Week Ending October 23, 2015
Debt Ceiling Must Be Raised as Budget Talks Continue
Congress has not acted to raise the debt ceiling despite Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s warning that it is necessary by November 3 to avoid the U.S. from defaulting on its debt obligations. Instead, the House seemed to invite a breach of the debt ceiling by passing a bill (H.R. 692) that would establish an unprecedented and dangerous prioritization among government expenses that have already been approved in Congress in the event that the debt ceiling is exceeded. The last time Congress played games with the debt ceiling a few years ago the stock market plummeted, our nation’s credit was downgraded for the first time in history, and it resulted in the worst month for job losses since the recovery from the Great Recession began. At this time it does not appear that the House has the votes to pass an increase in the debt ceiling. AFSCME has urged Congress to immediately vote to raise the ceiling and stop playing politics with the economy.
Congressional leaders continue to meet with the White House to discuss a broader budget deal, including lifting the spending “sequestration” caps, but no details are available yet. AFSCME has been urging Congress and the White House to eliminate the deep cuts, restore $37 billion in domestic funding, and eliminate any poison pill “riders” that would jeopardize policies that restrain Wall Street abuses, keep workplaces safe, and hold big corporations accountable for wrongdoing.
House Votes (Again) to Gut Affordable Health Care Act
In a largely party-line vote of 240 to 189, the House passed a bill (H.R. 3762) to gut the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and defund Planned Parenthood for a year. One Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), voted for it and seven Republicans voted against. The bill is part of a special legislative process called “reconciliation” under which only 51 votes in the Senate rather than 60 are required to move forward and pass a bill. Using this process, the House GOP majority voted to eliminate both the employer and individual responsibility requirements under the ACA. This would cause as many as 15 million Americans to lose their health coverage, 20% of whom would be children. Rather than helping Americans achieve greater financial security in an unbalanced economy, H.R. 3762 would put millions at risk of financial hardship and possibly ruin from an unexpected illness. The bill also wipes out the Prevention and Public Health Fund, the nation’s largest single investment in prevention, and undermines efforts to reduce costs by preventing chronic diseases. Repealing this fund also puts our nation at risk of being unprepared for emerging epidemics and other public health crises. H.R. 3762 additionally repeals a modest excise tax on the medical device industry, which has profited substantially from the expansion of health coverage under the ACA. In an attack against women’s health care, the bill eliminates, for one year, federal funding for women’s health services provided to millions of women by Planned Parenthood. The bill repeals the 40% tax on high cost, employer-sponsored health benefits. AFSCME agrees that the 40% tax should be repealed to keep health care affordable for working families. However, repeal of this tax should not be included in a bill that would eliminate health coverage for millions of workers. If the bill passes the Senate, President Obama has vowed to veto it.
House Panel Advances Six-Year Highway Bill
On Thursday, after considering over 150 amendments, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure passed the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (H.R. 3763), the first long-term renewal since 2012. The legislation authorizes more than $325 billion over six years, although House lawmakers have yet to find a way to fully fund the legislation. There have been discussions to provide additional funding through offshore tax reform, but thus far those negotiations have not progressed.
While the House bill does not include a new public-private partnership (P3) program that led AFSCME to oppose previous legislation, we are concerned about the funding levels in H.R. 3763, as well as vague language that could lead to future expansion of P3s. AFSCME was successful in lobbying against an expansion of programs that fast-track financing to projects that use alternative funding sources to achieve “cost efficiencies,” which would expand P3 financing. Programs that favor P3s over traditional financing of infrastructure projects undermine transparency, public oversight, workers’ rights and long-term stability of transportation funding by ceding control of these projects to private corporations. AFSCME is working with committee members to strengthen language in the bill related to P3s and labor relations as it moves forward.
Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) hopes to have H.R. 3763 on the House floor for consideration and a vote in the next two weeks. He could, along with the Ways and Means Committee, seek funding similar to the provisions in the Senate legislation. AFSCME opposed many of those funding sources—such as privatization of IRS collection services and changing the interest rates banks receive on Treasury bills—because they would drastically undermine basic government services and overwhelmingly favor corporations.
Surface transportation programs will lose their funding authorizations October 29 if Congress fails to act. If the House passes its bill, a House and Senate “conference committee” will attempt to work out differences between the two bills. However, this is unlikely before the current authorization expires so Congress is expected to pass a short-term bill for the interim.
AFSCME will continue to monitor and advocate for strengthening this legislation as it advances.
House Passes Bill to Extend D.C. School Voucher Program
As Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) prepares to retire from the speakership and Congress, he put in motion his swansong to continue his pet project of private school vouchers for D.C. residents (H.R. 10). The bill passed largely along party lines, with Reps. John Delaney (D-MD) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) crossing over in support and eight Republicans opposing. The bill continues this voucher program for five more years in spite of multiple U.S. Department of Education and Government Accountability Office studies concluding that the program has failed to improve educational achievement, while identifying management and accountability failures. Further, private schools do not have to comply with federal, state, and local civil rights laws, allowing discrimination. A Senate committee vote may occur in early November.
AFSCME strongly opposes H.R. 10.
Senate Panel Explores Solutions to Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Crisis
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s October 22 hearing entitled “Puerto Rico’s Economy, Debt, and Options for Congress” reviewed the Commonwealth’s ongoing fiscal crisis and potential solutions, including the Treasury Department’s newly proposed “Roadmap for Congressional Action: Four Immediate Steps to Address the Crisis in Puerto Rico.” This plan first would provide Puerto Rico with the necessary tools to comprehensively address its financial liabilities and restructure them in a fair and orderly manner under the federal bankruptcy court’s supervision. It would also enact strong independent fiscal oversight and strengthen Puerto Rico’s fiscal governance. Third, it would reform Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program to increase access to coverage, raise the standard of care, and address related funding concerns. Last, it would reward work and support growth in Puerto Rico by extending the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and expanding eligibility for the Child Tax Credit (CTC).
All senators acknowledged Puerto Rico’s challenges and many suggested the federal government should provide assistance soon. Several Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), opposed potential austerity measures and expressed concerns that the interests of working families were being subordinated to the potential profits of predatory hedge funds. AFSCME opposes implementing austerity policies and is working to increase investments in Puerto Rico. In a joint statement, AFSCME President Lee Saunders and UAW President Dennis Williams said: “The President and his economic team at the Department of the Treasury have stepped up to the plate with a bold and essential plan. Now, it’s time for the Congress to engage with the Administration and demonstrate that it still has the capacity to effectively govern and solve significant problems affecting the American people. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Senate Rejects Anti-Immigrant Bill that Undermines Local Law Enforcement
By a largely party-line vote of 54 to 45, the Senate failed to reach the 60 votes necessary to continue debate on Sen. David Vitter’s (R-LA) Stop Sanctuary Policies and Protect Americans Act (S. 2146). This deeply-flawed legislation would have denied federal funding to local law enforcement agencies that chose to prioritize building trust with all segments of their communities over enforcing federal immigration laws. AFSCME and our allies stressed to all senators the importance of ensuring that immigrants feel safe to come forward as victims of and witnesses to crimes, protecting vulnerable individuals and entire communities. The federal funding at risk in S. 2146 included the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). This bill also would have tied the hands of judges by creating mandatory minimum sentences for the nonviolent crime of illegal reentry into the U.S.
All Democratic senators opposed moving forward on this legislation except Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Joe Manchin (D-WV). All Republican senators voted in favor of proceeding except Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL). President Obama stated he would have vetoed S. 2146 had it come to his desk.
New Bill to Improve Training for School Food Service Workers
Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Mark Katko (R-NY) introduced the Improving School Nutrition Training Act, a bill that ensures that school food service workers are able to access appropriate training and have labor protections essential to their work in serving students. The bill specifies that training sessions be held primarily during work hours; compensation be provided for training sessions that must occur outside of work hours; workers who are unable to attend training sessions outside of regularly scheduled work hours are not penalized; officials make every effort to inform workers of training sessions that must take place outside of work hours; and promotion of hands-on, in-person training when appropriate. AFSCME strongly supports this legislation.
Senate Committee Approves Smarter Sentencing Act
Bipartisan legislation to reform federal sentencing passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday. The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 2123) reduces some mandatory minimum prison sentences, gives judges more discretion to impose sentences shorter than those minimums, and would make some criminals eligible for early release in exchange for participating in programs aimed at reducing recidivism. The legislation now moves to the full Senate, where hurdles remain. The committee rejected amendments that would have allowed less severe sentencing minimums to apply retroactively and to firearms offenders, issues that could come up again on the Senate floor.
AFSCME will continue to monitor this legislation as it moves forward, particularly how it might affect corrections at the state and local levels.
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