Week Ending May 22, 2015
Fast Track Bill Advances in the Senate
The Senate voted 62 to 8 to limit debate on fast track trade legislation and proceed to a final vote on the bill. AFSCME and other opponents of fast track had urged senators not to limit debate or the ability of senators to offer amendments to the bill. Five Republican senators joined most Democrats to vote against limiting debate. Thirteen Democrats joined most Republicans to vote to limit debate. We expect a fast track bill to be approved by the Senate before the end of the weekend.
The House is expected to take up fast track trade legislation in June. The great majority of House Democrats and a significant number of House Republicans oppose it. While it will be a tough fight to the end, we can defeat fast track in the House. But winning the House vote will largely depend upon the efforts of union members and activists in the states demanding that their representative vote no on the bill.
Senate Releases Funding Levels for Spending Bills
The Senate Appropriations Committee adopted funding levels for all 12 of its subcommittees, based on the Republican overall budget cap of $1.016 trillion. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) introduced an amendment to increase overall available funding to $1.091 trillion, equal to the President’s budget, and she also proposed to lower the funding level for defense-related Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) by $38 billion, down to the President’s proposal of $58 billion. The GOP has used OCO as a slush fund to increase defense spending and buffer it from the cuts imposed by across-the-board “sequestration” cuts. Non-defense programs, however, have no such funding assistance. The amendment failed by a party-line vote of 16 to 14. The Senate’s subcommittee allocations are similar to the inadequate levels adopted by the House. The Senate allocation for the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education Subcommittee is slightly higher, but is still $3.6 billion less than last year’s level and would result in enormous cuts to public services and programs that working families depend on, including public education, public health, employment services and others.
Sen. Sanders Introduces Bill to Provide Free College
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the College for All Act (S. 1373) that would eliminate undergraduate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. The bill provides $47 billion per year to states and requires a one-third state match, totaling $70 billion a year. The federal share of the cost would be offset by imposing a tax on Wall Street transactions by investment firms, hedge funds and other speculators. The legislation also would overhaul student loan programs so students and their parents could reduce crushing debt loads, which now exceed Americans’ total credit card debt. Federal profits on loans would be eliminated, work-study programs expanded and incentives offered for colleges and universities to keep costs down. AFSCME strongly supports this bill.
Sen. Sanders’ bill is one effort addressing rising college debt. College affordability and financial aid, in addition to accountability, accreditation, and campus sexual assault and safety, is being considered as Congress prepares to update the Higher Education Act (HEA). The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) has held a series of hearings, and Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has noted his intention to have a higher education reauthorization bill considered in the fall.
House Committee Approves Commerce-Science-Justice Budget Without COPS Hiring Grants
The House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year (FY) 2016 spending bill for Commerce, Science and Justice programs via voice vote. Included are major Justice Department grants that top AFSCME’s public safety legislative priorities. The committee provided $409 million for the Edward R. Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants (Byrne-JAG) for FY 2016, a $33 million increase over last year’s level. Byrne-JAG includes $22.5 million for the Bulletproof Vest Partnership program and $15 million for police body camera pilots and research.
Notably lacking from the spending bill are grants for hiring and retaining law enforcement officers, typically funded through Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring grants. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) offered an amendment that would have added $250 million for the COPS Hiring Program to fund 1,300 community law enforcement officers, but it was rejected 21 to 30. The White House objects to the lack of COPS Hiring funding.
President Obama Signs Top AFSCME Law Enforcement Priority, “Blue Alert” Act
President Obama signed the Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu National Blue Alert Act of 2015 into law. The Blue Alert Act, a top AFSCME law enforcement legislative priority, requires the Justice Department to create a notification system relating to assaults on police officers, officers who are missing in the line of duty, and credible threats against law enforcement. The system is modeled after Amber Alerts for abducted children and Silver Alerts for missing seniors. The Blue Alert Act is named after two New York Police Department officers who were killed in an ambush in December 2014. The legislation passed both chambers of Congress last week via voice vote.
Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Potential Air Traffic Control Privatization
Upset that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is not modernizing and implementing the satellite-based NextGen navigation system, the Senate Commerce Committee heard the case for separating air traffic control from the FAA and turning it over to a non-government entity. The FAA is due for reauthorization and supporters of FAA reform are proposing using that legislation as a vehicle for a major overhaul of the air traffic control system. Two shutdowns of the agency since 2012 and across-the-board “sequestration” cuts have destabilized FAA’s funding and its ability to implement a vast new navigation system, compelling National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi to tell the committee: “The current system is not dynamic enough to address the needs. We believe it’s time for a structural change.”
AFSCME opposes privatization or partial privatization of the air traffic control system and does not support separating those functions from the FAA. AFSCME joined other FAA unions and sent a letter to Congress stating, “the FAA must remain one cohesive unit in order to allow all FAA employees to continue working together for the benefit of the world’s foremost aviation system.” In addition to AFSCME President Lee Saunders, the letter was signed by the presidents of the American Federation of Government Employees, National Federation of Federal Employees, Professional Association of Aeronautical Center Employees, Laborers International Union of North America, Professional Aviation Safety Specialists and National Association of Government Employees.
Bill to Create Federal Pre-K Re-Introduced
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) re-introduced a slightly revised version of The Strong Start for America’s Children Act (S. 1380; H.R. 2411). The bill would provide preschool funding through grants to states, with requirements for states to provide funding as well. These new resources would be used to establish and expand full day, high-quality programs. The federal funding is targeted to serve children from families earning below 200% of the federal poverty level. The bill requires preschool teachers to have BA degrees and training in early education, commensurate pay with K-12 teachers, small class sizes and low child-to-staff ratios, evidence-based and developmentally appropriate instruction and comprehensive services, including parent engagement, nutritious meals, and health screenings and referrals.
The House bill includes new, strengthened worker protections for employees and applicants undergoing required background checks, including an individualized assessment for those with convictions covered by the legislation and specified timelines for appeals. The Senate is considering similar changes. AFSCME supports The Strong Start for America’s Children Act.
House Passes and Senate Expected to Pass Two-Month Extension of Highway Bill
The House voted to extend funding for transportation projects for two months after the Congressional Budget Office reported that the Highway Trust Fund would be solvent through at least the end of July, 60 days later than previously expected. The House passed the extension, 387 to 35. The Senate is expected to pass the two-month extension before Congress leaves for its Memorial Day recess. This short extension sets up a showdown over transportation spending for later in the year, as a long-term extension of surface transportation projects is critically needed. Congressional leaders remain split over how to finance these projects. Some are calling for the first increase in the gasoline tax since 1993, which has historically funded these projects but has recently fallen behind the rise in inflation. Others, such as House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), hope to tie long-term transportation funding to major tax reform, financing the projects through a tax loophole for offshore corporate profits known as repatriation. AFSCME strongly opposes such loopholes that give unfair tax breaks to corporate interests, shifting tax burdens onto the backs of working families. Leaders of both parties hope to find a long-term solution to transportation funding in the next 60 days, as Congress has relied on numerous short-term patches over the last several years.
Immigration Reform Activities
Labor, community, civil and immigrant rights organizations publicly marked May 19, the day President Obama’s Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) was to go into effect. The President’s DAPA executive action allows most parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to live and work in our country without fear of deportation. Unfortunately, DAPA and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) expansion are on hold awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit (Texas v. United States) brought by 26 state attorneys-generals against these executive actions. The case is now before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The AFL-CIO held a press conference earlier in the week pledging its continued advocacy for implementation of President Obama’s executive actions and comprehensive immigration reform. And, more than 30 mobilizations in over 17 states took place on May 19 in support of these executive initiatives.
House Democrats called on the Obama administration to stop detaining mothers and children who have crossed into the U.S. to escape violence and other hardships in their home countries. “It is immoral to keep children and moms in jail while their cases are pending,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration and Border Security subcommittee. Close to 440,000 mothers and children are in custody under family detentions even though the law allows immigrants to be released to family members in the U.S. while their asylum cases are pending. Rep. Lofgren pointed to the use of monitor bracelets as a less expensive, more humane alternative for ensuring that families attend their hearings. Other congressional speakers at the House Democrats’ press conference included Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), co-chair of the House Immigration Task Force, and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
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