Week Ending February 5, 2016
Congress Examines Flint Water Crisis
The Flint water crisis took center stage in Congress as Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Gary Peters (D-MI), along with Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), proposed $600 million in federal emergency relief for Flint to address lead contamination in the city’s water supply. The crisis was precipitated by a state-mandated change to Flint’s water source backed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI). The proposal calls for $400 million to be matched by the state to replace the water infrastructure to address badly corroded water pipes which pose a serious lead health risk to residents. The remaining $200 million would fund a Center of Excellence on Lead Exposure to monitor and assist Flint residents over the next 10 years. The Democratic proposal also would allow the state of Michigan to forgive Flint’s debt of about $20 million for prior infrastructure spending and includes a policy change that would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a public warning when state environmental officials do not take decisive action on unsafe drinking water. Sen. Stabenow said "there's no doubt" in her mind that if the water problem had occurred in a wealthy, white community, the state would have responded immediately.
Senate Democrats are pushing to include the Flint relief package as an amendment to a wide-ranging energy bill (S. 2012) now under consideration by the Senate. That bill has bipartisan support, but the Flint relief and other issues have caused Republicans to block its passage. They are objecting to providing emergency relief to Flint without paying for it with offsetting spending cuts.
Gov. Snyder was omitted from the witness list at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier in the week that focused on the crisis and who was responsible. Committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), attempting to shift blame, suggested EPA officials had not acted quickly enough in Flint in the face of numerous warnings. Chaffetz said Darnell Earley, who was Flint's state-appointed emergency manager between 2013 and 2015, was subpoenaed to testify but he did not appear at the hearing. Chaffetz said Earley will "do a deposition later this month." A number of Flint residents, including several AFSCME members, traveled by bus to attend the hearing and a follow-up press conference to demand accountability. The Flint residents held up bottles of brown Flint tap water and shared concern about potential life-long health impacts on their children’s developing brains in addition to hair loss, rashes and other immediate effects.
Senate Committee Approves Child Nutrition Bill
The Senate Agriculture Committee passed by voice vote the “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016” to reauthorize programs for school, afterschool, and summer meals and snacks; the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) for infants and children in child care, and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
AFSCME is disappointed that the bill reallocates current resources instead of adding new investments needed to expand and strengthen these essential programs for children’s health and learning. The bill makes significant changes to the verification process for schools to confirm which children are eligible to receive free and reduced price meals, increasing the percentage of applicants to be verified from the current 3% to as much as 15%. While the bill includes some adjustments to reduce administrative burdens, AFSCME is concerned about the impact on vulnerable children, especially low income, migrant and immigrant children who may lose meals because their parents are unable to fill out mandatory forms.
The bill also streamlines the summer food program, allowing states to provide $30 per month during the summer to electronic benefit cards, and creates a pilot program in six states to allow summer food sponsors and schools to provide suppers. The WIC program would expand eligibility for children through their sixth birthday rather than their fifth birthday unless they are in full day kindergarten.
AFSCME led efforts to improve CACFP, including an additional snack for children in child care for nine hours or more a day, requiring that the Agriculture Department review the “serious deficiency” process to assure a clear and fair system that does not unduly punish providers for errors misperceived as fraud, and continuing efforts to reduce paperwork. AFSCME continues to work on improvements in the bill as it progresses to a Senate floor vote.
House Committees Vote to Block Department of Labor “Fiduciary” Rule
The Department of Labor (DOL) sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for final review, its rule covering fiduciary regulation protections, which would help protect individual investors saving for retirement by requiring investment advisors to act in their clients’ best interests. Typically, OMB takes 60 to 90 days to review and to publicize this type of final rule. In this case, OMB is expected to expedite the process in as few as 50 days. AFSCME supports the administration’s rule making process and looks forward to the forthcoming final rule.
Meanwhile, two separate House committees passed bills that could be used to block the administration from finalizing its rule to protect investors. Both committees voted along party lines to approve the bills: “Affordable Retirement Advice Protection Act” (H.R. 4293) and “Strengthening Access to Valuable Education and Retirement Support Act” (H.R. 4294). In the House Education and Workforce Committee, every Republican voted to approve the two bills and every Democrat voted to oppose. In the House Ways and Means Committee, every Republican voted to approve H.R. 4293 and every Democrat vote to oppose except Reps. John Larson (D-CT), Richard Neal (D-MA), and Mike Thompson (D-CA). AFSCME opposes these bills and is working in coalition with the AFL-CIO, progressive consumer groups, and financial reform advocates to oppose any legislation that would delay, derail or weaken this DOL rulemaking.
This DOL rule is necessary because current law allows investment advisors to recommend specific investment strategies that enrich themselves but are not in their clients’ best interest. AFSCME strongly supports DOL’s current proposed rule which would protect individuals saving for retirement by prohibiting conflicts of interest that has led advisors to profit on the backs of investors, and has resulted in a reduction of investment returns by an estimated $17 billion per year.
On Groundhog Day, Another Failed Attempt to Overturn Health Care Reform
On Tuesday, the GOP-led House failed to muster the two-thirds majority required to override President Obama’s veto of legislation (H.R. 3762) that would have gutted the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The partisan vote was 241-186, with Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) the only Democrat voting in favor of dismantling the ACA and Reps. Robert Dold (R-IL), Richard Hanna (R-NY), and John Katko (R-NY) the only Republicans who voted against overriding the President’s veto. This futile vote follows dozens of others to overturn this law that has substantially reduced the number of uninsured, ended pre-existing condition disqualifications, allowed children under the age of 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance, and provided a host of other positive reforms to our health care system.
U.S. Signs Deeply Flawed Trans-Pacific Partnership
This week in New Zealand, the U.S. and 11 other nations signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). AFSCME strongly opposes this trade agreement. Contrary to claims that the agreement will raise labor standards, it fails to take the steps needed to raise poverty-level wages in even the poorest countries or ensure that workers have the right to organize. The agreement provides corporations with incentives to move jobs overseas and fails to stop other countries from manipulating their currency in order to make U.S.-made goods less competitive.
The agreement includes provisions that will make it harder to address skyrocketing prices for pharmaceutical drugs, which are putting financial pressure on Medicare, Medicaid and job-based health plans. And, the agreement provides global corporations with expansive legal rights to challenge laws and regulations that protect Americans at work, in their homes and in the marketplace. These challenges would not be heard in U.S. courts, but in private, international trade tribunals which could demand federal, state or local governments to compensate corporations when government rules diminish their expectation for profits.
Signing the TPP is not the same as ratifying it. Before our country is bound by it, Congress must pass it. AFSCME, along with our labor, environmental, consumer and other allies, continues to strongly oppose the TPP and will urge Congress to reject it.
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