Week Ending April 11, 2014
Ryan GOP Budget Passes House But Is On Road to Nowhere
For the fourth year in a row, the House of Representatives passed a budget plan that is destructive to the national economy and harmful to individuals, particularly seniors and working families with children. The budget bill passed the House by a vote of 219 to 205, with no Democratic support. Although no budget was needed this year since last fall’s Bipartisan Budget Act had pre-set spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year, GOP leaders decided to advance a plan to express their priorities. Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) once again introduced a budget that would impose more than $5 trillion in additional, draconian cuts on all non-defense programs spanning Medicare, Medicaid, education, health care, infrastructure and additional public services while increasing Pentagon spending and providing enormous tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations.
President Lee Saunders noted that: “The party-line vote for this budget underscores that House Republicans are motivated by an obsession with cutting crucial government services upon which our communities rely, and boosting the bank accounts of billionaires. They are out of touch with the pressing needs and values of most Americans.”
Alternative budgets proposed by House Democratic leadership, as well as by the Black and Progressive Caucuses were defeated. All of these budgets would have invested heavily in job-creating programs, education, health care, infrastructure and additional public services. The alternative plans also would have lifted the across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration. And, they would have preserved Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthened Social Security, rather than cutting these programs. Another common element of the alternative budgets was eliminating unfair tax loopholes and generating new revenues by imposing greater tax fairness on the wealthy and large, profitable corporations.
The Senate will rely on the two-year budget already in place and not advance a separate plan. House and Senate Appropriations committees have already begun crafting annual funding bills for fiscal year 2015 based on last year’s agreement.
Senate Passes Unemployment Insurance Extension; House Speaker John Boehner Blocks Action
In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate voted to pass legislation (H.R. 3979) to renew the federal unemployment insurance (UI) program for five-months, through June 1, 2014. The extension is retroactive to the beginning of January, just after the program expired. The bill also provides a five-month retroactive extension of the reemployment and eligibility assessment (REA) services that state agencies provide to UI claimants.
The vote capped a successful, intensive three-month campaign waged by AFSCME and allied groups to build enough GOP support to overcome senate procedures that had stalled action on the legislation. In the end, H.R. 3979 passed by a vote of 59 to 38, with the support of GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Susan Collins (ME), Dean Heller (NV), Mark Kirk (IL), Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Rob Portman (OH). All Senate Democrats, except Senators Mary Landrieu (LA) and Claire McCaskill (MO) who were absent, voted for the bill.
The following day, President Saunders joined Democratic members of the House and unemployed workers at a press event to urge House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) to call up the Senate bill for a vote. However, he has resisted doing so, claiming that House GOP leaders want to attach a so-called job creation bill to the legislation even though unemployment insurance itself is one of the most effective job creation policies, putting money into local economies rapidly as the unemployed immediately spend their benefits for daily necessities.
As a result of House inaction, over two million unemployed workers are now facing another two weeks without any relief as Congress recesses for spring break – just as they allowed UI benefits to lapse last winter for the December holidays. AFSCME staff is gearing up to lead an intensive campaign of grassroots and social media actions with other unions and allies during the recess to pressure House GOP leaders to renew unemployment benefits as soon as they return to Washington.
Paycheck Fairness Act Blocked by GOP Senators; President Issues Executive Order to Promote Fair Pay
April 8 was Equal Pay Day, representing how long women had to work in 2014 to make up for the pay disparity between what they and men earned in 2013. The Senate and President Obama focused their attention this week on eliminating this egregious pay gap between men and women, with a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84) and two executive actions by the president. Unanimous GOP opposition stopped S. 84 from reaching the 60 vote threshold needed to end debate in the Senate. The vote blocking action was 53 to 44. S. 84 narrows the wage gap between men and women and gives workers stronger tools to end wage discrimination in the workplace. The bill also bars retaliation against workers who ask about their employers’ pay practices or inquire about their own wages. It would also allow women to receive the same remedies for sex-based pay discrimination that are currently available to those subjected to discrimination based on race and ethnicity.
President Obama did not wait for Congress to act, signing an executive order banning retaliation against employees of federal contractors for disclosing information or inquiring about their wages. He also instructed the Department of Labor to establish new regulations requiring federal contractors to submit data on employee compensation. This information will encourage voluntary compliance with equal pay laws and assist with more focused enforcement where possible discrimination exists.
President Saunders noted: “Equal pay is not just a women’s issue ─ it’s a family issue. Women make up almost half of our workforce, yet they are paid 77% of what men are paid, and the pay gap is worse for women of color. A majority of women in the workforce are mothers and one-third are the sole breadwinners for their families. Their incomes are critical to making ends meet. When women receive equal pay for equal work our families and communities are on stronger economic footing.”
Women Out-Front Demanding That Congress Pass Immigration Reform
More than 100 women leaders, including Secretary-Treasurer Laura Reyes, fasted for 48 hours this week on the National Mall to protest House GOP Speaker Boehner’s continuing refusal to hold a vote on comprehensive immigration reform. “In fasting we hope to feed the courage of our elected leaders to pass immigration reform,” Reyes said. “We want to show our solidarity with immigrant families who are torn apart by deportation. We must continue to pressure lawmakers to fix our broken immigration system.”
On Wednesday, the Fast for Families buses that have crisscrossed the country for the past several weeks – stopping in almost 100 congressional districts – arrived at the Mall and joined the women fasters at a large rally. The speakers movingly told how deportations have separated spouses and parents from their children. Religious leaders spoke of the moral imperative of a more humane immigration system. Then, led by the women fasters, hundreds marched to the offices of Speaker Boehner and GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and demanded a vote.
Congressional supporters of comprehensive immigration reform have not been silent. Reps. Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO) and Joe Garcia (D-FL) offered an amendment to Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget to include implementation of H.R. 15, the House version of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed in the Senate. It was struck down by the Rules Committee on a mostly partisan vote; notably, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) broke with her party and voted in favor of the amendment. Reps. Cardenas, Polis and Garcia continued their efforts, making parliamentary inquires to further draw attention to the GOP leadership’s refusal to bring comprehensive immigration reform to a vote, despite reducing our deficit by $900 billion and adding 120,000 American jobs.
AFSCME and our allies will be using Congress’ two-week recess to bring at-home pressure on House leadership and members who have been standing in the way of a vote on comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship.
House Bill Weakening Health Coverage for Lawful Immigrants Fails
On Wednesday, the House GOP leadership held a vote on the Expatriate Health Care Coverage Clarification Act (H.R. 4414), a bill that would eliminate health coverage standards for 13 million lawful permanent residents, people with work visas and individuals who were granted visas for humanitarian reasons. The vote in favor of the bill was 257 to 159, but it failed because it required a two-thirds vote for approval. The super-majority vote was required because the bill was debated under special rules that allow sponsors to skip normal legislative procedures.
AFSCME opposed the bill because it would allow employers and insurance companies to provide substandard coverage to lawful immigrants. Disparate treatment would not only harm the families directly affected, but create pressure to reduce benefits for all workers. The lead sponsors of the bill are Reps. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and John Carney (D-DE).
More Than Nine Million Have Gained Health Coverage Since Obamacare Launch As Secretary Sebelius Resigns
The Rand Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank, released a study this week estimating that 9.3 million people gained health coverage from September 2013 to March 2014. The Rand study provides additional evidence that the Affordable Care Act is reducing the ranks of the uninsured. Over time, it is expected that a reduction in the number of uninsured will help to moderate the increase in premiums for employer-sponsored coverage.
Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced on Thursday evening that she was leaving her post at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Her legacy will grow every day and year as more and more uninsured people gain coverage or experience the improvement in their coverage due to the ACA. While the rollout of the ACA was rocky, the implementation was made much harder by many in Congress who were hostile to the law and many governors and state legislatures who refused to cooperate.
According to the Rand study findings, the share of the population that is uninsured fell from 20.5% to 15.8%. They also found that:
- Of the 40.7 million who were uninsured in 2013, 14.5 million gained coverage, but 5.2 million of the insured lost coverage, for a net gain in coverage of approximately 9.3 million. Many of those who lost coverage likely shifted from a plan they had purchased previously on their own, to a plan purchased in the exchange marketplace where tax credits are available to help pay for coverage;
- The 9.3 million person increase in insurance is driven not only by enrollment in marketplace plans, but also by gains in employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) and Medicaid;
- Enrollment in ESI increased by 8.2 million. It is likely that many who had previously not signed up for coverage provided by their employer, opted to do so because of the ACA’s requirement to obtain coverage;
- Medicaid enrollment increased by 5.9 million;
- According to Rand’s estimates, 3.9 million people were covered through the state and federal marketplaces as of mid-March 2014. However, they note that this figure does not fully capture the enrollment surge that occurred in late March. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday that 7.5 million had signed up for coverage through a health exchange marketplace as of this week;
- For most people, the ACA has not changed their health insurance coverage. Among adults, 80 percent still had the same form of coverage in March 2014 as in September 2013. Notably, more than 100 million had ESI before and even more have ESI now;
- Twenty six million Americans remain uninsured. Many of these individuals reside in states that have not expanded their Medicaid programs to cover more of the working poor.
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