Congress returned this week to Washington for its final work period before the August recess. While still deadlocked on resolving differences on major appropriations bills, Congress did act to actually reform and reauthorize the nation’s job training programs.
Following passage last month of the bipartisan Senate version of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, on Wednesday the House passed the compromise bill on a 416-6 vote. It will next head to President Obama, who has expressed his support and is expected to sign it into law. The compromise legislation, crafted by leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, repeals the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 and replaces it with new authority that maintains most of WIA’s original programs. The measure authorizes funding through fiscal year 2020 for workforce development systems at the state and local level, and also maintains and modifies Job Corps, national programs, and adult education and literacy initiatives. It repeals 15 separate programs and requires states to submit plans for workforce systems that address all of the core programs under the measure. The language also standardizes performance indicators for all programs, and requires states to develop comprehensive strategies to align workforce activities with labor market demands, business needs and economic development goals. The bill continues the basic structure of state workforce development systems, with state and local boards developing workforce development plans that govern education, job training and other programs through one-stop delivery systems. However, it modifies the roles of the boards and requires that the plans be more comprehensive and tailored to the region’s employment and workforce needs so that the programs can provide training, employment services, adult education and vocational rehabilitation through a coordinated, comprehensive system.
In spite of the its showing strong bipartisan, bicameral support for the job training measure, Congress remains starkly divided on the 12 major spending bills that must be passed to fund major federal programs for fiscal year 2015. While the House continues to pass various spending bills (although its Energy-Water bill drew a veto threat from the Obama administration this week), the appropriations process in the Senate is essentially at a standstill as a result of contentious policy riders being attached to various spending bills. Because of the increasingly slim odds of lawmakers managing to reconcile spending bills passed by each chamber, it appears Congress will need to pass an emergency spending package to cover immediate threats like wildfires and border security.
Given this reality, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) has urged that his proposal to extend unemployment insurance benefits be attached to such a measure. Unfortunately, Sen. Reed’s proposed mechanism to pay for the extension is now being considered as a way to ensure continued funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which covers many of the nation’s major infrastructure projects and is expected to run dry this summer. Reed’s proposal to extend jobless aid for five months would cost a little under $10 billion and would be fully offset — a key to Republican support — using a combination of revenue raisers that includes extending “pension smoothing” provisions and extending customs user fees through 2024. House leadership has expressed no appetite for taking up the jobless aid renewal without attaching major Republican priorities. The odds of action on unemployment insurance seem even smaller now that House Ways & Means Chairman David Camp has announced plans to use pension smoothing, which temporarily reduces the amount that companies are required to pay into their pension funds, as a way to continue funding transportation projects for 10 months.
Beyond unemployment insurance benefits, other items on Senate Democrat’s “Fair Shot” economic agenda continue to flounder without bipartisan support in the chamber. Launched with fanfare as a coordinated plan to align senators behind party priorities aimed at addressing inequality in the economy, an agenda that included the minimum wage, pay equity and student loan refinancing has been stalled by shortfalls on votes and procedural impasses. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has little time before August recess to bring up any of these or additional priorities for what will likely be a doomed cloture vote on the Senate floor. Unless a clear path to bipartisan support can be forged—something that seems increasingly unlikely given the breakdown in the chambers’ appropriations process—many of these items appear to be on hold for the foreseeable future, or at least until after the August recess.
Both the House and the Senate will be in session next week.