Week Ending December 12, 2014
House Passes Bill to Fund Fiscal Year 2015; Senate Passage and President’s Signature Expected Soon
By a vote of 216 to 206, the House narrowly passed a $1.013 trillion spending package for the rest of Fiscal Year 2015 which began on Oct. 17. It now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to pass, thus averting a government shutdown. The package funds 11 of the 12 federal spending bills through the full FY 2015, but the Department of Homeland Security is only funded through February, as insisted to by those who want to express that opposition to President Obama’s Executive Action on immigration reform. The package adheres to the funding levels and across-the-board “sequester” cuts agreed to for the final year of the two-year Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) – Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) budget plan.
Overall, the bill flat-funds the federal government, but the impact will be harsher than it appears. This will be the fifth year in a row of austerity budgeting. While most annually-funded domestic programs were either level-funded or cut, defense spending was increased by $3.3 billion and continues to be buffered by a deep fund for “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) that does not count against severe budget caps separating non-defense and defense funding. There is no such slush fund for domestic programs which have been cut on average by 15% since 2010. For example, funding for the Department of Education will be nearly $1 billion below the pre-sequester level.
In addition to setting funding levels for this fiscal year, the bill includes several harmful policy “riders.” Many others have been proposed that would have dealt serious blows to collective bargaining, home care providers right to overtime, worker protections, new protections against fraudulent for-profit schools, to school nutrition requirements and many other programs. These were not included to ensure enough Democratic votes for passage.
Dodd-Frank: The bill strips from the Dodd-Frank banking reform law a vital consumer safeguard, the so-called “swaps push-out” rule. This means reverting back to allowing Wall Street derivatives traders to engage in the same risky transactions that resulted in the financial meltdown of 2007 which caused the Great Recession.
Campaign Finance: The bill would allow wealthy individuals and PACs to increase the amount they contribute to party committees. Because the contribution limits are already higher for individuals than PACs, the changes further increase the influence of wealthy donors in the political process. The bill creates seven new accounts for each party which can receive contributions from PACs and individuals. As an example, a current contributor to the three Democratic committees (DNC, DCCC, DSCC) is able to give a combined total of $97,200 each year. Under the bill, a wealthy contributor will be able to give a total of $324,000 combined each year. A spouse could make the same contribution. This change is likely to advantage Republican Party fundraising.
Pension changes: The bill includes a compromise provision offered by Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and John Kline (R-MN) allowing pension plan trustees the option to cut current retirees’ pension benefits as a way to shore up financially-troubled private, multi-employer pension plans. This provision would also improve the financial status of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) through increased contributions.
White House Hosts Summit on Early Childhood Education; Launches Invest in Us Campaign
This week the White House hosted a summit of early childhood stakeholders including elected officials, community leaders, philanthropists, educators, and advocates to discuss how public and private efforts can support early care and education. President Obama announced a $1 billion public-private investment, including $330 million in pledges from corporate and philanthropic leaders along with $750 million in new federal grants to support the expansion of state-based pre-k and early learning partnerships with Head Start. The President also helped to launch the First Five Years Fund’s “Invest in Us” campaign, designed to engage all stakeholders in an effort to increase funding for early education.
The new federal grants include $250 million to support pre-school development in AL, AZ, AR, CT, HI, IL, LA, ME, MD, MA, MT, NV, NJ, NY, RI, TN, VT and VA. Early Head Start- Child Care Partnership grants were awarded across 49 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands to support 30,000 infants and toddlers.
Senate Panel Examines Need to Strengthen Social Security for Women
The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing examining the need to strengthen Social Security for women. According to the Census Bureau, retired women are nearly twice as likely as retired men to live in poverty. Millions of women, far more than men, depend on Social Security for nearly all of their income when they retire. The wage inequality women experience during their working lives carries through in their retirement. With fewer employers, and pensions under attack and being eroded, Social Security is the most stable and reliable program for retirement. It keeps 15 million elderly Americans, including 9 million women, from tumbling into poverty. But with its modest benefits, it needs to be expanded and strengthened. During the hearing Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) announced that he plans to advance legislation in the next Congress to expand Social Security benefits, strengthen the program’s future and make retirement more secure by ensuring that monthly Social Security checks keep up with living expenses of retirees.
Strong Partisan Differences in Senate Panel on Obama’s Immigration Executive Action
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on President Obama’s Executive Action on immigration. In her opening remarks, Acting Chair Mazie Hirono (D-HI) said that the President’s actions will promote keeping families together, help all workers, create jobs, and give a boost to our economy. She also noted that 27 mayors sent a letter in support of the Executive Action, and law enforcement, faith leaders and the business community have expressed their support as well. Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-IA) lambasted the President, saying he has a pattern of abusing power and not faithfully executing laws.
Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, testified at the hearing. She explained the negative impacts of the status quo on all workers and our economy. It forces undocumented immigrants to work in the underground economy where they are victims of wage theft, sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions. She noted that bringing these workers into the regular economy will increase revenues for federal, state and local governments, and will raise wages. She urged Congress to reject failed temporary guest worker programs, and to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship.
A Duke University law professor explained to the Committee that President Obama’s Executive Action is completely within his presidential powers, as enforcement discretion is common for many laws and several previous presidents, both Democrat and Republican, have used this discretion in enforcing immigration laws. And, a DREAMer who was brought to the U.S. at 4 years old by her parents gave her personal story of being able to go to college and get a driver’s license since gaining legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program President Obama launched in 2012. She now hopes her parents can also be free from the worry of being deported. President Obama’s most recent Executive Action gives them that opportunity.
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