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The House of Representatives and the Senate have left Washington for the August recess. The Weekly Report will resume on September 10 after Congress reconvenes.
Congress Approves Tax Cut for the Rich
Rushing to leave Washington, D.C. for its annual August recess, the House and Senate completed action on a compromise version of the $792 billion across-the-board tax cut. The conference agreement version of the tax bill reduces the tax rate by one percent on each of the five income tax brackets, reduces the capital gains rate, phases out the inheritance tax for large estates, creates education savings accounts for private schools, increases IRA contributions, and provides multinational and corporate tax relief. These and other provisions will mean that more than two-thirds of the tax cut will go to the wealthiest tenth of all taxpayers, according to an analysis by the non-partisan group, Citizens for Tax Justice. The 60 percent of taxpayers with middle income and below whose average income is $39,000 will receive less than nine percent of the total tax cuts. Their average reduction would be only $157 a year. While the best-off tenth of all taxpayers, those whose income averages $204,000, would receive 68 percent of the tax reductions, and get an average annual tax cut of $7,520. The very best-off one percent of taxpayers, those making more than $301,000, would get an average tax reduction of almost $46,000 a year.
The conference agreement also calls for the expiration of the FUTA .2 percent employer tax and creates a giant new tax shelter for private companies building and operating highways or bridges by allowing private companies to issue $15 billion worth of tax-exempt bonds. The president has promised a veto of the bill because he believes the surplus should not be squandered on tax cuts but should be dedicated to Medicare, strengthening Social Security and meeting pressing spending needs for domestic programs. It is not clear when the Congress will send the bill to the president. The conference agreement passed the House and Senate by a largely partisan vote, 221-206 in the House and 50-49 in the Senate. No Senate Democrats voted for the conference agreement even though four had voted for the originally-passed bill. They were joined in voting ?no” by Republican Sens. Collins (ME), Snowe (ME), Specter (PA), and Voinovich (OH).
Workplace Safety and Health (Ergonomics)
Before leaving for their August recess, the House voted to delay the issuance of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ergonomics standard by a vote of 217-209. The so-called Workplace Preservation Act (H.R. 987) -- which AFSCME and its affiliates lobbied heavily against -- would prevent OSHA from implementing its long-awaited ergonomics standard which seeks to protect workers from crippling injuries and illnesses caused by ergonomic hazards in the workplace. H.R. 987, offered by Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), would delay the standard until the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) completed yet another study on musculoskeletal disorders and ergonomics (NAS completed a comprehensive study in 1998 supporting the need for an ergonomics study). In the last Congress, the leadership promised that OSHA would be allowed to move forward with the standard before the new NAS study was completed.
OSHA’s draft proposed ergonomics standard would require employers to set up an ergonomics program appropriate for the problem existing in their workplace. H.R. 987 would require OSHA to wait another two years before issuing a standard in anticipation of a second NAS study. Scientific groups, major public health organizations, medical societies, the American Nurses Association and countless other organizations are opposed to H.R. 987. In addition, the administration strongly opposes enactment of H.R. 987.
Attached is a list of House Republicans who supported AFSCME’s position and voted to oppose H.R. 987, and House Democrats who opposed AFSCME’s position and voted for H.R. 987.
Patients’ Bill of Rights
Reps. John Dingell (D-MI) and Charlie Norwood (R-GA) announced on August 5 that they had reached an agreement on a bipartisan managed care reform bill (H.R. 2723). The last issue to be settled in their negotiations was whistleblower protection for health care workers. Norwood initially resisted the inclusion of whistleblower language in the bill, but ultimately relented at the insistence of Rep. Dingell and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO). The whistleblower protections in the new bill mirror the language from the Democrats Patients’ Bill of Rights (H.R. 358). AFSCME had worked closely with Rep. Dingell during the negotiations in order to ensure that whistleblower protections were included in the bill.
The bill creates relatively strong protections for consumers, including expansions on the right of patients to sue when they have been injured by a plan’s denial of treatment. A sticking point during negotiations was the ability of plans to overturn treatment decisions by physicians. The new bill allows plans to control these decisions until the point when a patient appeals a plan’s treatment denial to an external reviewer (an outside medical panel). Under the bill, the reviewer is not bound by plan rules on whether or not a treatment is medically necessary.
The bill covers all Americans covered by managed care reform plans, including state and local government workers. This contrasts with the bill passed by the Senate a few weeks ago, which does not cover public employees.
During a press conference to announce the bill, Reps. Norwood and Dingell were accompanied by other members of Congress, including seven Republicans. Norwood predicted that many more Republicans would join Democrats in supporting the bill. However, it is still not clear how proponents will force the House GOP leadership to hold a vote on the bill. In response to a question from the press, Norwood failed to repeat an earlier threat to sign a discharge petition which would require that a vote be conducted.
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!
Assault on Workers’ Rights: Release of "Worker Project" Report
The House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), released a report, the "Worker Project", recommending fundamental changes in federal labor laws which would weaken existing workers’ rights.
The recommendations included the following:
The minority members of the subcommittee characterized the report conducted by the majority as "a highly partisan, one-sided attack on organized labor and labor law provisions designed to protect workers’ rights." Furthermore, the minority charged that the two-year investigation which cost the taxpayers $1.4 million was "conducted in secret -- behind closed doors -- and often off the record despite the minority’s objection that these meetings should be open and on the record."
Regulatory Policy/ Worker Health and Safety
On Thursday, July 29, the House Subcommittee on National Economic Growth, Natural Resources, and Regulatory Affairs amended and then approved the Federalism Act of 1999 (H.R. 2245). Even as amended, this bill would undermine the ability of the federal government to protect American workers by adding several new and extremely difficult steps to the regulatory process and consuming tax dollars that would otherwise go to issuing important worker protections. It would require agencies to review every state and local law to determine whether a proposed, interim, or final rule would preempt its authority. It would also presume state and local governments have authority over an issue unless the federal government makes an explicit statement that it is intending to preempt this authority. Thus, future federal laws will only preempt those state and local laws that the drafters have the foresight -- or political strength -- to specifically mention. This bill was scheduled to be considered by the full House Committee on Government Reform on Thursday, August 5, but, due to widespread opposition, this markup was indefinitely postponed.
Similar legislation was approved by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs on Tuesday, August 3. This bill, the Federalism Accountability Act of 1999 (S. 1214), would similarly undermine the process by which the federal government protects the health and safety of American workers. This bill is now pending a vote of the full Senate.
AFSCME strongly opposes both measures.
Sen. Chuck Robb (D-VA) introduced the Public School Modernization and Overcrowding Relief Act of 1999 (S. 1454). This legislation would assist local school districts to build, modernize and repair our nation’s public schools so that class sizes can be reduced, student learning enhanced and classrooms wired for 21st century technology. Recent studies have shown that students in school buildings in poor condition score significantly lower on achievement tests than students in facilities in good condition.
WORKPLACE PRESERVATION ACT (H.R. 987)
Republicans who supported AFSCME’s position and voted against H.R. 987:
Sherwood Boehlert (NY-23)
Democrats who opposed AFSCME’s position and voted for H.R. 987:
Marion Berry (AR-1)