Issues / Legislation » Legislative Weekly Reports

Week Ending November 15, 2013

Budget Conference Committee Meets, But No Closer to Consensus       

This week, the Budget Conference Committee met to hear testimony from Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Doug Elmendorf. He reported that the deficit overall is less than half of what it was when President Obama took office in 2009, and has dropped 24% since last year, However, Republican committee members continued to push for further cuts. Elemendorf noted that while the deficit is falling, sequestration is having a harmful impact on current economic growth and job creation which will worsen if the cuts continue. Democrat committee members pressed for replacement of sequestration.

Regarding taxes, committee members agreed on the need to close loopholes but Republican members want to punt that responsibility to the tax panels and to lower tax rates as part of comprehensive tax reform. They also pushed to explore cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, even raising the possibility of requiring states to pay more for the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.

 Republican and Democrat committee members remain highly divided on practically every issue, including the bottom line of funding levels for the remainder of this fiscal year. AFSCME continues to press for a budget plan that will create jobs, grow the economy, end sequestration, increase progressive revenues and protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (Becky Levin- blevin@afscme.org)

Rocky Rollout of Affordable Care Act

A faulty web site and insurance plan cancellation notices to several million consumers have rocked the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Some Democrats, facing tough elections, are growing nervous and are looking for ways to respond to complaints and fend off criticism of their support for the law. Democratic leaders are working to calm nerves to give the Administration more time to right the ship. The sense of alarm is fed by media reports that often fail to get the facts right and insurance companies that are attempting to manipulate consumers into purchasing another year of expensive, junk insurance.

There is no doubt that the ACA web site was not ready for prime time. Just as the Bush Administration stumbled with the rollout of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, the Obama Administration has stumbled with the ACA launch. But unlike Medicare Part D, the Administration’s ability to pull off a smooth rollout has been hindered by opponents who have done everything possible to derail it. Republicans in Congress were unwilling to enact technical corrections to the law, a common follow-up to the passage of complicated legislation. The GOP House leadership held countless hearings, interfering with the ability of Administration officials to focus on the work of implementation. They refused to appropriate funding for the federal exchange, forcing the Health and Human Services Department and other agencies to cobble together insufficient resources. And the government shutdown disrupted last-minute work on the federal exchange.

In the states, more than half declined to set up their own exchange, placing a greater burden on the federal exchange. Governors who oppose the ACA have done little to educate the public about the law and worst of all, half of the states declined to expand their Medicaid programs.

Many insurance companies compounded rollout problems by sending out cancellation notices without providing consumers with information about the options they have under the ACA, including that they may qualify for tax credits to purchase coverage through the exchange. Nor did the insurance companies inform consumers a year ago that their plan would not pass muster under the ACA because the company had significantly reduced plan benefits. No doubt, there are many consumers who earn too much to qualify for tax credits and who will pay more for coverage that meets the ACA standards. But they will also be protected from financial ruin if they get sick because their plans have been upgraded to pay for the medical care they need.

The very poor rollout has shaken the nerves of many consumers AND lawmakers. Because the enrollment deadline is the end of March, there is still time for the Administration to get the exchanges operating properly. AFSCME will continue to oppose proposals to change the law in ways that would undermine the exchanges or feed the appetite of opponents who want to derail it altogether. (Barbara Coufal- bcoufal@afscme.org)

President Proposes Regulatory Fix to Address Health Coverage Cancellations; House Debates Bill that Would Drive Up Cost of Coverage in Health Insurance Exchanges

In recent weeks, consumers who purchase their health coverage directly from insurance companies, rather than getting it through their employer, have received notices from insurers that their plans were being terminated because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Many of the insurance company notices were written to alarm and mislead consumers, often to direct them into more expensive coverage, rather than to inform them of their options under the ACA. 

In response to the situation, the President announced that the Administration would allow those currently covered by substandard plans to keep their coverage during 2014 if the insurance company opts to continue the plan and the state insurance commissioner agrees to allow the company to sell it. The President’s plan also requires insurance companies to tell customers that they can also access coverage through the health exchange and that they may be eligible for tax credits to help pay for coverage. And, his plan requires insurance companies to tell customers how their plan fails to meet the ACA standards.

Meanwhile, House GOP leaders scheduled a vote on Friday for the Keep Your Health Plan Act (H.R. 3350), introduced by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI). H.R. 3350 would allow insurance companies to continue to sell substandard health plans to those now covered by them and also to others. This would result in a bifurcated market with young and healthy people purchasing barebones coverage outside the exchange while the not-so-young, or those who have health concerns, would gravitate to the health exchanges for comprehensive coverage. As a consequence, the cost of coverage would be driven up in the exchanges. We are expecting H.R. 3350 to be approved by the House with near unanimous support from Republicans and some nervous Democrats. (Barbara Coufal- bcoufal@afscme.org)

House Vote Unlikely This Year on Immigration Reform Legislation

This week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) declared that he is unwilling to work with the Senate to fix our broken immigration system. Specifically, he said he would not allow any House bill to gain a floor vote that could be used to settle differences between it and S. 744, the Senate bill that passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in June. (The House and Senate must pass identical legislation to get a bill to President Obama’s desk to sign.) Unfortunately, the GOP House leadership continues to allow its Tea Party wing to dictate inaction. Pro-immigrant rights groups, including labor, civil rights, faith and other supporters are committed to continuing to build pressure on House GOP members to do whatever it takes to get its leadership to hold a vote on a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans living in the U.S.

H.R. 15, the House CIR bill that combines most of S. 744 with a bipartisan House bill on border security, continues to gain cosponsors. We expect several more GOP House members to sign on and join the three who are already cosponsors. President Obama held two meetings last week with two key CIR constituencies, corporate CEO’s and faith leaders, to strongly encourage them to use their influence to push for a vote in the House. 

Given the current political dynamics, it is increasingly unlikely that the GOP leadership will hold a vote this year. However, the window for moving comprehensive immigration reform does not close on December 31. Early next year offers another opportunity to get the House leadership to schedule a floor vote. However, as we approach the primary season for the 2014 mid-term elections, the window will narrow considerably as some GOP members may fear a primary challenge from the right if they support CIR. (Fran Bernstein- fbernstein@afscme.org)

Early Learning Bill Introduced to Fund Universal Pre-K and Child Care Partnerships

This week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) introduced the Strong Start for America's Children Act (S. 1697; H.R. 3461), a bill with the goal of ensuring that children enter school ready to learn by establishing full day, universal pre-kindergarten and preschool with appropriate wrap-around services and increased quality child care. The initiative includes a federal grant program to the states based on the number of children under age four living at or below 200% of the poverty level. This would be coupled with a $4 billion increase in federal funding to expand partnerships between Early Head Start and child care providers and increased investments to strengthen workforce and other quality initiatives. Up to 15% of the state grants could be directed to invest in child care, and all participating child care programs would be required to meet the standards and requirements of Early Head Start. Recognizing that universal pre-k and preschool will impact child care, the bill directs states to ensure that these new programs do not disrupt services for infants and toddlers. Unlike the President's budget proposal released earlier this year, the bill does not propose a tobacco tax to pay for the initiative, because GOP leaders have strongly rebuffed proposals for any new revenues. AFSCME is supporting this important effort to increase investments and quality in early learning. (Becky Levin- blevin@afscme.org)

A summary of the bill is available at: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/ecd/final_senate_summary.pdf  

Senate Republicans Block Another Presidential Nominee; “Nuclear Option” on the Table

This week GOP Senators blocked a vote on the confirmation of Nina Pillard to the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Pillard is a respected attorney, and AFSCME strongly supported her confirmation. Recently, GOP Senators also blocked the confirmation of Patricia Millett to the same court. President Obama's third nominee to the D.C. Circuit, Robert Wilkins, is expected to be up for a vote soon and, like his fellow nominees, will surely be blocked. The D.C. Circuit is the exclusive court to consider appeals of an array of agency regulations and decisions affecting the entire country. It often has the final word on labor and other laws as the U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear most cases on appeal. These three vacancies are therefore critically important. 

While GOP Senators accuse the President of attempts to “pack the court,” he is in fact solely attempting to fill established vacancies, not add seats. All Presidents have this power; indeed nine of the sitting D.C. Circuit justices were appointed by Republican presidents and five by Democratic presidents.

Due to GOP efforts to block these and other nominations, including Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is considering options to block the use of filibusters on presidential nominations. One option would be to change Senate rules to require just a simple majority vote instead of the 60 needed to proceed to consideration of a nominee. GOP Senators strongly oppose this so-called “nuclear option.” AFSCME supports efforts to break the minority party’s blockade of President Obama's judicial and agency nominees. (Becky Levin- blevin@afscme.org)

 Federal Unemployment Insurance Benefits Program Due to Expire

The current Federal Unemployment Insurance benefits program is scheduled to expire on December 29. Unlike in the past, there is no phase out for the program, which means that unless Congress acts, approximately 1.3 million jobless Americans will abruptly stop receiving Federal unemployment benefits on December 28. Another 1.9 million would lose access to benefits in the first six months of 2014 when their regular state Unemployment Insurance benefits run out.

With long-term unemployment still near the historic highs of the last three years and two million fewer jobs available than when the Great Recession started in December 2007, allowing the Federal program to lapse would not only cause devastating harm to workers and their families but also would hinder economic growth. According to estimates by the Economic Policy Institute, 310,000 jobs would be lost next year. AFSCME has begun working with congressional allies and worker advocates to press for a one-year extension of the current program. (Nanine Meiklejohn- nmeiklejohn@afscme.org)

GOP Senators Introduce Bill to Eliminate Traditional Pensions for New Federal Employees

This week, Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced the Public-Private Employees Retirement Parity Act (S. 1678), which would eliminate defined benefit pensions for federal employees hired six months after the Act became law. New employees would still receive matching agency contributions into their Thrift Savings Plan of up to 5 percent. Current employees would not be affected by the bill. The senators said the current federal employee pension system “unfairly” compensates public sector workers as compared with private sector workers. If this bill were to become law, it would cause major economic hardship for these public servants upon retirement and would have a detrimental ripple effect throughout our economy. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has indicated that he will not allow this bill to advance. (Fran Bernstein- fbernstein@afscme.org)

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