On Dec. 22, 2022,, the Senate passed the fiscal year 2023 omnibus appropriations bill. The bill received significant bipartisan support in the Senate and is expected to be quickly passed with slim bipartisan support in the House of Representatives before being sent to President Biden’s desk to become law. The bill averts a government shutdown and will fund the federal government through the end September 2023.
The massive, nearly $1.7 trillion bill was over 4,000 pages long and has significant implications for issues of life, religious liberty, and human dignity. The ERLC communicated our concerns with previously released versions of the appropriations bills to Congress and was pleased to see many of these concerns resolved in the final package. In addition to providing our analysis on these proposals, the ERLC has also advocated for multiple immigration reforms, including the incorporation of legislation that would provide permanent protections for Afghans evacuated to the United States last year, a solution for Ukrainian refugees, and a permanent pathway for Dreamers, all of which should be matched with enhanced measures for our nation’s border security. We also advocated for legislation that would end a disparity in drug sentencing and would be a helpful reform to our nation’s criminal justice system.
What was included in the bill?
Though originally excluded from the proposed bills, the final spending package included the “Hyde-family” of riders. This includes:
Though the inclusion of these riders after their initial exclusion was a significant victory for life and conscience protection, the omnibus bill also included significant funding for domestic family planning programs and similar international funds like the United Nations Population Fund which funnel money into pro-abortion organizations. Though these riders keep money from funding the actual abortion procedure, these organizations can use government funding to cover all other operational costs. While we would like to see no funding go toward the predatory abortion industry, it is noteworthy that the final funding levels were significantly lower than originally proposed earlier this year.
Also included as amendments were two proposals known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the PUMP Act. Together, these bills provide substantial protections for pregnant and nursing mothers in the workplace. Though encouraged by the direction taken by the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act proposal, we believe it needed to be improved through amendments, such as the one proposed by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), to create robust religious liberty protections, as well as ensure it excludes abortion as an available option for employees. Of note, an amendment offered by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) was adopted and included some helpful religious liberty safeguards. Ultimately, these proposals signal policymakers are proactively thinking through how to support mothers and families in the post-Roe moment. We believe this is best done in ways that protect preborn lives and bolster family formation, and policy development in this area will be a focus for the ERLC in coming legislative sessions.
Beyond these policies, there was a strong push for many more to be included in the omnibus package. It is worth noting that the Electoral Count Act was included. This bipartisan bill is largely a response to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol and seeks to revise and clarify the process of “casting and counting electoral votes for presidential elections” with specific attention given to the role of the vice president in certifying election results.
Harmful policies that were stopped
We also want to draw attention to a number of harmful components from the originally proposed appropriations bills that, after significant advocacy work, were ultimately removed from the final package. Destructive policies were removed regarding funding for abortion tourism and requirements around leave for federal employees to obtain an abortion. Additionally, harmful language that would have prevented organizations who operate consistent with deeply held religious convictions—including adoption and foster care agencies—from receiving funding from HHS if they did not violate their consciences to provide services to same-sex couples was excluded from the final bill.
Another piece from the original versions of the appropriations bills that was excluded was the expansion of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) mission. As we argued in a letter sent this fall, “USCIRF is the only agency dedicated exclusively to the monitoring of and advocating for religious freedom. It has been this narrow scope that has allowed the Commission to be highly effective since its inception, even with a relatively small budget.” If USCIRF’s mandate had been unwisely widened in scope to include monitoring and working against laws and policies of foreign governments that “permit or condone discrimination against, or violations of human rights of, minority groups and other vulnerable communities on the basis of religion” as originally proposed, it would have significantly hindered the important work for people of all faiths of this vital institution. We consider these moves to be important policy wins for our convention of churches.
What else was excluded from the final package?
As we briefly mentioned above, two issues we had hoped to see Congress address through the omnibus bill were immigration and criminal justice reforms. Though we had advocated for the inclusion of both needed border security improvements as well as a permanent solution for “Dreamers,” negotiators ran out of time for a compromise to be included.
We also advocated for a secure pathway to legal status for Afghan and Ukrainian evacuees who were brought to the United States using “humanitarian parole.” Though these vulnerable individuals are essentially refugees, they lack the pathway to permanent status given to those formally designated as refugees. Unfortunately, despite broad bipartisan support for the Afghan Adjustment Act, it was ultimately excluded from the final bill.
From a human dignity perspective, we also had hoped to see the inclusion of the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act in the final package. This bill, which passed the House of Representatives with a vote of 361-66 and has 11 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, would eliminate a sentencing disparity that is especially harmful for Black Americans. This effort is a logical next step following the historic signing of the First Step Act under President Donald Trump. Southern Baptists have long believed drug abuse “erodes the physical, moral, and spiritual well being” of our neighbors and our nation. At the same time, we have consistently advocated for efforts that will bring about helpful reforms to our justice system, especially those that will reduce high incarceration rates. This proposal aligns with that call and, regrettably, was not included in the final version of the bill.
Each year the appropriations process presents an important opportunity for the ERLC to raise the concerns of Southern Baptists on issues of life, religious liberty, and human dignity. As this appropriations cycle ends only a short time before the next one begins, we will be ready to once again advocate on these important matters.