Week Ending March 24, 2017
On Friday, facing sure defeat, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) cancelled a vote on the American Health Care Act, legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid payments to the states. The bill is opposed by all Democrats. In addition, there are at least two dozen Republicans who were ready to vote against the bill. The Republican opponents included a mix of moderates who oppose it because it would hurt too many people and right-wing members who believe the bill does not go far enough.
The vote was a stunning defeat for House leaders and President Trump. But even more, it was a stunning victory for the voters and activists across the country who stood up and fought back to protect the ACA and Medicaid. AFSCME activists turned out at town hall meetings, attended protests, made phone calls, sent letters and used social media to demand that their members of Congress reject the plan to take health coverage away from 24 million people. While the fight may not be over yet, this defeat of the GOP leadership bill demonstrates the power of grassroots action and of ordinary citizens who step up and fight back.
Because of special budget rules, this bill cannot be taken up by the Senate until the House approves it. Therefore, we will not see any action in the Senate, at least for now. We should take the time to celebrate this enormous victory. But we must remain vigilant. Speaker Ryan and leaders in the Senate are committed to restructuring and cutting Medicaid and we can bet that they will try again to reach this goal.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held four days of hearings on the nomination of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch to be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Members of the committee attempted to review Gorsuch’s record and beliefs on a number of issues, in addition to his work experiences. However, in answering questions about his rulings and writings Gorsuch failed to be specific and direct. Many believed he not only chose to dodge pressing questions, but failed to be forthright in the answers he did give.
Gorsuch refused to be held accountable for his past work or to give Senators and the public any understanding of his judicial philosophy. Moreover, he failed to adequately reassure people that he would truly be an independent voice, and a fair and impartial arbiter of the law. This was especially important because many of his past rulings take the position of corporations and employers over workers and the rights of consumers. Concerns were heightened even more, due to the fact he was hand chosen by President Trump from a list of the most conservative candidates.
In announcing opposition to the nomination, AFSCME President Lee Saunders said, “Judge Gorsuch has failed to demonstrate and give fundamental assurances that he would be an independent voice on the court who will use the Constitution to protect the rights of everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.” A committee vote on the nomination is expected next week.
Alex Acosta appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in a hearing regarding his nomination to be Secretary of the Department of Labor. In discussions about his views on overtime protections, health and safety, and retirement security, Acosta refused to commit to fully preserve these and other protections. Rather, all he would say is that he would be open to considering the issues. The only thing Mr. Acosta was clear about was his intention to follow the direction of the President.
Several senators questioned whether Acosta would stand up for American workers. AFSCME will continue monitoring this nomination as it moves through the process. A committee vote is expected at the end of next week.
In a straight party-line vote of 50 to 48, the Senate approved a resolution gutting a regulation that requires employers to keep complete and accurate records of workplace injuries and illnesses. The regulation was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to clarify a longstanding recordkeeping policy that had recently been up-ended by a court decision. While the law requires employers to maintain records of injuries and illnesses for five years, OSHA will only be able to enforce the requirement for the most recent six months. As a result, employers will have license to hide injuries and falsify records. The House of Representatives had previously approved the disapproval resolution. President Trump is expected to sign the legislation.
On March 22, the House Judiciary Committee voted 19 to 2 to approve the Mobile Workforce State Income Tax Simplification Act (H.R. 1393), which would ban state and local governments’ existing income tax from applying to the in-state income of most “out of state” residents. H.R. 1393 would unfairly preempt and restrict this longstanding taxing authority of states and localities. It would disproportionately reduce tax revenues in certain affected states. For example, New York state annual revenue would be reduced by about $100 million and thereby reduce their ability to invest in education, health care, infrastructure, and other vital public services.
AFSCME opposes H.R. 1393 and led the opposition of other public sector unions, including issuing a letter signed by 11 labor unions opposing this bill.
The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on March 22 entitled, Oversight Hearing on The Status of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) Restructuring Support Agreement. Although Republicans intended to focus narrowly on this topic, Democrats raised broader issues afflicting Puerto Rico, including the ongoing fiscal and humanitarian crises, harmful cuts in the Junta’s recently approved fiscal plan, and the need for federal financial assistance to assist Puerto Rico’s 3.8 million American citizens. Some House Democratic committee members highlighted the fiscal plan’s harmful cuts to Puerto Rico workers’ and retirees’ wages, pensions, and compensation. Other Democrats emphasized the fiscal plan’s proposed privatization and billions of dollars of budget cuts to health care services.
AFSCME continues to advocate for legislation to provide much-needed financial assistance to Puerto Rico and to ensure the current litigation moratorium expires as scheduled.
President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continue to place a high priority on “school choice,” whether it’s a voucher for a private school, a private school tuition tax credit, or a tax-free private education savings account or scholarship program. But as Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) explains in a report she issued, “providing students with more choices sounds great. But that is not what their plans would do. By diverting taxpayer funds away from public to private schools, we are taking away parents’ and students’ choice to go to a quality public school… It means forcing students to attend an unaccountable private school or an underfunded public school.”
These proposals often amount to tax breaks of billions of dollars, generally helping millionaires and upper middle class families, those who need it the least and are generally already easily paying private school tuition. That enormous tax cut robs public schools of the resources needed to invest in education. AFSCME strongly opposes vouchers, private school tuition tax credits, and tax-free private education savings accounts and scholarship programs.
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