Jennifer Boyter, IACP Legislative Analyst
As Congress prepares for the second session of the 108th Congress, it is time to look back to see what lawmakers did and did not do in 2003.
Only six of the 13 regular spending bills were sent to President Bush. The remaining seven appropriations bills were instead combined into a massive omnibus bill (H.R. 2673), which was passed by the House at the end of the year. The Senate has not yet acted on the measure, postponing action until Congress reconvenes on January 20. The government is currently operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that expires on January 31.
The Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary appropriations bill (CJS), which provides most of the funding for federal law enforcement agencies as well as the state and local law enforcement assistance programs, was included in the omnibus. The CJS bill was adopted by the House (H.R. 2799) and the Senate Appropriations Committee (S. 1585) but was never voted on by the full Senate.
In July, the Senate approved a bill (S. 764) to reauthorize the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program through fiscal year 2007. The matching grant program helps local police and sheriff's departments buy bulletproof vests. The bill would authorize up to $50 million each fiscal year. Without the legislation, the grant program will expire in September 2004.
In November, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill (H.R. 3214) that will provide over $1 billion in funding and assistance for DNA evidence analysis and training. The bill is the result of months of negotiations between congressional Republicans and Democrats. The measure, which is known as the Advancing Justice through DNA Technology Act, is endorsed by congressional leaders of both parties.
The bill combines President Bush's initiative to spend $1 billion to reduce the backlog of evidence awaiting DNA testing with proposals that will assist state and local law enforcement expand the collection of DNA samples and evidence. Specifically, the bill would authorize $755 million over five years ($151 million per year) to eliminate the current backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence awaiting DNA analysis in crime labs.
The bill also expands the DNA database system (CODIS) to allow states to include in the DNA index the DNA profiles of all felons convicted of federal crimes and all people required to submit DNA samples, including those authorized by state law.
The bill also contains portions of the Innocence Protection Act, which aims to ensure that defendants in state capital punishment cases have access to adequate legal counsel and that death row inmates could use sophisticated new DNA testing to assert their innocence. It would also give selected federal inmates access to DNA testing that could lead to reversal of their convictions if they assert under penalty of perjury that they are not guilty.
The measure now heads to the Senate, where companion legislation (S. 1700) faces significant opposition, despite the support of Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
The omnibus appropriations bill passed by the House and awaiting action by the Senate includes several firearms-related provisions. Under one such provision, federal law enforcement officials would have to destroy records related to background checks of gun buyers within 24 hours after buyers are cleared to purchase a weapon. Currently, the Justice Department retains such records for up to 90 days to guard against errors and to audit the system.
The omnibus contains several other provisions that reduce law enforcement oversight of gun dealers. One provision would prevent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) from publicly disclosing information submitted by licensed gun dealers. Another would bar the bureau from requiring gun dealers to inventory their stock. Another provision mandates disclaimers for firearms trace studies by the bureau, to the effect that such studies cannot be used to reach "broad conclusions" about crimes related to firearms.
Assault Weapons: Congress did not take any action on legislation to reauthorize the assault weapons ban, which is set to expire in September. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Charles Schumer (D-New York) have introduced legislation (S. 1034) that would extend the current ban with only minor modifications. The IACP supports this legislation. In addition, Representatives John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-New York) have introduced a tougher bill (H.R. 2038) that would ban a larger number of guns. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) has introduced a similar bill (S. 1431) in the Senate.
Concealed Weapons: In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill (S.B. 253), known as the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2003. The bill would exempt qualified active and retired law enforcement officers from state and local prohibitions on the carrying of concealed firearms, allowing off-duty and retired officers to carry concealed weapons throughout the country. The House version (H.R. 218) was not considered by the House Judiciary Committee. That committee's chair, Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) is opposed to the bill. The IACP remains strongly opposed to the bill.
Several House and Senate committees have finally begun working on the measure (S.B. 1072), but it is likely that Congress will have to pass another extension of existing law. The current extension expires February 29.
Homeland Security Funding
Members of Congress continue to reexamine the formulas under which first responder funds are distributed. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has repeatedly urged Congress to change the formula, which currently has mandatory minimums for each state and distributes money based largely on population. He testified that the formula should be changed to give greater weight to the threat that each state faces, as well as to the presence of critical infrastructure and national icons.
A House Homeland Security Subcommittee endorsed a bill (H.B. 3266) that would create a new grant program, but not authorize additional funding, to distribute money to first responders based solely on the terrorist threat facing each state and community. It would not affect existing grant programs that fund traditional police department needs, such as the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant or Byrne grants.
Two Senate Committees passed legislation that would also overhaul the formula for distributing grants to first responders. A bill (S. 1245) passed by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, would provide a bigger share of grants to high-threat urban areas and make it simpler to apply for grants. It would restructure the Department of Homeland Security's state and local homeland security grant programs, make it easier to apply for federal funds, and coordinate the many grant programs that provide homeland security funding.
In September, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a proposal to amend the Constitution to specify certain rights for crime victims. The so-called victims' rights amendment (S.J. Res. 1) would require that crime victims or their representatives receive advance notification of judicial proceedings and parole hearings. The amendment would also give victims or their representatives the right to be heard at public release, plea sentencing and other proceedings and would require judicial officials to consider victims' safety when deciding the fate of defendants.
Proposed constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of approval by each chamber. If cleared by Congress and ratified by at least 38 states, the proposal would be the 28th amendment to the Constitution and the first since 1992.