For Family First Act, It’s September or Never

Congress returns to action, or at least Washington, this week. For those in the field of youth and family services, all eyes will be on the Family First Prevention Services Act, a proposed major overhaul the federal foster care entitlement that has passed the House and awaits Senate action.

Click here for a breakdown of what’s in the bill, and you can click here for all of the coverage, analysis and opinion on the bill. After discussions with several people close to Family First, for and against, here is where Youth Services Insider sees things.

September: The Final Frame

This will be a short legislative session anyway, due to the pending elections, which will also make legislating in this time frame tough. But there are two other reasons why September really is the last chance for Family First.

First, it took more than a year for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to score the existing bill, which required authors to kick the can down the road on federal adoption funding to pay for the front-end services.

On October 1, the bill loses a full fiscal year, and those offsets are thrown out of whack. The savings side of Family First loses about $400 million. So it would be back to the drawing board for a new arrangement to pay for it, and then another wait while CBO scored again.

Even the kindest estimate on time and efficiency would mean this starting up again after the inauguration in January. But that also isn’t going to happen.

YSI has it on good authority that the House and Senate Republicans leading on this bill will not be back at the table next year. And for both parties, the priorities on family services will likely turn to existing laws in need of reauthorization: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program; and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, to name a few.

On Changes, a Game of Chicken

The opposition to Family First has emanated mostly from two states, California and New York, with concerns raised by county or state agencies in Washington, Texas, and North Carolina.

Opponents of the current Family First bill in both California and New York have held webinars to help bolster opposition to the legislation, and demand amendments to the bill. The central argument from opponents in both states is that they’ve already undertaken reforms to fund the prevention of foster care and right-size congregate care, and Family First jeopardizes those reforms.

Leaders on the bill have attempted to sell opponents on the idea that, through friendly program instructions and legislation when necessary, certain concerns with Family First can be addressed in the years leading up to 2019, when it takes effect.

But with a new administration taking over in January and uncertainty over how Congress will change, opponents are skeptical of those offers.

YSI’s sense is that both sides are dug in here. This bill will either get passed over the objections from opponents, or it won’t pass.

The Current Holdup

In the end, it might not be the opposition from California and New York that sinks Family First. As the Senate resumes business, three holds exist on Family First. One is from California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was directly implored to do so by several key stakeholders.

The others are Sens. Jon Cornyn (R-Texas), and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Family First came up in a Texas legislative session summer, where the new child welfare director voiced concern about the financial impact of the legislation. But YSI confirmed that the Department of Family and Protective Services did not request that either of its senators, Cornyn or Cruz, object to the bill.

So Cornyn, Enzi or both could be locked in against Family First for their own reasons, in which case it might not matter what amendments are made to it.

Paths to Passage

The simplest path to passage is, of course, the three holds being lifted and the bill achieving unanimous consent. Proponents and opponents of the bill have spent the past two months making their case, so you can bet that first week will be a wait-and-see situation to determine if there’s any movement.

If the objecting Senators are okay with their objection just being noted, but don’t feel strongly enough to stand in the way, they could allow the bill to get a voice vote on the Senate floor. If that sounds like window dressing to you, your ears are working fine.

If it were to get floor time and an actual vote on the Senate floor, Family First is likely to pass. But the chance of getting that, with rules that block any amendments, are slim in the best of circumstances. In a one-month window, it’s very unlikely to happen.

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