014 would give the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) $10 million a year to conduct or support research on firearms safety or gun control prevention (both the Department of Justice and the NIH also sponsor research on firearms issues and their funds have not disappeared). Prior to 1996 the CDC budget had been relatively flush with firearms research funds, but since 1996 it has been almost nonexistent thanks to opposition from Republicans. However, neither Markey nor Maloney has been able to attract any Republican support for their bills.

On May 29, the House approved a measure that would modestly increase funding for the nation’s background checks system, probably in response to the killing spree in Isla Vista, California. The amendment, which passed with a vote of 260 to 145, would provide an additional $19.5 million in funding for grants to states to improve their reporting to the national database. That database, the NICS, is designed to keep guns out of the hands of those with felony convictions and certain mental health issues. Given that the bill simply offers a modest boost to the existing program and that the NRA adopted a neutral stance toward the bill, the Senate is highly likely to pass it, too. This bill is just a minor step in the uphill battle to enact stricter gun laws and ignores the wide gaps that exist in the background checks system, but it allows Congress to refute arguments about its inaction on the issue of gun control.

As the issue of gun control has ebbed in Congress, it has accelerated in the states, where legislatures are debating hundreds of gun-related bills, some weakening and others strengthening restrictions. Let’s look at a couple of measures, the first of which could serve as a model for national reform, and the second deals with the mental health issue, a major problem in several recent massacres.

The Supreme Court ended Chicago’s 30-year ban on handguns in 2010. The mayor’s office has just proposed some reasonable measures that are designed to withstand Constitutional challenges, according to a New York Times editorial. Using zoning regulations, the city would limit gun shops to less than 1% of the city’s geographic area, would tightly audit the shops, limit sales to one handgun per customer per month and videotape the sale, and require a 72-hour waiting period to complete the purchase. Yes, people can probably easily acquire weapons in surrounding states and suburbs (which demonstrates that Congress must ensure a national response to this problem) and these measures do not address the full scope of Chicago’s gun problems, but they should stop buyers who shop in volume and funnel guns into the underworld.

The other example hails from California. In 2013, a consortium of mental health professionals urged the federal government to extend its prohibition of gun ownership not only to those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health institution (current law), but also to those who have been involuntarily committed to outpatient treatment, if they pose a danger to themselves or others. These specialists also proposed that people should be prevented from buying guns if they have been convicted of a violent misdemeanor, have been subject to a domestic violence restraining order, convicted of drunken driving two or more times in a span of five years, or convicted of two misdemeanors involving a controlled substance in five years. When these proposals were ignored in Washington, California passed many of them.

While it is generally agreed that passage of the mental health measures listed above would not necessarily have deterred many of the devastating shootings that have bedeviled our nation recently, that argument should not prevent our attempts to deter gun violence. No single law will ever prevent all violence. We cannot allow the NRA to induce a feeling of hopelessness among those who seek to address gun violence. We must continue, as long as the second amendment is misinterpreted by gun advocates (see below), to press for new restrictions.

Why is gun control such a divisive issue? Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center of Justice at NYU, has made some surprising discoveries in his new book The Second Amendment: A Biography. The most significant is that the second amendment was debated the least of all the amendments that constitute our Bill of Rights. This could have been due to our founders’ deep suspicion of a standing army (which, in their minds, was synonymous with tyranny) and their assumption that all male citizens would belong to armed local militias. Being armed was considered a duty. Virtually every reference in early documents to “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” concerned military defense. There is nothing about a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any other purpose other than being part of the militia.

The second amendment did not become controversial until 1977 when the National Rifle Association (NRA) was taken over by second amendment fundamentalists who set out to change the entire meaning of the amendment and took our founders’ words out of context. From that time to the present the right to own guns has become conservative dogma. The New York Times’ review of Waldman’s book concludes that he is indeed persuasive in tying the right to bear arms with a well-regulated militia. Once militias were replaced by professional armed services, the right to keep and bear arms should have lost its significance.

As Patricia McGuire wrote in the Huffington Post after the Sandy Hook tragedy in December 2013, “Many of the same legislators who have nothing but contempt for gun control, who hide in the deep pockets of the NRA, also claim to be ardently pro-life. Opposing sensible gun control, and allowing children to die in their schools because you don’t want to offend your campaign bankrollers, is a total rejection of the moral value of life.” Unity, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare and liberty – all part of our Declaration of Independence – are jeopardized when Congress refuses to take reasonable actions to prevent “violence that occurs repeatedly in a society awash with guns.”

We at NETWORK, together with the millions who are a part of “Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence” call on our federal elected leaders to respond to this crisis in our nation. With each day that goes by, dozens more of our children, parents, brothers and sisters are lost to the violence of guns. As Bishop Blaire, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in his letter to the Senate, April 8, 2013, relating to the Manchin-Toomey bill, “the expansion of background checks for all gun purchases is a positive step in the right direction.” He cited the U.S. Bishops’ 2000 pastoral statement on criminal justice, which voiced support for “measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer.”

Pilgrimage to the U.S. Capitol in Support of the Unemployed

Pilgrimage to the U.S. Capitol in Support of the Unemployed

Date goes here

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Pellentesque tempor elit mi, ac mattis nisl congue eget. Phasellus dictum ullamcorper mauris, et venenatis justo pellentesque et. Integer ut erat fermentum, interdum est quis, bibendum leo. Ut ullamcorper velit ut enim bibendum egestas. Vestibulum pharetra elementum ligula id fermentum. Vivamus augue lacus, imperdiet et sapien eget, hendrerit imperdiet ipsum. Mauris mi libero, volutpat non eros non, cursus fermentum lacus.
Pellentesque dapibus mi in leo placerat elementum. Etiam quis felis eget lorem dignissim venenatis. Vivamus risus mi, placerat sit amet nisl sollicitudin, placerat facilisis diam. Duis sit amet ornare justo, ac blandit felis. Vivamus rutrum arcu sollicitudin mauris eleifend accumsan. Praesent cursus bibendum elit. Aenean pulvin ar felis ipsum, ut ultrices metus vulputate dapibus. Integer aliquet eleifend lorem ac mattis. Nunc hendrer it nisl tincidunt, malesuadadolor et, rhoncus risus. Sed pharetra sed ipsum et porta. Morbi gravida nibh vitae ex porta pellentesque. Etiam a velit vitae dui laoreet laoreet. Curabitur vel ligula sed metus dictum sagittis. Sed at ex at lorem accumsan accumsan at vel urna. Curabitur scelerisque in mi eget cursus.

Blog: Paul Ryan’s Criminal Justice Proposals Are Good, Small, Bipartisan Steps to Advance Restorative Justice

Blog: Paul Ryan’s Criminal Justice Proposals Are Good, Small, Bipartisan Steps to Advance Restorative Justice

Carolyn Burstein
Aug 01, 2014

Tucked back in chapter 4 of his Expanding Opportunity in America are Congressman Ryan’s proposals for reforming the criminal justice system, an area that has received little commentary in the press compared to his “Opportunity Grants.” This is a shame because he seems willing to buck several within his party who still cling to the policies of “Let’s get tough on crime,” and the zero tolerance modus operandi used since the late 1980s. Not only does Ryan contradict his earlier votes on some of these issues–ThinkProgress reminds us that in 2007 he voted against a bill that would have eased convicted offenders’ re-entry from prison into society, and in 2000 voted against providing alternatives to sentencing—but he also places his criminal justice reforms in the context of poverty.

Yes! Ryan acknowledges a clear link between incarceration and a lack of economic mobility, even stressing that a criminal record is a formidable hurdle to employment. He also quotes a Pew Research study showing the disproportionate impact of incarceration on African-American males. Like a “true progressive,” Ryan is even willing to suggest that incarceration tangibly affects a child’s future when her/his parent is imprisoned, including a reduction in the family income and setbacks in school readiness as well as being more likely to act out in school. Amazing!

Ryan endorses bipartisan reform already introduced in both the House and Senate over the past year–the “Smarter Sentencing Act” sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) and in the House by Congressmen Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) and also the “Public Safety Enhancement Act” in the House and the “Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act” in the Senate. These are primarily bills that would give judges more flexibility within mandatory-minimum guidelines when sentencing non-violent drug offenders, and establish policies to ease re-entry from prison by expanding rehabilitative programs in prison, which would, most likely, ultimately reduce recidivism rates. Such programs include educational courses, faith-based services, prison jobs and drug-abuse treatment.

Ryan’s criminal justice reform proposals are tripartite. He suggests: 1) a reduction in rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for drug offenders; 2) the development of a risk-and-needs-assessment tool for expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programs; and 3) partnering with and supporting innovative reforms to the criminal justice system by state and local governments and non-profit organizations. While most of what he is proposing is included in the legislation referred to above, the third part of his proposal is unique.

Ryan rightly acknowledges that more than half of federal prisoners are drug offenders, many of whom are both non-violent and low-risk, and today’s excessive mandatory minimums play havoc with their lives, overcrowd prisons and do nothing to reduce their recidivism rates. As Ryan told the Daily Beast, “I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges. I think there’s an appreciation that this approach has some collateral damage…we need to give judges more discretion in these areas.” Unfortunately for Ryan, the Attorney General (AG), Eric Holder, has already begun to loosen the burdens facing many federal prisoners, thus stealing his thunder in the sentencing arena. For the past year, Holder has recommended to prosecutors, judges, state AGs and in testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission that strict, mandatory minimum sentences should be reserved for high-level or violent drug traffickers. Much of the reasoning behind his recommendations is also similar to Ryan’s–social problems associated with incarceration, ethics, economics—which certainly makes Ryan’s thinking derivative. Nevertheless, one is not necessarily looking for pure originality in Ryan’s proposals, but in real fairness.

In April 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to change the formula used to determine sentences for federal drug offenders, thereby shortening prison stays for about 70% of federal drug trafficking offenders. And in mid-July 2014 the commission voted unanimously to apply full retroactivity for 46,000 people in federal prison for drug-related offenses–one fourth of federal prisoners. Both actions were strongly supported by several organizations and individuals, among them Families against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which said in its testimony before the Commission, ”Our modern criminal justice system has, since the mid-1980s, been addicted to using lengthy prison sentences to solve the vexing social, public safety and public health problems caused by drugs. These unduly long sentences have created more problems than they could ever hope to solve. We are delighted that the Commission is taking this modest and well-supported step to begin a long-overdue reversal of course.” Ryan mentions nothing about the progress made by the sentencing commission, an egregious omission.

Despite these actions and the support of senators that are liberal stalwarts and Tea Party favorites, S. 1410, the “Smarter Sentencing Act”—the drug sentencing overhaul at the heart of Paul Ryan’s sentencing reform proposals—has still not passed. Several senators remain wary that these reforms inject too much leniency in the criminal justice system and would create public safety concerns. Even cost analyses by the Bureau of Prisons do not convince these senators, since the analyses do not include the costs to victims.

But opposition to sentencing reform is not restricted to conservative Republicans. In mid-July 2014 a bill on identity theft, reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, was strongly supported by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, even though it included two mandatory minimum penalties. Despite the efforts by Representatives Conyers (D-MI) and Scott (D-VA) to remove the mandatory minimums from the bill, their attempts were unsuccessful. It seems that mandatory minimums are alive and well.

Ryan’s proposed criminal justice system reforms in the area of recidivism reduction borrows heavily from H.R. 2656, the “Public Safety Enhancement Act” introduced a year ago and, like the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” not yet passed. Its three main components are:

  1. A risk and need assessment tool would be developed that would classify prisoner’s recidivism risk as low, moderate or high, and assign each to a rehabilitative program based on the risk level (Ryan decries the current low enrollment in rehabilitative programs, now between 10 and 15%).
  2. Existing rehabilitative programs would be expanded to ensure they are accessible to all prisoners over the length of their incarceration.
  3. Time credits that would help prisoners qualify for prerelease custody would be offered as incentives for participating in the programs. For example, a low-risk offender would earn 30 days of time credits for every month of successful program participation; a moderate-risk offender would earn 25 days; and a high-risk prisoner would earn 8 days. Family phone and visitation privileges would also be incentives for successful program participation.

Finally, Ryan’s third criminal justice reform proposal requires the federal government to partner with and learn from reforms at the state and local level. He asks that innovative or promising interventions be studied, evaluated and used—scaled down, if necessary. He mentions a few promising examples from the states of Texas, Georgia, Hawaii, the city of Milwaukee and a faith-based organization in Indianapolis. This component of Ryan’s criminal justice proposals is similar to advocating for the evaluation and borrowing common in any “best practice” program and therefore non-controversial.

Paul Ryan’s shift from focusing on harsh punishment to rehabilitative programs is a welcome change. Isn’t it about time that we have an overwhelming call to address U.S. mass incarceration? Let us not forget that the U.S. currently has over 2 million people imprisoned, more than any other nation, and that the federal system alone has had an increase of 830% in the number of prisoners since 1980.

We at NETWORK join with the “Justice Fellowship” which praised Ryan’s criminal justice proposal as one way (a small step) to advance the key principles of restorative justice. We believe that these proposals should garner bipartisan support.

The Sad Saga of Congress Isn’t Finished Yet

The Sad Saga of Congress Isn’t Finished Yet

By Carolyn Burstein
August 26, 2014

Recent Vox reports have included charts proving that Congress is indeed getting worse. One, from a Brookings Institution report, showed the percent of important legislative issues in gridlock in each Congress since 1947 rising from less than 30% to 70%.

Another, from a Gallup Poll study, showed that Congress is terribly unpopular. Since 1974, its popularity with the public has averaged between 30 and 40%, peaking at 84% in 2002 (a period of remarkable patriotism following 9/11) and flagging ever since. It recently reached the low teens, the lowest on record.

A third chart used data collected since 1879 to show that Congress is more polarized than it’s been in over 100 years. Naturally, this polarization makes it nearly impossible for members of the two parties to collaborate on significant issues.

An additional chart, developed for Bloomberg, demonstrates that this Congress is the least productive in the postwar era, passing far fewer new laws than other Congresses.

And still another illustrates that despite the first four charts, congressional elections are more expensive than ever—based on data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

While much of the data refers to the 112th Congress (since the 113th hasn’t ended yet), the criticisms still apply. As a matter of fact, if these charts contained data for the past two years, each chart might very well demonstrate a worsening situation.

Let’s look first at the productivity of the present Congress. According to a Pew Research Center report issued at the end of July 2014, Congress had enacted a total of 142 laws, but only 108 of those enactments were substantive pieces of legislation (does not include post office renamings, anniversary commemorations or other ceremonial laws), by far the lowest on record. At least the 112th Congress passed over 200 laws. And an August 1, 2014, NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found that 75% of Americans agree that this present Congress has been unproductive. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Minority Whip, who has served in the last 16 Congresses said, “It’s the least productive Congress in which I have served.”

An August 4, 2014 article in the National Journal reminds us that optimism was running high at the initial sessions of the 113th as both parties anticipated a tax-code overhaul. “Fixing the tax code is one of my highest legislative priorities for this Congress,” Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told the members of the Credit Union National Association in a speech in early 2013. Boehner even reserved the famed spot of “H.R. 1” for this package, but his promise was never kept.

Optimism returned in late 2013 when Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) reached a compromise that would lead to carefully drawn spending limits for 2014-15. Instead, Congress has not returned to regular budgeting with 12 annual spending bills this year, and has abandoned what everyone thought would be a smoother process.

Admittedly, these efforts have been overtaken by both gridlock and polarization within parties and between parties, tying the hands of those in Congress who are serious about their legislative mandate. Reams have been written about these issues over the past two years, and both gridlock and polarization have enjoyed the status of causation ever since. A June 2014 Pew study found that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.” Polarization has had a deep effect on the ability of the two parties to compromise. In fact, the Pew study found that both liberals and conservatives felt that an “ideal” compromise would achieve more of what they wanted than the other side got.

Hostility and intransigence have replaced willingness to compromise, and has played havoc with our legislative system. The sad fact is that some of those who are most intransigent wear it as a badge of honor. That is what happened to much potential legislation this past year. One example (many could be given—for example, immigration reform) is the tax-code reform earlier hailed by Speaker Boehner. Retiring Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp (R-MI), after a great deal of work on tax reform, got a very tepid reception from his own panel as well as from House leadership since several ideas contained compromises that would appeal to Democrats. Camp never produced an actual bill as he had anticipated. Nor, for that matter, did Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), despite many hearings and much work. House leadership was being influenced (or pushed) by radicals on the right, and any major tax reform will have to wait for another Congress.

Nor are all the problems of polarization restricted to the House. Since the passage of two major pieces of legislation, Comprehensive Immigration Reform over a year ago and the Farm Bill earlier this year, the Senate has also been mired in gridlock. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) nearly always prevents the GOP from offering amendments on bills, which angers Republicans, who have the power to block bills from passing. In addition, Reid changed the rules of the Senate to a simple majority instead of 60 votes for the president’s nominees for judgeships and for Cabinet positions, a change known as the “nuclear option,” which led to more bickering.

The foregoing assessment of the 113th Congress on the issues of productivity, gridlock, polarization and unpopularity matches quite well with the February 2014 appraisal of 40 academic experts brought together by The Center on Congress at Indiana University. They were drawn from universities nationwide and responded to online questions posed by the Director of Research for the Center on Congress for eight straight years.

Overall, they gave the current Congress a C- and delivered a rather pessimistic evaluation of its ability to function as a policymaking and legislative institution in our representative democracy.

Eighty percent of the experts gave Congress a D or F on its legislative record (its productivity). In open-ended questions the experts spoke of members of Congress engaged more in propaganda than in governance. They were also concerned about the clash of ideologies and hyperpartisan actions that prevented the kind of compromise necessary for the passage of legislation. A full 80% thought that polarization had increased over the past few years. They feared that Congress was perceived more as a venue for expressing competing ideological viewpoints than for focusing on data and evidence for influencing decisions. They doubted that members of Congress were keeping the role of special interests within proper bounds, especially because of the need to raise funds for reelection.

Consistently, the House was rated lower in its performance than the Senate. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much because the Senate’s grade was poor, a D, while the House received an F. These grades primarily referred to “keeping excessive partisanship in check.”

At the same time, congressional elections are becoming more expensive. The Center for Responsive Politics maintains that, based on the fact that over $144 million has been spent on the 2014 mid-term elections as of August 1, 2014, it seems plausible that this election is on track to spend at least $1 billion, roughly the same amount as in 2012, although 2014 is not a presidential election year. Enough said.

One wonders how the House reached its nadir on August 8, 2014, the day it recessed for the summer break by writing legislation that dimmed all prospects for an even-handed bill that would deal with the humanitarian crisis of Central American children at our southern border. Let’s recall that 2014 began optimistically with Speaker Boehner setting out to marginalize his vocal right-wing critics and tame the fissures that were growing in the GOP. Yet, by August these conservative radicals have been emboldened by bringing into a leadership position one of their own, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA), as a result of Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) astounding defeat in the Virginia primary, and by authoring the Republican response to President Obama’s request for funds to handle the terrible situation of the children.

On a chaotic day (August 8, 2014) some of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus drafted legislation that would prevent hearings before a judge for unaccompanied minors and would immediately phase out the president’s executive order allowing children brought to this country as minors to remain here (usually referred to as the “Dream Act”). The bill would also prevent the expansion of the E.O. to other types of immigrants. There is no way this bill would pass the Senate, even if it passed the House.

Jonathan Weisman, a congressional reporter for the New York Times in an NPR interview indicated that Eric Cantor’s defeat would lead to the House leadership moving more to the right and forestall the possibility of passing any significant legislation right through to the 2016 presidential election. If his prediction is correct, then maybe it’s not a total loss that the House will only be in session for 12 days in September before they recess before the midterms. Maybe all that the House will have time for is to deal with agency appropriations bills, which have not yet been passed. Word is out that there will be another stopgap spending measure to prevent the government from running out of funding after September 30.

While there are numerous decisions that should be forthcoming in September from both houses of Congress, such as those required on miscellaneous tariffs, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, re-chartering of the Export-Import Bank, the Internet Tax Freedom Act, the expiration of dozens of tax breaks, and a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform (from Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico), there is so much unfinished business facing the 113th Congress that it would be impossible to manage it all diligently. And this does not include the impasses that exist between different bills passed earlier in the House and Senate, such as those passed in late July 2014 on the Highway Trust Fund, that have to be resolved in a conference.

Those who are hoping for further congressional action during the 113th on such significant items as the minimum wage, long-term unemployment compensation, immigration reform, student debt and the like, will, more than likely, have to wait for a later Congress because they are forgetting who is driving the House’s agenda and how partisan both houses of Congress have become.

Blog: Addendum to Previous Report on Overall Poverty Data from the Bureau of the Census

Addendum to Previous Report on Overall Poverty Data from the Bureau of the Census

By Carolyn Burstein
October 30, 2014

The Bureau of the Census released its data on poverty in the U.S. using the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) on October 16, 2014. This addendum is intended to supplement the blog written on overall poverty data using the official measure of poverty published in mid-September.

The supplemental poverty measure is an effort to take into account many of the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals that were not included in the official poverty measure, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), school lunches, housing assistance and refundable tax credits.

In addition, the supplemental poverty measure deducts necessary expenses, such as taxes (especially important for many low-income workers are payroll taxes), child care and transportation costs, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and child support expenses.

Given these changes, the nation’s poverty rate using the SPM is 15.5% compared to the official poverty rate of 14.5%. However, both rates were below the rates for 2012, and that is encouraging. Using the SPM, 48.7 million people were below the poverty line in 2013 compared to 45.3 million using the official poverty rate.

The safety-net programs are especially beneficial for children of low-income families; their poverty rate using the SPM is 16.4% compared to a poverty rate of 20.4% using the official data.

However, adults older than 65 fared more poorly – a 14.6% poverty rate using the SPM compared to 9.5% using the official measure. The reason for a higher poverty rate for the elderly using the SPM is that medical out-of-pocket expenses are a significant element for this group, while the official poverty measure is based solely on cash income. It should be noted that, despite the improvement granted children by using the SPM, their poverty rates, nevertheless, are still higher than those of the elderly, as well as the poverty rates of 18-64 year-olds.

The supplemental poverty measure has been estimated since 2010 and is intended to provide an improved understanding of the economic wellbeing of U.S. families and individuals and the way that federal policies affect those living in poverty.