Week Ending September 29, 2017
Puerto Rico: Post-Hurricane Disaster Relief and Recovery
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico a week ago and most of the Commonwealth’s 3.5 million U.S. citizens are still struggling with no power, inadequate food and safe drinking water, crippled telecommunication and transportation networks, and a potential nationwide public health crisis. Roads, health care facilities, schools, and other key infrastructure remain closed. The federal government’s initial relief effort has been shockingly inadequate.
AFSCME President Lee Saunders has called on President Trump and Congress to act immediately and approve needed aid to Puerto Rico’s residents. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have also called for urgent action. Congress should pass legislation immediately that provides substantial financial, material, and technical assistance for recovery and rebuilding efforts. AFSCME has been actively working toward these goals in coalition with other labor unions and Puerto Rico stakeholders and urges that no legislative or political priority is more important than addressing this rapidly escalating crisis. (AFSCME House and Senate letters)
U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear Janus v. AFSCME Council 31
On September 28, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to grant cert in the case of Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. The Janus case is a blatantly political and well-funded plot to use the highest court in the land to further rig the economic rules against everyday working people. The billionaire CEOs and corporate interests behind this case, and the politicians who do their bidding, have teamed up to deliver yet another attack on working people by striking at the freedom to come together in strong unions. The forces behind this case know that by joining together in strong unions, working people are able to win the power and voice they need to level the economic and political playing field. However, the people behind this case simply do not believe that working people deserve the same freedoms they have: to negotiate a fair return on their work.
This case started with an overt political attempt by the billionaire governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, to attack public service workers through the courts. And, in a letter to supporters detailed in The Guardian, the CEO of the corporate-backed State Policy Network (SPN) reveals the true intent of a nationwide campaign of which Janus is a part: to strike a ‘mortal blow’ and ‘defund and defang’ America’s unions. The merits of the case are clear. Since 1977, Abood has effectively governed labor relations between public sector employees and employers, allowing employers and employees the freedom to determine labor policies that best serve the public.
AFSCME President Saunders was on Capitol Hill this week discussing the case with members of Congress and the impact it could have on working families. In a statement to the press, he called the case “yet another example of corporate interests using their power and influence to launch a political attack on working people and rig the rules of the economy in their own favor.”
Deep Cuts Could Move Next Week in Budget Resolutions
The new fiscal year for the federal government begins October 1, 2017. The good news is that there will be no government shutdown. At least not until December 8, when the recently approved stop-gap funding bill expires. But deep cuts are looming for public services including education, health care, transportation, infrastructure, public safety, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, student loans and more. The cuts are included in the House budget resolution which will be debated by the House next week. The budget resolution slashes $5.7 trillion over 10 years while paving the way for trillions of dollars in new tax cuts. The House budget also allows for a fast-track process that requires only a simple majority vote in the Senate to make these spending cuts, repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and to approve the GOP’s unfair and unaffordable tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Such controversial measures typically require a 60-vote super-majority in the Senate.
The Senate Budget Committee is expected to unveil its budget plan soon with a similar tax cut paid for with cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and other vital public services. Senate Republican leaders hope to move a budget resolution through the Senate Budget Committee next week and to the Senate floor for a vote in mid-October.
Republican Leaders Outline Federal Tax Goals
This week, White House and GOP leaders released their unified federal tax goals for the upcoming debate on tax cuts. Their proposal would grant huge tax giveaways to the wealthiest 1 percent and large profitable corporations while allowing multinational companies to pay zero U.S. taxes on overseas profits. For example, their plan would repeal the federal estate tax, which currently only applies to estates exceeding $11 million per couple or $5.5 million per individual. Experts estimate that in 2017, fewer than 6,000 estates in the entire country would pay this tax, illustrating conservatives’ focus on tax breaks for the wealthiest. Their plan significantly reduces the maximum tax rate for corporations from 35 percent to 20 percent; reduces tax rates on business income on entities that are described as small businesses, but which are frequently enormously large; and repeals the existing minimum tax on individual income which impacts wealthier households that use special interest loopholes to avoid paying federal income tax.
AFSCME is especially concerned the tax cut plan would repeal individuals’ federal income tax deduction for paying state and local government taxes. This federal tax deduction helps states and localities maintain their tax revenues to invest in education, health care, infrastructure, and other vital public services. The plan omits many key details and leaves room for congressional leaders to finalize tax policies. AFSCME opposes the plan and continues to oppose new tax breaks for the wealthy and profitable corporations and advocates that they pay their fair share. In response to the release of the tax cut plan, AFSCME President Saunders said, “This tax plan will be a slow-motion disaster that hurts our country for years to come. It is deeply irresponsible to let even a penny more in tax cuts go to the wealthy and corporations…”
Health Care Repeal Legislation Collapses in Senate – Again
On Tuesday, Senate GOP leaders canceled plans to hold a vote on a proposal by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Dean Heller (R-NV) and Ron Johnson (R-WI), that would repeal the core of the Affordable Care Act and gut the Medicaid program. Based on analyses of previous legislation, it is estimated that as many as 32 million people would have lost their health coverage under the Cassidy-Graham proposal.
Senate leaders canceled the vote when it became clear that the plan did not have support from enough Republican senators. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME), who voted against similar legislation in July, announced that they would oppose the bill. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) expressed opposition to the bill because it did not go far enough. But it is likely that they would have voted for it in the end rather than kill the effort. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who voted against the legislation in July, did not state publicly whether or not she would support the bill. But she put out a statement criticizing the process after the vote was canceled.
Unfortunately, the threats to the ACA and Medicaid are not over. Congressional GOP leaders are advancing budget resolutions that call for cuts to these programs, plus Medicare and other public services, to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.
Trump Administration Steps Up Efforts to Sabotage the ACA
The Trump administration is working hard to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on a number of fronts. The administration has created uncertainty over whether it will continue monthly reimbursements to health insurers who are required by the ACA to reduce deductibles and copayments for low-income individuals covered by ACA plans. Almost 6 million Americans who rely on insurance through the ACA depend on these subsidies from insurers to make coverage affordable. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that insurance companies would raise premium prices about 20 percent in 2018 if President Trump ends these payments.
The administration has slashed funding for advertising to promote and encourage enrollment in ACA plans from $100 million to $10 million. Previously, the administration also cut funding for nonprofit community groups to help individuals pick an ACA plan and navigate the enrollment process. These dramatic cuts in outreach come just before the open enrollment period starting November 1. According to the CBO, the decision to roll back outreach and advertising will result in roughly 1 million fewer people enrolling in 2018. The failure to conduct adequate outreach efforts is likely to lead to fewer healthier and younger enrollees to balance out more costly enrollees who are older and have pre-existing medical conditions. This is creating further uncertainty for insurers who are setting premiums for 2018 and will likely drive up the cost of coverage.
The administration has also cut the open enrollment season in half, from 3 months to about 6 weeks — running from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, 2017 for 2018 coverage. The administration announced this week that it would further restrict access to enrollment by shutting down the federal ACA website for 12 hours on all but one Sunday during the upcoming enrollment period. The timing of these shutdowns will further reduce enrollment opportunities, especially for those with inflexible work schedules and limited access to Internet services. All of these choices by the administration are designed to sabotage the ACA by creating barriers to enrollment and reducing the number of ACA enrollees.
House Democrats Launch DREAM Act Petition
This week, House Democratic leaders launched an effort to force a vote on legislation that would provide a path to citizenship and protection from deportation of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Democratic leaders hope to collect the names of a majority of House members on a “discharge petition,” which would require the legislation, known as the DREAM Act (H.R. 3440), to be voted on by the House and prevent GOP leaders from blocking consideration of the bill.
The DREAM Act has 200 co-sponsors and growing bi-partisan support. Despite recent polls that show Americans overwhelmingly support legislation to protect these immigrants, Republican leaders are opposed to the discharge petition.
AFSCME supports the DREAM Act and is encouraging House members to sign the discharge petition.
NLRB Pendulum Swings Right for Trump’s New Anti-Worker Majority
The last of President Trump’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), William Emanuel, was confirmed by a vote of 49 to 47 in the Senate this week, creating an anti-worker majority on the Board. Emanuel is a management-side lawyer who has extensive experience representing businesses on federal labor law issues before the NLRB.
The NLRB now has a 3-2 anti-worker majority. President Trump has the opportunity to create a 5-to-0 anti-worker majority as the terms of the final two pro-worker members of the Board expire in August 2018 and December 2019.
FAA Shutdown Averted Days Before Deadline
Congressional leaders barely avoided a shutdown of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs this week, approving legislation (H.R. 3823) that extends the FAA for 6 months. House leaders have been unwilling to renew FAA for a longer term, and instead are focused on an effort to push through a plan to privatize air traffic control operations. Thus far, there have not been enough votes in the House or Senate to support the privatization plan, which AFSCME opposes.
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