Week Ending December 13, 2013
Bipartisan Budget Deal Reached
Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) reached a two-year budget agreement in advance of the budget conference’s December 13 deadline. The House quickly approved the plan and it now moves to the Senate for expected approval next week.
Overall, the agreement is an opportunity to move past the annual budget crises of the past several years and hopefully prevent another harmful government shutdown in January. It provides much needed, although modest, relief from destructive across-the-board “sequestration” cuts planned for the current Fiscal Year 2014 and the following FY 2015. Overall federal spending for FY 2014 – including aid and grants to state and local governments – would increase from $967 billion to $1.012 trillion, providing an additional $22 billion for domestic programs over last year. Importantly, the deal avoids benefit cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, a major GOP priority in the talks.
However, the legislation falls short in critical ways. It fails to extend current federal unemployment benefits that millions of unemployed workers and their families depend on for basic needs, leaving 1.3 million workers and their families facing the abrupt termination of these lifeline benefits in a few weeks, although Democratic leaders vow to revisit the issue in early January. It also increases pension contributions by federal workers and fails to raise new revenues needed to pay for additional federal spending and avoid even more sequester cuts now and in the future.
The deal also provides a three-month “patch” to avert the scheduled cuts in reimbursements to physicians who treat Medicare patients in order to give Congress additional time to finalize a permanent solution for doctor payment rates. The budget also extends for an additional two years the 2% cut in all Medicare provider payments required by the Budget Control Act. And, it eliminates cuts in FY 2014 ($500 million) and FY 2015 ($600 million) for Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) allotments, which provide states with critically important federal funds for safety net hospitals and health systems (i.e., those hospitals that treat a high volume of the uninsured or low-income populations). Unfortunately, the DSH cuts are scheduled to double in 2016 to $1.2 billion.
Due to the budget agreement’s failure to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, it requires even more sacrifices from federal workers by increasing their pension contributions. Newly hired federal employees hired after December 31, 2013 with less than five years of past federal service would be required to contribute an additional 1.3% of their salary toward their pensions. And, the addition of a new “self plus one” category in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) will further increase health care costs for families of three or more.
During House consideration of the bill, the Democratic leadership pushed for a vote to extend the federal unemployment insurance program. AFSCME strongly supported that effort, but it failed on a party-line vote of 227 to 195. The House then passed the budget agreement, by a vote of 332-94. The Senate will likely vote on the budget agreement next week. Assuming it passes, appropriators will prepare a funding bill with individual program funding levels for Congress to approve after the holidays but prior to January 15 when the current funding bill expires.
AFSCME is urging Congress to move beyond the politics of austerity to invest in vital services, education, infrastructure and research in order to strengthen the economy and create new jobs. We strongly urge Congress to raise revenues by closing corporate tax loopholes and making wealthy individuals pay their fair share of taxes.
Immigration Reform Advocates Do Final Push Before House Leaves D.C.
During the House of Representatives’ final week at work before its extended holiday recess, immigration reform advocates and congressional proponents accelerated the pressure on the House GOP leadership to move forward on allowing a vote on legislation to fix our broken immigration system. On Thursday, dozens of House members stood on the steps of the Capitol, declaring that passing immigration reform is a moral imperative and that the votes exist to pass a bill today. On the same day, hundreds gathered at the Fast for Families tents on the National Mall to rally for immigration reform and recognize those who fasted for 22 days. A growing number of senators and representatives continue to fast in solidarity with fasting immigration reform advocates. On Wednesday evening, Reps. Joe Garcia (D-FL) and Jared Polis (D-CO) went to the House floor in hopes of having a dialogue with their GOP colleagues who have publicly opposed immigration reform that includes a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in our country. Unfortunately, none of these reform opponents showed up. The battle for immigration reform will continue over the holidays and into 2014.
365,000 Americans Select Health Care Plans Under the Affordable Care Act
As progress has been made in resolving technical issues on the federal online portal, some 365,000 Americans have selected health care plans through the Affordable Care Act through November, according to a new report. Since October 1, 1.9 million have received an eligibility determination but have not selected a plan. An additional 803,077 were determined to be eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Bill Introduced to Create Federal Paid Leave Program
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced a bill, The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act (H.R. 3712/S. 1810) to require employers to provide paid family and medical leave. Current law, The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), provides unpaid, job protected leave for serious health-related events, but many workers are not covered by the FMLA or cannot afford to take unpaid leave. The FAMILY Act would cover all workers, regardless of the size of their employer, and create an independent trust fund within the Social Security Administration to collect contributions and provide benefits. It would be funded by matching employee and employer contributions of .2% of wages. Benefit levels would be modeled on existing successful state programs in New Jersey and California that would equal 66% of a worker’s typical monthly wages up to a capped monthly amount indexed for inflation. AFSCME strongly supports The FAMILY Act.
Nina Pillard and Patricia Millett Confirmed as D.C. Circuit Court Judges
The Senate confirmed Patricia Millett and Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Both votes were largely along party lines. Millett was the first nominee to be confirmed under the “nuclear option” which altered Senate rules to require only a majority vote for Senate approval of federal judges (excluding Supreme Court nominees) and presidential nominations. Nina Pillard is expected to be a strong advocate for working families, having served previously as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. A vote on a third D.C. Circuit nominee, U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins, is expected to occur soon.
The Senate also approved several other non-judicial and Administration nominees that had been held up, including Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
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