Though Congress has been quieter this month after their turbulent January, there’s never a quiet month in Washington D.C. February’s developments have put a bright spotlight on the actions—and inaction—of federal agencies. Follow below for our analysis:
East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment Spotlights the Importance of Federal Agency Regulation
In February in East Palestine, Ohio, a Norfolk Southern train carrying chemicals crashed, releasing hydrogen chloride, phosgene, and other chemicals into the air, ground, and water. The derailment caused a mandatory evacuation and has already resulted in over 43,000 marine animal deaths. While there have been no human casualties, there are serious concerns that the exposure could result in short- and long-term health consequences. Some residents have reported symptoms including rashes, nausea, and trouble breathing, and union officials have reported that clean up workers.
This incident has underscored the importance of rail regulation and the political influence of private freight companies. Reporting and union leaders have attributed the derailment to aggressive cost-cutting measures by Norfolk Southern. These cost-cutting measures were possible due to already-lax regulations further weakened by Obama-era legislation and Trump-era deregulation. There are three primary regulations in question: (1) “precision-scheduling railroading,” a Wall Street-encouraged practice meant to improve efficiency but one that has instead caused employee layoffs and reduced safety, (2) requiring trains to have modern braking systems, and (3) the quantity and type of chemical ingredients needed before additional safety regulations apply. The Department of Transportation (DOT) under Secretary Pete Buttigieg had not reversed the Trump-era DOT rulings that permitted Norfolk Southern to operate without these regulations in place. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is currently conducting an investigation of the wreck’s causes. You can find more information on the Department of Transportation’s response here.
In response to the disaster, a bipartisan group of Senators, led by Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, have created legislation that would “create new safety requirements for all trains carrying hazardous materials, require trains to have crews of at least two people, and massively increase penalties for safety violations.”
Department of Labor Announces Initiatives to Crackdown on Child Labor
In response to a harrowing report in the New York Times that exposed the rapid proliferation of migrant child labor in the United States, the Department of Labor announced a new set of initiatives to investigate child labor law violations and improve the basic support migrant children receive when they are released to sponsors in the United States. Most notably, the Department of Labor would not only investigate smaller companies that tend to be the ones that violate child labor laws, but would also target larger companies further up the supply chain. These larger companies tend to avoid liability by blaming the subcontractor, but the Department of Labor claims it will use all legal pathways to ensure larger companies are held accountable. Additionally, the Department of Labor is convening an inter-agency task force focused on preventing child labor and has called on Congress to raise and expand the current maximum penalty for violations.
Biden Administration Announces Stricter Immigration Policies for Those Seeking Asylum
The Biden administration announced restrictive border control measures, issuing plans for a temporary rule that would penalize asylum-seekers who cross the border without permission or fail to apply for protection in other nations they transit through on their way to the United States. The proposed rule would presume asylum ineligibility for those who enter in this manner, a marked shift from the current and longstanding practice. The rule will be subject to a 30-day public comment period and is expected to take effect before the May expiration of the pandemic-era public health restrictions known as Title 42.
Immigration advocates have raised serious alarms about the policy change: a coalition of 16 advocacy groups and the more than 100 organizations that comprise the #WelcomeWithDignity for asylum rights has just launched a new website and campaign, NoAsylumBan.US, to engage the public in adding their voices to urge President Biden and his administration not to implement their proposed asylum ban.
Department of Commerce Announces Child Care and Profit Sharing Requirements For Companies Receiving CHIPS Funds
The Department of Commerce, which will eventually disburse nearly $40 billion of funds from the CHIPS and Science Act passed in 2022, announced that any U.S. semiconductor companies that receive these federal subsidies will “need to essentially guarantee affordable, high-quality child care for workers who build or operate a plant.” Additionally, recipients who receive more than $150 million in direct funding “will be required to share with the U.S. government a portion of any cash flows or returns that exceed the applicant’s projections by an agreed-upon threshold.” This profit-sharing mechanism ensures that the public subsidies in the CHIPS Act do not only result in private benefits. States like Ohio, Arizona, New York, Idaho, and New Mexico are expected to be the likely sites of these plants as various chip-makers have already announced plans to build plants there.
President Biden Nominates Julie Su As Department Of Labor Secretary following Secretary Marty Walsh’s Resignation
Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will resign from the agency in mid-March and will join the National Hockey League Players’ Association as its Executive Director. Deputy Secretary Julie Su is expected to take over as acting secretary. President BIden has nominated Deputy Secretary Julie Su to lead the department next.. Before joining the Department of Labor as its Deputy Secretary, Julie Su served as California’s labor commissioner—the top enforcer of minimum-wage and overtime laws—where she was called “wage theft’s top cop.” If her nomination is successful, she would be the first Asian American to serve as a Cabinet secretary under Biden.
Federal Infrastructure and Climate Funding Continues to Roll Out to State and Local Governments
The Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed November 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act, passed August 2022, authorize over a trillion dollars of formula grants, competitive grants and tax credits, billions of which will flow to local governments. The IIJA grants will be awarded on a rolling basis over a four year period, most of which through existing DOT grant programs to transportation agencies. The IRA’s funding is mostly in the form of tax credits, which, for the first time, are available to local governments through direct pay. These tax credits can pay for as much as 30-50% or more of clean energy project costs if the project pays prevailing wages, uses union apprenticeships, and benefits disadvantaged and low-income communities. The tax credits eligible for direct pay include rooftop solar, electric vehicle fleets, charging stations, building efficiency, battery storage, microgrids, and more. Federal rulemaking about how to use direct pay is still forthcoming from the Treasury department. Local Progress Impact Lab will soon be releasing a memo breaking down both the IIJA and IRA funding opportunities.
Grant Opportunity Highlights
- EPA Climate Planning Grants: application due April 28th. The EPA is rolling out some of the first IRA grants to state and local governments to fund local climate planning including development of climate action plans, emissions targets, defining and mapping environmental justice communities, and funding for application to other IRA / IIJA grants.
- DOE Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, initial application due April 28th. Block grant for energy efficiency, building retrofits, building code overhauls and more.
DOT Safe Streets and Roads for All Grants- Notice of Funding Opportunity expected to open in April. Grants for creating or implementing safe streets planning.
Congress Contemplates Federal Legislation On Alternatives to Traffic Enforcement
The Memphis police killing Tyre Nichols last month sparked legislative activity in Congress regarding addressing public safety. One notable bill, the Investing in Safer Traffic Stops Act of 2023, introduced by Rep. Ritchie Torres (NY-15), would create a grant program for state, local, and tribal governments incentivizing the hiring of civilian employees or the purchase of traffic monitoring technology for the purpose of enforcing traffic violations. Many states require law enforcement officers to conduct traffic enforcement, so it is unclear what impact the prospective bill might have for localities in which civilian traffic enforcement is preempted by state law.
President Biden Opposes D.C.’s Criminal Code Changes, Will Not Veto GOP Efforts to Overturn Them
Late last year, the Washington, D.C. Council unanimously approved a comprehensive rewrite to its criminal code, updating definitions, determining new sentence guidelines, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, and expanding the right to a jury trial for misdemeanor offenses. In January, the Council overrode a mayoral veto. Conservatives in Congress have seized on the ordinance as a way to continue pushing fear-mongering narratives on public safety and to use Congressional power to overrule D.C.’s ability to self-govern. Much to the dismay of LP members in DC, President Biden has expressed his opposition to the criminal code changes, and he has indicated to Republicans and the Senate that he will allow them to usurp D.C.’s home rule authority by not vetoing their effort to overturn D.C.’s ordinance.
The U.S Supreme Court Begins To Hear Arguments For Cases Regarding Student Debt And Regulation Of Internet Companies.
At the end of February, the U.S. Supreme Court began to hear arguments about President Biden’s plan to eliminate up to $20,000 in federal student debt for most borrowers, a plan estimated to cost $400 billion. The Court also heard arguments in a case that could decide whether or not social media companies should be liable and accountable for content posted on their platforms. The Court is expected to release its decisions for these two cases later this summer.
📝 PolicyLink and Race Forward: Assessment of Federal Equity Action Plans
This PolicyLink and Race Forward report provides an overview of the federal equity action planning process and assesses the strengths and areas for improvement in the plans themselves. The assessment identifies three overarching themes as a result of the analysis: 1) Responsiveness to Executive Order, 2) Transformative Measures, and 3) Sustainability and concludes by offering recommendations for how an equity action plan process may be strengthened if there is an opportunity to do so.
📝 Lead Together Website + Listserv to share ARPA resources
Local Progress and many of our key partners have just launched a new website and listserv to connect local organizers around the country who are working in their communities to ensure that American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and other federal funds address historic inequities and benefit those who have been most directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through featured stories and case studies from local advocates, the Lead Together website and listserv supports a growing movement of local communities demanding government transparency and accountability in the investment of federal funds. Learn more and join the Lead Together network today!