Public Policy Update

The first session of the 108th Congress is drawing to a close, and it has been a particularly contentious one.

Since the November 2002 election, the Republican Party has controlled the House of Representatives (229-211), the Senate (51-49) and the White House for the first time in nearly half a century. At the same time, Congress continues to face wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fight to root out terrorism and the overall downturn in the economy. What does all this mean for public interest policy of concern to psychology, and what can we expect and hope to achieve over the coming months?

To answer these questions, it is important to grasp the political and economic conditions affecting public policy formation and to get involved as an advocate for psychology's public interest policy agenda.

Roadblocks to funding

It should come as no surprise that the pressing fiscal challenges noted above have combined to funnel millions of dollars away from psychology's top public interest concerns. Topping the list of federal expenditures is defense. The Bush administration's Future Years Defense Program for 2004 anticipates that defense spending will rise from $383 billion next year to $439 billion in 2009. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that carrying out today's plans for defense will require annual funding over the long term to stay at higher levels than defense spending has reached since 1980.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit is projected to climb for the rest of the decade, and the states are suffering financially. According to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislators, 31 state governments are cutting spending this fiscal year, 29 are drawing on reserves set aside during the economic boom of the 1990s, and 23 are laying off workers or cutting salaries. To pay general operating expenses, 18 states are raising taxes or fees significantly, 13 are tapping "rainy day" funds meant for emergencies, and 8 are using funds from the tobacco settlement that were intended for tobacco-related health-care costs.

Also, the CBO has projected that even if the economy rebounds strongly over the next few years, the federal budget deficit could climb for the rest of the decade if Congress adopts proposals strongly supported by the president. The president's legislative agenda, which the Republican majority in Congress supports, includes making almost all of the tax cuts of the past three years permanent--$1.5 trillion over 10 years. Add to that the cost of a major new prescription drug program for the elderly and the overhaul of the Alternative Minimum Tax--both supported by both parties and each expected to cost $400 billion over 10 years.

Such financial concerns are severely undercutting support for a number of psychology's top public interest priorities:

  • Funding increases for many federal social welfare programs have been minimal or nonexistent in the appropriations process. While the House of Representatives has passed a number of reauthorization bills based on the president's proposals, such as welfare reform and Head Start, these have not moved in the Senate. The changes in the House-passed bill to reauthorize the Head Start program jeopardize the effectiveness and undermine years of research-based refinements and performance standards. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) has introduced a bill in the Senate to improve the quality of the current Head Start program while retaining its performance standards.

  • Proactive bills on hate crimes, racial profiling and employment nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation are barely on legislators' radar screens. In some cases, the bills have not even been reintroduced in this Congress.

  • Unemployment insurance, which Congress just extended through the end of the year, has run out for two-thirds of recipients. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly three million of the more than five million workers who started receiving unemployment benefits between the program's inception in March 2002 and the end of January 2003 were unable to find new employment before their benefits expired.

  • The continued threat of terrorism and the weakening economy have left many people stressed and looking for ways to cope. Funding for the very programs that can help are in jeopardy--from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB) to the share of employers offering mental health benefits. MCHB creates federal-state partnerships to improve maternal and child health through community-based comprehensive systems that integrate health, social, education, mental health and other services. Data from the 2000 census will be used for the first time this year to allocate MCHB funds, and 30 states will experience cuts of up to $1.5 million.

According to the 2002 benefits survey of the Society for Human Resource Management, the share of employers offering mental health benefits dropped to 76 percent last year from 84 percent in 1998. Health-care costs are estimated to rise 15 percent this year, and employers all too often see mental health as one of the prime areas to cut costs.

How you can help

With such challenges, APA's Public Policy Office (PPO) needs APA members now more than ever to join in advocating for psychology at the national level. We need volunteers to inform members of Congress and their staffs about the relevance of psychological research and practice to federal policy and to society, and to help influence health policy and funding decision-making.

Members of Congress and their staffs need to hear from psychologists from their own districts and states. You are very important to members of Congress, because, as a constituent, you have the power to keep them in office. If you are going to be in Washington, D.C., please consider coming a day early to meet with your representative and/or senators. PPO staff can assist you in scheduling the meeting, brief you on your legislator's positions and even accompany you on the visit. We can also assist you in scheduling meetings with your legislators back home in your community.

How else can you help us help you? You can establish a relationship with members of your congressional delegation and serve as a resource to them. You can keep PPO staff informed about your recent research on policy-relevant issues, so PPO can in turn inform members of Congress about late-breaking developments in the field. You can attend town hall meetings held by members of your congressional delegation. And you can help by going to our Web site to join our Public Policy Advocacy Network and learn about upcoming votes in Congress and our latest initiatives.

PPO needs partners to strengthen the voice of psychology at the federal level. If you have any questions or would like to become more involved in public interest advocacy, please contact us at ppo@apa.org.

Lori Valencia-Greene is a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in public interest policy in APA's Public Policy Office.