2003: Gridlock on Family Issues

Jan Richter
December 15, 2003

Congress has packed up and gone home for 2003, so it's a good time to reflect on what was accomplished this year for kids and families.

Some important pieces of legislation did become law—like the Pediatric Research Equity Act allowing the Food and Drug Administration to require drug manufacturers to test whether drugs and biological products can be safely and effectively used by children.

Two of the biggest events in federal lawmaking—the new 2003 tax cut package and the Medicare overhaul that promises prescription drug help for seniors—had some provisions affecting children and younger families.

The tax-cut bill, for example, provided a child tax credit for low- and moderate-income families. However, a Senate-approved provision that would have extended the credit to families with incomes so low that they do not owe income tax on what they earn was cut out of the deal at the last minute. So, while many families received rebate checks this year, some of the neediest working parents did not.

While it is unclear if seniors will ultimately like or loathe the prescription drug coverage and other changes in the Medicare overhaul, it is a sure bet that Medicare's increased costs will push federal spending for seniors up, while federal spending on children—child care, health care, schools—remains flat. One provision in the bill that would have directly benefited children and young mothers—the provision allowing states to offer public health coverage to new legal immigrant families—was removed in conference committee.

Many key social programs that serve families and children were up for reauthorization in 2003—giving Congress and the White House the opportunity to re-shape, expand, shrink or otherwise set the parameters of these programs for several years. But in most cases, the deep divisions in both the House and Senate led to stalemate. Congress passed limited-time extensions of current law for these programs, pushing debate and negotiations for these reauthorizations into next year.

So it will be deja vu all over again in 2004 for Head Start, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and child nutrition programs.

Finally, deepening divisions in Washington, DC—between House and Senate Republicans as well as between Republicans and Democrats—stalled progress on seven of the 13 appropriations bills that allocate federal funds to keep government programs functioning.

In December Congress put all the spending provisions into a gigantic omnibus spending bill. The House of Representatives approved it on December 8, but some members of the Senate did not agree to pass the bill by unanimous consent, instead insisting that there be more time for debate and discussion. The Senate is expected to take up the omnibus spending bill shortly after it reconvenes on January 20, 2004.

If you want more details on these and other 2003 policy decisions affecting kids and families, check out this week's special "2003 Round-Up" edition of the Connect for Kids Weekly.


  • Learn more about policies affecting children and families at Kids and Politics, a project by Connect for Kids.
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Jan Richter is the former advocacy director at Connect for Kids.