Issues / Legislation » Legislative Weekly Reports

Week Ending June 15, 2012

Labor-HHS-Education Spending Bill Moves in Senate

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its $753 billion fiscal year 2013 spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education by a party-line vote of 16-14. The committee rejected GOP members’ efforts to cut funding for implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and to take away the National Labor Relation Board’s (NLRB) authority.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) offered three NLRB amendments. The first, which failed to pass on a largely party-line vote of 15-15, would have overturned a NLRB decision, Specialty Health Care, which made modest changes in the law by allowing more flexibility in bargaining unit determinations. The second, which would have stopped the NLRB from implementing a new rule that allows union elections to go forward even if legal challenges are pending, was defeated 15-17. The third would have allowed states to require secret-ballot union elections, thus disallowing card check union recognition. It failed on a vote of 14-16.

Unfortunately, Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) amendment to deny funding to and delay implementation of the Department of Labor’s (DOL) H-2B prevailing wage and more comprehensive employment rules for all industries passed on a vote of 19-11. These rules were issued to ensure that unemployed U.S. workers have a fair opportunity to get hired before an employer is allowed to import temporary foreign guest workers and guarantees that the wages and working conditions of employed U.S. workers are not undercut by the employment of guest workers at less than the prevailing wage. The Democrats voting in favor were Sens. Dianne Feinstein (CA), Herb Kohl (WI), Mary Landrieu (LA), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Mark Pryor (AR) and Ben Nelson (NE).

Another amendment proposed by Senator Shelby that would have barred HHS from hiring any new employees to implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was defeated 14-16. By the same vote, the committee rejected an amendment proposed by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) to prevent HHS from using the ACA prevention fund to “advertise” health care reform.

It is unlikely that the Labor-HHS-Education FY 2013 spending bill will go to the Senate floor for a vote. Instead, we expect it will be combined with other spending bills into an “omnibus” bill that will not be voted on until the fall. The House is expected to write its Labor-HHS-Education spending bill next week. 

Farm Bill on Senate Floor

This week, the Senate began action on amendments to the five-year, $969 billion farm bill (S. 3240). This historically bipartisan legislation sets federal agriculture and nutrition policy. An amendment offered by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have eliminated the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and replaced it with a block grant to states failed on a bipartisan vote of 65-33. 

Several additional controversial amendments have been offered to S. 3240, but it is not yet clear which, if any, will come up for a vote. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) offered an anti-collective bargaining amendment that would amend the National Labor Relations Act to allow employers to unilaterally decide to pay higher wages to chosen employees, even if it breaches union contracts. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has filed a damaging amendment that would require all SNAP applicants to present narrowly-defined documentation, a barrier that will cause many citizens to lose food assistance, and it would end SNAP eligibility for citizens and legal residents who live with a family member who is undocumented. Another Sessions amendment would repeal performance bonuses that states currently receive for improvements in SNAP participation and accuracy rates. One positive amendment, offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and supported by AFSCME, would restore the $4 billion cut in SNAP funding.

It is not clear how long the bill will remain on the Senate floor. The House’s farm bill has not yet passed out of Committee. 

Compromise on a Highway Bill Appears Unlikely

The likelihood of the House and Senate highway negotiators reaching an agreement on a surface transportation bill continues to fade this week, with Democrats and Republicans publicly blaming each other for their lack of progress on major areas of disagreement. One involves the House GOP leadership’s insistence on easing environmental and regulatory reviews of transportation projects. Also, the House language allowing fast approval of the Keystone XL pipeline continues to delay the bill’s progress.

With thousands of jobs as risk, Democratic leaders have called on House leaders to simply pass the earlier-approved bipartisan Senate bill (S. 1813). The House leadership has failed to bring its own multi-year bill to the floor for a vote, and instead passed a short-term extension. Meanwhile, House negotiators continue to insist that provisions be included in the negotiations that were never voted on in the House. AFSCME strongly opposes the House bill provisions advocating privatization. There is growing sentiment among those involved in the negotiations that it is unlikely an agreement can be reached before the end of the month. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said if an agreement is not reached he would insist on a six-month extension. This would postpone work on this bill until after the November elections.

Senate Holds Historic ENDA Hearing

For the first time in U.S. history an openly transgender person testified before a Senate committee. Kylar Broadas, founder of the Trans People of Color Coalition, testified on June 12 before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) (S. 811), AFSCME-supported legislation that prohibits non-religion-based employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Broadas testified how he and countless other transgender people lose their jobs and careers because of their transgender status.

The Senate had not held a hearing on ENDA in three years. The bill was introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and currently has bipartisan support. No workplace protections currently exist for gay, lesbian and bisexual workers in 29 states, and transgender workers are not protected in 34 states. The legislation is supported by some in the business community who say that the bill is good business policy, and is supported by the Obama administration. While ENDA supporters do not expect the House to take up the bill, they believe the hearing and possible floor action in the Senate will spotlight the need for civil rights protections for the gay, lesbian and transgender community. AFSCME submitted a statement for the record in support of ENDA. 

House Panel Examines Efforts to Combat Medicare Fraud

The ACA created new tools to prevent, detect and fight back against fraud in Medicare and other public health care insurance programs. A House subcommittee held a hearing June 8 to examine the efforts of  the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) which uses private entities to conduct program integrity activities to recover fraudulent Medicare payments. Roughly $1 billion in overpayments have been collected through these recovery audits in the first quarter of FY 2012, compared to almost $797 million for all of FY 2011. In addition, in 2011, Medicare used the new tools in the health care reform law to recover nearly $4.1 billion from individuals and companies who attempted to defraud seniors and taxpayers. In most cases they charged Medicare for services never received by beneficiaries, or deliberately overcharged for services rendered. AFSCME submitted a statement for the hearing record

Affordable Care Act Helps Over 14 Million Medicare Beneficiaries Save on Preventive Services  

Thanks to the ACA some 14.3 million people in traditional Medicare got at least one preventive service at no cost during the first five months of 2012. In 2011, 32.5 million Medicare beneficiaries received one or more preventive services, without any co-payments or deductibles. This lifesaving help would disappear if the changes to Medicare proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), endorsed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and adopted by the House along party lines became law. (Linda Bennett – lbennett@afscme.org)

Administration Increases Funding for Home and Community-Based Services

Thanks to provisions in the ACA, four additional states (Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri) will receive increased federal Medicaid matching funds totaling $295.6 million to provide enhanced access to home and community-based services. Maryland and New Hampshire were previously approved for increased funds as part of the Balancing Incentive Program, a $3 billion fund established under the ACA to increase access to non-institutional long-term care services.

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