Week Ending, March 30, 2012
Ryan Budget Passes House, Setting Stage for Path to Fall Budget Showdown
This week the GOP-led House passed the Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) budget, H.Con.Res. 112, by a vote of 228 to 191, with no Democratic support. It would impose considerable hardships on those who can least afford it, cutting critical programs and services by $4.1 trillion to finance $4.6 trillion in tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporations. Simply creating a budget was solely a political maneuver, since the budget levels for the next ten years were agreed to and set in the Budget Control Act (BCA), which passed last August. However, House GOP members reneged on that agreement, slashing the ten-year funding levels by more than $1 trillion, reducing the FY 2013 funding from $1.047 trillion to $1.028 trillion, cutting non-defense funds for FY 2013 an additional $30 billion, and increasing defense spending. Reopening last year’s deal means Congress will likely be unable to reach an agreement on the budget this year. This raises the possibility of a government shutdown just prior to the fall elections when Congress must pass a temporary measure to fund the government at least through the elections before they return in a lame-duck session.
Several substitute budgets were considered and rejected, including one offered by Reps. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Steve LaTourette (R-OH) that garnered support from a mere 16 Republicans and 22 Democrats. The substitute was based on the deficit commission proposal developed in November 2010 by Wall Street financier Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY). AFSCME strongly opposed the unfair and unbalanced Bowles-Simpson plan, and this budget substitute was even worse. AFSCME is concerned that congressional support for a “Go Big” approach to deficit reduction has garnered the support of many members of the Senate and House, on both sides of the isle. The Bowles-Simpson plan would have made deep cuts to critical programs, raised the eligibility age for Social Security to 69 and cut benefits up to 35%, cut and converted Medicaid into a block grant, eliminated Medicare as we know it and replaced it with vouchers, and threatened the tax benefits on employer-sponsored health insurance. The Cooper-LaTourette substitute raised $1 trillion less in revenues than Bowles-Simpson, protected preferential low tax rates for capital gains, and cut $800 billion more in critical programs than the BCA and $100 billion more than Bowles-Simpson.
U.S. Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Obamacare
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Four different issues were debated over the course of three days. Among the four issues, the greatest attention has been paid to the law’s “individual mandate.” Originally proposed by Republican leaders as an alternative to the Clinton health reform plan, the individual mandate would impose a fine on those who do not obtain health care coverage. The ACA imposes an individual mandate but also provides tax credits to those who do not get health coverage from their employer and must purchase coverage on their own.
Despite the focus on the individual mandate, it may be of lesser consequence than another question taken up by the Supreme Court – whether Congress exceeded its authority in expanding the Medicaid program. Those challenging the law argue that the ACA unconstitutionally undermines state authority by forcing states to expand their Medicaid programs. They make this charge despite the fact that the federal government will pay 100% of the cost of the expansion in the first three years and 90% of the cost over the long run; despite the fact that states may choose to opt out of the Medicaid program altogether; and despite the fact that the Medicaid program has been expanded on previous occasions. An adverse decision from the Court on this question could upend not just Medicaid, but many longstanding programs which are operated by the states with federal funding and according to federal standards. These include the unemployment insurance system, SNAP (formerly food stamps), education and transportation programs, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and more. Civil rights protections, health and safety standards for public employees and merit-staffing requirements all could be at risk if the Court rules that the Medicaid expansion is unconstitutional.
That the Court decided to consider the Medicaid challenge surprised many legal analysts, especially since the Medicaid expansion was not found to be unconstitutional in lower court rulings. AFSCME joined with many other organizations in filing a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that the Medicaid expansion is indeed constitutional.
AFSCME Nurses Defend Obamacare
Tom Connelly, a member of AFSCME Council 8 in Ohio, and Glenn McGarvey, a member of Connecticut Health Care Associates/NUHHCE, participated in press events this week to defend the Affordable Care Act and to urge that the benefits already being delivered by the law not be taken away from their patients. Both participated in a press conference with other nurses and doctors on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday morning. Connelly and McGarvey also gave interviews with several radio broadcasters who came from across the country to Washington for the proceedings.
Congress Extends Surface Transportation Funding
The House and Senate passed a 90-day surface transportation extension (H.R. 4281) just in time to avoid the expiration of current funding on March 31. The House passed the extension by a vote of 266 to 158 while the Senate passed the measure by voice vote. The Senate previously passed a two-year reauthorization to fund surface transportation projects, but the House leadership has refused to schedule a vote on the bill.
Senator Harkin Introduces Legislation to Rebuild America
After extensive hearings and consultation over the past year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) this week introduced bold and wide-ranging legislation to rebuild America’s middle class. The Rebuild America Act recognizes the drain that government layoffs have had on economic growth by investing in state and local governments to retain or hire teachers, police, firefighters and other local government employees. It includes funds to rebuild our roads, bridges and other infrastructure, modernize our schools, expand and improve child care opportunities, and expand job training in growing sectors of the economy.
In addition, the Rebuild America Act includes provisions to ensure greater financial stability for American families. It raises the minimum wage to $9.80 over three years, and strengthens overtime protections for white-collar workers. To provide greater security for seniors it would improve Social Security benefits and strengthen the private pension system. Finally, the legislation restores fairness to the tax code by including, among other measures, a Wall Street trading and speculators tax, provisions to ensure that the wealthiest taxpayers pay at least as much as middle-class families, and increasing the capital gains tax rate.
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