Look At These Nice Things In Recent Funding Bills! Just Look At Them!
Two big recent spending bills had a couple of neat provisions in them that we wouldn't want to go overlooked. The defense spending bill (NDAA) that Congress passed Friday by overriding Donald Trump's veto includes a significant measure to fight corruption, and the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill that passed just before Christmas (and which Donald Trump eventually signed after being a dick about it) includes a hugely important provision restoring the ability for incarcerated people to get Pell grants while they're still serving their prison terms. Good government just might break out all over at this rate. (Fine, we'll take "might happen more than sporadically.")
First up, the NDAA included a little measure called the "Corporate Transparency Act," which is aimed at making money-laundering and other malfeasance harder by banning anonymous shell companies. As Vox explains, they're commonly used to cover evidence of money laundering and other criminal enterprises.
If you're a corrupt foreign official or drug trafficker, there's a pretty easy way to protect your illicit cash: create an anonymous shell company.
You form a shell company — meaning a business that exists only on paper, with no employees, no products it makes or sells, no revenue, nothing except maybe a bank account and some assets — but you do it without disclosing your (the owner's) real name, offering a convenient way to launder your money and evade law enforcement in the United States.
Shell corporations will remain legal, but now the people creating them will have to provide the name of the owner and other information. At Forbes, Patriotic Millionaires chair Morris Pearl points out that, until now, every state has had tougher identity requirements for getting a library card than to create a shell corporation, and that criminal investigations regularly "go cold as soon as they run into one of these shell companies."
Those using and abusing anonymous shells to cloak themselves in anonymity run the gamut. From tax cheats hiding their finances and bleeding local coffers dry to drug cartels flooding American streets with opiates turning to anonymous shells to launder their profits, a wide range of criminal forces have used anonymous companies to mask their tracks.
The new law should eliminate one of the most common tools used by corrupt actors, both domestically and internationally; Pearl calls the new law "the biggest anti-corruption step the U.S. has taken in decades." Good! Now, if you want to try to get away with underhanded financial schemes, you'll have to get yourself elected president. (There's a persuasive theory that the shell company amendment was the real reason Trump came up with all kinds of crazy reasons to veto the NDAA. We for one are persuaded!)
Our other Nice Thing, the "Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act," was included in the omnibus spending bill that passed December 21 along with the coronavirus stimmy bill. Written by Sen Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and all bipartisanly cosponsored by Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), the law restores the ability of incarcerated people to qualify for Pell grants to help pay for higher education.
This is a big freaking deal, and it eliminates one of the more awful provisions of the 1994 crime bill. From today's perspective, it's hard to believe Democrats were so desperate then to appear "tough on crime" that they were willing to eliminate one of the proven means of actually preventing recidivism. Oh, but people in prison were bad, so no college aid for them, and we sure taught them a lesson by making it far harder for them to get jobs after serving their time, now didn't we?
As Schatz points out, the elimination of Pell grants for incarcerated people didn't just hurt prisoners; the loss of that funding stream also led to "a significant drop in the number of education programs in prisons." Schatz also calls attention to a RAND Corporation study which found that
Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. This translates to a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points.
The study also found that once out of prison, the participants in educational programs had a 13 percent better chance of finding employment.
The full repeal of that part of the crime bill follows a 2016 Obama administration pilot program called "Second Chance Pell" that allowed some 17,000 people to enroll in college classes. Heck, that was one of the few Obama programs that Trump actually kept. Trump's Education Department expanded it, and outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called on Congress to make the program permanent.
We're guessing, and you can hardly blame us, that she thought some of the grants would make their way to for-profit colleges.
Other parts of the educational reform included in the measure will simplify the process of applying for federal student aid, cutting the number of questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the dreaded FAFSA) from 108 to 36, and simplifying the verification process by allowing the Ed Department to get some financial information directly from the IRS instead of making families provide it.
The maximum amount of Pell grants was also increased by $150, to a bit under $6,500 per student. Joe Biden campaigned on doubling the size of Pell grants, as well as making them more widely available.
So, hey, Georgia, if you guys could flip control of the Senate today, that would make all this easier!
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