In spite of a highly polarized and partisan political environment in 2018, Congress actually had a surprisingly productive year.
On the heels of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law by the president, 2018 started strong and good news continued to be delivered throughout the year. Since this historic tax reform was enacted, the positive impact has been felt nationwide in the form of rising wages, low unemployment and new jobs. But beyond celebrating the results of tax reform, lawmakers in both chambers of Congress advanced several new pieces of legislation to ensure Americans are better off.
In response to the rampant opioid crisis impacting Americans from all walks of life, Congress offered bipartisan solutions to combat the issue. Signed into law by the president this fall, the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act included several bills to prevent and end the cycle of opioid abuse. The comprehensive legislation not only addresses symptoms of the problem but confronts underlying causes of the crisis. For those currently struggling with addiction, the comprehensive legislation improves treatment and recovery options and ensures help is more readily available. To prevent addiction from taking root at all, the legislation supports non-addictive opioid alternatives for pain management and discourages the disturbingly high opioid prescription rate through better drug monitoring. The legislation also supports safer communities by empowering law enforcement to keep harmful drugs from coming in and by combating illicit use of synthetic drugs like fentanyl, which is easily and often lethal.
Before the end of the year, I am encouraged that lawmakers in both chambers also advanced and the president signed into law legislation vital to the success of our nation’s farmers and ranchers. Referred to as the Farm Bill, this comprehensive piece of legislation is revisited every five years to ensure the best results are still being delivered to producers and consumers. Considering that there are more than 13,000 farms and ranches in the Fourth District of Oklahoma alone, there is no question that reauthorization of the Farm Bill matters to the economy and vitality of rural America. To maintain healthy crops and produce, farmers and ranchers greatly rely on the crop insurance, conservation and various other programs contained in the Farm Bill. While reauthorization of these securities for producers promotes a thriving agricultural sector, American families and consumers are also better off when certainty is provided to our food growers and producers.
Also signed into law last month was legislation to improve the federal justice system. The FIRST STEP Act rightly focuses on the population of low-level, non-violent federal prisoners already on track to eventually be released and paves a better way for them to become productive members of society. Along with those across the political spectrum and various coalitions that even include members of law enforcement, I am proud to have supported this fair and compassionate legislation affirming that lives can be redeemed.
Through legislation I introduced, I am especially proud that Congress recently approved changes to the misguided Stigler Act of 1947—which clearly discriminates against citizens of Oklahoma’s Five Tribes. Signed into law at the end of the year, the Stigler Act Amendments of 2018 revises the 1947 law to remove the one-half degree Native American blood quantum restriction for holders of tribal allotment land. Without question and especially in Oklahoma, Native American heritage is something to be celebrated. But that special heritage must also be protected, preserved and passed on. Land ownership is part of that unique heritage, and over the years, the Stigler Act has unfortunately diminished that rightful inheritance. By amending the unfair law, I am proud that the rights and privileges promised to all Native Americans will also be extended to the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations.
At the end of September, I was proud that Congress passed a bipartisan, bicameral legislative package that included two key appropriations bills—the Department of Defense (DOD) and Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies (LHHS) bills. Signed into law by the president, the two bills together comprise 65 percent of all government funding that is determined and considered on an annual basis. Inclusion of DOD marked the first time in more than 10 years that our national defense has received full funding before the start of the fiscal year. Even more remarkable, inclusion of LHHS marked the first time in 22 years that the bill was completed in full and on time.
Especially following years of underfunding for our troops and the associated and inevitable decline in readiness, the funding measure was a step in the right direction and ensures our service members are better equipped to confront threats both at home and abroad. This included a much-needed increase in funding for our military and the largest pay raise for our service members in nine years. It also provided funding for 13 new warships, 93 new F-35 joint strike fighter planes, 15 new KC-46 tankers and monies to add 16,000 additional soldiers to our forces.
Along with critical funding for our nation’s defense, I was incredibly proud that the LHHS bill was included in the conference report and that it maintained many of the priorities first advanced by the appropriations subcommittee I chaired in the 115th Congress. Following the work within my subcommittee earlier in the year, I was grateful to be part of the discussions that secured funding for several vital programs and initiatives—including a significant boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to tackle vexing health problems like Alzheimer’s disease research and focused funding for successful educational and workforce programs like TRIO and Gear Up. Without question, funding provided through the LHHS bill helps ensure Americans are healthier, better educated and trained for our collective future.
Aside from these legislative achievements, 2018 unfortunately ended with some unfinished business related to government funding. For the first time in 22 years, Congress fully funded 75 percent of the government before the start of the fiscal year. However, despite this great success earlier in the fall, agreement could not be reached on a measure to fulfill the remaining 25 percent of annual funding. Unfortunately, the Senate’s failure to pass legislation to keep the government open—with the dedicated funding requested by the president to strengthen border security—led to a partial government shutdown. I am disappointed that the situation is still ongoing in the Senate and must now be resolved in the new Congress.
Looking ahead and given the outcome of the midterm elections, the incoming Congress will enter an era of divided government. While divided government is never an excuse for getting less done for the American people, finding agreement in both chambers of Congress and sending legislation to the president’s desk will be much more difficult with the shift in which party controls the House. In the coming days, it is my hope that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will find ways to work with each other as well as the president.
Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, is currently serving in his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was identified as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” by Time Magazine and “the hardest working Member of Congress,” by Newsmax. In 2017, Cole was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.