Week Ending November 6, 2015
House Passes $325 Billion Six-Year Highway Funding Bill
After three days of floor action and consideration of 126 amendments, the House passed a six-year reauthorization of surface transportation programs on Thursday by a vote of 363 to 64. A committee of legislators will now work out the differences between the House’s Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRR, (H.R. 3763) and the Senate’s DRIVE Act (H.R. 22). Congress has until Nov. 20 to combine the bills for final passage before temporary funding runs out.
While AFSCME supports congressional efforts to get much-needed transportation funding to cash-strapped states and localities, troubling provisions remain in the House bill. Alongside labor partners, AFSCME successfully advocated against specific recommendations to outsource engineering and design services to contractors in transportation bills and were successful in keeping language out of the Senate’s DRIVE Act. However, an amendment offered and adopted on the House floor by Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) stated it was the “sense of Congress” to search for innovative and cost-effective practices on recommendations from the engineering industry.
There are several additional concerns in both House and Senate bills. The Senate DRIVE Act creates a pilot program specifically designed to advance public-private partnerships (P3) over traditionally-financed public projects. The pilot program is not included in the House bill. AFSCME continues to advocate for including labor protection language in the “best practices” P3 subsection in the final bill.
The Senate bill’s funding sources were incorporated into the House bill after the House was unable to come up with any financing for its $325 billion legislation. AFSCME opposed many of these sources of funding — including privatization of IRS collection services — because they would drastically undermine basic government services and overwhelmingly favor corporations. Both House and Senate bills provide funding for the first three years of the surface transportation extension. Congress will need to go back to the table to fund the final three years. The White House has criticized many aspects of the House bill but stopped short of a veto threat.
Riders on the Storm: Revisions of Spending Bills Begin
Congress has the next five weeks to put together all fiscal year (FY 2016) funding bills before the current short-term funding extension expires on December 11. (The fiscal year began on October 1.) The two-year budget deal President Obama signed earlier in the week raises the previous spending “sequester” caps by $80 billion over two years, split equally between non-defense and defense. It also provides an additional $32 billion, also split between non-defense and defense, through a separate fund that is not subject to the sequester caps. Even with the additional spending in the budget deal, much needed increases for vital public services and programs will be very challenging to secure. AFSCME continues to urge Congress to prioritize funding that is targeted to states and localities for public education, transportation, public safety, child care, employment services, public health and all the other programs and services AFSCME members provide.
Of particular concern are the many poison pill policy "riders" GOP legislators are attempting to attach to the bills. The riders are aimed at weakening protections for consumers and workers, preventing the government from keeping workplaces safe, weakening accountability of big corporations for wrongdoing, attacking immigrants, and many others. AFSCME has joined with allies to oppose these ideological driven policy changes that aren’t related to spending. Congressional Democrats and President Obama strongly oppose these riders.
AFSCME and allies are asking Congress to pass a “clean” year-long spending package without harmful policy “riders” and avoid a government shutdown.
Finally Released, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is Troubling
On Thursday morning, the U.S. Trade Representative finally made public the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 30 chapter trade agreement that has been negotiated between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries. While AFSCME is still reviewing the lengthy agreement, we are deeply troubled by many provisions in the text. Contrary to claims that the agreement will raise labor standards, it fails to take the steps needed to raise poverty-level wages in even the poorest countries or ensure that workers have the right to organize. The agreement provides corporations with incentives to move jobs overseas and fails to stop other countries from manipulating their currency in order to make U.S.-made goods less competitive.
The agreement includes provisions that will make it harder to address skyrocketing prices for pharmaceutical drugs, which are putting financial pressure on Medicare, Medicaid and job-based health plans. And, the agreement provides global corporations with expansive legal rights to challenge laws and regulations that protect Americans at work, in their homes and in the marketplace. These challenges would not be heard in U.S. courts, but in private, international trade tribunals which could demand federal, state or local governments to compensate corporations when government rules diminish their expectation for profits.
In the coming days, AFSCME will be evaluating the full agreement. But, based on what we’ve seen already, it is an agreement centered on corporate priorities that put worker protections, food safety, consumer safeguards, affordable medicines and our environment at risk.
AFSCME-Led Child Care Nutrition Bill Introduced
Thanks to the strong efforts of AFSCME Council 75 and VOICE CSEA, Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) joined together to introduce the bipartisan Early Childhood Nutrition Improvement Act (H.R. 3886). The bill expands access to nutritious meals for young children in childcare. The bill also provides practical steps to improve the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), including allowing an additional healthy meal or snack for children in care for a full day, authorizing a Department of Agriculture review, issuing new guidelines to ensure fair and reasonable compliance, adding an appeals process, and reducing parent, provider and sponsor paperwork. AFSCME strongly supports the bill. AFSCME is also working towards including the third meal and other administrative improvements in the pending Child Nutrition Reauthorization. That legislation may see Senate committee action in the next few weeks.
Sen. Warren Introduces Bill to Provide Social Security COLA
On November 5, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act (S. 2251). The bill, which currently has 18 co-sponsors, was introduced in response to Social Security recipients not receiving an annual cost of living (COLA) increase for only the third time since 1975. Additionally, millions of other Americans whose veterans’ benefits, disability benefits, and other monthly payments are tied to Social Security also will not receive the COLA increase. S. 2251 would give seniors and veterans an emergency 3.9% (approximately $581) payment in 2016. The increased benefit would be fully paid for by closing corporate compensation loopholes. AFSCME strongly supports this legislation and will continue to advocate for seniors and the Social Security program.
Congressional Democrats Rally in Support of the #RestoreTheVote Initiative
On November 3, House Democratic leadership, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), James Clyburn (D-SC) and Xavier Becerra (D-CA), spoke in support of the #RestoreTheVote initiative aimed at rallying public support for the Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867; S. 1659). If passed, the bill would restore a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, which required 13 states with a history of voter suppression to seek approval from the Justice Department before changing voting rights and procedures. Passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act is an important step towards ensuring no citizen or community is disenfranchised or impeded from exercising their constitutional right to vote.
AFSCME supports the #RestoreTheVote initiative and is committed to ensuring that ordinary Americans have a voice both in the workplace and in the polling place. We applaud these lawmakers for taking action to restore the Voting Rights Act to safeguard every voter’s say in our democracy.
Legislation to Protect Immigrant Workers From Retaliation Reintroduced
On Thursday, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) reintroduced the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act. This legislation would strengthen immigrant workers’ ability to enforce their workplace rights by providing vital safeguards against employer retaliation. Too often, when immigrant workers assert their labor or civil rights or organize for better working conditions, they face threats of immigration enforcement from employers who want to intimidate and silence them. This undercuts workers’ ability to enforce their rights and results in more dangerous workplaces and lower wages for all workers. The POWER Act contains several provisions that would ensure that workers involved in labor disputes will not be deported without an opportunity to speak with labor agencies, including the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This will then enable labor agencies to fully investigate alleged labor violations. AFSCME strongly supports The POWER Act.
Brady to Replace Ryan on Ways and Means
House Republicans have selected Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) as the next chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He beat out Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) to succeed Paul Ryan (R-WI), the recently-elected House Speaker. Brady, who was serving as Chairman of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, is a leading opponent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over all tax and revenue measures, trade and tariffs, and other revenue-raising measures, as well as Social Security, unemployment benefits, Medicare, enforcement of child support laws, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and foster care and adoption programs. Brady, a former Texas state legislator, was first elected to Congress in 1996. He represents the 8th congressional district of Texas, which includes parts of suburban Houston and northern rural areas. Known as a “free-market” conservative, Brady is expected to focus on cutting corporate taxes, passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and repealing the ACA, much the same as Ryan.
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