Week Ending June 22, 2012
Senate Passes Farm Bill with SNAP Intact but Cut
After rejecting amendments that would have converted the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) into a block grant and cut its funding almost in half, the Senate passed its farm bill (S. 3240) by a vote of 64 to 35. Unfortunately, the body rejected an amendment sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would have restored a $ 4.5 billion SNAP cut, which will cause approximately 500,000 households a year to lose $90 per month in SNAP benefits. An amendment sponsored by Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) that would have shifted federal funding from SNAP to food banks was defeated, as was an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) that would have eliminated SNAP performance bonuses to states. Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) amendment that would have used the farm bill to pass unrelated legislation amending the National Labor Relations Act to allow employers to pay higher wages to chosen employees was also defeated. And, an amendment was adopted by voice vote that requires three reports on the effects of automatic across-the-board cuts that are scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2013. They would address the impact on both defense and non-defense programs that Congress funds each year.
The House-approved budget would slash SNAP by nearly $133 billion over 10 years, and convert it into a block grant. The House Agriculture Committee approved a proposal that would take the entire amount of immediate cuts from SNAP and none from farm subsidies. It is expected to finish writing its farm bill in July. If it passes the full House, the next step would be for the Senate and House to negotiate a final bill for President Obama’s consideration.
President Obama Grants Temporary Legal Status to “DREAMers”
Last Friday, President Obama announced a new immigration policy that grants temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. It resembles the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which has been languishing in Congress for more than a decade. To be eligible for the “deferred action” President Obama has instituted, the young person has to be under 30 years old, been living in the U.S. for at least five years, and must enroll or been enrolled in school or serve in the military. The new directive gives these immigrants a renewable two-year reprieve from deportation, and allows them to apply for authorization to work. It does not, however, offer a path to citizenship. For that, Congress must pass the DREAM Act or similar legislation.
AFSCME President McEntee lauded President Obama’s action, announcing last Friday that “this bold and courageous action will allow these young people to continue to develop their talents and academic skills – which is the fair and right thing to do – and our country will reap the benefits of their contributions.” AFSCME will continue to actively support the DREAM Act to provide these youth with a path to full citizenship, and comprehensive immigration reform to fix all of our nation’s broken immigration system.
Agreement on Highway Bill Closer Yet Still Far Away
In an attempt to jumpstart negotiations on the surface transportation bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) met this week with conference chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and vice chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-FL). The surface transportation bill funds the nation’s highway, highway safety and transit programs. News reports said the parties agreed to try to make progress this week on a possible agreement.
Negotiators are close to resolving some major issues in the highway and bridge provisions of the legislation. But other issues, including the House-language expediting approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, have not been resolved. Provisions dealing with safety, rail and mass transit remain unresolved. In addition, House negotiators continue to insist on including controversial provisions that were part of the House highway bill (H.R. 7), even though that bill was never brought to the floor for a vote. AFSCME is opposed to H.R. 7 because it contains extensive privatization measures that would negatively impact AFSCME transportation workers. The current extension is due to expire June 30. To avoid a shutdown of important highway funding, Congress may need to pass another extension, the 10th since the current law expired in September 2009.
Administration Threatens to Veto Transportation/Housing Spending Bill
The Obama administration has threatened to veto the fiscal year 2013 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) spending bill (H.R. 5972) which was approved by the House Appropriations Committee this week. H.R. 5972 provides $51.6 billion for FY 2013 for transportation and housing programs, $3.9 billion less than FY 2012 and $1.9 billion less than the president’s request. In a press statement, the administration stated the bill “undermines key investments in economic and community development programs that drive local innovations, while also weakening the safety net for Americans facing significant hardship in these challenging economic times.” The President’s Statement of Administration Policy (SAP), which criticized the underlying House Republican budget said, “these cuts were made in the context of a budget…giving millionaires and billionaires a tax cut and paying for it through deep cuts, including to discretionary programs.”
Some House members have also complained that the bill cuts funding for important programs, including the commuter rail program. H.R. 5972 also provides no funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program that provides federal aid for infrastructure projects with national or regional significance. The Senate transportation spending bill contains the current $500 million funding for TIGER. The bill provides $1.985 billion for the Public Housing Capital Fund, which is $85 million less than President Obama’s request and $4.525 billion for the Public Housing Operating Fund, which is the same as President Obama’s request. It includes $3.344 billion for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which is $396 million above President Obama’s request.
Rep. Ryan’s Budget Raises Taxes on Middle Class and Lowers Taxes for Millionaires
A new congressional analysis of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) House-passed federal budget proposal found it would significantly reduce federal taxes for the wealthiest 1% while simultaneously increasing taxes on households earning $50,000-$200,000. The June 20 report, from Congress’ Joint Economic Committee (JEC), found these unfair results are due to replacing the current six progressive federal income tax rates with just two rates of 10% and 25%, significantly lower than the current top rate of 35%. The House budget would also eliminate several federal tax exclusions and deductions, including many that benefit the middle class, such as the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health care insurance benefits and tax deductions for state and local taxes. The budget reduces taxes on the wealthiest 1% by taxing unearned income, such as capital gains and dividends, at much lower rates than ordinary income. Both capital gains and dividends are strongly concentrated among the wealthiest Americans.
Health Reform Law Forces Insurers to Rebate $1.1 Billion to Consumers and Employers
Millions of consumers and employers will receive rebates totaling $1.1 billion this summer from health insurance plans that failed to meet a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that requires them to spend at least 80% of premiums on health care services, and no more than 20% for overhead costs and profits. Plans that exceed this limit must give consumers or employers a rebate. Nearly 13 million Americans are expected to receive rebates averaging $151. This requirement in the ACA, known as the medical loss ratio standard, has also served to hold down premium increases by other health insurance plans seeking to avoid the need to issue rebate checks.
Affordable Care Act Provides New Funding for Community Health Centers
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded grants this week that will allow community health centers to expand and serve an additional 1.25 million patients. The expansion will create more than 5,600 health care jobs in both urban and rural areas and expand access to health care services to underserved communities in 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
More Than Three Million Young Adults Have Gained Coverage Due to Health Care Reform Law
A new report by the U.S. Department of HHS shows that 3.1 million young adults who otherwise would have been uninsured have gained health care coverage as a result of the ACA. The law requires insurers to allow young adults to remain on their parents’ plan until their 26th birthday, even if they move away from home or graduate from school. Before this measure took effect, young adults were the age group least likely to have health insurance. As a result of the law, the percentage of insured adults ages 19 through 25 has increased to nearly 75%. This coverage would be lost if the budget bill drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, approved by the House and endorsed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, were to become law.
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