Week Ending September 20, 2013
Government Shutdown Looming; Debt Ceiling Fight Building
House GOP leaders this time succeeded to garner the necessary votes for their plan to keep the government running after the fiscal year ends on September 30. They re-introduced the same funding package (H.J. Res. 59) with additional language included to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The bill passed the House by a vote of 230 to 189, along partisan lines. H.J. Res 59 keeps funding through December 15 at a funding level of $986.3 billion that assumes a continuation of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
House Democrats staunchly opposed the $986 billion level as too low and both House and Senate Democrats solidly reject the attempt to defund Obamacare. Further, President Obama has stated that he will veto this bill so it’s a non-starter in the Senate. The Senate leadership hopes to strip the ACA defunding language and send a clean bill back to the House. It’s unclear what the House will do at that point. With no clear end game in sight, only 10 days remaining in the current fiscal year, and concerns that a stopgap funding measure is still in doubt, the White House instructed federal agencies to prepare for a government shutdown beginning October 1.
House GOP leaders also announced their plan to introduce a bill next week tying a one-year extension of the debt ceiling to a one-year delay of Obamacare along with cuts to entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), language to require tax cuts for individual and corporate tax rates, and other demands. AFSCME strongly opposes any funding bill that sustains sequestration as well as any attempt to weaken, postpone or defund health care reform.
House Passes Deep Cuts in Food Stamps
House GOP leadership narrowly passed a bill to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program by about 5% per year and cutting about $40 billion over the next 10 years. The cuts are nearly double the amount of SNAP cuts considered by the House and eventually dropped last summer and, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) would deprive almost four million people of needed food assistance. The bill passed the House 217 to 210, largely along party lines. Rep. Martha Fudge (D-OH) said, “Today’s vote is not only a waste of our time, but an insult to every American in need.”
The House bill (H.R. 3102) would hit jobless and low-wage workers especially hard. They would be denied SNAP benefits even if they cannot find enough work in a weak economy or fail to earn enough to make ends meet. The legislation offers federal financial incentives to states to require parents with children to work or participate in a training program for at least 20 hours a week and as much as 30 hours a week as a condition for receiving benefits, and cancels current federal policies that allow adults ages 18-50 without children to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months if unemployment is very high where they live. The bill also would end SNAP benefits for approximately 1.8 million people, most of who are in low-wage working households by ending current policy that allows them to automatically qualify for SNAP benefits if they are enrolled in other social welfare programs. In addition, the legislation would allow states to require food stamp recipients to be tested for drugs and to stop lottery winners from getting benefits.
According to the CBO the number of food stamp recipients would decline by about 14 million people, or 30%, over the next 10 years. The House action came just as the Census Bureau released a report this week showing that the SNAP program has kept about four million people above the poverty level and had prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty. The census data also shows that a near record 47 million are people living in poverty at this time. It sets the stage for another battle with the Senate which has approved only $4 billion in SNAP cuts as part of a Senate approved farm bill and makes enactment of a new farm bill by the end of September virtually impossible.
U.S. Department of Labor Issues Wage and Hour Rule for Home Care Workers
For decades federal law has treated homecare workers as casual baby sitters. They have been denied basic federal minimum wage and overtime protections because, historically, they’ve been regarded as just “companions.” This changed September 17, when the Department of Labor (DOL) fulfilled a promise by President Obama to ensure that direct care workers receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The DOL announced a final rule extending the federal Fair Labor Standards Act's minimum wage and overtime protections to most of the nation's workers who provide essential home care assistance to elderly people and people with disabilities. The final rule goes into effect January 2015 and will result in nearly two million direct care workers, including, home health aides, personal care aides and certified nursing assistants who will receive the same basic protections already provided to most U.S. workers. It will also help ensure that those who rely on the assistance of direct care workers as a lifeline of independence will have access to consistent and high-quality care from a stable and increasingly professional workforce. AFSCME has been on the forefront of this effort to end this long-standing injustice.
Child Care Reauthorization Passes Senate Committee
This week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously passed S. 1086 to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program (CCDBG) 17 years after it expired, even though it has been maintained by annual funding appropriations. The bill imposes new educational and health and safety standards on child care providers that receive federal funding. It requires one pre-licensure inspection and at least one annual unannounced inspection to monitor health and safety. It bars people convicted of certain felonies — including child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and child pornography – from working as child care providers, as well as people who have been convicted of drug offenses within the past five years. It also requires states to adopt annual eligibility determination. The bill contains many similarities to the draft regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Child Care (OCC) earlier this year. It is unclear if the Senate will schedule a floor vote this fall, and there is no similar bill pending in the House. It seems very likely that CCDBG reauthorization will become law during this session of Congress.
Secure Rural Schools Funding Appears to be Moving Toward Extension
This week, two separate measures were passed by both the Senate and the House, hopefully to pave the way for reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program by continuing payments to counties and rural schools from timber sales. The House passed the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act (H.R. 1526), which reauthorizes the program for FY 2015 but not FY 2014, but has a veto threat due to unrelated environmental provisions. The Senate nearly unanimously passed a bill (H.R. 527) that would prevent a shutdown of federal helium reserve, which includes a one-year extension of SRS. The House is also expected to consider the Senate version of the helium bill and send the bill to the floor for a vote prior to October 7, a deadline for helium reserves. AFSCME has urged Congress to stop playing politics and extend the SRS to support rural counties and schools.
Divided Commission on Long-Term Care Issues Report
The federal Commission on Long-Term Care issued a report to Congress on September 18 recommending improved coordination of services and better-skilled caregivers. The 15-member commission, created by the 2012 American Taxpayer Relief Act, was required by Congress to develop a plan for “the establishment, implementation, and financing of a comprehensive, coordinated, and high quality system that ensures the availability of long-term services and supports” for elderly and disabled individuals. The commission was divided on financing approaches and failed to make a recommendation. Instead, the commission offered two contrasting approaches advocated by different commission members. One approach focused on using private options for long-term care, including tax preferences for long-term care insurance policies; and the other focused on strengthening social insurance options, primarily with changes in Medicare.
(Commission on Long-Term Care report: http://www.ltccommission.senate.gov/index.cfm)
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