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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, performing rights organizations (PROs) BMI and ASCAP announced they will be joining efforts to release a database for musical works and sound recordings. This announcement comes just six days after Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced the Transparency in Music Licensing Ownership Act, which also aims to establish a comprehensive database for music and sound recordings through the Register of Copyrights.

Despite claims from BMI and ASCAP that they have been working on this joint database for the past year, they have made no effort to cooperate with Members of Congress on the issue. Further, such a database would be incomplete due to the lack of participation from all PROs, meaning business owners across the country would continue to be plagued by the convoluted and difficult process of finding and purchasing the correct licenses to play and perform music in their establishments.

There is an overwhelming atmosphere of mistrust between businesses and PROs, which is why it’s imperative that a publicly accessible database is established through the Register of Copyrights. Business owners and those seeking music licensing should have the ability to access a complete, easy-to-navigate system which will provide them peace of mind in knowing that they have the facts they need to make smart, legal purchasing decisions. A third party database will streamline and bring much-needed transparency to the process. Under the BMI and ASCAP initiative, businesses would still be subject to statutory damages – this is unacceptable and it’s a problem only Congress can solve.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “If BMI and ASCAP were serious about establishing a music database, not only would they have spoken to my office and other interested Members of Congress about their plans, but they would have also included their fellow PROs in the initiative. With their announcement today, they are grasping at straws; trying to maintain power over a failing process that only serves their interests, not those of the American consumer.”

Some of the key provisions of Congressman Sensenbrenner’s Transparency in Music Licensing Ownership Act include:

  • Require the Register of Copyrights to establish and maintain a current informational database of musical works and sound recordings while granting the Register authority to hire employees and contractors, promulgate regulations, and spend appropriated funds necessary and appropriate to carry out these functions
  • Ensure that the database is made publicly accessible by the Copyright Office, in its entirety and  without charge, and in a format that reflects current technological practices, and that is updated on a real-time basis
  • Limit the remedies available to a copyright owner or authorized party to bring an infringement action for violation of the exclusive right to perform publicly, reproduce or distribute a musical work or sound recording if that owner/ authorized party has failed to provide or maintain the minimum information required in the database

This commentary appeared in the July 17, 2017 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

As the Trump administration continues to review federal spending and implements good-government policies in Washington, it should take into consideration America’s outdated acquisition policies and procedures at the Pentagon and NASA.

Modern manufacturing and production is becoming increasingly complex, especially within highly regulated industries such as aerospace and defense. Ensuring quality in these industries can mean the difference between life and death. Quality and mission assurances are significant components of the hundred million dollar legacy launch cost of NASA. This spring, NASA’s Inspector General (IG) revealed that America’s space agency lost more than $1 billion over the past decade due to components that failed to meet performance expectation or quality standards. Moreover, NASA is not the only organization that falls prey to a continuing escalation of complexity with a growing risk of failure. We need to look no further than current programs for multipurpose aircraft to support the Air Force and Navy. The lack of appropriate oversight, reporting, and corrective actions continues to cost taxpayers millions of dollars, delaying strategic defense initiatives in the process.

In order to reduce costs, rather than looking for things to avoid in the future, companies, especially those with government contracts, should instead turn to a solution that will automate the critical and necessary quality and mission assurance tasks. An electronic quality management system (QMS), which has been designed specifically to support defense contractors and their supply chain partners, allows for the integration of quality and manufacturing data with a seamless interface to a company’s enterprise resource planning solution.

A modern QMS can provide many benefits to an organization. The ability to track the entire product lifecycle in real-time, including the documentation of a component’s condition, history and genealogy ensures improved quality and lowers production costs. With a complete online product history, that information is immediately available to the Department of Defense (DoD), as well as auditors. The information they request is available in minutes, rather than days.

However, the uses of electronic QMSs are not widely adopted throughout government supply chains and inconsistent federal policies on the matter are not helping. A 2014 Pentagon IG report found that DoD has not established an overarching quality management policy to ensure the consistent application of QMS requirements across the military, nor does it have an effective feedback mechanism in place to evaluate the performance of quality management systems. As a result, the IG recommends the Pentagon emphasize the importance of a robust quality management program throughout the entire acquisition life cycle, and establish standardized reporting requirements for quality assurance metrics throughout the Defense Department.

Congress and the Executive branch both agree that government acquisition programs are ripe for modernization and improvement. This shared view is reflected in the increasing size of our acquisition workforce – especially at the Pentagon – and the fact Members of Congress inserted more than 10 provisions specifically targeting the acquisition workforce in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

One such provision, which was included in last year’s NDAA conference report, encouraged the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), which is responsible for conducting Defense contract audits, to examine the potential for electronic quality management systems to improve the ability of DCAA to conduct thorough and timely audits. This is a step in the right direction to ensure potential production mishaps are identified and remedied before they develop into severe problems resulting in increased costs and missed deadlines.

Managing the supply chain and generating the associated data is not a simple operation. Complex manufacturing involves supply chains comprised of multiple levels. Airplanes alone are made from hundreds of thousands of parts from thousands of supplies – domestic and international. Having the ability to hold all suppliers accountable and the capacity to score the supplier in a real and meaningful way is critical to driving higher quality across the DoD, NASA, and other strategic initiatives supported by tax dollars.

Moving forward, the government should continue to examine the potential use of electronic quality management systems within its own agencies, and encourage its private sector contractors to follow suit.

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) chaired the House Science Committee from 1997–2001.

You can view this piece online here.

Forfeiture has been a part of the American justice system for more than 200 years. It has been a tool used by law enforcement – both local and federal – to fight criminal activity, such as drug trafficking.

However, over the years, there have been numerous cases of abuse in the forfeiture process, specifically in civil cases. These abuses threaten citizens’ constitutional rights, put unnecessary burdens on innocent Americans, and weaken our faith in law enforcement.

While I disagree with the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Department of Justice to expand the federal asset forfeiture program in the coming months, the expansion makes it more important than ever that Congress pass reform measures.  

I have long been a supporter of criminal asset forfeiture – the seizure of property after the conviction of crime—but with civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement has a direct economic incentive to take people’s property without ever even charging them with a crime. 

Civil forfeiture cases make a mockery of the Constitution and its protection of private property by creating the legal fiction that the property itself is the defendant in a crime. The law pretends that inanimate objects have committed wrongdoing and then assumes that property should be entitled to fewer procedural protections than people. For innocent individuals, getting seized property back can be a long, onerous, and often prohibitively expensive process. 

According to a Washington Post investigation, nearly 62,000 cash seizures have occurred since Sept. 11, 2001, and only a sixth of those cases were legally challenged. This is partly due to the high costs of bringing legal action against the government. Because law enforcement can seize assets despite the innocence of a property owner, many cases harm lawful citizens and places the burden of proving innocence on them. If an individual can prove their property was not linked to criminal activity, their seized assets can be returned. However, this often involves months – sometimes years – of judicial battles, requiring costly legal representation. 

In 41 percent of civil asset forfeiture cases where there was a challenge, the government returned the seized money. This is a remarkably high error rate for seizures. Worse still, 40 percent of those cases took more than a year to resolve and required individuals to sign agreements stating they would not sue the police.

Current forfeiture laws put law-abiding citizens at risk for unwarranted seizures, and the DOJ proposal to expand programs supporting such laws will only make the problem worse. The suggested changes to federal civil asset forfeiture laws will circumvent state laws enacted in 13 states around the country, increasing incentive for local law enforcement to participate in the federal program and diminishing the Tenth Amendment. 

Although it’s true that in many cases, seizures aid in the apprehension and conviction of known criminals and drug traffickers, some put superfluous burdens on innocent people. Reform to the current federal forfeiture laws is necessary to curb abuse, restore confidence in law enforcement, and help citizens protect their property rights. It’s imperative that we add more due process to forfeiture proceedings, and expanding forfeiture without increasing protections is, in my view, unconstitutional and wrong.

In 2000, Congress took steps to begin the reform process by passing the Civil Action Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA). The legislation required the government to procure a warrant upon probable cause before seizing property, to send a written notice of a seizure to property owners, and compelled the government to present clear evidence that the seized property was used for criminal activity. It also gave innocent owners the ability to retrieve their seized property faster.

In both the 114th and 115th Congresses, I introduced the Deterring Undue Enforcement by Protecting Rights of Citizens from Excessive Searches and Seizures (DUE PROCESS) Act, which builds upon the reforms in CAFRA by increasing transparency in the process, adding protections for innocent owners, and implementing additional protections to ensure property owners have the opportunity to contest seizures. It also improves the notice that the government must give property owners, makes it easier for them to be heard by a judge, and entitles property owners to an initial hearing, where they can retrieve confiscated property immediately if it was not seized according to the law. The legislation also increases the availability of attorney fees for innocent owners, and places a higher burden of proof on the government.

The government should not be in the business of incentivizing forfeiture of property from innocent Americans, but by expanding federal asset forfeiture programs, that’s exactly what the Department of Justice is doing. While I urge the Department to reverse its decision, if we are going to increase the number of federal forfeitures, it is more imperative than ever that we also pass the DUE PROCESS Act. 

Forfeiture is a critical tool in the fight against crime, but it is also vulnerable to abuse. We must be vigilant in order to protect innocent citizens, preserve honesty in policing, and curb unwarranted searches and seizures. 

Sensenbrenner represents Wisconsin’s 5th District and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

You can view this piece online here.

No matter what the circumstances are surrounding a visit to a hospital or medical facility, nurses are the first people a patient sees for treatment. They listen, comfort, and administer vital services that keep our health care industry functioning.

There are approximately three million nurses in the United States, making them the largest segment of the health care workforce in the country. These men and women are on the front lines of health care, providing the quality support and services we need to stay healthy. And while nursing it is currently one of the fastest growing occupations in the nation, the demand for nurses is outpacing the supply and the nation is facing a severe shortage here in Wisconsin, and nationwide.

According to a 2015 Georgetown University study, despite the economy creating 1.6 million job openings for nurses through 2020, the United States will face a deficit of nearly 200,000 nursing professionals.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 1.2 million vacancies for registered nurses between 2014 and 2022. Further, it predicts that the shortfall will be more than twice as large as any nursing shortage experienced since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s by the year 2025.

In Wisconsin, data produced by the Public Policy Forum shows that the state will need to grow its registered nurse workforce by 24 percent between 2010 and 2020 to meet demand. The gap between supply and demand is estimated to be 10,500 by 2030. This discrepancy will be most devastating in the state’s rural areas, where it is often more difficult to recruit and retain health care professionals due to location and salary constraints.

Current and worsening nursing shortages are driven by various factors, including an aging population and workforce, and an inadequate and expensive educational infrastructure.

As the Baby Boomers grow older, they demand more health care services. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that between 2012 and 2050, the population of those over the age of 65 will be nearly 84 million. Further, Americans in this demographic are retiring at an increased rate. That includes those in the health care industry, leading to the large number of nursing shortages we’re experiencing. As significant numbers of Baby Boomers leave the workforce, there aren’t enough people to take their place. This is largely due to an education system that turns away applicants to nursing programs and medical and physical therapy schools and cannot employ enough qualified instructors in these programs.

Together, these factors have created an alarming problem that must be addressed. While no one piece of legislation can solve each issue contributing to America’s nursing shortage, there are steps Congress can immediately take to help alleviate some of the pressure on the industry.

One such step is increasing the amount of foreign-trained nurses allowed into the United States on temporary work visas to help fill the thousands of nursing positions left unfilled. I recently introduced the Emergency Nursing Supply Relief Act, which would do just that.

This legislation expands the amount of available visas to up to 8,000 for qualified applicants and provides immediate relief for hospitals facing shortages.

America’s health care industry faces a lot of uncertainties, but ensuring there are enough nurses to care for our nation’s patients shouldn’t be one of them. The Emergency Nursing Supply Relief Act is a common sense response to this growing problem and takes pressure off the thousands of medical facilities struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for professional nurses.

Nurses are the driving force behind effective, quality care in the United States. It’s in America’s best interest to act quickly and find solutions that will not only help this vital industry, but also benefit the millions of American health care consumers who depend on nurses every day.

You can view this piece online here.

An important aspect of Wisconsin’s history and culture centers on its bars, restaurants, and breweries. These are places where Wisconsinites of all kinds can put aside their differences and come together over a great schnitzel, a strong Old Fashioned and festive live music.

But over the past several years, I’ve heard from many local business owners in my district that they’ve had to decrease their use of live music as a result of a complicated and convoluted music licensing process. This problem certainly isn’t localized to Wisconsin. It’s happening throughout the entire country, and it’s up to Congress to take the necessary steps to fix it.

The problem, simply stated, is that when a venue wants to play music, they turn to the performing rights organizations that offer blanket licenses covering millions of songs within their respective catalogs. However, this process is inefficient, confusing and costly to bar and restaurant owners. Without a clear database of options and licensing requirements, business owners are often left to guess what licenses they need and what products they’re actually purchasing. This confusion is not only frustrating, but opens up unsuspecting business owners to copyright infringement lawsuits, despite the fact they were trying to follow the letter of the law.

I have heard numerous times about the ways in which PROs like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Broadcast Music Inc. have used their power over information and near duopoly control of music — together they control almost 90 percent of all music — to harass business owners. As a result, many venues are choosing to stop playing music or booking live performances. When venues stop playing music, it not only impacts the atmosphere at bars and restaurants, but it also affects the entire music ecosystem. This loss means less revenue is generated for songwriters and that there are fewer opportunities for artists to perform and discover new audiences.

One simple solution to help alleviate the problem is to house all music copyright ownership and licensing information in one database. Such a database doesn’t currently exist. PROs claim that their proprietary databases are available for small-business owners to access, but these databases are not interoperable or comprehensive. In fact, each PRO explicitly states that their database can’t be relied on to make licensing decisions.

In response to this problem, I’ve introduced the Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act, which would establish a comprehensive and actionable database that would be maintained by the U.S. Copyright Office. Ever since the issue was first brought to my attention in the 1990s, I’ve been actively involved in enacting meaningful reforms in the music licensing space. Over the years, it has become clear to me that a public database is necessary to offer all stakeholders a real-time and fully searchable record of music ownership and licensing information that they can rely on.

My colleagues in the House Judiciary Committee and I have spent several years examining the Copyright Act and its need for reform. After more than 20 hearings and an extensive open comment period, there is overwhelming support to modernize our copyright laws and make them easier to follow. This includes the adoption of new user-friendly technologies and instituting procedures to ensure transparency in music licensing.

Business owners make hundreds of decisions daily — each one made in order to achieve the best results for their bottom lines. Without a clear and actionable music licensing database, they are left without a choice when it comes to which licenses are best for their needs. It doesn’t need to be this way.

The Transparency in Music Licensing Ownership Act is a commonsense solution to a growing problem that impacts the lives and businesses of Americans nationwide. It is a positive step forward in helping our country’s business owners make the best possible decisions while ensuring that copyright owners are fairly compensated for their work.

In Wisconsin, and throughout the country, music is essential for bringing people together. Making it easier to share and enjoy music is good for our businesses, our communities, and our well-being. I hope my colleagues will join me in support for this legislation.

You can view this piece online here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner introduced the Emergency Nursing Supply Relief Act, which would increase the number of temporary work visas – up to 8,000 – available for foreign-trained nurses.

Demand for nurses in America is at an all-time high and despite being one of the fastest growing occupations in the United States, nursing shortages are occurring throughout the country. This deficit poses an alarming threat to our health care system and its ability to provide world-class care for our nation’s patients. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.2 million vacancies will emerge for registered nurses between 2014 and 2022. By 2025, the shortfall is expected to be more than twice as large as any nurse shortage experienced since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s.

In response to this, Congressman Sensenbrenner has introduced the Emergency Nursing Supply Relief Act. Over the past several years, caps on available work visas have reduced the number of immigrant nurses in the United States. This legislation would increase current visa caps in order to fill open nursing positions and provide immediate relief for hospitals facing shortages.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “Supplying our health care providers with the nurses they need is imperative for public health, both in the short and long term. During a tumultuous time in health care, nurses provide the constant support and quality care that our nation’s patients need. In order to ensure hospitals can continue to keep us and our families safe and healthy, we need to be willing to provide them with the necessary tools.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner introduced the Transparency in Music Licensing Ownership Act, which would establish an information database for musical works and sound recordings.

Across the country, businesses and establishments play or perform music for the enjoyment of their patrons, but the process of ensuring they are legally able to do so, as well as those who hold the license to the music or recordings being played are fairly compensated, is convoluted and difficult. Because of this onerous process, business owners often struggle to obtain the correct licensing, leaving them vulnerable to lawsuits, as well as increased licensing fees.  

To address this problem, the House Judiciary Committee has spent several years examining the Copyright Act and its need for reform. After more than 20 hearings and an extensive open comment period, there is overwhelming support to modernize our copyright laws and make them easier to follow. This includes the adoption of new user-friendly technologies and instituting procedures to ensure transparency in music licensing.

The Transparency in Music Licensing Ownership Act is a step forward in simplifying the process and helping business owners to identify copyright holders in one easy location to ensure they comply with licensing and payment requirements.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “When it comes to rules and regulations, simpler is always better. Streamlining the music licensing process into one, easily accessible database is a straightforward way to help our nation’s business owners while ensuring copyright owners are fairly compensated for their work.”

Some of the key provisions of the Transparency in Music Licensing Ownership Act include:

  • Require the Register of Copyrights to establish and maintain a current informational database of musical works and sound recordings while granting the Register authority to hire employees and contractors, promulgate regulations, and spend appropriated funds necessary and appropriate to carry out these functions
  • Ensure that the database is made publicly accessible by the Copyright Office, in its entirety and  without charge, and in a format that reflects current technological practices, and that is updated on a real-time basis
  • Limit the remedies available to a copyright owner or authorized party to bring an infringement action for violation of the exclusive right to perform publicly, reproduce or distribute a musical work or sound recording if that owner/ authorized party has failed to provide or maintain the minimum information required in the database

By: Jon Schuppe of NBC News

Should the government be able to seize people's property in the name of crime fighting, even without evidence to prove someone has broken the law?

A growing number of politicians and policy makers across the political spectrum say that's an abuse of Americans' civil rights.

But the nation's top law enforcement officer disagrees, putting him at odds with an effort — led by conservative members of his own party — to curb the practice.

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to release a directive ordering an expansion of the federal government's use of civil asset forfeiture. He also said he'd undo an Obama administration order that prohibited local authorities from using the federal system to sidestep restrictive state laws.

Sessions has linked unfettered forfeitures with a broader crackdown on drug trafficking, citing an uptick in violence and deadly overdoses as justification. But critics say that approach, including orders to seek longer prison sentences, recalls the early years of the war on drugs, when the government embraced zero-tolerance policies that helped reduce crime but also drove dramatic increases in prison populations ?— with little impact on drug use.

A March report by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General pointed out that from 2007 to 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration obtained forfeitures for $3.2 billion in cash seizures without charging the people they took it from.

"When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution, law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution," the report said.

Speaking to a gathering of local prosecutors in Minneapolis on Monday, Sessions scoffed at the backlash against his proposed crackdown, saying the government needed to release police and prosecutors from onerous policies.

"With care ? we gotta be careful ? and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures," Sessions told members of the National District Attorneys Association. "No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their illegal activity."

The prosecutors applauded. But the move is expected to meet stiff opposition from a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers.

That includes some of the most conservative members of Congress.

"This is a step in the wrong direction and I urge the Department of Justice to reconsider," Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, said in a statement.

He added: "Expanding forfeiture without increasing protections is, in my view, unconstitutional and wrong."

Sensenbrenner is the sponsor of a House bill that would make it easier for innocent victims of asset forfeiture to get their property returned. A related bill, called the FAIR Act, would make similar changes, and would also funnel the proceeds into a fund controlled by Congress. Sessions, an Alabama Republican and former federal prosecutor, opposed such reforms when he was a member of the Senate.

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a sponsor of the FAIR Act, said in a statement that he had "serious constitutional concerns" about civil asset forfeiture, and said the Justice Department "has an obligation to consider due process constraints in crafting its civil asset forfeiture policies."

Jason Snead, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Sessions' move was not surprising given his past opposition to reform and his strong identification with law enforcement, which is basically the only bloc that supports greater use of civil asset forfeiture.

"That is absolutely not what we have come to expect as Americans of the criminal justice system," Snead said.

Sessions’ predecessor, Loretta Lynch, also a former federal prosecutor, supported civil asset forfeiture.

Civil forfeiture laws, rooted in American maritime law and expanded during the drug scares of the mid-1980s, were designed to eviscerate large drug trafficking operations by allowing authorities to take ill-gotten cash, cars, homes and other properties.

Those seizures have since become a booming government enterprise, used in busts small and large, and resulting in billions in forfeited assets.

With the expansion of forfeitures came allegations that police and federal agents are driven more by profit than by crime fighting. Many suspects have lost property without being charged with a crime, and many innocent people have found it nearly impossible to get their property back.

Sometimes, critics say, police doing roadside searches simply take cash in exchange for not locking someone up.

"The fact they're seizing property and not connecting it to a crime down the road shows how ineffective it is," said Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Several such cases were collected in a 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia non-profit that fights to limit government power. Among the most egregious took place in Tenaha, Texas, where a lawsuit exposed a local law enforcement program in which officers targeted out-of-state drivers, searched their cars on flimsy evidence, seized cash and threatened the subjects with bogus charges if they refused to waive their rights to the property.

The report also documented cases in which innocent people lost their cars because relatives or loved ones had used them in alleged crimes.

As stories of abuses mounted, many states moved to restrict the use of civil asset forfeiture. But authorities in some of those states found a way around it: by asking the federal government to step in, take the bounty and share it with them.

In 2015, then-Attorney General Eric Holder prohibited the federal government from entering such arrangements, known as "adopted" forfeitures.

The number of seizures dropped significantly after that order. Seizures by the DEA, which performs the vast majority of federal seizures, decreased from $8.6 billion in 2014 to $6.1 billion the following year, and to $4.6 billion in 2016, according to the March inspector general's report.

The report sharply criticized the federal government's use of civil asset forfeitures, saying it didn't keep good enough records to determine if seizures actually helped criminal investigations or whether they violated people's civil liberties.

Sessions seems undeterred.

He indicated Monday that he'd eliminate Holder's 2015 mandate.

"Adopted forfeitures are appropriate," Sessions said. "Sharing of assets with our state and local law enforcement colleagues is appropriate. We want forfeitures to increase, the sharing to increase."

Sessions' coming directive will put more pressure on Congress, and state lawmakers, to push for reforms, advocates said.

Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, called Sessions' announcement "a disheartening setback in the fight to protect Americans’ private property rights."

Nearly half the states have taken some steps to roll back civil forfeiture laws, Sheth said in a statement. "The Attorney General’s plan to increase forfeitures is jarringly out of step with those positive developments." 

View this piece online here.

I vividly remember a road trip I took as a young man with my father to the Deep South. When we stopped at gas stations, I watched out the window of our vehicle as black attendants pumped gas while white station owners collected the money. I saw first-hand the separation of water fountains and restroom facilities and wondered how communities could allow this practice to continue.

Later, as a representative in the Wisconsin Legislature, I again saw racial injustice up close. While attending events and spending time in parts of Milwaukee’s majority black neighborhoods, I listened to constituents as they described unnecessary obstructions that prohibited them from voting. Their personal stories were the inspiration behind my work to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

Ensuring that every eligible American voter has the ability to cast his or her ballot without intimidation, preclusion and prejudice is a constitutional right. Since my earliest days in Congress, I have fought to protect it.

In 1982, I supported the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I played an instrumental role in the Act’s 2006 reauthorization. However, it was the 2006 reauthorization that was put before the United States Supreme Court for consideration and ultimately struck down.

The court declared that voter discrimination was no longer a problem, and removed language designed to stop discrimination before it mars an election but let stand provisions that allow lawsuits after a discriminatory law takes effect. Unfortunately, there is no way to remedy injustice at the polls after an election, leaving disenfranchised voters with few options.

One of the law’s core protections is its pre-clearance system. Before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, discrimination at the polls and the federal government’s response was similar to that of a leaking boat. Local and state governments would discriminate against minority voters. Congress would then ban the discriminatory practices, only to have states find and implement new ways to discriminate. Rather than frantically trying to repair individual holes in the process, the Voting Rights Act acted as a lacquer that protected the entire process and secured it from further damage.

Pre-clearance forced states with a documented history of discrimination to allow the federal government to review certain changes to voting laws and practices before they were implemented. In this way, elections could proceed without the fear of discrimination at the polls.

In 2013, in Shelby vs. Holder, the Supreme Court held that, while preclearance is a constitutional response to voter discrimination; it is unconstitutional to apply it to states based on a 1965 formula — which was what the 1982 and 2006 reauthorizations were modeled after. The result is that pre-clearance remains, but almost no jurisdictions are subject to it.

In response to this ruling, I introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act in 2015, and reintroduced it again last week with my Democratic colleague Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Among other things, the bill modernizes the original 1965 law — which applied preclearance to the same nine states for 48 years — so that the pre-clearance rules apply equally to every state in the country.

As a nation, we have made significant strides in correcting the mistakes of the past and fighting against voter discrimination but it’s imperative that we continue our efforts to ensure that history never again repeats itself.

The Voting Rights Act is not only about ending discrimination at the polls. It also gives faith to the voters who need to know that their vote counts and the election process is fair. Despite previous congressional inaction on this bill, I will continue to pursue it because no American eligible to vote should be silenced or deterred from voting due to the color of his or her skin.

You can view this piece online here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) reintroduced the bipartisan  Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2017 (VRAA), which would fully restore and modernize the original Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 to reflect today’s societal needs and challenges. 

One of the VRA’s core protections is its preclearance system, which previously required states with a documented history of discrimination to allow the federal government to review changes to voting laws and practices before they were implemented. This provision was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder, where the court held that while preclearance is constitutional; it is unconstitutional to apply it to states based on the 1965 formula.

Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Conyers introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2017 in response to this ruling. The VRAA would make all states and jurisdictions eligible for coverage formula based on voting violations in the last 15 years. Key elements of the legislation include:

  • Applies equally to every state in the country and only applies if a state has a documented history of discrimination.
  • States would only be subject to preclearance if they have committed five voting violations in the last 15 years.
  • Provides greater transparency in elections so that voters are made aware of any changes to polling times, dates, locations, and protocols. The additional sunlight will deter discrimination from occurring and protect voters from discrimination.
  • Allows for preliminary relief to be obtained more readily, given that voting rights cannot often be vindicated after an election is already over.

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “Every American – no matter the color of their skin – needs to know that we understand their right to vote is sacred. That is why reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act is so important. I’m confident that congressional leaders of both parties can come together in support of this modernized legislation and show their unfailing commitment to protecting that right.”

Congressman Conyers: “As a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus who cosponsored the original Voting Rights Act in 1965, I have witnessed firsthand the stain that discrimination has placed on our democracy.   The right to vote is the foundation of all other rights and the Voting Rights Act was critical to ensuring equal access to the ballot box for all Americans. In the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court decision, some states immediately worked to roll back the progress that has been made.  Congress has a long history of protecting and expanding access to the ballot box and it should continue to build on that legacy by fully restoring and enhancing the Voting Rights Act.”

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in August of 1965, and it has been reauthorized four times since.  President George W. Bush signed the most recent reauthorization into law in 2006, after the House voted 390-33 and the Senate 98-0 in favor of the legislation.