Week Ending April 15, 2016
Senate Speeds Ahead on Funding Bills; House Creeps Forward
This week, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees had their first full committee votes of the year. Traditionally, these first full committee votes include allocations to each of the 12 funding subcommittees. The House, however, continued its problematic trend and was unable to reach agreement and release the subcommittee allocations. The House has also failed to have a floor vote on the underlying budget blueprint, so the law precludes the chamber from holding any floor votes on funding bills until May 15. Without allocations, the path ahead is unclear for remaining funding bills, but the assumption is that the Appropriations Committee will adhere to the $1.07 trillion aggregate spending level. The House did have subcommittee votes on the bills funding Agriculture and Energy and Water. The Agriculture bill flat-funded the Women, Infants and Children’s supplemental nutrition program at $6.4 billion. As expected, the GOP subcommittee members included many harmful policy “riders” or extraneous provisions to block the Obama administration’s actions to prevent federal funds from being used for certain programs. The Agriculture bill included riders delaying nutrition standards in school meals, including stricter sodium and whole grains requirements.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) affirmed that work is underway on a supplemental bill to provide funding for the Zika virus, even though all Republicans rejected the Democratic-offered amendment to fully fund the administration’s $1.9 billion request. Any funds allocated under the supplemental bill would be designated as emergency spending and would not count against the tight funding caps. Although the bill now focuses exclusively on Zika, it opens up the opportunity to also allocate aid for Flint.
The Senate Appropriations Committee released all 12 of its subcommittee allocations. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the highest ranking Democrat on the Committee, called the allocations “fair but snug,” and all Democrats approved the allocations. The allocations for Labor, Health, Human Services and Education spending and the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) spending are slightly below FY 2016 but technical adjustments will bring them up to at least the FY 2016 level. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that the Senate would spend up to 12 weeks passing these funding bills, beginning with Energy and Water next week. Not only is it unprecedented for the Senate to schedule a vote so early in the year on a funding bill, it is also unprecedented for the Senate to take action before the House. The Senate has also noted that policy riders will not be offered until floor action, so bills will remain “clean” during the committee process.
AFSCME continues to fight against the inclusion of poison pill policy riders at any point in the funding process and to increase investments in programs spanning health, education, clean water, infrastructure, public safety, transportation and other programs that support working families and vulnerable Americans.
Flint Still Waiting for Congress to Help
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) continues to block the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012), thwarting Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Gary Peters’ (D-MI) effort to have the bill include an aid package for Flint that had been achieved through bipartisan negotiation. Sens. Stabenow and Peters both vowed to get assistance to the city “in whatever legislative vehicle it takes.” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who represents the Flint area and who has been an instrumental champion on the issue, also sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) Thursday, demanding congressional action to address the “ongoing public health emergency in my hometown.”
As the Senate sets its sights on appropriations for FY 2017, the Interior-Environment spending bill could provide a boost in water infrastructure funding and aid for Flint. Congress can and should boost money in the Safe Drinking Water Act’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Federal Water Pollution Act’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, both of which are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act is another way Congress could help Flint. Congress began reauthorization efforts in February, when House and Senate committees held hearings in anticipation of a reauthorization bill later this year.
AFSCME Member Speaks at Congressional Press Conference About Workplace Violence in Health Care Settings
AFSCME Minnesota Council 5 member Eric Hesse participated in a press conference with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Frederica Wilson (D-FL) and Joe Courtney (D-CT), to unveil the findings of a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on actions needed to prevent workplace violence in health care facilities.
At the release of the report, Hesse described being assaulted by a patient on the job. In his statement, Hesse called for OSHA, the federal agency responsible for workplace safety and health, to issue a workplace violence standard. The GAO’s findings confirm that more needs to be done, including the development of a workplace violence prevention standard for health care employers. AFSCME President Lee Saunders declared in a statement that “showing up to work should not mean putting your life on the line, and violence is not ‘part of the job.’ We have a duty to make all health care facilities safe for patients and staff by mandating and implementing a clear standard for employers to ensure a safer workplace environment. This report brings us one step closer to achieving that goal, and now OSHA must take enforcement action to address this national crisis so that our dedicated health care workers can focus on providing quality care to those who most need it, rather than worrying about whether or not they will make it home to their families at the end of the day.”
AFSCME Testifies About Tax Treatment of Health Care and the Affordable Care Act
AFSCME’s Director of Research and Collective Bargaining Services, Steve Kreisberg, testified about the tax treatment of health care and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) at a hearing on Thursday in the House Ways and Means Committee. House Republican leaders held the hearing to explore proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a plan that would encourage the use of health plans with high deductibles and require workers to pay taxes on the value of their health care benefits.
In his testimony, Kreisberg highlighted the achievements of the ACA, including the fact that 20 million people have gained coverage through the law and that it appears to be helping to slow the growth in overall health care spending. He also criticized proposals to tax workers on their benefits or shift more costs onto workers through high deductibles or other mechanisms. The testimony also called for the repeal of the 40% tax on high cost health plans.
The Committee was divided along party lines in its response to high deductible health plans, with Republicans expressing support and Democrats expressing opposition. However, a few Republicans joined with Democrats on the panel to express opposition to taxing workers on their benefits.
While insisting over the last six years that the ACA be repealed, Republican leaders have not coalesced around a legislative proposal to replace it. The Committee hearing appears to be a first step in attempting to put together an alternative to the ACA – an alternative that would undermine employer-sponsored coverage and shift more costs onto workers.
D.C. Voucher Bill Approved
In yet another attempt to extend Washington, D.C.’s voucher program known as “Opportunity Scholarships,” the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved H.R. 4901. A similar version of the bill passed the House last fall. The bill would provide vouchers for K-12 students to pay for private school tuition. AFSCME has strongly opposed voucher programs, because they divert public school funding.
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