Week Ending July 31, 2015
Budget Battle Brews for Fall Showdown
With Congress preparing to adjourn for its summer recess, only 10 currently scheduled legislative days remain to ensure that the government does not shut down after September 30, the end of the fiscal year. With only half of federal funding bills having cleared the House and no bills passed by the Senate, much work remains. Furthermore, from all reports, any new action on spending bills is at a virtual standstill. Clearly, Congress will need to pass a stop-gap funding measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to extend current funding levels so that the government does not shut down on October 1.
The stakes for this fall's budget negotiations are enormous. President Obama has threatened to veto all spending bills that are based on the GOP’s budget that eliminates the planned $54 billion in defense cuts but still slashes $37 billion through across-the-board "sequester" cuts to non-defense programs. This will result in huge funding reductions for important public services including education, healthcare, transportation, public safety and more. Senate Democrats are in agreement with the President and have blocked any funding bills from getting votes on the Senate floor. Further, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew noted that the extraordinary measures taken to forestall reaching the federal statutory debt ceiling will likely be exhausted by late October. So, we are facing a perfect storm that includes avoiding a government shutdown by passing a CR, adjusting the planned sequester cuts, negotiating the many harmful legislative policy “riders” that have been included in House funding bills, passing a long-term highway bill, preventing a breach of the debt ceiling, and addressing political landmines like Confederate flags and funding for Planned Parenthood, all coming to a head in a short period of time. AFSCME continues to advocate for relief from the sequester funding cuts, new revenues, further politicization of budget decisions, and using the debt ceiling to hold the full faith and credit of the United States and the stability of our economy hostage to unreasonable budget demands.
Senate Passes Six-Year Highway Bill While House Recesses, Forcing Three-Month Patch
On Thursday, the Senate passed its six-year reauthorization of surface transportation programs by a bipartisan vote of 65 to 34. Nineteen Democrats and 15 Republicans opposed the bill. However, the House began its August recess hours prior to the Senate vote. Instead of passing the Senate’s legislation, the House approved a three-month funding patch for highway programs that extends through October 29, forcing the Senate to do the same for now. The House will work on its own longer-term bill in September with hopes to go to a conference with the Senate’s bill to resolve differences.
AFSCME joined with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) in opposing the Senate bill as drafted. The legislation includes a new pilot program that would open the door to privatization of transportation programs and favor public-private partnerships.
The highway agreement provides, “expedited delivery for capital investment grants.” The new program would incentivize private capital to build such projects. At labor’s insistence standard 13c labor displacement protections were added, and the pilot project was limited to 10 projects. The bill also includes a funding offset that would require the federal government to use private debt collection agencies to help facilitate the collection of federal taxes. AFSCME opposes privatizing inherently governmental functions, including tax collections.
House Takes Civil Service Protections Away From All Veterans Affairs Employees
The House passed the VA Accountability Act of 2015 (H.R. 1994) by a vote of 256 to 170. AFSCME opposed the bill. It would not increase accountability and instead strips due process and civil service protections from Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees. These civil service rules are needed to safeguard rank and file VA workers from retaliation when they raise concerns and challenge mismanagement or other practices that harm veterans. Basic civil service due process rights are important to block corruption, patronage, discrimination, and political pressure to cover up problems in the delivery of public services. The bill also repeals due process rights for whistleblowers who have been key to drawing attention to any wrong-doing within the VA. AFSCME supported a substitute amendment, offered by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), which provided a limited exemption to current civil service protections if the health and safety of veterans were threatened. It was defeated by a vote of 191 to 233, mostly along party lines.
House Again Advances Bill to Constrict Federal Agencies’ Ability to Enact Health and Safety Protections
For the second time in three years, the House passed the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act (H.R. 427), almost entirely along party lines. Only two Democrats—Reps. Henry Cuellar (TX) and Collin Peterson (MN) – voted in favor of the legislation. AFSCME strongly opposes the damaging REINS Act (AFSCME’s opposition letter: http://www.afscme.org/issues/reins-act). If enacted, the legislation would make it virtually impossible for federal agencies to protect the public by allowing Congress to stop the enforcement of laws and rules that are essential to protecting workers and the public. The REINS Act would require both chambers of Congress to approve any major rule within a 70-day window before the rule could move forward. If Congress fails to act, the rule could not take effect and would be tabled until the following Congress. As a result, the federal rulemaking process would grind to a halt. While the Republican-controlled Senate is likely to take up the legislation—it is a top priority for anti-government corporate interests—the White House has threatened to veto the legislation.
Universal Child Care Introduced
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and 27 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) introduced H.Res. 386, calling for access to universal and high-quality child care. The resolution notes that child care is a necessity for working families and essential for child development, yet federal support is insufficient to support the needs of working families. It calls for increased investments to provide child care assistance to all families in need. It would ensure that child care expenses comprise no more than 10% of income; that child care is available 24 hours a day to accommodate varying work schedules; that all eligible families receive assistance; and that child care quality is improved. The resolution also calls for a minimum wage of $15 per hour for child care providers and also for additional assistance for working families including paid sick days and family leave, fair work schedules, universal preschool, and stronger child nutrition programs. AFSCME supports H.Res. 386.
50 Years of Keeping America Healthy; Happy Birthday Medicare and Medicaid
Fifty years ago, on July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law. Together, these programs currently serve 111 million beneficiaries. Over the decades they have helped millions of Americans visit a doctor, get needed medical care, and go to the hospital when needed. These programs are a lifeline to health and financial security for millions of American families. Half of all Medicare beneficiaries have an income of less than $23,500. Medicaid provides health insurance for 1 out of 3 children in our nation and 2 out of 3 nursing home residents. The investments made by Medicare and Medicaid save lives and improve the economic security of our nation. But, Medicare and Medicaid are under attack in Congress. To tell members of Congress to “Keep your hands off Medicare and Medicaid!”, go to afscme.org/action/preserve-medicare.
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