In the closing hours of the 101st Congress, a flurry of last-minute activities produced an avalanche of legislative accomplishments. Several key measures were attached to the omnibus budget agreement, while other bills were rammed into passage by legislators trying to beat the expiration of the session. As the dust settles from the budget battle and last month’s elections, observers are getting a clearer picture of what took place this term:

Taxes and the budget. Nonprofit groups are breathing a sigh of relief that the charitable deduction was left largely intact. Budget negotiators agreed upon a “3 percent floor” on all itemized tax deductions, including charitable contributions. The floor will apply only to those itemizers with an income above $100,000.

According to Independent Sector spokesman Bob Smucker, the floor will have very little impact on charitable giving, since nearly all taxpayers in that bracket will exceed the floor with other deductions, such as mortgage interest and state and local taxes. “The charitable contribution of 99.9 percent of all taxpayers will not be affected at all,” he said.

Although charities are dismayed at any restrictions on the deduction, they consider this a victory. At the beginning of the negotiations, some in Congress and the administration were pushing for a severe scaling back of the charitable deduction.

Meanwhile, Christians are taking a look at how the budget agreement will affect justice and family issues (see “The Budget: A Closer Look,” p. 44). The Family Research Council (FRC) is charging that the budget is “taxing children” with its phase-out of the dependent exemption in upper-income brackets. “This is not a tax on the rich, but a tax on children,” said FRC president Gary Bauer. “Taxpayers with children will face a significantly higher tax increase than taxpayers without children.” The FRC also expressed concern this tax might eventually be extended to lower-income brackets.

Childcare. After years of debate, Congress finally took action on childcare by attaching measures to the budget agreement. However, those on different sides of the childcare lobby gave the $22-billion package mixed reviews. The measure includes both tax credits for poor, working families and grant money for states to distribute to parents and childcare providers. Any childcare providers receiving the grants must comply with specified health and safety standards—even if that childcare takes place in a private home. The measure specifically stipulates that childcare vouchers for parents may be used at religiously oriented facilities.

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Members of the “ABC Coalition,” which pushed for a national childcare system, acknowledged the package does not accomplish that, but in a statement said this “lays the groundwork” for future federal childcare policy. Bauer praised the package because of its strong emphasis on tax credits. However, he also called for future increases in those credits for families.

Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) said he gives the measure an “I” for “incomplete.” Cizik said that while he is pleased vouchers may be used at church-based childcare centers, several church/state issues still need to be addressed in regulations. For example, he said, it is not clear whether church-based centers accepting vouchers may discriminate in hiring on the basis of religious tenets or may show preference for children from families who adhere to the faith. “What we didn’t get in the law, we are hoping to get in the regulations,” he said. Those regulations are due out next year.

Groups favoring a strong separation between church and state oppose the use of vouchers at church centers.

Abortion. Prolife policies enacted in past legislative sessions remained intact this term, despite several prochoice attempts to overturn them. The Mexico City policy, which prohibits giving funds to organizations that promote abortion overseas, and the Kemp/Kasten Amendment, which prohibits giving funds to the United Nations Population Fund because of its support for China’s coercive abortion program, were both renewed.

Attempts to require U.S. military hospitals overseas to provide abortion on demand and to overturn the Bush administration’s ban on the use of fetal tissue in research failed. Prochoice efforts to include funds for school-based health clinics and abortion counseling as a family-planning option also lost. A prochoice bill that would have forbidden states to regulate abortion, negating the effects of the Supreme Court’s Webster decision, advanced in the House, but time ran out for floor consideration. “The proabortion movement came up empty-handed for this session,” said National Right to Life Legislative Director Doug Johnson.

Arts funding. Rebuffing the efforts of many conservative Christians, Congress reauthorized the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the next three years with no restrictions on the content of funded art. However, the measure does require that grants consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”

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A Senate amendment prohibiting the funding of art that “denigrates” religion was dropped in conference committee. Soon after the reauthorization passed, NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer dropped the agency requirement that artists promise not to violate obscenity restrictions. “Congress capitulated to the arts community, and we got nothing,” said the NAE’s Cizik. The NAE has renewed its call for Frohnmayer’s resignation.

Immigration. Congress approved sweeping expansion of the nation’s immigration law, increasing by nearly 40 percent the number of persons who will be allowed to enter the United States. Don Hammond, director of U.S.A. ministries for World Relief, said he is pleased the law also includes “strong family unity” provisions to facilitate family reunification. “This really opens up some opportunities for ministry to the strangers and aliens in our country,” he said.

Prison reform. Included in the Crime Bill passed this year were several amendments favored by Charles Colson’s Justice Fellowship (JF). The Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act allows crime victims to enforce a restitution order as a civil judgment and urges every federal justice agency to get involved in pushing for full restitution for victims. Several other measures promote the formation of “boot camps” and other prison alternatives. However, legislators spent most of their time debating an expanded death-penalty provision, which was dropped in conference committee. “The good news is that there is a growing bipartisan support for victim restitution, intermediate sanctions, and prison industries, said Dave Coolidge, JF’s director of federal affairs. “The bad news is that Congress gets easily preoccupied by hot-button issues like capital punishment.”

• TV violence. More than five years since it was introduced, Sen. Paul Simon’s (D-Ill.) bill aimed at curbing television violence was passed. Under the measure, the television industry will be granted a three-year “antitrust immunity umbrella” in order to develop voluntary guidelines on television violence carried by non-news broadcast and cable programs.

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