Week Ending April 22, 2016
Congress Cranks Out Funding Bills
There was a flurry of action this week as funding bills in the House and the Senate moved through subcommittees and committees. The House Appropriations Committee approved Energy and Water, Agriculture, and Legislative Branch funding, even though the House missed the April 15 deadline to pass its budget. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Commerce-Justice-Science, and the Senate began floor debate on its Energy and Water funding bill. It is expected that Labor, Health, Human Services and Education (Labor-HHS) funding will not move through the committee process until late May or early June and is unlikely to have any floor action.
Nearly every House Democrat, led by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (IL) and Ruben Gallego (AZ), sent a letter to House leaders opposing ideological policy riders on funding bills — provisions not relating to funding levels. The congressional GOP majority has tried to insert policy riders into spending bills as a backdoor means to block important labor protections, including those that impact worker protections, the right to organize, and other important issues. Many other riders have been offered in the past to undo important health, safety, consumer and civil rights protections. President Obama has already stated that he would veto funding bills that contain poison pill policy riders or fail to fund “core principles.”
House Committee Approves Legislation to Strike Down DOL’s Retirement “Fiduciary” Advice Rule
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce voted 22 to 14 along party lines to approve a Congressional Review Act (CRA) Resolution of Disapproval, (H. J. Res 88), which would overturn the Department of Labor’s (DOL) recently issued final rule protecting retirement savers’ best interest. This type of resolution has the force of law and would strike down the entire rule. Furthermore, approval requires just a simple majority in both the House and Senate. The Resolution is expected to move quickly to a House floor vote. While AFSCME and our allies are working to oppose the Resolution, given it requires President Obama’s signature to become law and a veto-override is highly unlikely, it is not expected to affect DOL’s rule, which is scheduled to go into effect on April 10, 2017.
The DOL’s “fiduciary” final rule requires retirement investment advisors to provide financial advice in the best interest of their clients and protects families saving for retirement by preventing investment advisors from providing substandard investment options for their own financial benefit. The rule helps AFSCME members saving for retirement by providing strong federal legal protections ensuring “best interest” advice, which will reduce excessive fees, risks, and investments in assets with expected poor performance. The White House Council of Economic Advisors has reported conflicted investment advice costs retiree plan participants $17 billion in annual losses and over a 35 year period, this could result in an individual saver losing almost 25% of their assets.
AFSCME strongly advocated for this investor protection for many years, and is a founding member of the Save Our Retirement (SOR) coalition, which is working to ensure DOL’s rule is implemented. Looking ahead, AFSCME will continue to work to prevent Congress from taking action that would block, delay, defund, or otherwise weaken these new protections.
Senate Passes Bill Reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration
On Tuesday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed, in a 95 to 3 vote, a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The bill (S. 2658) continues FAA programs through September 30, 2017. Most significantly, the Senate bill does not include a contentious proposal to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the FAA and privatize it. The bill does address drone safety, beefs up airport security, increases funding annually for the Airport Improvement Program, and establishes new protections for air travelers. The bill sponsors hope that the Senate’s strong vote will put pressure on the House to take up the Senate’s version. However, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, continues to insist that the House will push forward on its own bill, which includes splitting off and privatizing air traffic control. Current FAA reauthorization expires on July 15.
House Committee Introduces Deeply Flawed Child Nutrition Bill
This week, Chairman Todd Rokita (R-IN) of the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, introduced on the behalf of the GOP committee majority a deeply flawed bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs. This bill would roll back years of progress aimed at ensuring that all children are able to access the nutritious meals they need for their health and learning. Provisions included in the bill would significantly weaken the Community Eligibility Provision which, through administrative streamlining, has increased access to school lunch and breakfast in high-poverty schools; increase eligibility verification requirements that will reduce access; interfere with school districts’ ability to conduct effective outreach to enroll eligible families; fail to meet children’s needs who are in care for long hours; fail to address the gaps in access to food during the summer; fail to expand access to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program; significantly curtail the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authority to issue needed regulations and requirements; significantly weaken evidence-based school nutrition standards; and weaken new rules that are aimed at healthier snacks and beverages in schools.
AFSCME and our coalition partners strongly oppose this legislation and will advocate for a child nutrition reauthorization bill that will ensure that all children in our country have year-round access to nutritious meals.
House Panel Examines OSHA Rule to Protect Workers From Unsafe Exposure to Silica Dust
The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing to examine the recently updated Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) silica standard. This standard is needed to protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica — a deadly dust that causes silicosis, lung cancer, kidney disease and other severe medical problems. Over two million workers – including roughly 275,000 AFSCME members who work in public works, maintenance and highway departments – will gain protection under OSHA’s rule. The rule contains two standards, one for construction and one for general industry and maritime. OSHA’s previous silica exposure standards are based on outdated research and measurements of exposure that are more than 45 years old. The updated standard issued in March relies on more current research that shows the need for stronger provisions to protect working people. In developing the updated standard, OSHA held hearings at which AFSCME testified and submitted extensive comments in support of this updated standard.
U.S. Supreme Court Hears Immigration Case
AFSCME joined thousands of pro-immigrant demonstrators in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, as the Court heard oral arguments in United States v. Texas, in which the Court will rule on President Obama’s immigration executive actions issued in November, 2014. The challenged actions establish a Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program and expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. However, neither has been implemented due to a nationwide injunction issued by a district court judge in Texas and upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in response to a lawsuit brought by 26 state attorneys general. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) appealed the Circuit Court’s ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
“Deferred Action” means that the Department of Homeland Security would use its long-established prosecutorial discretion in immigration enforcement to confer temporary, renewable “lawful presence” and work authorization to the parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who have lived in our country for at least five years, and to expand deferred action to more DREAMERs – immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. If the Court allows these executive actions to move forward, approximately four million currently unauthorized immigrants would no longer live in fear of deportation and could work legally.
Texas argued that it is harmed by the President’s actions, or has “standing” to bring the case, because the state will have to issue driver’s licenses to new lawfully present immigrants, thus costing the state money. However, as the DOJ argued to the Court, states incur some costs from federal policies all the time, so conferring standing in this case would open a floodgate of litigation brought by states against federal policies they do not like. And, the 16 states plus Washington, D.C. that argued in support of President Obama’s authority to issue these executive actions noted a host of benefits to states if they are allowed to go forward, including more robust state and local economies when those eligible have access to better-paying jobs, more tax revenues, preventing costly foster care for children left behind should their parents be deported, lower law enforcement costs as more immigrants feel safe to cooperate with police, as well as fewer traffic deaths as more drivers get licenses.
Since Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s death, the Court has only eight justices. Thus, it is possible it could be deadlocked 4-4, which would allow the Circuit Court’s injunction to stand until a final ruling, thus blocking President Obama’s executive actions. A decision in the case is expected in June.
Congressional Leaders Call for Raising the Minimum Wage
On Wednesday, House and Senate Democratic leaders held a press conference calling for a higher minimum wage. While there are multiple minimum wage bills in the House and Senate, Rep. Bobby Scott’s (D-VA) H.R. 2150 and Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-WA) S. 1150 have both congressional leadership’s and the Obama administration’s support in moving forward. U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Democratic Policy Committee Chair Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) all spoke in favor of an increase in the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. A number of states have already raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next few years.
Working full time at the current minimum wage leaves a family of three below the federal poverty line. Raising the minimum wage to $12 will lift tens of millions of working families out of poverty and greatly reduce federal spending on food assistance and other safety net programs. For these reasons and more, AFSCME strongly supports this important legislation.
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