Week Ending November 22, 2013
Congress is in recess until December 2, when the House returns. The next Federal Legislative Report will be on December 6.
Budget Deadline Looming
This week, budget conference negotiations continued behind closed doors with conference co-chairs Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) talking on a daily basis in an effort to reach a deal. However, Congress adjourned this week for the Thanksgiving holidays, and the House and Senate will not both be in session again until December 9, five days prior to the December 13 deadline to reach an agreement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) urged his House colleagues to stick to the Ryan budget’s low spending levels and to resist efforts to change or replace the across-the-board sequester cuts. Senior GOP chairs of the House Appropriations subcommittees, however, released a letter to budget conferees urging changes in the sequester, in a tacit recognition that spending bills crafted at sequester levels were too low to garner enough votes to pass.
Senate Approves Historic Rules Change
The Senate approved an historic rules change on Thursday that eliminates the use of the filibuster for all presidential nominees except those to the U.S. Supreme Court. In doing so, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) invoked the long-threatened “nuclear option,” meaning he called for a vote to change the Senate rules by a simple majority. It passed, 52 to 48. All Republicans and three Democrats – Sens. Carl Levin (MI), Joe Manchin (WV) and Mark Pryor (AR) – voted against changing the rules. The unprecedented rules change means that President Barack Obama’s judicial and executive branch nominees no longer need to clear a 60-vote threshold to get a vote on the Senate floor.
Both parties have threatened to change the rules in recent years — but Reid said he felt compelled to finally pull the trigger after what he described as unprecedented use of the filibuster to block President Obama’s three nominees to the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Senate’s new rules will also pave the way toward smoother confirmations for two more key Obama nominees: Janet Yellen for Chair of the Federal Reserve Board and Jeh Johnson for Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), nominated to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, will also likely benefit. The Senate has scheduled a vote on D.C. Circuit Court nominee Patricia Millard in December; subsequent votes on the remaining two nominees to fill the D.C. Circuit Court bench, Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins, are expected soon thereafter.
AFSCME President Lee Saunders released a statement, declaring: “Washington is broken and the extreme partisan gridlock in the Senate is untenable. Senator Reid did the right thing in moving to change Senate rules to allow a majority vote on most executive branch nominations. This is a major step toward resolving Senate obstructionism.”
Health Care Spending Slows Down
The White House Council of Economic Advisors released a report this week that found that health care spending in Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance has slowed to the lowest rate on record. Per capita spending has grown at an average annual rate of 1.3% during the three years since 2010. While the report indicates that there are many reasons for the slower growth, provisions in the Affordable Care Act are a significant factor.
Affordable Care Act Makes Coverage More Affordable for Vast Majority
A new report by Families USA shows that 71% of those in the individual insurance market will get help paying for health coverage through the exchanges. Just under 6% of the non-elderly population, or about 15 million people, obtain their health coverage through the individual market, rather than through an employer. The vast majority will be eligible for tax credits to help pay for coverage or will be eligible for Medicaid. Despite the disruption in the individual market, including policy cancellations, it is clear that the majority stand to gain more affordable coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
House Panel Challenges Rule to Give Home Care Workers Overtime
The Worker Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing November 20 on the recent final Department of Labor (DOL) rule that extends the federal Fair Labor Standards Act's (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime protections to most of the nation's workers who provide in-home supports and services to elderly people and people with disabilities. The final rule goes into effect January 2015. During the hearing Reps. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), Joe Courtney (D-CT) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) helped to dispel some myths about the roles, most notably that it would turn family friends who on occasion look in on a neighbor, into employees. This is specious, as the rule does not change current law defining “employer” or “employee.” For DOL factsheets on the rule go to: http://www.dol.gov/whd/homecare/factsheets.htm
On November 15, DOL hosted a symposium to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the FLSA. April Jones-Britt, President of AFSCME Local 406, which represents Maryland’s independent home care providers, introduced U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez at the event. Jones-Britt thanked the Secretary for his leadership on issuing the home care provider final rule which will allow nearly two million direct care workers – including home health aides, personal care aides and certified nursing assistants – to receive the same basic protections already provided to most U.S. workers. “By issuing this rule the Administration is saying home care providers – and the men and women who depend on our services to lead their lives fully – are not invisible,” said Jones-Britt. AFSCME has been at the forefront of ending this long-standing injustice.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus Floats Tax Reform Proposals
This week, Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) floated drafts of three tax reform proposals covering international taxes, tax administration, and cost recovery and tax accounting rules. This is an attempt to jumpstart Congress’ dormant tax reform process, which has been superseded by congressional debate on the troubled Obamacare website rollout and deliberations of the House-Senate Budget Committee Conference aimed at avoiding another federal government shutdown. House GOP leaders have encouraged House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) to delay tax reform.
AFSCME is most troubled that the international tax plan is “revenue neutral,” meaning any changes cannot result in more revenue than are currently being collected. Moreover, Baucus wants his corporate tax plan to also be revenue neutral, offsetting broadening the corporate tax with a reduction in the corporate tax rate. Instead, tax reform should generate significant revenues that help create jobs, invest in vital public services and infrastructure, and close tax loopholes for large profitable corporations.
Although Baucus’ plan closes several significant offshore tax loopholes that incentivize corporations to send jobs and shift profits overseas, his overall plan is inadequate and permits too many loopholes to remain. AFSCME supports stronger legislation that closes more overseas tax loopholes, such as Sen. Carl Levin’s “Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act” (S. 1533), which would close the worst tax loopholes, raise more than $220 billion of additional revenue, promote domestic manufacturing and bring jobs back to America.
There is little chance tax reform will reach the House or Senate floor before next year and some think action will wait until after the November 2014 elections.
Immigration Reform’s Fate Still Up in the Air
While immigration reform remains stalled in the House of Representatives, reform advocates have been bringing increased pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other GOP leaders to allow a vote so that House and Senate legislation can be reconciled into a bill President Obama can sign. Since last week, several immigration reform advocates have been “Fasting for Families” in a tent on the National Mall. They have received visits from numerous members of Congress as well as Vice President Biden. Other activities targeted at House leadership this week included delivery of a turkey and wine to Speaker Boehner to remind him that these Thanksgiving items are made possible by immigrant labor, and demonstrations in front of House offices, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA).
Speaker Boehner said on Thursday that the House will move piecemeal immigration reform bills, but no action has been taken for several months. His commitment to passing meaningful immigration reform legislation is questionable given that he declared recently that the House will not allow any bill it passes to be reconciled with the Senate bill (S. 744) which passed with broad bipartisan support last June.