On Wednesday morning and evening, the House Ways and Means Committee debated and passed a re-authorization of the home visiting program. The legislation, the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, named the Increasing Opportunity and Success for Children and Parents through Evidence-Based Home Visiting Act (H.R. 2824) passed on a party-line vote.

Despite the passage, the combined morning-evening sessions were not without contentious debate.  Despite some bipartisan praise over the program in earlier hearings this year, the majority party produced their own bill with its own way to pay for the extension. The bill does extend the home visiting program for another five years, something advocates have been fighting for, but it does not increase funding as advocates had sought.  In fact, it includes a new state match that Republicans see as adding funding but advocates see as a potential roadblock for continuation of services in some states.

Other concerns include: A new needs assessment by states which raises questions of what, if Congress is not going to increase funding, would the assessment be responding to?  New language that still requires states to serve communities most in need but allows states to consider community resources and other service delivery requirements when making funding decisions. A concern here is that with limited funds, this could invite states to “cherry-pick” communities that are easier to serve and forego high-needs communities.  The legislation also has new requirements around collecting data on families served and their access to means-tested benefits.  A data collection points a home visiting program may have no way to gather.

Several Democrats offered amendments to strike the new match requirement which also would apply to tribal communities—an even bigger barrier for these communities.  Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) spoke at length about his amendment that would strike the new match.  While he and other Democrats are not opposed to future discussions, the concern now on this relatively new program (implemented between 2010-12) covers approximately 6 percent of eligible families.  These new match requirements could knock some states out of contention for their share of the $400 million.

Republican leaders indicated that they had modified the original draft by allowing the use of other federal funds as part of the match but Democrats countered that some of those funds such as the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) and TANF have been targeted for deep cuts or elimination.

Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL) highlighted his history which includes a bipartisan home visiting bill introduced in 2005 that served as the basis for this program.  He expressed his disappointment that the reauthorization was introduced as a partisan bill this past summer despite earlier hearings and discussions that emphasized the bipartisan support.

The match is particularly troublesome for tribal communities that are frequently confronted with an ability to match federal funding.  This has been a past barrier to tribal governments trying to access Title IV-E and other child welfare and child services.  While some tribal communities may have access to revenue from casino gambling that still leaves behind many poor communities with no such revenue.  A new match for tribal programs could be debilitating despite being some of the communities most in need.  There seemed to be some willingness by Committee Chairman Brady (R-TX) and Subcommittee Chairman Smith (R-NE) to look at this further before the bill is adopted on the floor.  Several members, especially Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA) emphasized his concern about tribal populations in his district.

Related to the home visiting bill but now a separate bill is legislation that would cut-off Social Security benefits.  The bill would save an estimated $2.3 billion over 10 years by disallowing Social Security retirement, disability or supplemental income benefits to anyone with an outstanding felony warrant being actively pursued by law enforcement. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX), has been a longtime proponent of the bill dating back to the last decade at least.  But the legislation is not as harmless as it sounds.  Opponents point out that there are already provisions by the Social Security Administration and that this bill would rely on sometimes faulty data that could cut-off people based on faulty data and out of date accusations and records.  In 2009, the Social Security Administration agreed to pay $500 million in back benefits to 80,000 people wrongfully cut off.

The next steps are likely to be a vote when the House returns (after Rosh Hashanah).  On the Senate side, work and discussions are still taking place between two key sponsors Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ). A Senate bill could be released early this week.  Hopes are that the match issue will not be included. Some limited dollars may be in the pipeline to keep programs going beyond the September 30 expiration date.  This could move at some point in the next two months along with several other must-extend programs including CHIP and some other health care programs.

CWLA will be participating in a Tuesday call-in day in support of a reauthorization of home visiting.