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The Congress will be on Memorial Day recess
House Approves China PNTR
After months of fierce lobbying that pitted corporate America against organized labor in coalition with veterans, religious, human rights, environmental, consumer, small business and family farm organizations, the House voted to grant China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR). The outcome of the vote was in doubt until the final hours as members deliberated over the most important trade vote they would cast for years. But in the end, corporate dollars and intense pressure from the administration persuaded 237 members to vote in favor of the deal while 197 members opposed it. Three out of four Republicans supported the deal while only one out of three Democrats did likewise.
By granting China PNTR, the Congress relinquished its right to review China's record of human and labor rights violations annually before deciding whether to grant most-favored trading status. On the eve of the PNTR vote, dozens of AFSCME activists joined with other trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights activists, people of faith and members of Congress at a rally on the East steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
House Committee Slashes Funding for Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Programs
The full House Appropriations Committee approved a Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education spending bill last week after a highly partisan session. Under the measure, funding for job training, worker protection and employment security programs are well below needed levels.
Committee Democrats offered a series of amendments to increase funding levels in key areas, only to be repeatedly defeated on party line votes. Among the amendments was one offered by Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) to increase job training funds by $1.25 billion, which included a $50 million for reemployment services through the employment service. Other amendments would have increased funds for school construction, special education, class size reductions, and drug prevention and treatment.
Despite the efforts of Republican leaders to keep this funding bill free of controversial policy amendments, Rep. Anne Northup (R-KY) successfully attached an ergonomics amendment to the bill. It would prevent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from issuing or implementing a final ergonomics regulation in fiscal 2001. The regulation, strongly supported by AFSCME, would require many employers to create a program to prevent repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Although House leaders have scheduled a floor vote on this bill for June 8, it is not certain it can garner enough votes to pass. We will be working to defeat the bill along with the AFL-CIO and other unions. The Senate is not expected to take its version of this bill up until after House passage.
Housing Budget for Fiscal 2001 Approved in House Subcommittee
The House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved funding levels for the next federal fiscal year, 2001. The Public Housing Operating Subsidies program was allocated the same funding as it received in the current fiscal year, $3.138 billion. AFSCME is fighting for an increase to $3.55 billion. The Public Housing Modernization program was funded at $2.8 billion with an additional allocation of $565 million for severely distressed public housing. The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program was funded at $4.5 billion, $295 million below this year's level. AFSCME is urging the Congress to fund the CDBG program at $5 billion. The action by the House subcommittee is just the beginning of a months long process of allocating moneys for the next fiscal year that will not end until October.
Patients' Rights Talks at a Standstill
It has been over eight months since the House passed the Patients' Bill of Rights. Yet the hopes of getting a bill finally approved and sent to the President are growing fainter. The deadlock in the conference committee negotiations continues, despite efforts by Democrats to jumpstart the talks. The main stumbling blocks are whether all families will be covered by the bill and whether there will be an expansion of liability of plans which harm patients by improperly delaying or denying care.
While Democrats from the House and Senate are united in expanding liability and ensuring that all families, including public sector workers, are covered by the legislation, there are significant divisions within the GOP. House GOP leaders, facing the prospect of losing control of the House this fall, are growing more anxious for an agreement and have expressed a willingness to cover all families. They have also expressed a willingness to discuss an expansion of liability. However, it is not clear that they would accept a meaningful liability provision because of opposition from the insurance industry and other business groups. In the Senate, GOP leaders are still not willing to discuss any liability provision or language covering all families.
This week, the AFSCME Polling Center began follow-up calls to AFSCME members in targeted states who had received an AFSCME direct mail piece about the negotiations on the patients'
rights legislation. The response has been unprecedented. Not only has the mail been well received, but an overwhelming share of AFSCME members are making the commitment to call their senator about the legislation.
Floor Vote on Campbell Bill Postponed
House leaders have postponed the floor vote on the Quality Health-Care Coalition Act (H.R. 1304). The bill would allow private practice physicians and other health care independent contractors to collectively bargain with managed care organizations.
The postponement was likely the result of an intense lobbying blitz by insurance and employer groups in opposition to the measure. At a closed-door GOP caucus, members voted 87-56 not to bring up the measure. It is reported that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) agrees with the postponement, even though he had committed to schedule the bill to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Tom Campbell (R-CA).
Child Support Enforcement Reforms Proposed, Along with New Privatization Initiative
A House Ways and Means Committee subcommittee has begun consideration of legislation to reform the child support collection process by, among other measures, giving private collection agencies access to federal and state government data bases and enforcement tools. Subcommittee action on the bill is scheduled for June 15.
The privatization initiative, included in a bill introduced by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) at the request of Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-TX), would allow unregulated private individuals and companies to function like government child support collection agencies. They would have access to Social Security numbers, wage records, child support registries and other government data and could seek action by the government to intercept tax refunds and unemployment insurance benefits and deny passport requests. We are working with the administration and a broad alliance of women's groups, child advocates, and consumer and privacy groups to strip this section from H.R. 4469.
H.R. 4469, as well as a different bill introduced by Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD), also includes provisions, which we support, that would enable more families on welfare to receive child support payments which now are paid to the state and federal government to offset the cost of the government welfare payments. However, if we do not succeed in removing the private collection agency provisions from the bill, we will be opposing passage of the bill, despite these positive provisions.