Week Ending August 1, 2014
No Federal Funding for Border Crisis
On Thursday evening, a willful minority of GOP members prevented the Senate from considering the supplemental spending bill put forward by Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) that would have provided $2.7 billion in federal aid to the agencies tasked with addressing the humanitarian crisis at our southwest border. The largely party-line 50 to 44 procedural vote fell 10 votes short of the 60 needed to proceed to a vote on the bill’s substance.
As of Friday morning, House action was uncertain. The previous day, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was forced to pull from a scheduled floor vote the “Secure the Southwest Border Act of 2014” (H.R. 5230). The bill would have provided just $659 million to the federal agencies that are handling the child refugee humanitarian crisis at the border. It also would have rolled back critical protections Congress unanimously extended in 2008 to vulnerable children from Central America and elsewhere who are fleeing trafficking, persecution, violence and abuse. To appeal to the tea-party wing of his party and get to the 218 votes needed for passage, Speaker Boehner announced a vote on a second bill, the “No New DREAMers” (H.R. 5272), which would have prohibited the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants deportation relief and permission to work and travel to undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents. Even this was not enough for the Speaker to garner the votes he needed.
The Speaker then called the House into session on Friday, which was to be the first day of the House’s August recess. It is not clear whether the House will vote on a revamped GOP border package or not. While no legislative language has been released, the package may include two bills: one that would add new money for the National Guard and make even more draconian changes to the 2008 anti-trafficking law, including detaining children while they wait for deportation hearings; and a second that would block federal funding from being used to continue or expand the DACA program.
Congress Passes Short-Term Highway Trust Fund Bill
At the 11th hour before adjourning for its five-week recess, the Senate passed, by a vote of 81 to 13, a House bill that funds the Highway Trust Fund only for another 10 months without addressing reliable funding sources. Earlier in the day, the House bill (H.R. 5021) was approved by a vote of 272 to 150, largely along party lines. The House rejected the Senate version of the bill that would have put stable financing of the Highway Trust Fund on the congressional agenda for the “lame duck” session after the November elections. The Senate reluctantly agreed to the House bill to assure that $10.8 billion will flow to state roads programs through May, 2015. The legislation was sent to President Obama for his signature mere hours before the Department of Transportation said it would begin cutting payments to states.
Obama Issues Executive Order on Federal Contractor Workplace Conditions
President Obama issued an executive order directing federal agencies to consider a company’s labor compliance record when they choose private contractors. Before being awarded a contract, companies will be required to disclose any labor violations from the previous three years. This includes administrative determinations, court awards and arbitral decisions related to a wide range of laws covering wages, safety and health, collective bargaining, family and medical leave and civil rights protections. The goal is to ensure that government contracts will not be awarded to businesses that repeatedly violate their workers’ rights.
Reps. Ellison and Lewis Want to Make Union Organizing a Civil Right
Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and John Lewis (D-GA) introduced legislation (H.R. 5280) this week that would add unionization as a legally protected civil right. Their bill would make it easier for workers to take legal action against companies that violate the right to organize. Currently, wrongfully terminated employees must file an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This legislation would also allow workers to individually sue their employers over allegations of illegal retaliation. “Our proposal would make disciplining or firing an employee on the basis of seeking union membership illegal, just as it now is on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and national origin. It would expand the fundamental right of association encapsulated in the First Amendment,” the congressmen explained in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
Federal Spending Bills on Hold Until September
It is officially summer vacation for Congress, leaving only eight working days before the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30. None of the 12 annual spending bills for fiscal year 2015 has been finalized. The partisan divide in the Senate has prevented any spending bills from advancing to floor votes; the House has voted on only seven bills. It is very likely that a stop-gap spending measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), will be approved by the end of September and it will likely continue through the November elections, when Congress will return in a “lame duck” session to either complete a combined funding bill, a full year CR, or possibly another short-term CR that leaves the longer-term decisions to the next Congress.
House Votes to Authorize Speaker to Sue President Obama
On Thursday, the House voted 225 to 201 for H. Res. 676, a resolution authorizing House Speaker Boehner to initiate a lawsuit against President Obama over the administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Specifically, Republican leaders charge that the President violated the ACA when he opted for a one-year delay in the enforcement of the law’s requirement that employers provide health coverage to their workers or pay a penalty. Despite their desire to repeal the employer responsibility provisions and the entire law, House GOP leaders plan to sue the President for not adhering to the law’s deadlines regarding the employer requirements.
The vote on H. Res. 676 was along party lines. No Democrat supported the resolution and all but five Republicans voted for it. One of the Republicans who voted in opposition, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), urged the House not to waste money on a lawsuit and instead initiate impeachment proceedings against the President. AFSCME sent a letter to the House of Representatives urging members to vote against the resolution.
Senate Republicans Block Substantive Vote on “Bring Jobs Home Act”
The Senate voted 54 to 42, largely along party lines, to block a substantive vote on the “Bring Jobs Home Act” (S. 2569), which would end subsidies that encourage firms to send jobs and profits overseas. The bill would eliminate federal tax deductions for moving expenses to businesses that move jobs overseas and it creates a new tax credit for businesses that bring jobs back to America. Only one Republican voted to end debate and only one Democrat voted against ending debate. Given the Senate requires 60 votes to end debate, the almost unanimous opposition of Senate Republicans prevented any vote on the bill’s substance. AFSCME strongly supports this legislation.
House and Senate Pass Veterans Health Bill
The House overwhelmingly passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act (H.R. 3230) by a vote of 420 to 5 and the Senate passed the bill just before it adjourned for August recess. The bill is in response to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal involving falsified appointment records that hid long wait times due to staffing shortages. The bill increases veterans’ access to health care both through non-VA Medicare providers and by increasing the VA’s own staffing levels. It provides Medicare with $10 billion and the VA with $5 billion and expedited authority to hire more doctors, nurses and other medical staff. The VA will also have increased authority to fire, remove or demote senior executives found to have poor performance or be guilty of misconduct.
Bill Introduced to Provide States with Budget Certainty for Children’s Health Insurance Program
Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Extension and Improvement Act of 2014 (H.R. 5634) to extend funding for CHIP through 2019. Without the passage of this or similar Senate legislation (S. 2461), states will have no new funding available for the CHIP program after September 2015. CHIP provides health care for roughly 8 million children and pregnant women in low-income families whose earnings are above Medicaid eligibility levels. Thanks to CHIP and Medicaid, the national coverage rate for children is at an historic high of 92.8%. Without CHIP, states that provide CHIP coverage through their Medicaid programs stand to lose between $2.8 billion and $3.2 billion in federal funding in 2016, which will cause children to lose health care and will depress economic activity. States that operate separate CHIP programs could lose even more, between $5.1 billion and $6.9 billion, in federal support for children’s coverage.
Health Equity Bill Introduced
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), along with other 65 members of Congress, introduced the Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2014 (H.R. 5294). The bill provides comprehensive and targeted next steps to eliminate health care disparities for our nation’s diverse and underserved groups and builds upon the advances made in the historic Affordable Care Act. H.R. 5294 would remove the unfair five-year bar on coverage for public health programs for lawfully present immigrants. It would also ensure our health care system responds to changing demographics by addressing the lack of infrastructure and workforce to provide in-person medical language interpreting services to individuals with limited English proficiency. AFSCME President Lee Saunders called for Congress to pass this important legislation to alleviate the injustice caused by health disparities.
Medicare and Social Security Trust Funds Solvency
The Medicare and Social Security trustees’ report projects that Medicare’s hospital insurance coverage funds will remain solvent until 2030 and that the Social Security trust fund can continue to pay 100% of benefits through 2033. Medicare’s financial condition is even more robust than last year because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) reforms continue to help slow health care costs. Although the Medicare Part B premium (for doctor visits) for 2015 will not be determined until later this year, the trustees predict no increase for the second year in a row.
The Social Security trust fund had a $32 billion surplus last year and is on track to run another surplus this year, increasing its total reserves to nearly $2.8 trillion. The trust fund’s assets are projected to decline in about a decade due to substantially more individuals becoming eligible for the benefits and other economic factors. Social Security is funded through payroll contributions, which is impacted by wage stagnation and downturns in the economy.
The Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund will need additional funding by the end of 2016, consistent with last year’s report and projections as far back as 1995. The simple step of reallocating payroll tax income across the two Social Security trust funds has addressed this issue in the past and can again. AFSCME urges Congress to take this step and rejects calls to undermine the sole source of income protection that is working well for America’s working families.
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