Week Ending September 9, 2016
Congress Prepares Temporary Government Funding Bill
Congress returned this week from its seven-week summer vacation to complete budget work necessary to prevent a government shutdown when the federal budget year ends September 30. House conservatives have been pressing for a six-month temporary budget measure to skip a post-election session of Congress and ensure funding three months into the new presidency, thus locking-in deeper domestic funding cuts. But, this week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that he is working with the administration and Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) to move a temporary funding measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), that would run through December 9. This will guarantee additional action from Congress following the November elections.
AFSCME is encouraging Congress to finish its work before the elections by passing a clean CR before September 30 and returning after the election to finish all budget work before the year's end. AFSCME is also urging Congress to immediately address Zika and Flint funding in the CR or separately before the elections. Further, AFSCME continues to press Congress to restore domestic funding cuts and provide necessary investments in jobs and vital public services.
Zika Funding Conference Report Stalled in Senate (Again)
Before the summer recess Congress failed to pass a funding bill to respond to the threat of spreading Zika virus. In a déjà vu vote, the Senate again fell eight votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed to pass the Zika funding conference report attached to a larger federal spending bill (H.R. 2577). Even if the Senate passed the House-adopted conference report, it would face a likely presidential veto because the funding is offset by cuts to public health spending and contains “poison pill” riders targeting women’s access to reproductive health care.
With Congress’ failure to pass a clean bipartisan funding bill, the administration is running out of options to reprogram funds to provide short-term funding to fight Zika. In August, the administration transferred $81 million in funding to continue work on Zika vaccines both at the National Institutes of Health and with private sector partners. Early this year, the administration, repurposed federal funds initially targeted for Ebola to deal with Zika, even though Ebola remains a global health threat that is reemerging in West Africa.
AFSCME and other groups have called on Congress to pass funding to address Zika that would designate the funding as emergency spending without offsets, remove “poison pill” provisions and increase the amount needed to help states and localities at high risk of this mosquito borne disease.
At least 15 infants have been born in the U.S. with microcephaly as a result of the Zika virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that every pregnant woman be assessed for Zika infection at every prenatal visit. Further congressional delay will increase human suffering and economic burden to state Medicaid budgets. The CDC estimates each infant with microcephaly will require $10 million in care during a lifetime. Just 100 babies with microcephaly – a tiny fraction of all annual births in the U.S. – would total $1 billion in new costs. In addition, other infants may be impacted but the full complications from an embryonic Zika virus may only be known later in their development. The tragedy, suffering and cost of a generation of Zika infants will be a heavy burden on families and state Medicaid budgets.
Water Infrastructure Bill Advances in Senate, Includes Aid for Flint Water Crisis
Months after Michigan Democrats, Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, and Rep. Dan Kildee, introduced emergency legislation to address the Flint Water Crisis, the $220 million package appears to have a path forward after the U.S. Senate approved consideration of the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA, S. 2848), which includes the Flint package. The WRDA bill will be further debated but a final Senate vote is expected in the coming days.
AFSCME continues to advocate for renewal of the 2014 WRDA bill, with sufficient funding for the infrastructure programs ravaged by underinvestment, such as those in Flint and other cities and schools nationwide. The WRDA legislation is a good first step — it provides $220 million in low-interest state revolving fund loans to Flint, but more work must be done to help the residents who are still drinking filtered or bottled water almost eight months after a federal emergency declaration.
White House Takes Step to Prepare for Post-Election Vote on Trans-Pacific Partnership
In mid-August, the Obama administration sent a draft statement of action to the Congress related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The statement lays out the actions needed to implement the TPP and is required in final form as part of the process for requesting a congressional vote on the agreement. The action is a very clear signal that President Obama is intent on pursuing a vote on the TPP during a lame-duck session after the election.
Republican congressional leaders continue to criticize the agreement and express doubt that a vote will be held. However, these comments are aimed at putting pressure on the White House to extract more concessions from other countries, especially more monopoly protections for the pharmaceutical industry. The comments may also be an effort to neutralize the trade issue in congressional elections. Getting TPP done is a top priority of the business community and Republican leaders are expected to join with President Obama and press very hard to get the agreement approved after the election.
Supreme Court Nomination of Merrick Garland Still on Hold
The Senate continues to fail in its constitutional responsibility to fill vacancies on our nation’s federal courts, particularly the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court on March 16, 2016. Senate Republicans refuse to hold a hearing or to vote on the Garland nomination. When the Senate convened on Sept. 6 after its summer recess, it represented 173 days of unprecedented obstructionism – longer than any Supreme Court nominee in history. Failure to fill the vacancy left by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s death not only undermines the rule of law, but prevents the legal system from functioning as it should.
This week, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chris Coons (D-DE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) hosted a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court making the case for Garland as an independent jurist with an impeccable record, as well as pressing their colleagues on the other side of the aisle to take up the nomination. Garland has 19 years of service on the federal bench – longer than any other Supreme Court nominee ever of the 161 nominees over the course of 227 years. Not once in U.S. history has the Senate refused to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court by not taking a vote.
Recent polling also shows that many voters believe and agree that the vacant seat should be filled this year. However, Senate Majority Leader McConnell continues to refuse to allow a vote, asserting that the next President of the United States should have the responsibility to nominate the Supreme Court justice. AFSCME continues to push for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Garland.
Strengthening Unemployment Insurance
The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources held a hearing to measure the challenges and strengths of today’s unemployment insurance (UI) systems. Partially replacing lost wages, UI helps people who are involuntarily unemployed and their families maintain basic living standards while looking for another job. The Democratic witness, July Conti with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), stressed the importance of the UI system and the invaluable role it played in the Great Recession. She also pressed for responsible financing of state UI trust funds, program integrity, and maintaining that divergent systems from state-to-state have rebounded, and the hope that states are ready to forward-finance their UI trust funds in the event that another national recession will hit.
The three GOP panelists testifying shared perspectives on how state workforces can move in the direction of rebranding UI as reemployment assistance, fighting fraud in public benefits systems, and reducing the tax rate on small businesses. Also discussed was the need to allow states to drug test applicants for unemployment compensation to ensure they are ready to work. On the same day as the hearing, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) introduced the Ready to Work Act of 2016 (H.R. 5945), legislation intended to allow states to drug test applicants for federal unemployment payments.
AFSCME continues to advocate for UI and for state trust funding, as well as strengthening and protecting the system. AFSCME strongly opposes drug testing unemployment applicants.
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