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On the Hill

Congress was in recess this week and will be out again next week, returning to Washington April 8th.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed into law the final fiscal 2013 spending package to get the government funded through the balance of the 2013 fiscal year. The measure (HR 933) completes appropriations work for the year without undoing the automatic spending cuts known as sequester. As a result, most federal agencies will have to make automatic reductions by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The sequester will drop the federal government’s operating expenses in fiscal 2013 by roughly $59 billion to about $984 billion.

Republicans and Democrats appear now to have shifted their budget battle to fiscal 2014, with the House and Senate each having endorsed very different blueprints last week for how the federal government should raise and spend money in the decade ahead. The House voted, 221-207, to adopt the resolution (H Con Res 25) sponsored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) that leaves the sequester intact. It calls for reducing projected spending by $4.6 trillion by cutting domestic programs, repealing the 2010 health care law and overhauling the income tax code. The Senate voted 50-49 for the adoption of a resolution (S Con Res 8) prepared by Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) that calls for replacing the spending sequester with a combination of tax increases and cuts while also seeking $100 billion in new funding on infrastructure and worker-training programs over 10 years. The Senate budget would direct the Finance Committee to write legislation that would increase tax revenue by $975 billion over a decade. The budget resolutions are widely seen as outlines of each party’s beginning positions in deficit reduction negotiations. The Administration said this week that it will deliver its proposed 2014 budget to Congress on April 10, more than two months later than usual.

President Barack Obama visited a Miami port facility Friday to lay out his latest proposals to repair the nation’s infrastructure, including a $10 billion infrastructure bank, $7 billion in tax cuts to spur private investment and $4 billion in new competitive grants and loan guarantees. Senior administration officials who participated in a background conference call said Friday’s new proposals include the tax cuts and details of the competitive grants and loan guarantees aimed at spurring private-public partnerships. The White House is also requesting in its fiscal 2014 budget proposal $4 billion in new funding for Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loans and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants.


On the Hill

More than 100 House members and 20 Senators joined Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) in introducing the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015, and adjust it each year after that to keep up with the rising cost of living. Senate Democrats are looking for sweeteners such as small-business tax incentives they hope will attract support from Republicans and constituent groups for a plan to raise the minimum wage to a level beyond what President Barack Obama has proposed. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa said that in coming months he wants to move the new proposal (S 460). Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland suggested that small-business tax incentives could be coupled with the proposal to help offset concerns of businesses about the impact on overall wage costs. Democrats point to the 2007 minimum wage hike (PL 110-28), which was combined with small-business tax incentives, as a possible model.

Ahead of the Wednesday mark up of the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act H (R. 803), the Republican bill to reauthorize and reform the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), along with 22 of their colleagues, introduced the Women and Workforce Investment for Nontraditional Jobs (Women WIN Jobs) Act. The Women and Workforce Investment in Nontraditional Jobs Act (Women WIN Jobs) of 2013 would invest in a new federal grant program to help recruit, prepare, place and retain women in high-demand, high-wage nontraditional jobs by improving and expanding WANTO. The SKILLS Act, authored by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC)would repeal WANTO and consolidate 35 federal job-training programs into a single block grant. House Democrats have argued that the SKILLS Act goes too far and would make it harder for vulnerable groups like the elderly and disabled to get access to job training. Citing a lack of bipartisan support and having previously called on committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) to postpone the mark up and work to rewrite the bill, Democrats on the panel walked out of Wednesday’s mark up in protest of what they deemed a politically motivated rush to move it to the House floor. Republicans on the committee advanced the legislation despite the Democrats’ absence. H.R. 803 is expected to be considered on the House floor next week. Continue reading


On the Hill

ON THE HILL … With the automatic, across-the-board cuts to discretionary and defense spending scheduled to hit in less than a month, there is a stepped up focus on how to avert the $85 billion in cuts from taking place on March 1.  Senate Democrats are planning to release next week a short-term sequester replacement bill that combines alternative spending cuts and new tax revenue to replace the cuts that are scheduled to take place.  While the details of the measure are still being worked out, reports are that it will provide a short-term replacement for the cuts, and may be up for floor consideration the week of Feb. 25, just before the automatic cuts start hitting budgets at federal agencies.  It is expected that the measure will be “close to evenly divided” between spending cuts and tax hikes.  For their part, Republicans are holding firm, for now, on no new taxes to avoid the sequester.

Democratic staff of the House Appropriations Committee this week released statements from federal agencies that paint a grim picture of what would happen if the spending cuts begin March 1.  Among the likely results of the $85 billion reduction of fiscal 2013 spending, according to the report, are disrupted medical research, temporary shutdowns of food processing plants, longer waits at airports, reduced security at embassies, reductions in border programs that will cut into commerce and trade.  In the preliminary report issued Thursday, the Democrats stressed reductions in services already in place as a result of budget cutting since Republicans gained control of the House in 2011. Discretionary spending has been cut by more than $40 billion since then, the report says, with an impact the Democrats said has reverberated around the country.  A more detailed report on the impact of the spending cuts is expected to be released by House Democrats next week.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has scheduled a hearing next week on the effects of the spending cuts.

After an election focused heavily on jobs, the House is expected to move quickly on a long-stalled overhaul of federal job-training programs.  Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both the House and Senate agree that the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, which expired in 2003, needs updating.  Committees in both chambers began work on the legislation during the last Congress but bills did not make it to the floor in either the House or Senate. Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee are expected to introduce a bill to overhaul job-training programs in the coming weeks that will largely mirror the measure they pushed through the panel on a party-line vote last year, according to a committee spokeswoman.  That bill proposed consolidating 27 job-training programs into one large block grant to the states and would have allowed governors to merge additional programs if they had a “responsible” plan to do so. It would have required states to adopt a common set of performance measures to judge the success of all programs. And it would have required that two-thirds of the members of each local workforce board be employers, to help ensure that job training meets the needs of businesses.  Committee Democrats opposed the GOP bill and will likely do so again. Democrats argued that consolidating programs into a block grant would shift money away from underserved populations that some of the training efforts were set up to help.

In the Senate, there is some hope that a bipartisan approach may produce a job training bill both parties can agree on.  Senators. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) are  reported to be negotiating behind the scenes on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.  The earlier Senate proposal put in place a national job-training system and eliminated the  state-by-state programs that currently exist. It also created an “innovation fund” to spur states to form partnerships with business and education groups to train workers for the jobs in greatest demand.  The measure, on which a committee markup was postponed at least three times, was never formally introduced in the last Congress.  The overarching goal, a Senate staffer said, is to orient the entire workforce-training system around regional economic development and to give businesses a better stake in the system with more targeted outcomes while helping employees obtain skills for a career, not just the next job.

The Senate is expected to pass a domestic violence law rewrite next week without a clear endgame on tribal court provisions, a central sticking point in negotiations with the House.  On Thursday, the Senate rejected a GOP alternative to the bipartisan bill (S 47) that would renew and update the 1994 law known as the Violence Against Women Act. The GOP alternative defeated Thursday would have stripped language to give American Indian tribal courts more authority over non-tribal perpetrators of domestic violence on tribal land.  Senators will vote early next week on a half-dozen amendments and final passage of the five-year renewal of the law, which combats domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.  The House and Senate passed competing reauthorization measures last year after the domestic violence law lapsed in 2011. But a bicameral compromise never materialized because lawmakers were unable to overcome House objections to language that would have paid for an increase in U visas. Senators agreed to drop that provision this time.

The week ahead …President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday, February 12 in the evening.  Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is scheduled to give the Republican response.

On Wednesday, February 13 at 10:30 a.m., the Senate Budget Committee will hold a hearing on “The impact of budget decisions on families and communities.”


Future of Medicaid Expansion

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer recently announced that she will join the ranks of the three other Republican governors who will cooperate with Medicaid expansion in their states. She now stands with New Mexican Gov. Susana Martinez, Nevadan Gov. Brian Sandoval, and North Dakotan Gov. Jack Dalrymple. Additionally they now also join 20 other Democratic and Independent state governors, plus the District of Columbia, whose states are either participating or leaning towards participating in Medicaid expansion.

The expansion of Medicaid coverage to households with incomes below 133% of the Federal Poverty Level was a significant and critical element in the success of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) achieving universal coverage. The decision of the Supreme Court in June 2012 to uphold the constitutionality of the ACA but strike down the law’s provision to ensure states expanded Medicaid coverage by threatening to withdraw all Medicaid support, put this provision in great jeopardy. Republican governors immediately threatened or promised to not expand Medicaid and to refuse federal support in the name of fiscal constraints – even though federal support would pay for nearly all of the expansion.

If all states opted into this expansion though, as many as 17 million Americans could achieve access to health care. In New Mexico, this means that an additional 208,000 people would be eligible for insurance. In Arizona, this means that over 300,000 individuals will now be eligible. In Nevada, Medicaid expansion would not only afford an additional 78,000 people access to health care, but it would also save the state $16 million in mental health programs that would now be covered by federal funds. State Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson (R-NV) said: “Ensuring that poor Nevadans have access to primary health care through Medicaid is very simply the right thing to do… It will reduce our rate of uninsured and provide individuals with greater economic security.” And according to Gov. Martinez in New Mexico:

We have an obligation to provide an adequate level of basic health care services for those most in need in our state. However, we also have an obligation to ensure our state’s financial security. In deciding to expand Medicaid, I weighed every possible outcome and impact. Ultimately, this decision comes down to what is best for New Mexicans.”

Many states are choosing to participate in the expansion because of the savings it could bring to their individual states. According to the bill, the federal government will pay for 100% of the costs of expanding Medicaid for the first three years, from 2014 through 2016, and then will scale back funding to cover 90% of costs by the year 2022. Unfortunately, coverage of the uninsured in the future will be tied intimately to the extend of this federal support. Both Gov. Martinez and Gov. Brewer have already stated that they will cut back enrollment again once the federal government starts to roll back funding.

According to WOW’s BEST Index, an income at 133% of the poverty line is still far from what a family needs for true economic security. To shrink the number of those eligible even further ten years from now will result in even fewer people achieving economic security. Such tactics of expansion and reduction will leave the lives and economic security of millions of families at risk. And there’s no reason states need to make this decision. Even at 90%, the federal government is bearing the brunt of the costs – an unambiguous win for the states.  Many states will see significant savings in the future, even with the slight reduction in funding, especially as health care providers who often depend on the state for funding will have to treat fewer patients for no cost. Many governors have not yet announced what they intend to do. At least one of WOW’s partners, Michigan League for Public Policy, is doing its part to ensure expansion, rallying support to urge Gov. Snyder (R-MI) to choose the win-win of expansion and rebuff new anti-expansion proposals from Republican colleagues.

Time – and the efforts of advocates like the League and the courage of Governors to do the right thing – will tell if other states join the 23 states currently participating in the expansion, and thus if the possible 17 million Americans will achieve access to health care and a greater chance at economic security. Gov. Brewer’s announcement is a good sign.

-Alaina Mulhearn, WOW’s Family Economic Security Program Intern


In the Administration

President Obama on Thursday nominated Jack Lew to be the next secretary of the Treasury. Current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will leave that position on January 25. Lew, who currently serves as the White House chief of staff, previously served as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama Administration. Unlike his predecessors, Lew has relatively little experience dealing with the financial industry. But, given that the next Treasury secretary will be deeply involved in budget negotiations rather than responding to a financial crisis or crafting new banking laws, the choice of Lew was generally positive. A Georgetown University-trained lawyer, Lew first made a name for himself as domestic policy adviser to former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill from 1979 through 1986. In the Clinton White House, he helped negotiate the 1997 bipartisan agreement that led to a balanced budget and served a first stint as budget director from 1998 to 2001. Lew began the Obama administration as deputy secretary of State for management and resources, before becoming OMB director in November 2010. He has been one of Obama’s chief budget negotiators with congressional Republicans and has the reputation of a thoughtful but fierce defender of social safety net programs. Although ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions (R, AL) announced his opposition to Lew, the nomination generally has won praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.


On the Hill

ON THE HILL…Congress returned to Washington this week after a week-long Thanksgiving break.  The main topic of discussion was resolution of the so-called “fiscal cliff” issue.  While there is much being said publicly by both parties that would seem to suggest that they are far apart in their approaches, Hill insiders believe they will reach a deal before the end of the year.

House Republican leaders quickly rejected what they described as a sweeping new deficit-reduction plan Obama administration officials offered during meetings Thursday on Capitol Hill. The proposal leaked to reporters includes the nearly $1.6 trillion in additional tax revenue over 10 years that the White House earlier endorsed. Upper-bracket income tax rates would be permitted to increase next year, as would taxes on capital gains and dividend income. The proposal also would postpone for a year the automatic cuts in discretionary spending scheduled to begin next year, trim $400 billion from federal health care programs, extend a “patch” for the alternative minimum tax, extend tax incentives for business and renew extended unemployment compensation. The proposal was also said to include a new multi-year economic stimulus plan including at least $50 billion in infrastructure spending in fiscal 2013, and perhaps an extension of the current payroll tax reduction.  To ensure that there are no more crises like the debt ceiling impasse last year, the Administration is also proposing to permanently end Congressional purview over the federal borrowing limit.  Under the Administration’s proposal, Congress would be allowed to pass a resolution blocking an increase in the debt limit, but the president would be able to veto that resolution. Congress could block a higher borrowing limit only if two-thirds of lawmakers overrode the veto.

The deal to prevent automatic across-the-board tax hikes and program cuts by Jan. 1 is expected to contain two parts, one a down payment that includes new revenues from taxpayers with income over $200,000 and two, a  framework with enforceable spending targets for Congressional committees. Legislation producing the savings next year would identify specific means of cutting entitlements such as Medicare, SNAP and Medicaid,  and could lower the discretionary program caps enacted as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act.  Several Senate Democratic leaders promoted the idea Tuesday that savings can be found in Medicare in ways other than raising the eligibility age, a concept included in Wisconsin Republican Paul D. Ryan’s budget proposals that and has continued to surface as one area in which Democrats might decide to compromise.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) has raised hopes that Congress might still be able to produce a multi-year farm bill soon, possibly as part of a package to block impending tax increases and spending cuts. Lucas said this week that Speaker Boehner indicated that the billions of savings over 10 years that a farm bill provides makes it an attractive option for legislation to avoid across-the-board spending cuts. The House bill cuts SNAP (formerly food stamps) by an amount much larger than the Senate bill.

The week ahead…The House and Senate will continue to work toward a deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff”.


Improving the Delivery of Social Support Programs

The New America Foundation (NAF) recently hosted a discussion on methods for improving the delivery of social support programs. Some of the topics covered included asset tests, automated services, and data matching.

Asset tests may lead to multiple testing of the same groups, confusion for applicants and frontline workers, and more errors in paperwork. Evidence-based research from NAF shows that by either streamlining or eliminating asset tests, administrative costs are reduced and the delivery of services is simplified for both administrators and applicants. Moreover, caseloads do not significantly increase when asset tests are eliminated—an argument often used by proponents of asset tests. During the NAF event, Dottie Rosenbaum from the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities explained how automated services may also help lower administrative costs and simplify paperwork. Rosenbaum cautioned though that automated services may pose challenges for special populations, such as communities that have limited internet access (i.e. low-income rural communities); and people who need individualized support (i.e. limited literacy, ESL learners).

Vince Kilduff from the Maryland Department of Human Services (DHS) offered some examples of how Maryland DHS is implementing a combination of strategies such as, eliminating asset tests for TANF eligibility, expanding online applications, and improving data matching, in order to enhance outreach efforts to beneficiaries. Kilduff also highlighted how scenario-based training versus module-based training for frontline workers may help workers better respond to situations that an automated system cannot capture.

Improving administrative efficiency when delivering safety-net programs and advocating for such efforts at the state level ensures that potential beneficiaries are reached and communities are effectively supported.

Other Resources:


“What do Recent Reforms Tell us About Asset Limits”

“Moving to 21st Century Public Benefits”

News Reports Highlight Why TANF Flexibility is Needed

Removing Red Tape: New Strategies for Strengthening the Safety Net


Weekly ‘On the Hill’ Update

The House of Representatives and Senate scrambled to finish up business before adjourning today or over the weekend.   Congress will not be back in session until after the election, when several rather large and difficult issues will be waiting for action, most notably what to do about the expiring tax cuts and the automatic, across-the-board deep spending cuts that are scheduled to go into effect on January 1 and 2, respectively.

In the meantime, the Senate inched closer to clearing a six-month stopgap funding bill, voting 67-31 Thursday on a motion to proceed to the continuing resolution even as lawmakers worked behind the scenes to remove hurdles to a quick final vote on the measure. A vote on passage of the continuing resolution (CR) will be held this weekend or sooner if the Senate can dispose of other pending business.  The CR being voted on by the Senate funds the government through March 27, 2013 at a $1.047 trillion annual rate, about $8 billion over current spending levels.  Most federal programs and agencies will see a 0.6 percent increase in funding.  The House of Representatives approved the measure last week.


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Weekly ‘On the Hill’ Update

The House passed a six-month stopgap spending bill Thursday night, a move meant to spare both parties from campaigning under the shadow of a potential government shutdown.  The measure, which passed on a 329-91 vote, funds the government through March 27, 2013 at a $1.047 trillion annual rate, about $8 billion over current spending levels.  Most federal programs and agencies will see a 0.6 percent increase in funding.  Next week the Senate is expected to clear the measure, which congressional leaders and the White House negotiated in advance.

Senator John McCain is trying to build bipartisan support to delay for at least three months automatic spending cuts slated to take place for defense programs in January.   Senator McCain indicated he may offer the measure as an amendment to the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution when it is considered on the Senate floor next week.  The House of Representatives passed a measure Thursday that would address the pending defense cuts in the upcoming sequester and require President Obama to issue an alternative spending reduction plan. The bill (HR 6365) requires the president to submit to Congress by Oct. 15 a plan to replace the defense cuts with other spending reductions; the measure would not allow the plan to include revenue increases.

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Happy Birthday to the Violence Against Women Act!

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a monumental piece of legislation that has forever changed the way the criminal and civil justice systems and communities respond to intimate partner and gender-based violence. Thanks to VAWA, survivors of all types of violence – domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking – are able to have the seriousness of the crimes against them not only recognized but also properly addressed. Programs and policies across the country now respond to help keep survivors safe and free of violence as well as hold perpetrators accountable. The act established a coordinated community response to these crimes, strengthened laws, penalties and enforcement, and provided financial and legal relief to victims so that they can be safe from future violence. Continue reading