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Legislation Department
June 11, 1999

Funding Government Programs

By making more than $100 million in last-minute spending cuts, the House Republican leadership was finally able to secure passage of the FY 2000 agriculture appropriations bill on a 246-183 vote. The measure (H.R. 1906) had earlier stalled before the Memorial Day recess because of divisions within the GOP caucus. It would provide $60.7 billion in new budget authority for the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), farm loans and nutrition programs such as food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Democrats and Republicans alike expressed hope that agriculture spending levels would be increased in conference with the Senate this year.

Social Security and the "Lockbox" Continued

GOP Senate leaders conferred all week on what version of a Social Security "lockbox" they would bring to the floor for a vote. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) supports a stricter version that has already failed on two previous votes after Democratic filibusters. By week’s end, the Senate vote was postponed to next week, but the Republican leadership did decide to scrap the stricter version and go with the "phony" House-passed bill (H.R. 1259).

H.R. 1259 has little practical effect. H.R. 1259 would create a "lockbox" for the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, in theory preventing Congress from using these trust funds for other government operations. However, in practice, both the House and Senate already have procedures in place which can waive -- or "unlock" -- the "lockbox" with a special vote called a ‘point of order,’ or by using the label, "emergency" spending. The "lockbox" procedure would fail 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.

The primary purpose of voting on the House-passed bill appears to be to make it politically difficult for lawmakers to vote for proposals that use the Social Security surplus for other types of spending and to convince the voters that the GOP is protecting Social Security better than the Democrats.

Patients’ Bill of Rights

House Action

On Wednesday, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), Chair of the Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Employer/Employee Relations, introduced a package of eight bills on managed care reform. Predictably, the bills are a piecemeal approach to reform and leave out many necessary patient protections. Significantly, the package does not include any whistleblower protections for health care workers. It also does not alter an existing defect in federal law which shields many large health plans from being sued for economic and punitive damages when they injure patients by refusing to authorize care.

Rep. Boehner has stated that the bills will be considered by the Subcommittee next week. While the Education and Workforce Committee does not have primary jurisdiction over managed care reform, Boehner appears to have the blessing of Republican House leaders.

Boehner’s plans may be a reaction to the discharge petition which Democrats are filing in an attempt to force a floor vote on the Patients’ Bill of Rights (H.R. 358). In several states, AFSCME councils and locals are leafleting large work sites to generate calls to targeted House members urging them to sign the discharge petition. In an important development yesterday, Rep. Michael Forbes (R-NY) became the first Republican member to sign on as a cosponsor of H.R. 358, the Democratic leadership bill.

Senate Action

Frustrated with a failure to bring a bill to the floor, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) are planning to amend the Patients’ Bill of Rights (S. 6) to other bills up for consideration by the full Senate.

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!

Education

Hearings were held in both the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). AFSCME sent a letter to the members of both committees outlining our opposition to language in the president’s Education Excellence for All Children Act of 1999. The proposal states that paraprofessionals who give direct instruction to students must, by July 1, 2002, have two years of college to continue in this position. AFSCME also sent a letter to Secretary Richard Riley of the Department of Education expressing concern about this provision.

Needlestick Bill

Just prior to the Memorial Day recess, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced a bill to require health care employers to use safety-designed needles and sharps in order to reduce needlestick injuries. The "Health Care Worker Needlestick Injury Prevention Act" (S. 1140) is a companion to H.R. 1899 which was introduced in the House by Representatives Marge Roukema (R-NJ) and Pete Stark (D-CA). AFSCME, along with other unions, is working to secure additional sponsors to both bills.

Write your Congressional representatives and urge them to co-sponsor S. 1140 and H.R. 1899 to prevent needlestick injuries.

Corrections and Law Enforcement Officers

On Wednesday, June 8, 1999, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) introduced a bill (H.R. 2059) that would make more families of slain law enforcement officers, including corrections officers, eligible for educational scholarships. Under current law, qualified dependents of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty are eligible for financial assistance for higher education. This bill would extend the retroactive eligibility dates for this program. This legislation is now pending in the House Judiciary Committee.