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House Passes GOP-sponsored Tax Bill
In a largely party-line vote of 223-208, the House of Representatives passed the $792 billion, 10-year GOP leadership tax cut package. Six Democrats voted for the tax bill -- Reps. Gary Condit (CA), Sanford Bishop (GA), Pat Danner (MO), Virgil Goode (VA), Ralph Hall (TX), and Ken Lucas (KY), and four Republicans voted against it -- Reps. Michael Castle (DE), Greg Ganske (IA), Connie Morella (MD), and Jack Quinn (NY). House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) made it a personal priority to win the support of his Republican colleagues to gain passage of the bill. A series of changes were needed to win passage, including scaling back the cost from the original $864 billion figure, but the major provisions of the bill, including reducing income tax rates, slashing the capital gains rate, and phasing out estate taxes, remain largely unchanged. President Clinton said he would veto the House bill as well as a similar bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee. Both bills are costly, growing to more than $2 trillion over 20 years, and they give the overwhelming bulk of the their benefits to well-off Americans and corporations. Furthermore, they are predicated on huge cuts in domestic spending, cuts that will have a dramatic effect in reducing government services and jeopardizing AFSCME member jobs. And the bill also does not put a single dime aside to preserve and strengthen Medicare.
AFSCME and its affiliates across the nation lobbied vigorously against the bill. In a letter to all members of Congress, which was hand-delivered to each office prior to the vote, AFSCME International President Jerry McEntee and Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy said, "Make no mistake about it. This vote will be one of the most important you will cast as a member of Congress. The massive and costly tax cut proposed in the bill reflects neither the priorities nor the needs of the American public at this time."
Senate Finance Committee OKs Tax Cut Bill
The Senate is expected to begin floor debate next week on the Senate Finance Committee’s $792 billion tax cut package that differs in some respects from the House bill. Committee Republicans, joined by Democratic Sens. Robert Kerrey (NE) and John Breaux (LA), voted in favor of the bill.
While the Senate bill includes no capital gains tax cut and would reduce rather than eliminate estate taxes, the lion’s share of benefits go to the top 10 percent of taxpayers and it is predicated on huge cuts in vital domestic programs. During the Finance Committee’s consideration of the measure, Chairman William Roth (R-DE) offered a package of modifications to his bill which includes a major new privatization initiative being pushed by transportation contractors. The measure, known as the Highway Innovation and Cost Savings Act (HICSA), would allow private companies to build, operate and maintain highway projects. These companies would receive huge federal tax benefits while avoiding federal standards that currently are applied to federal highway construction projects, including labor, environmental, workplace safety and health, civil rights, Buy America, and planning and engineering standards. AFSCME is lobbying to have the provision deleted from the final tax measure which will be sent to the president.
The Senate bill also includes the same repeal of the federal unemployment tax surcharge which the House approved in its tax cut bill. Although the provision will stay in the tax bill which is sent to the president, we will be working to make sure this provision is not part of any final tax bill signed into law this year.
Funding for Labor, Health and Human Services Programs
Consideration of the Labor-Health and Human Services (LHHS) bill by a House panel was delayed at the last minute after GOP leaders were unable to find additional funding for the bill. At this point, the bill is slated to absorb a $11.74 billion cut unless additional funds or spending offsets are identified. It is typically one of the most difficult of the spending bills to pass and last year was included in a massive omnibus spending measure.
This week, the debate on the GOP leadership’s massive tax give-away overshadowed discussions on strengthening Social Security. Those supporting the tax-cut bill claim that the Social Security surplus will be safely protected by their lock-box mechanism. That is not true. The funds needed to strengthen Social Security could be jeopardized by the tax cuts if the economy does not generate the projected surpluses.
According to a poll of younger peoples’ attitudes toward Social Security, only 29 percent of young people said that Social Security needed to be replaced. The poll was conducted by the non-profit 2030 Center of 403 18-34 year olds. Sixty-seven percent said that Congress simply needs to strengthen the existing system. The poll also showed that the majority of respondents favored guaranteed benefits over a higher return, using the surplus to shore up Social Security and Medicare instead of giving tax cuts.
Patients’ Bill of Rights
House Commerce Committee Chair Thomas Bliley (R-VA) and ranking Democrat John Dingell (D-MI) met this week to discuss the possibility of a bipartisan bill to reform managed care. While there have been follow-up talks among staff for the two members, there has been little progress in the negotiations.
The House Republican leadership has been unable to move their own bills forward in the Commerce or the Education and the Workforce Committees because of disagreement among committee Republicans on the key issue of liability. A small number of Republicans on each committee agree with Democrats that legislation must include a provision which expands the right to sue private sector, self-funded plans when patients are harmed by a denial of treatment. As a result, the leadership has not been able to secure enough Republican support in either committee to approve a bill.
If the Bliley-Dingell negotiations do not progress and the Republicans are unable to get their own bill through committee, it is possible that the leadership will bypass the logjam in the committees and bring the Senate-passed bill directly to the floor.
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!
The business community, concluding that they may not be able to stop legislation expected later in the congressional session to raise the minimum wage, are working hard to insure that any deal includes new business tax breaks. Tax provisions which are being pushed by the business community include an expansion of the 90-day youth training (sub-minimum) wage to cover the elderly, disabled or welfare-to-work employees.
Despite lobbying by AFSCME and other groups opposed to the bill and a veto threat by President Clinton, the House passed the first piece of the legislative puzzle (H.R. 1995) that, when completed, will result in the full reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
President Clinton and the Democratic leaders urged rejection of the bill because it would combine funds for Clinton’s plan to hire 100,000 new teachers with money for several professional development programs into a single block grant bound for the states. Democrats wanted separate funding reserved for hiring new teachers -- one of the administration’s top agenda items. Democrats were able to maintain enough party unity to easily meet the 145-vote threshold needed to sustain the promised veto.
District of Columbia Funding
The House Appropriations Committee approved a $453 million fiscal 2000 spending bill for the District of Columbia. The measure funds some programs and agencies in the District, the courts, corrections and the Financial Control Board.
As usual, attempts by committee members to use the D.C. spending bill to legislate social policy resulted in hours of discussion on issues ranging from the medical use of marijuana to domestic partner medical coverage. The bill is expected to come to the House floor for a vote next week.
Regulatory Reform/ Worker Safety
The House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on the Regulatory Right-to-Know Act (H.R. 1074). This legislation would require the Office of Management and Budget to annually estimate the "efficiency" of federal regulation by calculating the overall costs and benefits. By forcing benefits such as worker safety to be expressed in dollars, this legislation would underestimate the value of federal regulations and would assist efforts to weaken worker safety protections in the future. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
On a voice vote, the Senate incorporated the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999 (HCPA) into the Commerce, State, Justice funding bill (S. 1217). The hate crimes bill is modest legislation that eliminates the current highly restrictive circumstances under which crimes based on race, national origin or religion can be prosecuted and extends the coverage of bias-motivated crimes to individuals with disabilities, women and gays and lesbians. The original Senate sponsors of the legislation -- Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-SD), Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Gordon Smith (R-OR), Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), deserve special praise for their bipartisan leadership.
AFSCME CyberActivists Lobby Congress
This year, AFSCME launched an exciting new internet-based grassroots lobbying program called the CyberActivist program. This program enables AFSCME members to lobby members of Congress by simply connecting to AFSCME’s web site (http://congress.nw.dc.us/cgi-bin/joinmaillist.pl?dir=afscme) and following a few basic steps. Already, AFSCME CyberActivists have lobbied Congress on numerous issues important to working men and women, including the recent Patients’ Bill of Rights legislation. With many more legislative battles coming down the pike, AFSCME is counting on the CyberActivists to help the union carry its message to Congress.