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CRS — Health Benefits for Members of Congress and Certain Congressional Staff (updated)

April 16, 2014 Comments off

Health Benefits for Members of Congress and Certain Congressional Staff (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

The federal government, as an employer, offers health benefits to its employees, including Members of Congress and congressional staff. Prior to 2014, Members and staff had access to many of the same health benefits as other federal employees. For example, Members and staff were eligible to voluntarily enroll in employer-sponsored health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), and they could choose to participate in other health benefit programs, such as the Federal Flexible Spending Account Program (FSAFEDS).

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CRS — Navy Shipboard Lasers for Surface, Air, and Missile Defense: Background and Issues for Congress

April 14, 2014 Comments off

Navy Shipboard Lasers for Surface, Air, and Missile Defense: Background and Issues for Congress (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Department of Defense (DOD) development work on high-energy military lasers, which has been underway for decades, has reached the point where lasers capable of countering certain surface and air targets at ranges of about a mile could be made ready for installation on Navy surface ships over the next few years. More powerful shipboard lasers, which could become ready for installation in subsequent years, could provide Navy surface ships with an ability to counter a wider range of surface and air targets at ranges of up to about 10 miles.

CRS — Latin America and the Caribbean: Fact Sheet on Leaders and Elections (updated)

April 11, 2014 Comments off

Latin America and the Caribbean: Fact Sheet on Leaders and Elections (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

This report provides the results of recent elections in Latin America and the Caribbean. Below are three tables organized by region, including the date of each country’s independence, the name of the newly elected president or prime minister, and the projected date of the next election. Information in this report was gathered from numerous sources, including the U.S. State Department, the CIA’s Open Source, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), and other news sources.

CRS — Abortion: Judicial History and Legislative Response (updated)

April 11, 2014 Comments off

Abortion: Judicial History and Legislative Response (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in Roe v. Wade that the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. In Doe v. Bolton, a companion decision, the Court found that a state may not unduly burden the exercise of that fundamental right with regulations that prohibit or substantially limit access to the means of effectuating the decision to have an abortion. Rather than settle the issue, the Court’s rulings since Roe and Doe have continued to generate debate and have precipitated a variety of governmental actions at the national, state, and local levels designed either to nullify the rulings or limit their effect. These governmental regulations have, in turn, spawned further litigation in which resulting judicial refinements in the law have been no more successful in dampening the controversy.

CRS — Access to Broadband Networks: The Net Neutrality Debate (updated)

April 11, 2014 Comments off

Access to Broadband Networks: The Net Neutrality Debate (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via National Agricultural Law Library)

As congressional policymakers continue to debate telecommunications reform, a major point of contention is the question of whether action is needed to ensure unfettered access to the Internet. The move to place restrictions on the owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet, to ensure equal access and non-discriminatory treatment, is referred to as “net neutrality.” While there is no single accepted definition of “net neutrality,” most agree that any such definition should include the general principles that owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network, and they should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network.

A major focus in the debate is concern over whether it is necessary for policymakers to take steps to ensure access to the Internet for content, services, and applications providers, as well as consumers, and if so, what these steps should be. Some policymakers contend that more specific regulatory guidelines may be necessary to protect the marketplace from potential abuses which could threaten the net neutrality concept. Others contend that existing laws and policies are sufficient to deal with potential anti-competitive behavior and that additional regulations would have negative effects on the expansion and future development of the Internet.

The January 2014 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit (Verizon Communications Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, D.C. Cir., No.11-1355) upholding the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to use Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to regulate broadband providers, but striking down the specific anti-blocking and nondiscrimination rules of the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order has focused attention on the issue. Three measures (H.R. 3982, H.R. 4070, and S. 1981) have been introduced in direct response to the January 2014 court decision, and subsequent FCC action. A consensus on the net neutrality issue has remained elusive. Some Members of Congress support FCC regulation of broadband providers, others feel that the regulation of the Internet is not only unnecessary, but harmful. It is anticipated that the issue of access to broadband networks will be of continued interest to policymakers.

CRS — Crime and Forfeiture

April 9, 2014 Comments off

Crime and Forfeiture (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

Forfeiture has long been an effective law enforcement tool. Congress and state legislatures have authorized its use for over two hundred years. Every year, it redirects property worth billions of dollars from criminal to lawful uses. Forfeiture law has always been somewhat unique. Legislative bodies, commentators and the courts, however, had begun to examine its eccentricities in greater detail because under some circumstances it could be not only harsh but unfair. The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA), P.L. 106-185, 114 Stat. 202 (2000), was a product of that reexamination.

Modern forfeiture follows one of two procedural routes. Although crime triggers all forfeitures, they are classified as civil forfeitures or criminal forfeitures according to the nature of the procedure which ends in confiscation. Civil forfeiture is an in rem proceeding. The property is the defendant in the case. Unless the statute provides otherwise, the innocence of the owner is irrelevant—it is enough that the property was involved in a violation to which forfeiture attaches. As a matter of expedience and judicial economy, Congress often allows administrative forfeiture in uncontested civil confiscation cases. Criminal forfeiture is an in personam proceeding, and confiscation is only possible upon the conviction of the owner of the property.

CRS — Transportation Spending and “Buy America” Requirements

April 9, 2014 Comments off

Transportation Spending and “Buy America” Requirements (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

The Buy America Act is the popular name for a group of domestic content restrictions that have been attached to funds administered by the Department of Transportation (DOT). These funds are used to make grants to states, localities, and other non-federal government entities for various transportation projects. Specific sources of funding administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) are covered under various Buy America provisions. Generally, these statutes require applicable agency grant programs and spending to be used to fund projects that only include steel, iron, and/or manufactured products produced in the United States. Each provision includes a series of circumstances under which the agency may issue a nationwide or project-specific waiver to these domestic content requirements. Such exemptions may be based upon a finding that application of the domestic content requirement is not in the public interest, the needed materials are not produced in sufficient quantity and/or quality in the United States, or the cost of using domestic materials is unreasonable, among others.

The Buy American Act, another statute requiring domestic content preferences in federal government procurement, does not apply to DOT-administered grant funds because, while the source of the money is federal, purchases are not made directly by the federal government. For more information on the Buy American Act and other domestic preference requirements, see CRS Report R43354, Domestic Content Restrictions: The Buy American Act and Complementary Provisions of Federal Law, by Kate M. Manuel et al.

CRS — Community Development Block Grants: Recent Funding History

April 8, 2014 Comments off

Community Development Block Grants: Recent Funding History (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under the Community Development Fund (CDF) account, was first authorized by Title I of the Housing and Community Development Act (HCDA) of 1974, P.L. 93-383. During the program’s nearly 40-year existence, Congress has allocated approximately $138 billion to help state and local governments undertake housing, economic development, neighborhood revitalization, and other community development activities. In addition to its annual appropriations, Congress, as events have warranted, has used the program’s framework to provide supplemental and special appropriations to assist states and communities in responding to various economic crises and manmade and natural disasters.

This report is a review of the CDF account’s funding history from FY2000 to FY2013, as well as current funding in FY2014. It includes a discussion of the three primary components of the CDF account: (1) CDBG formula grants; (2) CDBG-related set-asides and earmarks; and (3) CDBGlinked supplemental and special appropriations. It is intended to provide recent historical background as the 113th Congress considers CDF funding levels and composition. For information on CDF appropriation legislation considered during the 113th Congress, the reader should consult CRS Report Community Development Block Grant Funding Issues in the 113th Congress.

CRS — Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress (updated)

April 8, 2014 Comments off

Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

The diminishment of Arctic sea ice has led to increased human activities in the Arctic, and has heightened interest in, and concerns about, the region’s future. The United States, by virtue of Alaska, is an Arctic country and has substantial interests in the region. On May 10, 2013, the Obama Administration released a national strategy document for the Arctic region. On January 30, 2014, the Obama Administration released an implementation plan for this strategy.

Record low extents of Arctic sea ice over the past decade have focused scientific and policy attention on links to global climate change and projected ice-free seasons in the Arctic within decades. These changes have potential consequences for weather in the United States, access to mineral and biological resources in the Arctic, the economies and cultures of peoples in the region, and national security.

CRS — Military Funeral Honors and Military Cemeteries: Frequently Asked Questions

April 8, 2014 Comments off

Military Funeral Honors and Military Cemeteries: Frequently Asked Questions (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

This report is written in response to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about military funeral honors and military cemeteries. It provides information on the eligibility criteria, required components of the honor detail, and the funeral ceremony. It also cites legislation that mandates that the Department of Defense (DOD) make military funeral honors available to every eligible veteran upon request. This report will be updated as needed. For related reading, see CRS Report R41386, Veterans’ Benefits: Burial Benefits and National Cemeteries, by Christine Scott.

CRS — Reducing Cost-of-Living Adjustments for Military Retirees and the Bipartisan Budget Act: In Brief

April 8, 2014 Comments off

Reducing Cost-of-Living Adjustments for Military Retirees and the Bipartisan Budget Act: In Brief (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

In addition to raising budget caps in FY2014 and FY2015, the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) reduced the cost of living adjustments (COLAs) provided to working-age military retirees under the age of 62 from the full Consumer Price Index (CPI) to the CPI less 1%. Military retirees would then receive a “bump-up” at age 62 that would raise their benefit level to an amount that included full rather than partial CPI adjustments for each year below the age of 62. This new benefit level would then be increased for full CPI adjustments in later years. According to CBO, this change would save the Department of Defense $6.235 billion over the decade.

This CPI adjustment in the BBA originally applied to nearly all military retirees including those receiving military disability benefits, as well as those receiving survivors benefits. In response to concerns about potential effects, Congress restored full CPI COLA adjustments for disabled military retirees and survivors in the FY2014 Omnibus (H.R. 3547/P.L. 113-76) signed by the President on January 17, 2014. Several bills have recently been introduced that would reverse the COLA decrease for nondisabled military retirees as well. Although the reduced COLAs do not go into effect until December 1, 2015, some Members have called for action sooner.

Many of today’s nondisabled retired military are 62 or older, so the COLA adjustments in the BBA will not affect them. Most nondisability retirees under age 62 would be affected, with the greatest effect on recently retired and future nondisablity military retirees, who could face reduced COLAs for 20 years or more. As a point of comparison, had disabled retirees continued to face these adjustments, the effect would have been larger because they tend to retire younger and thus would have faced COLA reductions for more years.

CRS — Foreign Assistance to North Korea

April 8, 2014 Comments off

Foreign Assistance to North Korea (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in assistance: slightly more than 50% for food aid and about 40% for energy assistance. Since early 2009, the United States has provided virtually no aid to North Korea, though episodically there have been discussions about resuming large-scale food aid. Additionally, the Obama Administration officials have said that they would be willing to consider other types of aid if North Korea takes steps indicating that it will dismantle its nuclear program, a prospect that most analysts view as increasingly remote. As of March 2014, barring an unexpected breakthrough, there appears little likelihood the Obama Administration will provide large-scale assistance of any type to North Korea in the near future. Members of Congress have a number of tools they could use to influence the development and implementation of aid programs with North Korea.

CRS — The Volcker Rule: A Legal Analysis

April 8, 2014 Comments off

The Volcker Rule: A Legal Analysis (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

This report provides an introduction to the Volcker Rule, which is the regulatory regime imposed upon banking institutions and their affiliates under Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-203). The Volker Rule is designed to prohibit “banking entities” from engaging in all forms of “proprietary trading” (i.e., making investments for their own “trading accounts”)—activities that former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker often condemned as contrary to conventional banking practices and a potential risk to financial stability. The statutory language provides only general outlines of prohibited activities and exceptions. Through it, however, Congress has empowered five federal financial regulators with authority to conduct coordinated rulemakings to fill in the details and complete the difficult task of crafting regulations to identify prohibited activities, while continuing to permit activities considered essential to the safety and soundness of banking institutions or to the maintenance of strong capital markets. In December 2014, more than two years after enactment of the law, coordinated implementing regulations were issued by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

CRS — Regulation of Clinical Tests: In Vitro Diagnostic (IVD) Devices, Laboratory Developed Tests (LDTs), and Genetic Tests

April 7, 2014 Comments off

Regulation of Clinical Tests: In Vitro Diagnostic (IVD) Devices, Laboratory Developed Tests (LDTs), and Genetic Tests (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

In vitro diagnostic (IVD) devices are used in the analysis of human samples, such as blood or tissue, to provide information in making health care decisions. Examples of IVDs include (1) pregnancy test kits or blood glucose tests for home use; (2) laboratory tests for infectious disease, such as HIV or hepatitis and routine office blood tests such as for cholesterol and anemia; and (3) tests for various genetic diseases or conditions. More recently, a specific diagnostic test—called a companion diagnostic—may be used to select the best therapy, at the right dose, at the correct time for a particular patient; this is often referred to as personalized medicine.

Federal agencies involved in the regulation of IVDs include the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). FDA derives its authority to regulate the sale and distribution of medical devices, such as IVDs, from the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act and the Public Health Service Act. CMS’s authority to regulate IVDs is through the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988. FDA regulates the safety and effectiveness of the diagnostic test as well as the quality of the design and manufacture of the diagnostic test, and CMS regulates the quality of clinical laboratories and the clinical testing process.

Traditionally, most genetic tests have not been subject to premarket review by the FDA. This is because in the past, genetic tests were developed by laboratories primarily for their in-house use—referred to as laboratory-developed tests (LDTs)—to diagnose rare diseases and were highly dependent on expert interpretation. However, more recently LDTs have been developed to assess relatively common diseases and conditions, thus affecting more people, and direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing has become widely available over the Internet. In June 2010 FDA announced its decision to exercise its authority over all LDTs. FDA has provided a number of reasons for the decision to assert its enforcement authority over LDTs, including that the public needs assurances that LDTs are sound and reliable. FDA has not yet finalized guidance with respect to all LDTs. A provision in the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act stipulates that the agency “may not issue any draft or final guidance on the regulation” of LDTs without “at least 60 days prior to such issuance,” first notifying Congress “of the anticipated details of such action.”

CRS — Unlawfully Present Aliens, Driver’s Licenses, and Other State-Issued ID: Select Legal Issues

April 7, 2014 Comments off

Unlawfully Present Aliens, Driver’s Licenses, and Other State-Issued ID: Select Legal Issues (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

One aspect of the broader debate over aliens who are present in the United States in violation of federal immigration law has been their eligibility for driver’s licenses and other forms of state-issued identification documents (IDs). The issuance of driver’s licenses has historically been considered a state matter, and states have taken a variety of approaches. Some have barred the issuance of driver’s licenses and other state-issued ID to unlawfully present aliens; others permit their issuance; and yet others instead grant unlawfully present aliens Certificates for Driving (CFDs) or Driving Privilege Cards (DPCs). CFDs or DPCs expressly state, on their face, that they are valid for driving, but not for other purposes. The federal government has generally not intruded on state control over the issuance of driver’s licenses, although the REAL ID Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-13, Div. B) will, when implemented, bar federal agencies from accepting, “for any official purpose,” licenses or ID cards issued by states that do not meet specific requirements.

CRS — Unlawfully Present Aliens, Higher Education, In-State Tuition, and Financial Aid: Legal Analysis

April 7, 2014 Comments off

Unlawfully Present Aliens, Higher Education, In-State Tuition, and Financial Aid: Legal Analysis (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The existence of a sizable population of “DREAMers” in the United States has prompted questions about unlawfully present aliens’ eligibility for admission to public institutions of higher education, in-state tuition, and financial aid. The term DREAMer is widely used to describe aliens who were brought to the United States as children and raised here but lack legal immigration status. As children, DREAMers are entitled to public elementary and secondary education as a result of the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe. There, the Court struck down a Texas statute that prohibited the use of state funds to provide elementary and secondary education to children who were not “legally admitted” to the United States because the state distinguished between these children and other children without a “substantial” goal, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Once DREAMers complete high school, however, they may have less access to public higher education. Plyler’s holding was limited to elementary and secondary education, and the Court’s focus on the young age of those whom Texas denied a “basic education” has generally been taken to mean that measures denying unlawfully present aliens access to higher education may be subject to less scrutiny than the Texas statute was. Thus, several states have adopted laws or practices barring the enrollment of unlawfully present aliens at public institutions of higher education. In addition, Congress has enacted two statutes that restrict unlawfully present aliens’ eligibility for “public benefits,” a term which has generally been construed to encompass in-state tuition and financial aid. The first of these statutes, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA, P.L. 104-193) bars the provision of “state and local public benefits” to unlawfully present aliens unless the state enacts legislation that “affirmatively provides” for their eligibility. The second, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA, P.L. 104-208) bars states from providing “postsecondary education benefits” to unlawfully present aliens based on their residence in the state unless all U.S. citizens or nationals are eligible for such benefits, regardless of their state of residence.

CRS — The Debate Over Selected Presidential Assistants and Advisors: Appointment, Accountability, and Congressional Oversight

April 7, 2014 Comments off

The Debate Over Selected Presidential Assistants and Advisors: Appointment, Accountability, and Congressional Oversight (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

A number of the appointments made by President Barack H. Obama to his Administration or by Cabinet secretaries to their departments have been referred to, especially by the news media, as “czars.” For some, the term is used to convey an appointee’s title (e.g., climate “czar”) in shorthand. For others, it is being used to convey a sense that power is being centralized in the White House or certain entities. When used in political science literature, the term generally refers to White House policy coordination or an intense focus by the appointee on an issue of great magnitude. Congress has noticed these appointments and in the 111th Congress examined some of them. The Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary, and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, for example, conducted hearings on the “czar” issue on October 6, 2009, and October 22, 2009, respectively.

One issue of interest to Congress may be whether some of these appointments (particularly some of those to the White House Office), made outside of the advice and consent process of the Senate, circumvent the requirements of the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. A second issue of interest may be whether the activities of such appointees are subject to oversight by Congress.

This report provides background information and selected views on the role of some of these appointees. Additionally, it discusses some of the constitutional concerns that have been raised about presidential advisors. These include, for example, the kinds of positions that qualify as the type that must be filled in accordance with the Appointments Clause, with a focus on examining a few existing positions established by statute, executive order, and regulation. The report also reviews certain congressional oversight processes and assesses the applicability of these processes to presidential advisors. Legislative and non-legislative options for congressional consideration are presented.

CRS — Reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts: A Brief Overview

April 7, 2014 Comments off

Reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts: A Brief Overview (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

In the wake of recent disclosures concerning various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and data collection programs, several legislative changes to the government’s intelligence operations authority have been suggested. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) reviews government applications to conduct surveillance and engage in data collection for foreign intelligence purposes, and the FISA Court of Review reviews rulings of the FISC. Some have proposed altering the underlying legal authorities relied on by the government when applying to the FISC, while others have suggested changes to the practices and procedures of the FISA Courts. This report provides a brief overview of the legal implications of the latter group of proposals.

CRS — Overview of Constitutional Challenges to NSA Collection Activities and Recent Developments

April 7, 2014 Comments off

Overview of Constitutional Challenges to NSA Collection Activities and Recent Developments (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Beginning in the summer of 2013, media reports of foreign intelligence activities conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) have been widely published. The reports have focused on two main NSA collection activities approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. The first is the bulk collection of telephony metadata for domestic and international telephone calls. The second involves the interception of Internet-based communications and is targeted at foreigners who are not within the United States, but may also inadvertently acquire the communications of U.S. persons. As public awareness of these programs grew, questions about the constitutionality of these programs were increasingly raised by Members of Congress and others. This report provides a brief overview of these two programs and the various constitutional challenges that have arisen in judicial forums with respect to each.

CRS — Health Care for Veterans: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (updated)

April 7, 2014 Comments off

Health Care for Veterans: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA), within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), operates the nation’s largest integrated health care delivery system, provides care to approximately 5.75 million unique veteran patients, and employs more than 270,000 full-time equivalent employees.

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