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Lawmakers seek policy shifts in spending bill

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Most of Michigan’s House Republicans and Democrats will be looking to influence federal policy in an upcoming spending bill.

The five House Democrats have filed an amendment that would block spending federal money to implement President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

Three proposals sponsored by delegation members would restrict Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive to expand the government’s asset forfeiture program, which lets police confiscate private property that is suspected of being connected to criminal activity.

Another by Republican Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden aims to send a message to the Canadian government that it should stop plans to build a nuclear waste repository less than a mile from Lake Huron in Ontario.

Tim Walberg

They are among the hundreds of amendments filed to an appropriations bill covering nearly all domestic spending for the next fiscal year. But as lawmakers return from their recess, many proposals could be tossed out by the Rules Committee this week before making it to the House floor for a vote.

“This is one of the few pieces of legislation that actually has legs. When you have something like that, you have instances where members try to get a bite of the pie,” said Josh Huder, senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

“This is going to attract a lot of attention because it’s where individual members can make their biggest statement against the administration or against the majority or against the minority or on their pet project.”

The Michigan Democrats, representing one of the country’s largest Muslim communities, say they came together on the travel ban amendment to oppose “discrimination and bigotry in all its forms” after last month’s violent protests at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The proposal is unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled House, but the amendment process can be unpredictable. It also can offer insight into where the GOP-controlled Congress and Trump administration diverge on policy, Huder said.

Greater seizure power

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, filed one of the amendments regarding asset forfeiture, saying he was “disappointed” to see Sessions lift Obama-era restrictions on when federal law enforcement may “adopt” forfeiture cases from local and state police.

The program gives police departments greater power to seize property of criminal suspects, even if they're never charged with a crime or convicted. It generates revenue for police, allowing them to share in the proceeds of forfeiture cases they transfer to the federal government.

“We think there can be many abuses,” said Walberg, who has sponsored legislation to restrict asset forfeiture and equitable sharing.

“It’s not that I think the criminals and bad actors shouldn’t have their assets seized. It’s about some of the good people who get caught up in it and don’t have due process.”

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, sponsored a similar proposal that would reinstate the protections adopted by former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2015 to limit the program. Walberg’s amendment would eliminate funding for the program, as would a bipartisan plan co-sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit.

Amash also filed a measure that seeks to block funding for any programs that would use facial recognition or iris-imaging technology at ports of entry for screening of travelers.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been experimenting with facial recognition at several airports for screening travelers including U.S. citizens — raising concerns among some lawmakers and privacy advocates. The agency is considering expanding the facial recognition to all airline passengers departing the country.

Conyers wants to block the Trump administration from ending an Obama administration rule that required big companies to report to the federal government what they paid employees by gender and race. The rule was intended to increase transparency and enforcement of pay disparity among workers. Critics said it would be ineffective.

Mitchell wants to hold up funding for the International Joint Commission, an international body created by the United States and Canada to handle border disputes and Great Lakes issues between the two nations.

Mitchell, along with bipartisan members of the Michigan delegation, opposes the plan by Canadian utility Ontario Power Generation to build a nuclear waste storage facility within the Great Lakes Watershed, citing risks to public health and the lakes’ massive drinking water supply.

“A country the size of Canada has to have another location that has less risk,” Mitchell said. “This is one means by which to say to the Canadian government, we’re expecting that you’re going to act.”

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, filed a measure aimed at preventing the State Department from spending any money to build a repository for nuclear waste near the Great Lakes.

“While we are arguing for the Canadian government to not approve this, it’s important that we ensure the American government doesn’t try to do the same,” Kildee said.

Lead exposure programs

Kildee introduced 25 other amendments, including one to restore $100 million in funding cut from the Community Development Block Grants program; another to spend $10 million more on youth employment activities; and a measure to prohibit closing the Environmental Protection Agency regional office overseeing the Great Lakes region.

In light of Flint’s water contamination crisis, he also wants to boost funding for federal programs that prevent lead exposure by $1 million each and increase by $5 million funding for the Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Kildee is also seeking $20 million more for Syrian disaster aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“The thing I’m worried about is the disaster that is taking place for displaced Syrians is not getting near the attention or support that it should from the United States,” he said.

“If we’re going to continue to play a role in that region, we can’t limit our role to be one of saber-rattling..”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, has sponsored an amendment to force the Department of State to maintain its Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reportedly considering folding the office into another division, and Dingell said she wants to ensure the office continues to report directly to the secretary.

“We’ve got to have a lead diplomat who’s ensuring that we’re working with our foreign partners to fulfill its mission and promote an open, secure and reliable cyberspace,” Dingell said.

“We’ve had a ton of hacks. Russians hack us. This isn’t funny. We’ve got these constant cyber-threats from state actors. ... And I say that as somebody who’s been hacked by the Russians.”

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