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Patients' Bill of Rights
The House GOP leadership sustained a major political defeat yesterday when the House of Representatives voted 275-151 to approve H.R. 2723, patients' rights legislation cosponsored by Reps. John Dingell (D-MI) and Charles Norwood (R-GA). The measure would provide meaningful reform of managed care with significant protections for consumers and health care workers.
The key vote was over consideration of a substitute bill drafted by Reps. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and John Shadegg (R-AZ) which had been endorsed by the House GOP leadership earlier in the week. The Coburn-Shadegg substitute was billed as a compromise measure, but in fact had an extremely weak enforcement provision which would have allowed plans to continue to deny patients medically-necessary care. The bill also failed to include whistleblower protections for health care workers. The substitute failed on a vote of 238-193 with 29 Republicans voting right and two Democrats voting wrong.
Passage of a comprehensive patients' bill of rights, with whistleblower protections for health care workers, is one of AFSCME's top legislative priorities. Our success in the House of Representatives is due to the tireless efforts of AFSCME leaders and activists across the country.
The House and Senate must now appoint a conference committee to reconcile the House bill with legislation approved by the Senate. Because the bill approved by the Senate is much weaker, the conference will be a very tough fight.
Fiscal Year 2000 Budget: Chaotic, Down-to-the-Wire Battle
Little progress was made this week in the continuing battle over funding the federal government for the next federal fiscal year which began 10 days ago. GOP leaders' problems stem from their promise to stay within the tight budget caps which were agreed to in 1997 and not to raid the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for other programs.
At the start of the week, the House GOP leadership said that they were pushing ahead with a proposal to pay out the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refunds monthly instead of in a lump sum payment despite widespread criticism even within their own ranks that the scheme would come on the backs of the nation's working families. However, by mid-week, the GOP leadership indicated that they were scrambling to find other ways to come up with funds necessary for vital domestic programs.
Another plan which is being floated is the perennial solution of an across-the-board cut for domestic and military programs. But this too has met with criticism, both from those supporting the large increases in the defense budget and those who want to prevent cuts in domestic programs. If defense were to be spared, the hit on domestic programs would double to about six percent. Cuts of this magnitude to education, health care and other domestic programs were found unacceptable even to some in the GOP leadership. By week's end, an across-the-board cut appeared to have faded as the hot budget-escape hatch to a solution of last resort.
Further complicating the efforts of the GOP leadership to complete the FY 2000 budget process is the looming veto threats which hang over the fate of six of the outstanding bills.
Labor-HHS-Education Spending Bill Approved By The Senate
The Senate, by a vote of 73-25, approved the FY 2000 Labor-Health and Human Services-Education (Labor-HHS-Education) funding bill, but only after lengthy debate and the rejection of numerous amendments to adequately fund important domestic priorities. Senate approval comes several days into the new fiscal year, which began October 1. Although the government continues to operate under a three-week temporary funding plan at last year's levels, the Congress still seems to be nowhere near finished with the new year's required spending bills, as only four of the 13 regular funding bills have been signed into law.
Democrats complained bitterly about the Labor-HHS-Education bill's lack of funding for education, however, in the end, 38 Democrats voted for it. The Senate bill provides more than $92 billion in FY 2000 spending. It would increase funding for some education programs for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by more than $4 billion from last year. However, to stay within the tight spending caps and to try to keep their promise not to tap into the Social Security trust fund to pay for it, Senate GOP leaders came up with more gimmicks and tricks, "borrowing" $11 billion from the Commerce-State-Justice bill and delaying more than $16 billion in spending until 2001. Consequently, the real impact of the bill is to starve many other important programs intended to address teacher shortages and school construction needs, job training and worker safety and other critical health programs.
The Senate bill will have to be reconciled with a House-passed bill which is about $2 billion below the Senate and also includes its share of funding gimmicks.
Senate Turns Down Two Anti-Labor Amendments As It Finishes Work On FY 2000 Labor-HHS and Education Funding Bill
During Senate deliberations on the Labor-HHS-Education funding bill, two anti-labor amendments were offered and failed. The first, by Sen. Robert Smith (R-NH), would have undermined Davis-Bacon wage requirements on construction projects and was defeated by a vote of 59-40. The second amendment, which would have delayed implementation of a long overdue ergonomics standard, was offered by Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO), but it was dropped in the face of a Democratic filibuster that would have delayed final passage of the bill until next week.
During committee consideration of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), AFSCME was successful in thwarting an attempt by some committee members to require teacher aides and assistants -- whose jobs are funded by Title I of ESEA -- to complete two to four years of college by 2002. As approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee, affected workers have three years from the date of enactment of the new law to demonstrate through an "assessment" the ability to complete their educationally-related duties. AFSCME is working to make additional changes to soften the impact on affected workers.
Minimum Wage And Unemployment Tax
A group of conservative House Democrats and moderate Republicans have reached agreement on a draft minimum wage bill. While it will not be officially released until next week in order to give a group of conservative Democrats more time to review it, its main proposals were floated publicly. The bill would increase the minimum wage by $1 per hour over three years, beginning April 2000 and increasing in one-year increments. The minimum wage now stands at $5.15 an hour and the proposal (H.R. 325 and S. 190), sponsored by Rep. David Bonior (D-MI) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), would increase the minimum wage by $1 in two annual hikes beginning on January 1, 2000. AFSCME supports the two-year, $1 increase and believes that the three-year, $1 increase is inadequate.
Unlike the Bonior-Kennedy proposal which is a "clean" bill with no tax breaks attached, the bipartisan draft includes a series of tax breaks touted as breaks to "offset" burdens on small businesses but include some GOP favorites like estate tax relief which are drawn from the vetoed GOP-sponsored $792 billion tax bill. AFSCME was successful in deleting from the plan the repeal of the $14 Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) surcharge. Repeal would have cost the system one-fourth of its revenue without addressing serious and chronic underfunding of state office operations.
Fiscal Year 2000 Funding for Housing and Community Development Programs
The House and Senate conferees completed work on the fiscal 2000 spending bill which included funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) after lawmakers worked out a deal with the White House on a package of $764 million in new spending for housing, space, science and national service programs. The "extra" dollars were "found" by recapturing moneys previously unspent by HUD.
Funding levels for the public housing programs, which were of chief concern to AFSCME, all received a boost as a result of the deal. The Public Housing Operating Subsidies are funded at $3.138 billion, $320 million above FY 1999 and higher than either the House or Senate figure. The Public Housing Modernization program is funded at $2.9 billion, $100 million below last year's funding, but $345 million above the original House and Senate passed number. The HOPE IV program which provides funds for severely distressed public housing is funded at the House-passed level of $575 million, which is still $50 million below the FY 1999 level, but $75 million above the Senate-passed figure. The Drug Elimination Grants are funded at the FY 1999 level of $310 million. And, the Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG) is funded at $4.8 billion which is $300 million more than the House-passed number and $50 million above last year's level.
The House and Senate are expected to pass the conference report next week and send it to the president who has indicated that he is now satisfied with the funding levels and will sign it.
Workplace Safety and Health
Funding for workplace safety and health enforcement programs became one of the first casualties during Senate consideration of the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill. The Senate voted to shift $17 million from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforcement programs to OSHA compliance programs, an amount which is 50 percent of the FY 1999 enforcement spending level. The amendment, offered by Sens. Paul Coverdell (R-GA) and Michael Enzi (R-WY), will weaken OSHA's ability to protect workers since reduced enforcement will mean fewer OSHA inspections.
Child Support Privatization Slammed
During a Ways and Means subcommittee hearing, witnesses addressed various proposals that would enhance the role of private collection agencies in child support collection. Witnesses representing the National Women's Law Center and Child Support Enforcement Division of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue gave powerful and effective testimony against these proposals. Although the request to consider the proposals came from Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-TX), we do not expect action on them in the near future.
The FY 2000 transportation spending conference report (H.R. 2084) passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the President. The bill provides $50.2 billion in funding for the nation's vital transportation and related needs and contains record levels of funding for transit and highway programs.
The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources held a hearing this week on legislation, currently being drafted, to create a small federal program to encourage unmarried fathers of children who are or recently were on welfare to remain involved in the lives of their children. The bill to be named the Fathers Count Act includes authority to create subsidized jobs, and we are working to see that the bill includes anti-displacement protections. The measure also includes some of the administration's proposed reforms of the Welfare-to-Work program which would make it easier for more individuals to qualify. Current rules made it hard to enroll recipients and, as a result, a substantial amount of the funds for this program have not been spent. The bill does not include the administration's request for additional funds.
Senate Rejects Clinton Judicial Nomination
Along strict party lines, the Senate rejected on a vote of 45-54 President Clinton's nomination of Ronnie White to be a U.S. District Court Judge in the Eastern District of Missouri. Republicans attacked White, who is Missouri's first African-American State Supreme Court justice, because they said he was reluctant to impose the death penalty and for alleged judicial activism. Democratic senators and the president complained bitterly about the fact that women and minorities have had a tougher time being confirmed by the Senate. According to Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), the vote was "a calculated political maneuver" and "yet another troubling example of the way the radical right is attempting to politicize the judiciary."
Both the House and the Senate passed reauthorizations of juvenile justice programs which include important labor protections for workers in the juvenile justice system. The two bills (H.R. 1501 and S. 254) will now proceed to a Senate-House conference where differences in the bills will be ironed-out.
After over a year of stalling tactics by senators who objected to additional landing slots at the nation's largest airports, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill (S. 82) finally passed the Senate. After a contentious floor fight, the FAA and related programs were reauthorized through the end of fiscal 2000. An important victory for FAA employees was the inclusion of a provision restoring Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) rights which were eliminated in the 1996 Transportation Appropriations bill.