Week Ending October 4, 2013
Federal Government Shut Down, Furloughing at Least 800,000 Federal Workers
This week the federal government shut down, furloughing at least 800,000 federal and many state and local government workers across the country because Congress could not agree on a temporary measure to continue funding for the new fiscal year which began October 1. Within a few days, impacts were felt across all government-funded programs. For example, Head Start programs serving 3,200 preschool children closed by Wednesday, with 11 more programs at risk of closing by week’s end. The Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), which provides vouchers for infant formula and food to pregnant women and low-income families with young children, was forced to close clinics, preventing families from applying for benefits or receiving nutritional counseling. And, federal child care funds are frozen, forcing states to make up the difference or cutting families off.
Instead of voting on a “clean” stopgap funding measure to simply keep the government running at the agreed upon funding level, House GOP leaders have insisted on adding political gimmicks to force through policies. These have included defunding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), delaying the implementation of the ACA, not allowing ACA subsidies for congressional staff, and other attempts to weaken and kill the ACA.
The Senate has repeatedly sent funding bills without extraneous, partisan policies back to the House. But the current debate has nothing to do with funding levels but rather political extortion. In addition to the demands to defund or revoke health care reform, the GOP House leadership, bowing to Tea Party demands, is demanding further spending cuts, including slashing entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), and requiring tax cuts for high-income wealthy individuals and corporations.
AFSCME strongly opposes this tactic of holding the entire government hostage to partisan demands and has been urging the House leadership to allow a vote on a clean continuing resolution (CR). Just about all the House Democrats and nearly 20 House Republicans are on record supporting a clean CR, but the leadership has refused to allow the vote to proceed.
On Tuesday, AFSCME President Lee Saunders and dozens of AFSCME activists joined Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at a press event on Capitol Hill criticizing the government shutdown.
AFSCME Council 26 Federal Employees Protest Against Government Shutdown
Today, furloughed federal employees from AFSCME Council 26 in Washington, DC joined AFGE, NTEU, the AFL-CIO and more than a dozen members of Congress for a rally to oppose the federal government shutdown. Dan Ronneberg, a furloughed airline safety inspector and member of Local 1653, AFSCME Council 26, urged Congress to end the shutdown that has affected the safety of air travel. “We ensure the continuous operational safety of the entire U.S. airspace system,” Ronneberg said. “That means we look at pilots, we look at airlines, we look at mechanics, we look at repair stations. But I and 3,000 of my colleagues who are aviation inspectors are out on the streets right now.”
In addition to today’s rally, members of Council 26 rallied this week in front of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum and handed out information to tourists about sites that remain open during the federal government shutdown. Check the AFSCME blog for more on this: http://www.afscme.org/blog/dedicated-afscme-members-in-dc-still-helping-tourists
GOP Leaders Threaten to Block Increase in Nation’s Debt Limit
For weeks, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has urged the Republican caucus to use the need to raise the government’s debt ceiling as leverage for demanding a delay or repeal of Obamacare. In the midst of the current shutdown of the federal government, GOP leaders are sendng mixed signals about how they plan to approach the debt ceiling vote. But it is clear that Tea Party activists have set their sights on this vote as the next hostage-taking opportunity. Tea Party activists and GOP leaders have developed a list of demands in return for raising the debt ceiling. Leading the list is a demand to defund Obamacare. But the demands also include increasing Medicare premiums for middle class beneficiaries, rolling back Wall Street reforms, reducing payments to state Medicaid programs, and tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.
As awful as the government shutdown is, the failure to raise the debt ceiling would be catastrophic for the country. Below is an explanation of what a default would mean.
The debt limit is the total amount of money that the U.S. government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations. Under a default, the government would have to stop, limit, or delay payments on a broad range of legal obligations including Social Security and Medicare benefits; military and federal employee salaries and pensions; funding to state and local governments for Medicaid, education and other services; veterans’ benefits; interest on the money that the government has borrowed; tax refunds and other payments.
In 2011, the last time that Congress threatened to default on the national debt, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service estimated that in order to avoid exceeding the debt limit, the federal government would need to eliminate ALL spending on domestic and military annually–funded programs, or cut nearly 70% of spending for mandatory programs (Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, etc.) or increase revenue collections by two-thirds, or take some combination of these actions. While the deficit picture has improved since 2011, these estimates indicate the magnitude of harm that would be imposed throughout the nation if Congress fails to increase the debt ceiling.
Mark Zandi, Chief Economist for Moody’s Analytics said Wednesday that a default “would create a very deep, dark recession, and quickly.” Other economists predict that default would lead to massive job losses. It would tighten credit and drive up interest rates making mortgages, student loans, consumer credit and business loans more expensive. Default would lead to drops in the stock market, undermining pension systems and 401(k) savings plans.
Despite the catastrophic impact of default, it appears that a small faction in one party, in one chamber of Congress, is willing to risk it all to get their way. The question is whether the GOP leadership will be bullied into carrying out the Tea Party’s agenda.
Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill Introduced in House
On Wednesday, House Democratic lawmakers introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill (H.R. 15) that combines most of the provisions contained in the bipartisan Senate comprehensive bill (S. 744) and adds border security measures that passed in a unanimous, bipartisan vote in the House Homeland Security Committee in the spring. The bill does not contain the “border surge” enforcement requirements that were added to S. 744 on the Senate floor.
Rep. Joe Garcia (D-FL) is the lead sponsor of H.R. 15; additional original co-sponsors include Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA), Steven Horsford (D-NV), Suzan DelBene (D-WA) and Jared Polis (D-CO). Within 24 hours of the bill’s introduction, 120 House members had joined as co-sponsors, all Democrats. At a press conference this week, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) stated that immigration reform legislation with a path to citizenship has the support of the majority of House members and implored the House GOP leadership to hold a vote. While the House stalls, more than 1,000 immigrants continue to be deported every day, splitting apart families and devastating immigrant communities. And our country loses the economic benefits – including more jobs, higher salaries and growth in the economy as a whole – that would result from comprehensive reform.
On Saturday, October 5, immigrant rights activists will be participating in approximately 130 events across the country in support of comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Then on October 8, thousands of labor union members, immigrant rights activists, business supporters, clergy and others will gather in Washington, D.C. for a rally and march to the Capitol, demanding a vote in the House on comprehensive immigration reform. AFSCME endorsed and is involved in both of these days of action.
Obamacare Open Enrollment Begins with a Bang
On October 1, federal and state online portals went live allowing individuals and families to research health plans, find out whether they are eligible for a tax credit to help pay for their insurance and enroll in coverage that begins January 1. There were glitches and delays in the rollout, mostly due to the higher than expected amount of traffic to the sites. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the primary website for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) received 4.7 million visits in the first 24 hours and more than six million unique visitors by late Wednesday. Federal and state officials are working to fix problems and increase web site and call-in capacity. But the high level of interest underscores the great need that the health reform law is filling for millions who are without coverage or who have inadequate coverage. While most AFSCME members will not get their coverage through the ACA exchanges, some will. For instance, UDW/AFSCME Local 3930 has dedicated staff to answer questions on insurance options and has factsheets in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
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