Week Ending March 18, 2016
Budget With Deep Cuts Stalls in House
After nearly a month-long delay, the House Budget Committee passed its fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget resolution in a largely partisan vote of 20 to 16, with all Democrats opposing. Two tea party Republicans also voted no because they wanted less spending.
While the budget blueprint adheres to FY 2017 spending levels, it cuts FY 2018 funding for domestic programs by $55 billion, then freezes domestic program spending resulting in cuts of nearly $156 billion by 2026. These enormous cuts would shrink annual, federal spending for domestic programs to levels roughly half the average under President Reagan, and nearly $1 trillion over 10 years below the already harsh capped levels. Anti-poverty programs would be cut by $3.5 trillion over 10 years, eliminating nearly half of federal resources for low-income assistance. The budge raises zero revenues nor requires the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share. The 2018 cuts, compared to the President’s proposed budget, would result in 100,000 children losing Head Start services, cutoff job training and employment services to 2.3 million workers, cut Title I education for low-income students by $1.8 billion (enough to fund 7,000 schools, 24,000 teachers and aides, and 2.1 million students), and cut funding for special education by nearly $1.1 billion and eliminate 18,400 jobs.
Once again, the budget undermines the health security of Americans by gutting three pillar programs that allow Americans to see a doctor or go to the hospital. It fully repeals the Affordable Care Act, putting Americans again at the mercy of insurance companies and taking away affordable health coverage from more than 20 million people. The budget would end the guarantee of Medicare and replace it with a voucher of fixed payments toward the purchase of private health plans or traditional Medicare. This change would save the federal government $449 billion over 10 years by shifting those costs onto seniors and individuals with disabilities. And, the budget would turn Medicaid into a block grant with a cut of about $1 trillion over 10 years. A Medicaid block grant would shift costs of health care for poor people and individuals with disabilities onto states or force states to limit Medicaid eligibility, reduce benefits, limit support for public hospitals, or increase out-of-pocket costs for beneficiaries.
The budget would convert the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) into a block grant funding stream to states, which would cut billions from the program over the next decade. These so-called “state flexibility grants” would change policies set in the 2014 farm bill by targeting the fundamental funding structure for SNAP. The fixed funding of a block grant would mean that states would no longer receive additional federal funding to enable them to respond quickly to economic downturns or natural disasters. The 2014 farm bill already reduced the SNAP program by nearly $40 billion over 10 years.
Democrats proposed nearly two dozen amendments including emergency funding for Flint’s water crisis, increasing overall investments for safe drinking water and to prevent childhood lead exposure. They also tried to remove the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, to enact comprehensive immigration reform, amd more. All Democratic amendments were defeated on partisan lines. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) are pressing the House to approve emergency funding for Flint and for combatting the Zika virus and opiod abuse.
The budget outcome is uncertain at this time. It’s not clear there are enough Republican votes to pass the plan. Discord among House Republicans has pushed back floor consideration. Regardless of the budget’s progress, House and Senate spending bills are being acted on, with the first subcommittee vote planned for next week for FY 2017 Veterans’ and Military Construction funding.
Flint Residents Demand Immediate Action by Congress
On Thursday morning at 8:00 a.m., three busloads of activists, including many AFSCME members, arrived on Capitol Hill after a twelve hour overnight drive from Flint, Michigan. They came to D.C. to demand immediate action by Congress to address the water crisis that has put the health of tens of thousands of Flint residents at risk from lead-contaminated water. Today, the water in Flint is not safe for drinking, cooking or bathing.
In addition to lobbying and participating in a press conference with Senator Gary Peters (D) and Reps. Dan Kildee (D) and John Conyers (D) of Michigan, the activists attended a hearing in the House featuring Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R). In lobbying and in interviews with the press, Flint residents told how they had been poisoned by the water. The personal stories about the impact on children were horrific. Lead poisoning is especially harmful to young children because their brains and nervous systems are still developing. Even minimal exposure can cause severe mental, physical and behavioral impairment that cannot be reversed.
The water crisis in Flint occurred when state officials took over the City of Flint and decided to switch the water supply in April 2014 in order to save money. The new supply of water was so contaminated with chemicals that it caused lead to leach from pipes. The Obama administration has approved a temporary expansion of the Medicaid program to provide specialized health services to some children and pregnant women. But Congress must act to provide more comprehensive help that is not typically available through health insurance coverage. Legislation (S. 2579) to assist the City of Flint to obtain loans to replace corroded pipes is pending in the Senate. But even this minor first step of help has been blocked by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).
Senate Completes Short-Term Extension of FAA Programs
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed by voice vote a four-month extension of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs to buy time for both the House and Senate to complete work on a longer-term renewal.
On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee worked on legislation that would provide $33.1 billion through FY 2017. Committee Chairman John Thune’s (R-SD) bipartisan legislation comes after a year-long fight in the House over Rep. Bill Shuster’s (R-PA) plans to privatize air traffic control operations. That proposal, The Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4441), was met with near-unanimous opposition from unions representing FAA employees, as well as bipartisan opposition in both chambers of Congress. AFSCME was at the forefront of the anti-privatization fight and will continue to oppose efforts to privatize fundamental public services.
The four-month extension will now be sent back to the House for passage, while Rep. Shuster and Sen. Thune decide on a course forward for a longer reauthorization. While both the House and Senate’s legislation has advanced through their respective committees, no timeline exists for either bill to get a floor vote.
House Committee Slashes Federal Support for Anti-Poverty and Health Programs
On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee voted on partisan lines to cut $98 billion for programs that benefit poor children, vulnerable seniors, people with disabilities and other struggling Americans. One measure (H.R. 4722), sponsored by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) and approved by a vote of 21 to 15, would deny eligibility for the refundable child tax credit to five million children living in low-income households by requiring that a parent have a Social Security number. About four million of affected children are U.S. citizens. Currently, workers who do not have a Social Security number (many of whom have been unable to attain work authorization in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform) can pay their taxes and file for the child tax credit using an Individual Tax Identification Number. This bill would push millions of children deeper into poverty while “saving” $20 billion over 10 years.
The panel voted 22 to 15 to approve H.R. 4723, introduced by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), which would eliminate current caps on the amount low- and moderate-income families must repay when changes in income or family size reduce the amount of tax credits they are eligible to receive under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Currently, to prevent punitive repayments for unanticipated changes in family circumstances, the ACA limits the amount that must be repaid. This bill would impose a substantial burden on low-income and older households, increase the number of uninsured, and drive up costs for all those enrolled in marketplace coverage. It is estimated that as many as 250,000 people would forgo health coverage to avoid the risk of overpayments. The estimated savings from H.R. 4723 is $45.8 billion over 10 years.
Finally, H.R. 4724, introduced by Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX) and approved by a vote of 20 to 16, would eliminate the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG). This block grant is a vital and flexible funding source that has been helping children, older adults and people with disabilities since it was established in 1981. SSBG has enabled 34 states to employ more caseworkers to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect; 36 states use SSBG funding to provide services to domestic violence survivors; and this block grant supports states and local governments in providing and expanding adult protective services as well as child care, employment services, senior services, mental health services and services to people with disabilities. H.R. 4724 would save $16.5 billion over 10 years.
AFSCME urged the Committee to reject these measures and instead realize budget savings by ending tax breaks that provide direct aid to the wealthy and to profitable corporations. We will continue to oppose these bills.
House Panel Adopts Bill Cutting Public Funds and Federal Medicaid Support
A House panel adopted the Common Sense Savings Act of 2016 (H.R. 4725), which would shift $30 billion in costs from the federal government to states and counties for public health, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs (CHIP). The partisan vote was 28 to 19. H.R. 4725 will increase the number of uninsured Americans and will prompt cuts to state Medicaid and CHIP by repealing a short-term boost in the federal match for CHIP. Last year, Congress approved the CHIP federal match boost as scheduled, with overwhelming bipartisan support. The bill would also limit states’ ability to tax health care providers (such as hospitals and nursing facilities) to help fund the state share of Medicaid costs. And, it eliminates all funding from the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, which enables states and localities to respond to infectious diseases, improve access to immunizations and prevent lead poisoning among children. AFSCME strongly opposes enactment of this legislation.
House Passes Resolution to Attack President Obama’s Immigration Executive Actions at the U.S. Supreme Court
On Thursday, the House GOP majority took the unprecedented step of passing a resolution that allows the House of Representatives – as a governmental body of the legislative branch – to file an amicus brief in the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Texas, taking the position that President Obama did not have the authority to issue immigration executive orders. The resolution passed along party lines, 234 to 181, with no Democrats voting in favor and only five Republicans voting against. Earlier in the month, Democrats in both the House and Senate filed a brief defending the President’s actions.
United States v. Texas is the result of the legal challenge by 26 state attorneys generals’ to President Obama’s November 2014 executive actions that established the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program and expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Conservative lower courts have halted implementation of both. The U.S. Department of Justice appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the President’s executive actions to move forward. The Court will hear oral arguments in the case on April 18, and a decision is expected in June.
President Obama Nominates Merrick Garland for U.S. Supreme Court
President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. As the current chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, he is a well-known jurist and no stranger to Washington legal circles where he has drawn praise from members of both parties. He was approved by the Senate to the U. S. Court of Appeals in a 76 to 23 vote in 1997. His nomination now goes before the Senate for consideration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who just hours after Scalia’s death last month said the vacancy should be filled by the next president, wasted no time making clear that the Senate will neither hold a hearing nor vote on the nomination. Some Republican senators have said they will not even hold a courtesy meeting with the nominee, as is customary. In what some see as the beginning of a weakening for the Senate leadership position, some Republican senators, in the face of strong opposition to doing nothing on the nomination, have reversed themselves and now said they will at least meet with the nominee.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) stood by McConnell’s decision, saying: “I fully support Leader McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley’s (R-IA) decision not to move forward with the confirmation process.” President Obama, for his part, said: “It is tempting to make this confirmation process simply an extension of our divided politics, the squabbling that’s going on in the news every day, but to go down that path would be wrong. It would be a betrayal of our best traditions and a betrayal of the vision of our founding documents.”
AFSCME’s President Lee Saunders said: “After decades of CEOs and corporations manipulating our nation’s rules to serve their interests, it is vitally important that the next U.S. Supreme Court justice brings balance to the highest Court in the land. The American people also deserve a Supreme Court that can function at full strength with nine qualified justices. President Obama has done the job he was elected to do by nominating a qualified justice to the Supreme Court. Congress must now do its job. To deprive the judicial branch of the government of a full Supreme Court bench in the name of political gamesmanship is an unprecedented level of obstruction.” For more information in support of the Garland nomination, please see postings on the AFSCME Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/AFSCME
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