Week Ending July 19, 2013
Senate Avoids Change to Rules
Due to an unprecedented level of obstruction in the Senate which delayed votes on the confirmation of important Obama Administration nominees, including Secretary of Labor, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director and five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) threatened to change the Senate rules. He wanted to end the use of the filibuster against executive branch nominees by using the so-called “nuclear option” by allowing a simple majority vote rather than the supermajority of 67 senators typically required for such changes. However, after a rare joint meeting in the Old Senate Chamber, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ) forged a compromise that did not involve changing Senate rules. The Senate subsequently approved the nominations of Richard Cordray as Consumer Financial Protection Agency Director, Tom Perez as Secretary of Labor, and Gina McCarthy as EPA Administrator. The compromise ensures that nominees to the NLRB will be confirmed by August 1, ensuring a functioning board.
Student Loan Compromise Reached
A reported compromise on student loans (S. 1334) has been negotiated between a bipartisan group of senators and President Obama. The new terms of student loans will apply retroactively to before the July 1 doubling of subsidized Stafford loan rates. The compromise sets a single rate for subsidized and unsubsidized student loans and higher rates for graduate school loans and PLUS loans taken out by parents, with caps for each. Overall, the plan ties all loan rates to the 10-year Treasury note plus the following additional specified percentages and specified caps:
- 2.05% for undergraduate loans. The re-adjusted rate would be less than 4% this year, instead of 6.8%. The rate could rise as high as 8.25% before reaching the cap;
- 3.6% for graduate school loans. The new rate would be about 5.4% instead of 7.9%, and could rise as high as 9.5%.
- 4.6% for PLUS loans. The new rate would be about 6.4% instead of 7.9% and could rise as high as 10.5%.
AFSCME, progressive allies, and a number of senators have concerns that the rates and caps are too high and that $715 million in loan profits will be used for deficit reduction on the backs of students and parents. We are pleased to see that the bill requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report the actual costs of student loans by the end of November. Further, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) is expected to offer an amendment to the bill that would cap student loan rates at 6.8%. The House seems poised to adopt the Senate's compromise.
Voting Rights Act Reconsidered Following Supreme Court Decision
This week, the House and Senate held hearings on the Voting Rights Act (VRA) following the Supreme Court’s recent Shelby County decision. Shelby County struck down Section 4 of the VRA which specifies a formula to determine which areas of the country require federal approval or “pre-clearance” of any changes to voting procedures. House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who led the last VRA reauthorization in 2006, noted that a re-write will be very challenging but said, “I feel we have to take the time to do it right…the right to vote is precious [and] the Voting Rights Act has been successful in enfranchising people, particularly those of color in the South…and making it a viable law will prevent slippage back to the bad old days.” Committee members discussed whether the VRA’s Section 2 would be sufficient since it bans discriminatory voting laws. In the Senate, several senators and witnesses raised concerns that Section 2 alone would be an expensive, after-the-fact solution and called for additional federal legislative safeguards to protect against potentially restrictive voting laws or changes in electoral procedures at the state and local levels.
House Passes Education Reauthorization; Would Dismantle 45 Years of Policy in Support of Disadvantaged Children
The House passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) (H.R. 5) largely along party lines by a vote of 221-207. Twelve Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting against the bill. President Obama has threatened to veto the measure.
The House-passed bill would reauthorize ESEA, known from its last reauthorization as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). While NCLB has serious problems requiring legislative corrections, H.R. 5 does far more damage. It guts Title I (Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged) by allowing states and school district to shift funds that are intended to assist disadvantaged students to wealthier schools. It would even require that 10% of Title 1 funding be used for private school vouchers. H.R. 5 weakens protections for students with disabilities, restricts funding aimed at keeping class sizes lower, and fails to ensure that all children receive quality education. Instead of improving standards and accountability to ensure that students are college or career ready, H.R. 5 strips ESEA of accountability requirements. Most troubling, H.R. 5 sets funding levels at post-sequester levels which are wholly insufficient to ensure quality education. It is very unlikely that the House and Senate can resolve the significant differences between their bills, so ESEA is likely to stall yet again.
Talk But Little Movement on Immigration Reform in the House
This week, the House held no hearings, mark-ups or votes on immigration reform legislation, either piecemeal or comprehensive. The bipartisan Gang of Seven, which continues to meet to work on its comprehensive bill, is expected to introduce its legislation after the August recess. Several House leaders who in the past have opposed a path to citizenship for the DREAMers – those undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children – have been speaking favorably about such a bill now. They include Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Judiciary Committee Chair Robert Goodlatte (R-VA). Speaker Boehner this week also reiterated the House GOP’s insistence on a piecemeal approach to immigration reform and that border security is the first bill that will be taken up on the House floor.
On Thursday, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), sponsored a labor immigration reform briefing for House labor and immigration staff. A large, bipartisan group attended and heard speakers from the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, AFT and the Building Trades discuss key labor issues in comprehensive immigration reform. These issues included eliminating a second class status for undocumented immigrants in the workplace, which harms all workers; ensuring that employment-based visa programs are not used to depress wages and reduce skill-building for U.S. workers; more strongly regulating labor recruiters to stop the exploitation of immigrant workers; and ensuring that legalizing immigrant workers have the same tax and benefits policies applied to them as they are to non-immigrant workers.
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