As they begin to put their names to legislation this Congressional session, Connecticut lawmakers are united on a handful of high-priority issues including gun control, campaign reforms and off-shore drilling.
The state’s five House Democrats already have collectively sponsored or co-sponsored more than three dozen bills on a broad range of issues. All are co-sponsors to four bills that have been introduced so far in the 116th Congress by the majority party:
• H.R. 1 — For the People Act of 2019. The legislation sponsored by John Sarbanes, D-Md., has 225 co-sponsors — all Democrats.
• H.R. 8 — Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019. The legislation sponsored by Mike Thompson, D-Calif., has 221 co-sponsors including five Republicans.
• H.R. 287 — New England Coastal Protection Act. The legislation sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., has 20 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
• H.R. 541 — Keep Families Together Act. The legislation sponsored by Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has 190 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
House Democrats gained the majority after the midterm elections, allowing them to determine which bills actually make it to the floor for a vote. Under Republican control, for example, the House did not consider gun safety legislation proposed by Democrats in the wake of several mass shootings.
Freshman Rep. Jahana Hayes says she welcomes the chance to put her name on legislation on issues she raised during her campaign.
“There were some things that I campaigned on that I am passionate about — that are very important to me — obviously gun reform is one of them. I’m very pleased to be part of that,” she said.
Her sentiment was echoed by other members of the delegation who noted that since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012 they have been frustrated by the lack of action on gun safety. In June 2016, Rep. John Larson and former Rep. Elizabeth Esty were key participants in a “sit-in” staged by Democrats on the House floor to protest inaction on the gun issue.
During the first week of the 116th session, Thompson introduced his bill to expand background checks to nearly all firearms purchases, closing loopholes that have allowed individuals to avoid background checks by purchasing weapons at gun shows and over the internet.
“It will be a very satisfying moment when that passes the House for all those people in Connecticut frustrated after Sandy Hook to finally see this,” said Rep. Joe Courtney.
The “For the People Act of 2019” is the House Democrats’ marquee issue for the 116th session. It would expand disclosure requirements for political organizations participating in federal election campaigns, expand voting access and reduce partisan gerrymandering. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have opposing views of it.
Democrats have also rallied around Nadler’s Keep Families Together Act to address concerns raised over a Trump administration “zero tolerance” policy that led to thousands of immigrant children being separated from their parents crossing into the United States from Mexico.
The bill, which he first introduced in 2018, would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from separating children from their parents except under extreme circumstances and would also limit criminal prosecution of asylum-seekers.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department identified about 2,700 separated children in federal custody as of June, but thousands more were likely separated from their immigrant parents, according to a recently released Inspector General report.
Immigration and border security, a hot-button issue during the midterm elections, has intensified as Trump has tied funding for a border wall with efforts by lawmakers to fund the federal government that has been partially shut down for more than a month.
For Hayes, this is her first opportunity to sponsor or co-sponsor legislation in Congress, a responsibility that she is taking seriously.
“I’d like to be very purposeful and intentional about the bills I select,” she said.
Hayes had co-sponsored 16 bills through January 22, including another gun-related bill that would provide funding for federal research into firearms safety and gun violence prevention.
Veteran Connecticut Reps. Larson, Courtney, Rosa DeLauro, and Jim Himes have also begun to introduce and co-sponsor legislation — often picking up where they left off on proposals from previous sessions such as the bill aimed at protecting the New England coastline from off-shore oil drilling.
While no one is considering oil drilling in Long Island Sound, Courtney says it is important for representatives of shoreline and coastal states to protect the Atlantic from environmental hazards posed by drilling.
“Frankly, we want to make sure the Atlantic seaboard is off limits as much as we can,” he said.
Cicilline first introduced the coastal protection legislation during the 115th Congress after the Department of Interior announced plans a year ago to significantly expand offshore oil and natural gas drilling leases in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The administration later announced that Florida would be exempted from the proposed expansion.
“Rhode Island is the Ocean State. We’re not going to sit by and watch as President Trump plunders our oceans for his friends in the big oil companies,” Cicilline said.
New England generates more than $17.5 billion in revenues annually from tourism, fishing, and recreation associated with its coastlines, according to the Conservation Law Foundation.
Courtney has co-sponsored 28 pieces of legislation through January 22 and also re-introduced his “Agent Orange Exposure Fairness” bill to remove barriers for Vietnam-era veterans to receive Veterans Administration assistance related to their claims of exposure to Agent Orange.
“Forty-three years after the end of the Vietnam War, our government is still failing to properly care for service members who were exposed to the toxic chemical known as Agent Orange,” he said. The bill is co-sponsored by Larson and Alaska Republican Don Young.
Larson has co-sponsored 11 bills as of January 22 including a bill introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia to gradually raise the minimum federal hourly wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2024. Congress last increased the minimum wage in 2007.
“We’re here because we know Americans need a raise,” Scott said in introducing his bill. The bill is also co-sponsored by Hayes, DeLauro, and Courtney. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy have co-sponsored similar legislation recently introduced in the Senate.
Himes, who has not co-sponsored the minimum wage bill, has co-sponsored 15 bills as of January 22 including a “No Budget, No Pay Act” introduced by Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee aimed at getting Congress to approve annual budget and appropriation bills by the start of each fiscal year (October 1). If Congress fails to approve the bills by October 1, they would not receive another paycheck until the work is completed.
DeLauro has introduced two bills this session and co-sponsored 31 others as of January 22.
She re-introduced H.R. 658 on January 17 to establish a “National Infrastructure Development Bank” to leverage public and private dollars to rebuild roads, highways, bridges, and other infrastructure projects of regional or national significance.
“It is no secret that our nation’s infrastructure in dire need of repair. In addition to transportation projects such as highways, bridges, transit, airports, high-speed rail, waterways, ports, public schools, and harbors, we need a serious public investment in drinking water and wastewater systems, energy and telecommunication projects to address every facet of Americans lives. Yet, every year we fail to make the necessary public investments to rebuild the infrastructure we use every day. That needs to change,” she said.
DeLauro has also introduced H.R. 293 “Youth Vaping Prevention Act of 2019” aimed at keeping e-cigarettes and other nicotine-delivery systems from teenagers. Among the bill’s provisions would be to block e-cigarettes and other nicotine-delivery systems from adding flavors other than tobacco to the product.
In the Senate, Blumenthal and Murphy remain in the minority in the 116th Congress.
Blumenthal has sponsored two bills and co-sponsored 27 others thus far.
Murphy has introduced one bill and cosponsored 16 others as of January 22.
His bill, S.42, is similar to H.R. 8, expanding background checks for gun purchases. It has 41 co-sponsors including Blumenthal.