Week Ending July 27, 2018

Congress races to finish spending bills before new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, but a shutdown is still possible.

  • GOP Blocks Key Info on Judge Kavanaugh
  • Government Shutdown Could be Looming
  • House Approves $20 Billion Tax Break for Profitable Medical Device Corporations
  • House Democrats Fight to Protect Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program
  • House Passes Health Savings Bills
  • Bill to Reduce Drug Prices Introduced
  • House Hearing on H.R. 4219, “Workflex in the 21st Century Act.”

GOP Blocks Key Info on Judge Kavanaugh

The Senate is beginning its important review of the writings and opinions of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The long paper trail of his writings from his career as a partisan political lawyer and judge may be the best and only chance of understanding his personal views. Senate Democrats have made a reasonable request to follow the standard created in the review of now Justice Kagan’s records, which is for all White House documents to be turned over to the Judiciary Committee with adequate time for review. Senate GOP leaders, though, have been stonewalling this request for transparency.

What You Need to Know: Given the importance of the lifetime appointment and the Senate’s responsibility to advise and consent, this attempt to conceal relevant background information is yet another example of how the system is rigged against working people. We deserve a Supreme Court that protects the rights of all Americans – not just the wealthy and powerful – and that holds the president and Congress accountable.

Call your senators today at 1-855-712-8430 and urge them to vote “NO” on extremist, anti-worker Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. 

Judge Kavanaugh was hand-picked by the same dark money forces that brought us the Janus decision.

We can’t allow these powerful corporate special-interest attacks to continue unchecked.

Government Shutdown Could be Looming

With only 14 legislative days remaining until the end of the year, very little time is left for Congress to finalize all 12 spending bills necessary to keep the government from shutting down on October 1. The House has passed six funding bills so far, the Senate has passed two, and none are final. Congress is trying to bundle multiple bills together in a series of “minibus” packages they hope to finalize by September 30, an ambitious and likely unrealistic timeline. One of the packages could bundle the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education funding bill (Labor-HHS) with the Defense funding bill, which could be scheduled for a Senate vote in mid- to late August.  Because of the short timeline, Congress may pass a stop-gap measure at the end of September to keep the government open.

The president, however, has threatened a shutdown. He is demanding $5 billion in border wall funding, which the House Appropriations Committee included in its Homeland Security funding bill, but far exceeds the $3.4 billion that the Senate approved. Also included is a bipartisan provision led by Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-TX) to give undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a one-year reprieve from deportation.

What You Need to KnowEven though domestic spending received an $18-billion increase overall as the result of the budget deal agreed to earlier this year, Labor-HHS’s allocation did not receive its fair share. AFSCME is working to ensure that the bill receives the highest allocation possible and to strip harmful policy riders from funding bills. 

House Approves $20 Billion Tax Break for Profitable Medical Device Corporations

The House voted 283 to 132 to approve troubling legislation that would repeal the 2.3-percent tax on medical devices and thereby provide these profitable corporations with unnecessary tax breaks exceeding $20 billion. While only one GOP leader voted to oppose the Protect Medical Innovation Act of 2017 (H.R. 184), most Democrats opposed, voting 57 to 131 to reject it.

AFSCME opposes this harmful tax giveaway because medical device manufacturers and importers have benefited many years from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and should pay their fair share. Americans for Tax Fairness’ new report highlights that in 2017, the 10 largest medical device firms generated annual revenue of $135 billion, pre-tax profit of $12.4 billion, and stockpiled $153 billion in untaxed offshore profits now eligible for the newly reduced federal tax rate enacted in the December 2017 Trump-GOP tax package. Given their large tax breaks received just months ago, Congress should not give this selected group of companies more new tax breaks.

What You Need to KnowGovernment funds should be better invested to improve health outcomes for working families and Americans with chronic health problems. Republican members of Congress should preserve and strengthen health care protections for all by preventing discrimination against preexisting conditions and providing universal access to affordable, effective, evidence-based treatment and prevention. 

Additionally, Congress’ leadership should not have granted a floor vote to repeal this medical device tax that benefits corporations without also granting a floor vote to repeal the regressive 40-percent tax on workplace health benefits that are already harming millions of workers and retirees. There is broad bipartisan support to repeal the 40-percent tax (e.g. H.R. 173) and AFSCME strongly advocates repeal.

House Democrats Fight to Protect Public Service Forgiveness Program

This week, House Democrats introduced the Aim Higher Act (H.R. 6543) to reauthorize higher education programsThe bill would protect and expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program that makes student loans simpler and easier to repay, and sets a debt-free path for students to earn degrees and credentials that lead to good jobs and rewarding careers. The legislation includes a federal-state partnership to provide two free years of community college. Further, it incentivizes states to reinvest in higher education, and cracks down on predatory for-profit institutions. It also invests in teachers and strengthens training for teachers and school leaders to improve the quality of our schools. 

What You Need to Know:  The Aim Higher Act is a better approach to higher education than the House GOP plan (H.R. 4508), which would cut $15 billion from federal student aid, eliminate PSLF for future enrollees, and eliminate measures to hold predatory for-profit institutions accountable. The House Education Committee approved H.R. 4508 along party lines.

House Passes Health Savings Bills

Mostly along party lines the House passed two health care bills (H.R. 6311 and H.R. 6199) that expand options for a narrow segment of wealthy people, so they can increase savings accounts to get large tax breaks in order to pay for their health care. The Increasing Access to Lower Premium Plans and Expanding Health Savings Accounts Act (H.R. 6311) increases the contribution limit to Health Savings Accounts for individuals to $6,650 and families to $13,300. The majority of working families who are struggling to make ends meet will not see any benefit from this approach. 

The bill also expands the availability of bare-bones insurance plans at a lower premium but with a huge deductible. A large deductible can become an unsurmountable barrier to necessary care when you get injured or sick. This change also gives insurance corporations an incentive to manipulate risk pools and pick healthier individuals for coverage. Such practices would leave individuals with pre-existing conditions with fewer choices and higher premiums. These bills also pile on billions of dollars to the deficit.

What You Need to KnowCongress did little to address health care affordability for working families by passing these healthcare bills. These bills will make it easier to get junk insurance and raise premiums for those with pre-existing conditions. If enacted, these bills will lead to increased deficits, which will lead to calls to cut Medicare and Medicaid, further putting Americans’ health security in jeopardy.

Bill to Reduce Drug Prices Introduced 

One of the top healthcare concerns for working families is skyrocketing prescription drug prices. The root cause of those high prices is the monopoly that corporations have on drugs and CEOs knowing they can raise prices as often and as high as they want with no one to stop them. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) along with 79 Democratic members have introduced the Medicare Negotiation and Competitive Licensing Act (H.R. 6505) to address these problems. Current law forbids Medicare from using its purchasing power to counter drug corporations’ monopolies to negotiate lower prices for patients. H.R. 6505 would change the law to allow Medicare to negotiate directly with drug corporations. Unlike previous Medicare negotiation bills, H.R. 6505 also sets procedures in place if corporations refuse to negotiate or offer their drugs at an affordable price. In such cases, the Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary is required to promote generic competition by allowing the use of patent, clinical trial data and any other exclusivity granted by the federal government that’s necessary to produce the drug at an affordable price.

What You Need to KnowThis Congress is unlikely to consider the Medicare Negotiation and Competitive Licensing Act (H.R. 6505), even though 92 percent of Americans agree that Medicare should negotiate drug prices for patients. The problem with drug corporations setting higher and higher prices is an issue that working families want addressed and is likely to be front and center in the mid-term elections. 

House Hearing on H.R. 4219, “Workflex in the 21st Century Act” 

Members of the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions held a hearing on the Workflex in the 21st Century Act (H.R. 4219). The bill, introduced by Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA), establishes a voluntary workflex option under which employers who provide flexible workplace arrangement plans that include a combination of paid leave and flexible work options are exempt from certain state and local laws regarding employee benefits. 

What You Need to Know: On its surface, H.R. 4219 appears to be a bill that would help workers by codifying a federal paid leave policy and protecting access to flexible work options like telework and biweekly work programs. However, this bill is nothing more than a benefits package for corporations that does nothing to help workers and their families. Ten states, the District of Columbia and 33 counties and cities have paid leave laws on the books. H.R. 4219 would not only preempt these laws, but it would also allow the employer, not the employee, to decide when workers can use their time off. This bill would also allow employers to avoid paying overtime to a worker who works more than 40 hours in a week. Under the guise of flexible scheduling, H.R. 4219 lets corporations schedule workers for more than 40 hours one week and then cut their hours the next week. As long as workers stay under 80 hours between the two weeks, the employer is only obligated to pay straight time. Workers should be the ones deciding when they use their leave and deserve to be paid overtime wages when they work more than 40 hours in a week. Congress should not let corporations selectively enforce laws. AFSCME opposes this harmful bill.

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