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CRS — Social Security: The Lump-Sum Death Benefit

July 25, 2014 Comments off

Social Security: The Lump-Sum Death Benefit (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

When a worker who is insured by Social Security and living with a spouse dies, the spouse is entitled to a lump-sum death benefit of $255. If there is no such spouse, the payment can be made to a surviving child who is receiving or is eligible to receive benefits based on the deceased person’s work. In the majority of deaths, however, no payment is made.

The death benefit used to be a more important part of Social Security, but the payment has been fixed at $255 for the past four decades, during which inflation has eroded its value. At the same time, the real value of other Social Security benefits has increased. Total federal spending on lump-sum death benefits is now about $200 million, only 0.03% of the total Social Security benefits.

Although the benefit was once linked to burial expenses and is sometimes still referred to as a “funeral benefit,” it no longer has any legal connection with funeral expenses.

Some proposals would have targeted the death benefit to those with the greatest need, increased the benefit, or eliminated it.

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CRS Insights — District of Columbia: Marijuana Decriminalization and Enforcement; Issues of Home Rule and Congressional Oversight

July 25, 2014 Comments off

CRS Insights — District of Columbia: Marijuana Decriminalization and Enforcement; Issues of Home Rule and Congressional Oversight (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Decriminalization of marijuana in the District is one of several issues that have engendered controversy and congressional intervention. Like the controversies surrounding the District’s medical marijuana initiative, needle exchange, and abortion services, the District’s marijuana decriminalization act pits the principle of home rule against Congress’s constitutional authority and prerogative to intervene in District affairs.

Supporters of the law point to the shift in public opinion surrounding the legalization of marijuana use; noting that the majority of the country favors legalization. They also note that the act is intended to address the racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates in the District. According to a committee report accompanying the legislation, blacks accounted for 90% of the marijuana arrests in the District despite evidence that they use marijuana at a rate comparable to use by whites. Supporters note that a single arrest for marijuana possession has a significant impact on future employment and career prospects.

Opponents of the law argue that enforcement will be problematic given the unique status of the District as the Nation’s Capital. On the one hand, possession of a small quantity of marijuana on non-federal lands would be reduced to a misdemeanor punishable by a small fine. On the other hand, possession of that same quantity of marijuana on federal lands, including the Mall, the National Zoo, and Rock Creek Park could be prosecuted, at the discretion of the Department of Justice, as a federal offense and subject the offender to six months in jail and up to a $5,000 fine, given that marijuana is defined as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. §811). The matter of enforcement is further complicated by the presence of 32 federal law enforcement agencies that provide assistance to the District’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) through cooperative agreements that expand the area of jurisdiction an agency’s law enforcement personnel may patrol with the power to arrest.

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

July 25, 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 — “Black Boxes” in Passenger Vehicles: Policy Issues

July 25, 2014 Comments off

“Black Boxes” in Passenger Vehicles: Policy Issues (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

An event data recorder (EDR) is an electronic sensor installed in a motor vehicle that records certain technical information about a vehicle’s operational performance for a few seconds immediately prior to and during a crash. Although over 90% of all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States are equipped with them, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing that all new light vehicles have EDRs installed in the future. Under previously adopted NHTSA rules, these devices have to capture at least 15 types of information related to the vehicle’s performance in the few seconds just before and immediately after a crash serious enough to result in deployment of airbags.

EDRs have the potential to make a significant contribution to highway safety. For example, EDR data showed that in several cases a Chevrolet Cobalt’s ignition switch turned the engine off while the car was still moving, causing the car to lose power steering and crash; the data directly contributed to the manufacturer’s decision to recall 2.6 million vehicles. EDR data could also be used, sometimes in conjunction with other vehicle technologies, to record in the few seconds before an accident such data as driver steering input, seat occupant size and position, and sound within a car.

The privacy of information collected by EDRs is a matter of state law, except that federal law bars NHTSA from disclosing personally identifiable information. The privacy aspects of EDRs and the ownership of the data they generate has been the subject of legislation in Congress since at least 2004. The House passed a floor amendment to the transportation appropriations bill in 2012 that would have prohibited use of federal funds to develop an EDR mandate. This provision was not enacted. The Senate passed two EDR-related provisions in its surface transportation reauthorization bill (S. 1813) in 2012, mandating EDRs on new cars sold after 2015 and directing a Department of Transportation study of privacy issues. The provisions were not included in the final bill.

CRS — Monetary Policy and the Federal Reserve: Current Policy and Conditions (updated)

July 23, 2014 Comments off

Monetary Policy and the Federal Reserve: Current Policy and Conditions (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) defines monetary policy as its actions to influence the availability and cost of money and credit. Because the expectations of market participants play an important role in determining prices and economic growth, monetary policy can also be defined to include the directives, policies, statements, and actions of the Fed that influence future perceptions.

Traditionally, the Fed has implemented monetary policy primarily through open market operations involving the purchase and sale of U.S. Treasury securities. The Fed traditionally conducts open market operations by setting an interest rate target with the goal of fulfilling its statutory mandate of “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” The interest rate targeted is the federal funds rate, the price at which banks buy and sell reserves on an overnight basis. Beginning in September 2007, in a series of 10 moves, the federal funds target was reduced from 5.25% to a range of 0% to 0.25% on December 16, 2008, where it has remained since.

With the federal funds target at the “zero lower bound,” the Fed has attempted to provide stimulus through unconventional policies. The Fed has provided “forward guidance” on its expectations for future rates, announcing that it “anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.” The Fed has also added monetary stimulus through unsterilized purchases of Treasury and governmentsponsored enterprise (GSE) securities. This practice is popularly referred to as quantitative easing (“QE”), and it has caused the Fed’s balance sheet to increase to $4.4 trillion at the end of June 2014—five times its pre-crisis size. On September 13, 2012, the Fed began a third round of QE, pledging to purchase GSE mortgage-backed securities and Treasury securities each month until the labor market improves, as long as prices remain stable. In December 2013, the Fed began tapering off (gradually reducing the rate of) its monthly asset purchases. If tapering maintains its current trajectory, asset purchases will end in late 2014.

CRS — Unaccompanied Alien Children: Potential Factors Contributing to Recent Immigration

July 21, 2014 Comments off

Unaccompanied Alien Children: Potential Factors Contributing to Recent Immigration (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via U.S. State Department Foreign Press Center)

Since FY2008, the growth in the number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras seeking to enter the United States has increased substantially. Total unaccompanied child apprehensions increased from about 8,000 in FY2008 to 52,000 in the first 8 ½ months of FY2014. Since 2012, children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (Central America’s “northern triangle”) account for almost all of this increase. Apprehension trends for these three countries are similar and diverge sharply from those for Mexican children. Unaccompanied child migrants’ motives for migrating to the United States are often multifaceted and difficult to measure analytically.

Four recent out-migration-related factors distinguishing northern triangle Central American countries are high violent crime rates, poor economic conditions fueled by relatively low economic growth rates, high rates of poverty, and the presence of transnational gangs.

CRS — Unaccompanied Alien Children – Legal Issues: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

July 21, 2014 Comments off

Unaccompanied Alien Children – Legal Issues: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via U.S. State Department Foreign Press Center)

Recent reports about the increasing number of alien minors apprehended at the U.S. border without a parent or legal guardian have prompted numerous questions about so-called unaccompanied alien children (UACs). Some of these questions pertain to the numbers of children involved, their reasons for coming to the United States, and current and potential responses of the federal government and other entities to their arrival. Other questions concern the interpretation and interplay of various federal statutes and regulations, administrative and judicial decisions, and settlement agreements pertaining to alien minors. This report addresses the latter questions, providing general and relatively brief answers to 14 frequently asked questions regarding UACs.

CRS — U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians

July 18, 2014 Comments off

U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians
Source: Congressional Research Service (via U.S. State Department Foreign Press Center)

Since the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, the U.S. government has committed approximately $5 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, who are among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid. Successive Administrations have requested aid for the Palestinians in apparent support of at least three major U.S. policy priorities of interest to Congress:

• Preventing terrorism against Israel from Hamas and other militant organizations.
• Fostering stability, prosperity, and self-governance in the West Bank that inclines Palestinians toward peaceful coexistence with Israel and a “two-state solution.”
• Meeting humanitarian needs.

CRS — Qualifications of Members of Congress

July 16, 2014 Comments off

Qualifications of Members of Congress (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

There are three, and only three, standing qualifications for United States Senator or Representative in Congress which are expressly set out in the United States Constitution: age (25 for the House, 30 for the Senate); citizenship (at least seven years for the House, nine years for the Senate); and inhabitancy in the state at the time elected. U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2, cl. 2 (House); and Article I, Section 3, cl. 3 (Senate). The Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed the historical understanding that the Constitution provides the exclusive qualifications to be a Member of Congress, and that neither a state nor the Congress itself may add to or change such qualifications to federal office, absent a constitutional amendment. Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 522 (1969); U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779, 800-801 (1995); Cook v. Gralike, 531 U.S. 510 (2001).

CRS — Low-Income Assistance Programs: Trends in Federal Spending

July 16, 2014 Comments off

Low-Income Assistance Programs: Trends in Federal Spending (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

This report examines the spending trends of 10 major need-tested benefit programs or groups of programs: (1) health care from Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); (2) the refundable portion of the health insurance tax credit enacted in the 2010 health care reform law; (3) the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); (4) assisted housing; (5) financial assistance for post-secondary students (Pell Grants); (6) compensatory education grants to school districts; (7) the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); (8) the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC); (9) Supplemental Security Income (SSI); and (10) Family Support Payments. The common feature of need-tested programs is that they provide benefits, services, or funding based on a measure of limited financial resources (income and sometimes assets). However, other than that common feature, the programs differ considerably in their target populations, services, and focus.

CRS — The United Kingdom and U.S.-UK Relations (updated)

July 16, 2014 Comments off

The United Kingdom and U.S.-UK Relations (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

Many U.S. officials and Members of Congress view the United Kingdom (UK) as the United States’ closest and most reliable ally. This perception stems from a combination of factors, including a sense of shared history, values, and culture, as well as extensive and long-established cooperation on a wide range of foreign policy and security issues. In the minds of many Americans, the UK’s strong role in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade reinforced an impression of closeness and solidarity.

CRS — Recently Expired Charitable Tax Provisions (“Tax Extenders”): In Brief

July 15, 2014 Comments off

Recently Expired Charitable Tax Provisions (“Tax Extenders”): In Brief (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

On April 3, 2014, the Senate Finance Committee voted to report the Expiring Provisions Improvement Reform and Efficiency (EXPIRE) Act (S. 2260), which would extend a set of expired tax provisions through the end of 2015. These and other temporary tax provisions that are regularly extended for one or two years are often referred to as “tax extenders.” This report briefly summarizes the temporary charitable tax provisions that expired at the end of 2013 and are being considered for extension. The report also discusses the economic impact of these charitable tax provisions.

Four charitable tax provisions are discussed in this report: (1) the enhanced charitable deduction for contributions of food inventory; (2) tax-free distributions from individual retirement accounts for charitable purposes; (3) basis adjustment to stock of S corporations making charitable contributions of property; and (4) special rules for contributions of capital gain real property for conservation purposes. There are other “tax extender” provisions that may affect tax-exempt entities discussed in other CRS products. Specifically, CRS Report R43510, Selected Recently Expired Business Tax Provisions (“Tax Extenders”) , by Jane G. Gravelle, Donald J. Marples, and Molly F. Sherlock includes a discussion of the modification of tax treatment of certain payments to controlling exempt organizations.1 Extender provisions related to the low-income housing tax credit, which may be relevant for tax-exempt organizations, are discussed in CRS Report R43449, Recently Expired Housing Related Tax Provisions (“Tax Extenders”): In Brief, by Mark P. Keightley.

CRS — State and Local “Sanctuary” Policies Limiting Participation in Immigration Enforcement

July 15, 2014 Comments off

State and Local “Sanctuary” Policies Limiting Participation in Immigration Enforcement (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via University of North Texas Digital Library)

While the power to prescribe rules as to which aliens may enter the United States and which aliens may be removed resides solely with the federal government, the impact of alien migration—whether lawful or unlawful—is arguably felt most directly in the communities where aliens settle. State and local responses to unlawfully present aliens within their jurisdictions have varied considerably, particularly as to the role that state and local police should play in enforcing federal immigration law. Some states, cities, and other municipalities have sought to play an active role in immigration enforcement efforts. However, others have been unwilling to assist the federal government in enforcing measures that distinguish between residents with legal immigration status and those who lack authorization under federal law to be present in the United States. In some circumstances, these jurisdictions have actively opposed federal immigration authorities’ efforts to identity and remove certain unlawfully present aliens within their jurisdictions.

Although state and local restrictions on cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts have existed for decades, there has reportedly been an upswing in the adoption of these measures in recent years. Moreover, the nature of these restrictions has evolved over time, particularly in response to the development of new federal immigration enforcement initiatives like Secure Communities, which enable federal authorities to more easily identify removable aliens in state or local custody. Entities that have adopted such policies are sometimes referred to as “sanctuary” jurisdictions, though there is not necessarily a consensus as to the meaning of this term or its application to a particular state or locality.

This report discusses legal issues related to state and local measures that limit law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The report begins by providing a brief overview of the constitutional principles informing the relationship between federal immigration authorities and state and local jurisdictions, including the federal government’s power to preempt state and local activities under the Supremacy Clause, and the Tenth Amendment’s proscription against Congress directly “commandeering” the states to administer a federally enacted regulatory scheme.

CRS — The Peace Corps: Current Issues (updated)

July 10, 2014 Comments off

The Peace Corps: Current Issues (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps has sought to meet its legislative mandate of promoting world peace and friendship by sending American volunteers to serve at the grassroots level in villages and towns in all corners of the globe. As of end September 2013, about 7,209 volunteers were serving in 65 nations.

In 2014, the 113th Congress will consider the President’s annual funding request for the Peace Corps, possible efforts to reauthorize the Peace Corps, and related issues.

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

July 10, 2014 Comments off

Access to Broadband Networks: The Net Neutrality Debate (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

As congressional policy makers 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 policy makers 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 policy makers 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.

CRS — Upcoming Rules Pursuant to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: The Spring 2014 Unified Agenda

July 10, 2014 Comments off

Upcoming Rules Pursuant to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: The Spring 2014 Unified Agenda (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA, as amended) was signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 23, 2010. As is often the case with legislation, the ACA granted rulemaking authority to federal agencies to implement many of its provisions. The regulations issued pursuant to the ACA and other statutes carry the force and effect of law. Therefore, scholars and practitioners have long noted the importance of rulemaking to the policy process, as well as the importance of congressional oversight of rulemaking. For example, one scholar noted that the “Constitution’s grant of legislative power to Congress encompasses a responsibility to ensure that delegated authority is exercised according to appropriate procedures.” Congressional oversight of rulemaking can deal with a variety of issues, including the substance of the rules issued pursuant to congressional delegations of authority and the process by which those rules are issued.

Having a sense of what rules agencies are going to issue and when they are going to issue those rules can help Congress conduct oversight over the regulations that are issued pursuant to the ACA. One way in which Congress can identify upcoming ACA rules is by reviewing the Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, which is published by the Regulatory Information Service Center (RISC), a component of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), for the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

CRS — Congressional Liaison Offices of Selected Federal Agencies (updated)

July 10, 2014 Comments off

Congressional Liaison Offices of Selected Federal Agencies (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

This list of about 200 congressional liaison offices is intended to help congressional offices in placing telephone calls and addressing correspondence to government agencies. In each case, the information was supplied by the agency itself and is current as of the date of publication. Entries are arranged alphabetically in four sections: legislative branch; judicial branch; executive branch; and agencies, boards, and commissions.

Specific telephone numbers for correspondence, publications, and fax transmissions have been provided for each applicable agency. When using fax, it is important to include the entire mailing address on a cover sheet, as many of the listed fax machines are not directly located in the liaison offices.

A number of agency listings include an email address. When emailing agencies please remember to include your name, affiliation, phone number, and return address, to ensure a speedy response. Users should be aware that email is not a confidential means of transmission.

This report was produced for congressional offices only. It will be updated frequently.

CRS — Domestic Federal Law Enforcement Coordination: Through the Lens of the Southwest Border

July 8, 2014 Comments off

Domestic Federal Law Enforcement Coordination: Through the Lens of the Southwest Border (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via U.S. State Department Foreign Press Center)

Federally led law enforcement task forces and intelligence information sharing centers are ubiquitous in domestic policing. They are launched at the local, state, and national levels and respond to a variety of challenges such as violent crime, criminal gangs, terrorism, white-collar crime, public corruption, even intelligence sharing. This report focuses on those task forces and information sharing efforts that respond to federal counterdrug and counterterrorism priorities in the Southwest border region. More generally, the report also offers context for examining law enforcement coordination. It delineates how this coordination is vital to 21st century federal policing and traces some of the roots of recent cooperative police endeavors.

CRS — The U.S. Secret Service: History and Missions (updated)

July 8, 2014 Comments off

The U.S. Secret Service: History and Missions (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The U.S. Secret Service has two missions—criminal investigations and protection. Criminal investigation activities have expanded since the inception of the Service from a small anticounterfeiting operation at the end of the Civil War, to now encompassing financial crimes, identity theft, counterfeiting, computer fraud, and computer-based attacks on the nation’s financial, banking, and telecommunications infrastructure, among other areas. Protection activities, which have expanded and evolved since the 1890s, include ensuring the safety and security of the President, Vice President, their families, and other identified individuals and locations.

CRS — Aliens’ Right to Counsel in Removal Proceedings: In Brief

July 8, 2014 Comments off

Aliens’ Right to Counsel in Removal Proceedings: In Brief (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The scope of aliens’ right to counsel in removal proceedings is a topic of recurring congressional and public interest. This topic is complicated, in part, because the term right to counsel can refer to either (1) the right to counsel of one’s own choice at one’s own expense, or (2) the right of indigent persons to counsel at the government’s expense. A right to counsel can also arise from multiple sources, including the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), other federal statutes, and federal regulations. Further, in some cases, courts have declined to recognize a “categorical” right to counsel, applicable to all aliens in removal proceedings, but have found that individual aliens could potentially have a right to counsel on a case-by-case basis because of their specific circumstances.

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