Week Ending September 19, 2014
Congress Passes Stopgap Funding Bill to Prevent Government Shutdown
In their last legislative action before leaving for nearly seven weeks, Congress passed a stopgap measure to keep the government from shutting down when funding for this fiscal year expires on September 30. The measure passed by a vote of 319 to 108 in the House and 79 to 22 in the Senate. This stopgap, so-called “continuing resolution” (CR) is necessary because Congress has not completed any of its 12 funding bills. The CR will fund programs at current levels through December 11, minus an across-the-board cut to comply with budget rules.
The CR does not include any extra funding for agencies that have been addressing the humanitarian situation at our southern border. However, it would grant the Obama administration’s request for more budget flexibility for border agencies. Earlier this summer, the President had requested additional funding of $3.7 billion to address the needs of the Central American children and families crossing the border in unprecedented numbers, but the request garnered significant controversy.
Congress will resume its work to ensure funding for the remainder of the new fiscal year when it returns in November.
House Democrats Propose Labor, Health, Human Services and Education Funding Bill
House Democrats, led by Labor, Health, Human Services and Education (Labor-HHS) Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), released their own funding bill. Rep. DeLauro noted that for the second consecutive year, the majority-GOP Labor-HHS subcommittee has not released its plan for funding these critical programs. Concerned about how these programs would fare in a longer-term budget later this year, Rep. DeLauro developed a proposal to increase vital investments for education, labor, social services and public health programs, restoring funding for nearly all Labor-HHS programs to at least their levels before across-the-board spending cuts, including the following increases:
- $150 million increase for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG)
- $271 million for Head Start
- $131 million for Title I grants to school
- $105 million for Special Education grants
- $90 million in funding for school safety and violence prevention programs
- $318 million for the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG)
- $172 million for aid to child refugees from Central America
- $85.5 million for nurse training
- $5 million for State Paid Leave grants
- $36 million for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) grants
- $47 million for the Employment Service
AFSCME strongly supports eliminating the across-the-board spending cuts and increasing investments in labor, health, human services and education programs.
Senate GOP Leaders Once Again Block Paycheck Fairness Act
After a promising 73 to 25 vote last week in the Senate to open debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 2199), GOP leaders used a procedural move to block a final vote on the bill. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) joined GOP senators for the second time this year to block a final vote on this bill. The vote was 52 to 40, short of the 60 votes required to proceed.
This obstruction coincides with U.S. Census Bureau data released this week that the gender-based wage gap has not improved significantly since last year, spans all 50 states, and has real costs for women and their families. Women who are employed full time, year round in the United States are paid just 78 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to a yearly gap of $10,876. If the gap were eliminated, working women on average would have, over their working lifetimes, additional wages to pay for 1.6 more years’ worth of food, seven more months of mortgage and utilities payments, 12 more months of rent, or 3,208 additional gallons of gas. See this National Partnership article for more details.
AFSCME strongly supports the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Child Care Bill Passes House but Hits Snag in Senate
The bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG S. 1086) flew through the House early this week, passing by voice vote. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) is blocking the bill from advancing in the Senate, however, in an effort to force action on an unrelated bill he has sponsored. Due to his “hold,” the bill will not advance until after the November elections when Congress returns. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has set the path for the bill to advance as soon as Congress returns.
This would be the first time CCDBG has been reauthorized since 1996. The bill contains provisions that require background checks on providers, pre-licensure inspections, comprehensive consumer education on parents’ child care options, health and safety training, initial eligibility for at least 12 months, at least 70 % of funding for direct services, and targets funding for quality measures. The bill also encourages states to pay providers for children’s sick days and unscheduled days off. And, it adds an inspection requirement for license-exempt child care providers, but it is unclear if states would have flexibility to determine when these inspections will begin.
Poverty Rate Ticks Down While Impact of Great Recession Lingers
On Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 14.5 % of Americans were living in poverty in 2013, down from 15 % in 2012. The poverty rate for children declined more substantially, from 21.8 % to 19.9 %. However, the 2013 overall poverty rate is still well above the 12.5 % level in 2007, just before the great recession. Why has poverty remained at stubbornly high levels? It is largely because low and middle income families are not sharing in the income gains expected from an economic recovery; instead, only the wealthiest are reaping the benefits of economic growth, fueling income inequality that is at or near record levels.
One important reason why the share of national income going to low and moderate income families is so low is the decline in union density. The proportion of Americans who are union members fell from 28.3 % of all workers in 1967 to 11.3 % in 2013 – a decrease of 60 %. AFSCME and the union movement as a whole provide the impetus and key support for working family-friendly policies, both in the workplace and more broadly. These policies range from higher wages and benefits on the job to defending broad-based programs like Social Security and Medicare. But our power is diminished when labor union membership is such a small percentage of workers.
The Census data also show that public programs have a powerful impact on poverty rates and economic growth. Without Social Security, the number of people 65 or older in poverty would have been nearly 15 million higher last year. SNAP/food stamps – if counted as income – kept 3.7 million people, including 1.5 million children, above the poverty line. On the other hand, federal budget cuts cost the economy more than one million jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And, studies show that the states that expanded Medicaid under health reform experienced much larger declines in the number of uninsured than states that rejected the expansion. For more information about the Census report, please go to the link for a blog posted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Congress can and must do more to reduce poverty. Unfortunately, efforts to increase the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work, and help Americans repay college loans have all been blocked by GOP congressional leaders.
House GOP Leadership Moves Hodge-Podge Package of Bills for Election Year Messaging
The GOP leadership of the House of Representatives assembled a package of 15 bills into a single large bill which they named “The Jobs for America Act” (H.R. 4). The bill was approved largely along party lines with all but one Republican supporting and most Democrats opposed.
The bill included two measures to undermine the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by reducing funding for the law and weakening the employer responsibility requirements. H.R. 4 also included several bills aimed at slowing and blocking the implementation of future regulations aimed at safeguarding workers, consumers and the environment. And, it included corporate tax cuts that would cost the federal treasury $517 billion over 10 years. H.R. 4 will not be taken up by the Senate, although individual parts of it will no doubt re-emerge in future debates over health care, taxes and regulations.
Contrary to Claims, Health Law is Not Reducing Full-Time Work
The Affordable Care Act requires that middle-sized and large employers provide health coverage to employees who work at least 30 hours per week, or pay a penalty to help fund tax credits for workers who buy their own coverage through health exchanges. Some employers have criticized the employer responsibility requirement and claim that the health reform law is forcing them to reduce hours of work for their employees to avoid any responsibility for providing health coverage for their workers. But contrary to these claims, new economic data indicate that the law is not causing significant shifts in hours of work. The U.S. Census released data earlier this week which shows that the share of employees working full-time increased in 2013, while the share of employees working part-time decreased. This is consistent with findings from the U.S. Department of Labor.
National Labor Relations Board Under Attack
Attacks on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the nonpartisan government agency charged with deciding whether employers or unions have violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), is nothing new; it has been going on for decades, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made it clear this week that if Republicans take control of the Senate, reforming the National Labor Relations Board would be a top priority. McConnell erroneously asserted that the Obama administration has utilized an “unconstitutional effort to pack the National Labor Relations Board.” The Minority Leader endorsed a bill introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), “The NLRB Reform Act,” which would make it easier to challenge NLRB actions in court and would increase the board from five to six members. Senate Democrats pushed back, accusing Republicans of trying to create gridlock at the NLRB because they are not happy with recent decisions. This includes a ruling that found that McDonald’s is a joint-employer with its franchises, which could lead to collective bargaining and new labor rights at chain stores and other businesses.
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