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Congress Returns to Full Plate
The Congress returned from its month-long summer recess to a full plate of unfinished business that it must complete before law makers adjourn for the year in order to return home to campaign for reelection. At the top of the list is work on budget and spending plans which must be approved before the new federal fiscal year starts on October 1. So far, only 2 of the 13 regular spending bills have been signed into law. President Clinton has warned congressional leaders that he will not hesitate to veto spending bills that are out of line with his priorities.
Clinton has also called for action on a number of other important legislative matters, including tax cuts targeted toward middle-income Americans and designed to ease the pain of health care, college tuition and long-term care costs. He said Congress should focus on paying off the national debt rather than the "massive and reckless tax cuts for the privileged few" that Clinton said Republican leaders have proposed. The president also called for enactment of a minimum wage increase, a patient's bill of rights, health insurance coverage for many of those now uninsured, programs to hire more teachers and police, hate crimes legislation, and global warming controls.
Override of Veto of Estate Tax Defeated
The House defeated the GOP-backed effort to override President Clinton's veto of a costly and unnecessary inheritance tax phase-out. Republican leaders wanted to make repealing the estate tax a big part of their tax-cutting agenda, but the President called it the wrong bill. Although the bill easily won House passage in June on a 279-136 vote, the President vetoed the bill, and the House failed by a vote of 274-157 to get the two-thirds vote necessary to override the veto. Clinton said that with a $105 billion price tag, it is too costly, and that it would primarily benefit the wealthy.
Version of Bush Prescription Drug Plan to be Introduced by GOP Leadership
In an effort to bolster the campaign of GOP Presidential nominee George W. Bush, the GOP congressional leadership introduced two lower-cost versions of his recently released prescription drug plan. Abandoning their own plan, Republican leaders are ready to embrace the Bush plan in an effort to score political points on an issue that Vice President Al Gore and congressional Democrats have dominated. Both plans are designed to be administered by states through private insurance coverage and would only be available to low income seniors.
New Effort Emerges on Patients' Rights Legislation
Rep. Charles Norwood (R-GA), Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), have developed a new version of the patients right legislation, drawn from the Norwood-Dingell Patients' Bill of Rights, which was endorsed by AFSCME and approved by the House of Representatives last October. The new effort is aimed at garnering the support of additional Republicans who, because of election worries, may be ready to support reform of managed care. While the draft bill has not been released, we have learned that it does include whistleblower protections for health care professionals. It also covers state and local government workers, except in states where an equally--stringent state law has been enacted. We expect to see the actual text of the draft bill within the next week, before it is introduced.
Ballenger and Owens to Introduce Needlestick Bill
Next week, Reps. Cass Ballenger (R-NC) and Major Owens (D-NY) plan to introduce a new bill to require employers to use safety-designed needles and sharps to reduce needlestick injuries to health care workers. The bill would accomplish most of the same goals as H.R. 1899, introduced last year by Reps. Pete Stark (D-CA) and Marge Roukema (R-NJ). The significance of the Ballenger-Owens effort is that they serve as the Chair and Ranking Democrat on the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, which is responsible for considering the bill. Chairman Ballenger intends to move the bill through committee and get it to the House floor for a vote quickly.
Ballenger is also working with Sens. Jim Jeffords (R-VT), Michael Enzi (R-WY), Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Harry Reid (D-NV) on the introduction of a companion bill in the Senate. At this time, Jeffords and Enzi have not yet agreed to introduce the bill.
The Ballenger-Owens bill, unlike H.R. 1899, does not include a requirement under Medicare that extends the needlestick requirement to public hospitals in states where public employees are not covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA). Because Ballenger wants to move a bill quickly, he decided to drop the Medicare provision to avoid referral to other House committees.
Therefore, AFSCME is working on a separate track to attempt to add a provision to Medicare legislation moving through the Congress that would require public hospitals in non-OSHA states to meet the needlestick requirement and other OSHA rules aimed at reducing worker exposure to blood.
Unemployment Insurance Reform Plan Gets Public Airing
The House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee heard a panel of representatives from the Administration, business, labor and state employment security agencies call for enactment this year of the bipartisan Unemployment Insurance (UI) reform plan to which they had all agreed. The proposal, strongly supported by AFSCME, would guarantee increased resources for state unemployment insurance and employment service operations, require states to provide unemployment benefits to part-time workers and more low-wage workers, improve the extended benefits program, and repeal of the two-tenths unemployment (FUTA) tax. In the meantime, House Speaker Dennis Hastert's minimum wage offer to the Administration includes the repeal of the FUTA surtax, and we have begun to see if the other parts of the UI reform can be added to it.
Older Workers' Rights Restoration Act Introduced in the Senate
On September 6, Senator Jim Jeffords (R-VT) introduced legislation that would restore federal age discrimination protections and rights to state government employees. State employees lost these rights earlier this year when the U. S. Supreme Court in effect ruled in the case, Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, that the state employees could not enforce their rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. In a statement issued by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), AFSCME President and Treasurer of the LCCR, Gerald McEntee, applauded the legislation and said that, "the Supreme Court continues to treat public employees as second class citizens, unworthy of the same protections as others in our society."
Senate Panel backs IRA and Pension Law Changes
The Senate Finance Committee approved a measure that would increase contribution limits for individual retirement accounts and employer-sponsored pension and savings plans, including governmental plans, as well as create a new Roth 401(k) plan. Included in the massive new pension bill, which is similar to the bill that passed the House on a 401-25 vote in July, are a number of provisions that are favorable to state and local government pension plans. The bill would allow portability of pension assets between 401, 403(b), governmental 457 plans and IRAs, allow participants in governmental defined benefit plans to use assets in their 457 and 403(b) plans to purchase service credits or for the repayment of refunds, provide equitable tax treatment to 457 distributions made pursuant to a domestic relations order and more. Despite the 19-0 committee vote for the legislation, the legislation is not-without controversy. Some have said it is too costly, while others say that its provisions helping small businesses are too generous. Also, some groups contend the bill would harm workers in cash-balance pension plans.
Pressure to Give Minimum Wage Workers a Raise Before Election Day
Despite repeated efforts by House and Senate Democratic leaders beginning in the spring of 1999, the GOP leadership has successfully blocked final action to raise the minimum wage. Over the past year, the House and Senate passed conflicting minimum wage proposals, but the bills were never reconciled into one proposal that could be approved and sent to the President. Now, with GOP leaders fearing that their stonewalling could damage their party on Election Day, the deadlock over giving the lowest-wage workers a much needed increase may finally end.
At the end of August, House GOP leader, Speaker Dennis Hastert (IL) sent a letter to President Clinton proposing a "deal" on raising the minimum wage. Hastert proposed that the $5.15 an hour wage be increased by $1 over two years, with the first fifty-cent hike kicking in on January 1, 2001 and the second a year later. However, while the Hastert proposal would boost the wages of most minimum wage workers, it would cut the wages of other workers by expanding the categories of workers who would no longer be covered under the overtime and minimum wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In addition, the tax cut package attached to the minimum wage package remains too large--$76 billion in tax cuts for business over the next 10 years--at more than four times the size of the tax package that accompanied the last minimum wage increase.
AFSCME opposes the Hastert proposal because it links the much needed minimum wage increase with tax giveaways for business and to cuts in the wages of other workers including some AFSCME members. Hastert's proposal would prohibit any bonuses paid for performance to be included in the calculation of overtime pay as is currently permitted. It would also broadly exclude from overtime coverage of employees who are computer systems analysts, computer programmers, software engineers and similarly skilled workers making over $57,700.