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The House and Senate are now in recess. The Weekly Report will resume on June 11.
Republican Leadership Faces Disarray on Spending Bills
As the House adjourned for a week-long Memorial Day recess, it failed to move any of its Fiscal Year 2000 spending bills and the annual defense authorization bill, leading to even more speculation that the Congress is headed for another budgetary train wreck at the end of the year. House Republican leaders had announced their plan to move three relatively non-controversial bills, the Agriculture, Legislative Branch, and Treasury-Postal Service spending bills, all before the recess, but it turned out they were not able to pass a single one. The Treasury-Postal Service bill never made it out of committee, the Legislative Branch bill, which funds their own internal operations, could not muster support to make it to the floor, and the Agriculture bill had to be pulled from the floor when conservative members banded together to offer a series of amendments to prevent any new spending.
Not surprisingly, it turns out there is a major division among Republican factions as to whether to permit any new spending or to lift the previously-agreed-to stringent spending caps under which Congress is trying to live. Without raising the spending caps, Congress will be forced to cut about $24 billion from domestic programs. Many lawmakers are reluctant to actually follow through on further painful cuts in domestic spending at the same time they want to cut taxes and increase defense spending.
Meanwhile in the Senate, while its spending targets are not as drastic as in the House, its leadership also has decided to live by the statutory spending caps and has called for cutting domestic spending significantly in a number of program areas. Taking the largest hits are the important Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill (a $8.4 billion cut), and the Veterans Administration and Housing and Urban Development bill (a $9.4 billion cut) which fund many vital programs -- and the jobs of tens of thousands of AFSCME members. As expected, the Senate Republican leaders have called for increasing defense spending from $251.4 billion in FY 1999 to $265 billion next year.
Social Security and the "Lockbox”
The debate in the House over saving the Social Security program descended from the level of rhetoric and posturing to that of taking an empty, and even phony, gesture. The House GOP leadership pushed through passage of a bill (H.R. 1259) which they hailed as a way to protect Social Security surpluses from being "raided” to pay for other government programs.
H.R. 1259 would create a so-called "lockbox” for the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, in theory preventing Congress from using these trust funds for other government operations. In practice, the House and Senate can vote to override -- or "unlock” the "lockbox” -- with a special vote or by using the label, "emergency spending.” Equally important, the "lockbox” procedure also fails to protect the Social Security program from being radically restructured to create a system which includes private investment accounts. Under this bill, Social Security could still be privatized.
Passage of H.R. 1259, by an overwhelming vote of 416-12, came as members of both parties seek to convince voters that they have the better plan to save Social Security and Medicare. The Democrats offered a substitute motion which failed, 205-212, but would have preserved the budget surplus until Social Security and Medicare revisions are enacted. Despite the fact that the Democrats denounced H.R. 1259 as a "trick”, most Democrats voted for it after their own motion failed, acknowledging that they could not resist the opportunity to express their support for the concept of "saving Social Security first.”
Patients’ Bill of Rights
House of Representatives
Reps. John Dingell (D-MI) and Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and other Democratic members of the House will attempt to force a floor vote on the Patients’ Bill of Rights (H.R. 358) by filing a discharge petition shortly after the Memorial Day recess. If 218 members of the House sign the petition, it will force the Speaker of the House to bypass legislative committees and bring the bill to the floor of the House of Representatives.
The petition drive is being launched because of a failure by Republican leaders to move a bill through the committee process. The vast majority of Democrats are cosponsoring H.R. 358, and would be expected to sign the petition. However, this will not be enough signatures to force a floor vote. Therefore, we will be lobbying those few Democrats who are not cosponsoring the bill, and also moderate Republicans, in order to obtain the required number of signatures.
It appears that Sens. William Roth (R-DE) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) have given up their efforts to jointly draft a narrow managed care reform bill centered on an external appeals process. After months of negotiation, they were unable to come to agreement.
SIGN THE PBR PETITION TO CONGRESS
A petition to Congress on the Patients’ Bill of Rights has been posted on AFSCME’s home page at www.afscme.org. By clicking on the petition site, AFSCME members can sign this electronic petition urging Congress to pass a real Patients’ Bill of Rights which includes whistleblower protection for health care workers.
Please sign the petition and urge your members to sign too!
Regulatory Reform/ Worker Safety
On Thursday, May 20, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs approved the so-called Regulatory Improvement Act of 1999 (S. 746) by a vote of 11-5. This legislation, introduced by Sens. Fred Thompson (R-TN) and Carl Levin (D-MI), would create new bureaucratic obstacles that would hamper the ability of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies to issue important worker protections. It would also give affected industries new opportunities to delay or block important protections and would encourage agencies to issue less protective regulations. At the markup, several Democratic senators offered amendments to improve the legislation, but all were defeated. This legislation now moves to the Senate floor.
The House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee held a hearing on welfare reform implementation which was primarily devoted to witnesses who claimed the law had been a success. While several witnesses representing children and low-income families argued that more attention should be placed on the failure to reduce poverty, the dominant measure of success for the Republican majority continued to be caseload reductions. Using material supplied by AFSCME, several Democratic members of the Subcommittee questioned Wisconsin welfare administrator Jean Rogers about the state’s "light touch” policy and proposals to use surplus TANF funds to free up state funds for property tax relief. Under Wisconsin’s light touch policy, welfare offices are instructed not to volunteer information about Medicaid and Food Stamp eligibility unless asked. Several other jurisdictions, including New York City and the State of Illinois, also appear to be pursuing a similar diversion strategy, and there is considerable concern that these practices are contributing to a sharp drop in the use of food stamps in particular.
Bill Clay To Leave Congress
Rep. Bill Clay (D-MO), the ranking Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, is planning to retire, leaving open the chief leadership position on the committee if Democrats capture the House in the next election. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), a strong labor supporter, is next in line for the position and has privately indicated he would take the job. Miller is well-regarded for his support of labor positions. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), another close ally of labor, is next in line should Miller decide to accept the chairmanship of the Resources Committee.