Week Ending June 12, 2015
House Debates Fast Track and Other Trade-Related Bills; Results are Inconclusive
On Friday, the House debated Trade Promotion Authority, or fast track legislation, and a bill to renew the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program. The TAA renewal bill, which was opposed by AFSCME and the broader labor movement, was defeated by a wide margin of 126 to 302. The fast track bill, also opposed by AFSCME and labor broadly, was approved by the very narrow margin of 219 to 211. Because the fast track bill was combined in the Senate with TAA, it cannot be sent to the President for his signature. Therefore, it appears that the House Republican leadership plans to hold another vote on TAA next week.
AFSCME has long supported the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. But this version of TAA was deeply flawed. First and foremost, the bill failed to cover public sector workers at risk of losing their jobs as a consequence of trade agreements. More and more, trade agreements are aimed at opening up public services to privatization by global firms. Given the increased risk to public employees, it is indefensible that the TAA bill excludes public workers. The TAA bill was also greatly underfunded, especially given the size of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that the administration hopes to conclude in the next couple months. The bill also included a cut in Medicare in order to pay for the cost of TAA. We cannot afford to allow Medicare to be raided to pay for programs that do not support health care for seniors.
The bottom line is that the fight over fast track and this version of TAA is not over. We succeeded this week in blocking progress on the bill. But, the challenge of defeating fast track and this TAA bill continues next week.
Sen. Warren Proposes Comprehensive Plan to Make College Affordable
This week Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed a comprehensive framework for making college affordable. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has been holding hearings to prepare to update the Higher Education Act later this year and considering issues including college affordability. In response to the crisis of $1.3 trillion in total student debt, Warren's proposal calls for streamlined measures to access student loans, increase investments in higher education at the state and federal levels, and accountability requirement for colleges to keep costs down. These would include simplifying financial aid, allowing students to refinance student loans, requiring colleges to share in the risk of student loans, rewarding colleges that keep costs down, requiring colleges to focus resources on education rather than other expenses, and penalizing colleges and student loan servicers that break the law and cheat students. AFSCME strongly supports efforts to improve access to college and make it more affordable.
House Approves Inadequate Funds for Transportation and Housing
The House voted 216 to 210 largely on party lines to narrowly approve a Republican leadership spending bill, which underfunds housing and transportation services and infrastructure for the next fiscal year beginning October 1. The bill’s total funding is nearly $10 billion below President Obama’s budget request. AFSCME opposes this bill (H.R. 2577) because its overall funding level is too low and it cuts funding for key AFSCME priorities in public housing, community development, and transportation. Only three House Democrats voted to approve the bill, and 31 Republicans voted against their leadership to reject the bill.
More specifically, the bill underfunds Public Housing Operating Fund at a flat-funded $4.4 billion, which funds public housing authorities (PHAs) at less than 85% of their needed operating budgets. The bill cuts the Public Housing Capital Fund by 10%, or $194 million. This is less than PHAs’ annual capital needs and does nothing to reduce public housing's $26 billion modernization backlog. In transportation, the bill undermines the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) modernization efforts by cutting $100 million from the program. This harmful cut comes amidst congressional hearings investigating FAA’s modernization delays, which are largely due to Congress’ failure to appropriate adequate funds. And, despite the recent crash of an Amtrak train and resulting deaths in Philadelphia along the heavily traveled Northeast corridor, this bill cuts Amtrak grants by $250 million below last year’s level.
The White House has threatened to veto this bill due to inadequate funding levels. It is not clear when the Senate will vote on its version of this bill. Much of the bill’s federal funding goes directly to state and local governments, which in turn employ many AFSCME members.
House Approves Permanent Ban on State and Local Government Taxation of Internet Access
The House approved via voice vote the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA) (H.R. 235). AFSCME opposes this bill because it restricts state and local government taxing authority, which reduces the ability of state and local governments to raise funds to invest in needed infrastructure, education, health care, workforce programs, and other vital public services. Federal involvement in states’ taxing authority is typically unwarranted, narrows the tax base, reduces revenues collected, and often leads to harmful unintended consequences. In this case, the internet’s huge economic value, its vast and expanding importance to daily life, and the vague statutory definition of “internet access” makes this particular taxing prohibition especially troubling and will likely cause fiscal problems for state and local governments. The current temporary ban on internet access taxes is scheduled to expire on September 30. AFSCME led union opposition to this bill and 12 unions signed a joint letter opposing it, including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, AFT, NEA, and SEIU.
The lead Senate bipartisan sponsors of the Marketplace Fairness Act of 2015 (MFA) (S. 698), which allows state and local governments to require internet sellers of goods to collect sales tax, issued statements urging passage of both a temporary ban for internet access tax and MFA. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said: “The Marketplace Fairness Act that would level the playing field for small businesses passed overwhelmingly in the Senate last Congress. … I hope we can move both measures as soon as possible.” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) said: “Let’s pass both of these needed bills together to help level the playing field and give small businesses, as well as individuals and families, fixes they deserve.” AFSCME supports the Durbin-Heitkamp approach.
House Workforce Protections Subcommittee Contemplates Changes to Fair Labor Standards Act Regulations
On Wednesday, the House Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing titled “Reviewing the Rules and Regulations Implementing Federal Wage and Hour Standards.” The hearing focused primarily on proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) overtime rule expected from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) in the coming weeks. The FLSA, passed in 1938, establishes the federal standards for minimum wage, overtime, recordkeeping, and youth employment in the private and public sectors. While all parties seemed to agree that the FLSA needs updating, the House majority and minority disagreed on needed policy changes.
Currently, the FLSA requires employers to pay most employees overtime pay at one and one-half times their regular pay rate for the hours they work above 40 in a workweek. However, it exempts from overtime pay executive, administrative and professional employees who earn a weekly salary of at least $455 and have job duties that include managerial responsibilities or require the use of advanced knowledge. The USDOL is expected to raise the salary threshold, thus including an additional 6.1 million American workers eligible to receive overtime pay. The GOP majority panel members and their witnesses argued that allowing more employees to become eligible for overtime protections would be burdensome to businesses. They also said that employers could offer “comp time” — that is, give employees time off instead of overtime pay, which they insisted employees would prefer. Seth Harris, former Deputy Secretary of Labor and a Democratic witness, noted that increasing the number of employees eligible to receive overtime pay would benefit local economies because when working people earn more, they spend more. Subcommittee Ranking Member Frederica Wilson (D-FL) stated that further erosion of the overtime rule would increase income inequality and harm an already weak middle class. AFSCME fully supports the expansion of the overtime rule and legislation such as the Raise the Wage Act that would increase the minimum wage to $12.00 by 2020, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which addresses gender income disparity.
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