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U.S. House votes to remove ERA obstacle

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Congress is talking about paid family leave. Will they do anything?

WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem to agree on expanding access to paid family leave.

But they disagree on how to do it.

U.S. House lawmakers debated three bills on Capitol Hill this week that would take dramatically different approaches to expanding access to paid leave, with Democrats and Republicans deeply divided on the best approach.

Congress is diving into the issue as polls show that most Americans support paid family and medical leave for all workers.

The United States lags far behind the rest of the world when it comes to paid leave for new parents — it’s one of only two countries in the United Nations with no statutory national policy of paid maternity leave.

Many Democrats in Congress are pushing for the FAMILY Act, which would provide all workers with family and medical leave insurance.

Under the bill, workers would be eligible for 60 days or 12 weeks of partial income for the birth or adoption of a child, or the injury or illness of a family member. The program would be funded through a payroll tax of 2 cents for every $10 of wages.

More than 200 House Democrats (including North Carolina’s Alma Adams, G.K. Butterfield and David Price) have signed on to the bill, as has one Republican.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are championing different proposals.

The New Parents Act would allow parents to draw on a portion of their Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child in exchange for delaying or reducing future Social Security benefits. It is backed by 10 Republicans (though none from North Carolina) and no Democrats in the House.

A bipartisan bill, the Advancing Support for Working Families Act, would allow families to draw on child tax credits for a year after the birth or adoption of a child. The bill has the support of five Republicans and three Democrats in the House.

Companion measures have been introduced in the Senate: the Family Act, the New Parents Act, and the Advancing Support for Working Families Act. Neither Senators Richard Burr nor Thom Tillis have signed on to any of the proposals.

While House lawmakers agreed over the general need for paid family leave, they sparred over which plan would best benefit workers and the economy.

Republicans called the FAMILY Act a “one-size-fits-all” government mandate.

It’s “one more tax” on employees and employers, said Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, who voiced support for a tax credit instead.

Conservatives also argued that small businesses should be able to customize benefits packages to meet unique needs and said it could unfairly burden stay-at-home caregivers and people without children.

Democrats, meanwhile, praised the FAMILY Act for its economic benefits and expressed concerns over proposals that would cut worker benefits and leave people uncovered during times of emergency.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts cited a study finding that a median-earning new mother who took paid leave after the birth of two children would get $11,000 in paid leave benefits but $29,000 less in Social Security benefits under the GOP proposal.

The FAMILY Act directly addresses the “two key ingredients” in gross domestic product — workforce participation and worker productivity, said Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat. “This is important for the male workforce as well,” he said, noting that it would support men’s childrearing and family caregiving responsibilities.

‘Closer than ever’

Despite their disagreements over details, lawmakers of both parties were optimistic about progress. Read more

News

Landmark prescription drug pricing bill clears U.S. House over GOP objections

Republican Congressman George Holding of North Carolina’s 2nd District opposed the reform legislation

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a landmark health care measure Thursday that proponents say would dramatically reduce the rising cost of prescription drugs and significantly expand access to health care benefits and services.

The sweeping legislation passed largely along party lines, with 230 lawmakers voting for it and 192 against. Only two House Republicans voted for the bill — Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.

“Today is a beacon of hope for so many families who have been burdened by the outrageous cost of prescription drugs in this country,” Rep. Haley Stevens, a freshman Democrat from Michigan, said on the House floor.

The cost of prescription drugs has soared in recent years, and Americans pay more for drugs than do residents of other wealthy countries.

In North Carolina, the average annual cost of prescription drug treatment rose nearly 58 percent between 2012 and 2017, far more than the 11 percent increase in the average annual income of North Carolinians over the same time, according to an analysis by AARP. Nearly a third of residents stopped taking drugs as prescribed because they couldn’t afford them.

U.S. drug prices are especially high in large part because the federal government doesn’t negotiate lower prices with drug companies, experts say — but the bill passed Thursday would enable it to do so.

Under the bill, lower prices would be available to all consumers, not just beneficiaries of Medicare, the government insurance program serving Americans over age 65 and some younger adults with certain disabilities or who have kidney failure.

The bill would also bar drug companies from charging Americans significantly more than they charge consumers in other countries for the same drugs and from raising prices at rates higher than inflation. And it would cap out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs at $2,000 and expand Medicare coverage to include vision, hearing and dental benefits.

Savings from lower drug costs — which Democrats said would amount to $500 billion over 10 years — would also be invested in biomedical research, efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, home visitation programs for women and children, and health centers targeting underserved people.

Republicans objected to the legislation, calling it — in the words of GOP Rep. George Holding of North Carolina — a “bad deal” for Americans.

He and other Republicans said regulating drug prices would suppress innovation in biomedical research and stall the development of life-saving drugs and treatments.

“It’s simply a chance we cannot afford to take,” said GOP Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia.

Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania rejected the argument, saying Wednesday that drug prices are going up not because of the cost of research and development, but because “drugmakers are jacking up prices wherever and whenever they can maximize their profits.”

Republicans also said the bill would reduce the number of drugs and treatments available on the U.S. market and force Americans to wait longer to access them.

As an alternative, they offered a smaller-scale proposal that would not “impose price controls” but would lower out-of-pocket spending and increase transparency while protecting access to new medicines and encouraging competition.

Most Americans think prescription drugs are too expensive, polls show, and one in four insured adults has difficulty paying for them. Majorities favor efforts to reduce their cost — including allowing the federal government to negotiate prices with drug companies.

The Democratic-led bill that passed the House Thursday is not expected to clear the GOP-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump has threatened to veto it.

The White House said it would “likely undermine access to lifesaving drugs” and cited a report by the Council of Economic Advisers, an executive branch agency, that found that it could lead to the loss or significant delay in the development of as many as 100 new medicines.

But Democrats accused Trump — who pledged in 2016 to “negotiate like crazy” for lower drug prices — of backpedaling on his campaign promise. “Trump promised in 2016 he would work to lower drug prices,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the floor Thursday. “For that reason, he ought to support it.”

Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.

Environment, News

Another defeat for the environment: PFAS provisions struck from must-pass defense bill

Image: Adobe stock

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and environmental advocates suffered a stinging setback with the release of a defense policy bill this week that lacks key provisions to crack down on a widespread class of chemicals linked to serious health problems.

The must-pass legislation represented the lawmakers’ best hope this year for enacting a comprehensive set of strong provisions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been linked to cancer, decreased fertility, developmental delays and other problems.

The compromise defense bill that emerged Monday leaves out a House-passed amendment that would have required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law. The provision would have triggered cleanup of contaminated sites around the country.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who championed the measure, called its exclusion from the bill “inexcusable” and “unforgivable” in an interview. “I’m going to do everything I can until we get PFAS listed as a toxic chemical at the federal level,” she said.

Also on the cutting-room floor: language that would have required the EPA to limit PFAS levels in waterways and strengthen regulations on PFAS in drinking water.

The bill does retain some PFAS-related provisions.

“Obviously we didn’t get everything we wanted, but I do think we made some important progress,” said Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.).

The National Defense Authorization Act would authorize funding for the U.S. Department of Defense and other national security programs through fiscal year 2020. The $738 billion compromise bill could come up for a vote as early as this week.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, co-chair of the congressional PFAS task force, signed a letter in October threatening to withhold support for the bill if it didn’t “significantly address” PFAS. Dozens of other lawmakers also signed on.

“I am very disappointed that Senate Republicans are blocking meaningful bipartisan legislation to regulate and clean-up PFAS chemicals,” Kildee said in a statement. “If Congress fails to act now on PFAS, service members and the American people may have to wait years for this administration to act.”

The White House threatened to veto the bill in July over certain PFAS provisions but issued a statement of support for the compromise version on Tuesday. The statement flagged the bill’s pay raise for troops, paid parental leave for federal employees and the creation of a U.S. space force.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) blamed Senate Republicans for excluding key PFAS provisions from the bill so it could make its way through Congress. Others said House Democrats walked away from negotiations because they felt PFAS provisions were too weak.

Slotkin says the provisions that remain in the base bill still represent progress.

“The most we’ve ever had in any Pentagon budget is a commitment to study PFAS,” she said. “This is the first time we have something that’s actually beyond just studying the problem.”

The former Pentagon official pointed to language that would require the military to transition off of PFAS-laden fire-fighting foam by 2024, ban the foam in exercises and training, test PFAS levels in military firefighters’ blood and other provisions.

Hoyer pledged to bring a stand-alone package of stronger PFAS provisions to the House floor in January. Still, such legislation would have to clear the GOP-controlled Senate and White House.

Used in tape, nonstick pans and other everyday items, PFAS have been found in high concentrations in sources of public drinking water and other sites around the country.

As Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg has reported on numerous occasions, PFAS have been identified by experts and advocates as problem in several locales in North Carolina. Click here to read her October story “‘It’s a horrible story’ — Officials, advocates decry the hazards of PFAS at N.C. summit.”

Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.

News

Back in their districts, here’s how Democrats are talking about impeachment

Washington, DC – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) walks towards to a podium to speak to announce plans for formal impeachment proceedings  at the Capitol Building September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. P(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. House Democrats are spending the Thanksgiving recess hammering President Donald Trump for allegedly soliciting foreign interference in U.S. elections as they prepare for another round of impeachment hearings when they return to Capitol Hill.

“The president used his office to pressure a foreign government to interfere in our elections,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted Monday — repeating a message she made to reporters last week when the House adjourned for the one-week recess. The president, she said, has “undermined the national security of the United States” and “the integrity of our elections.”

Congressional Democrats are emphasizing that message — and stressing its national security implications — back at home this week.

In a call with reporters Monday, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut (D), a member of the House committee leading the impeachment inquiry, said the Trump administration’s actions in Ukraine have made the country more vulnerable.

“The president has demonstrated his weaknesses and characteristics to the world,” said Himes, who was joined by national security experts on the call. “This is a grave danger.”

Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, a three-term Democrat, emphasized that point at an impeachment-focused town hall meeting in northern Virginia last week, where he too was joined by national security experts from Washington, D.C.-area think tanks. And other Democrats are highlighting the risk to national security and the U.S. electoral system in their messaging, using the hashtag “DefendOurDemocracy” on social media.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said this is the progressives’ strongest message on impeachment — in part because the public doesn’t understand the details of the president’s alleged misconduct in his July 25th call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“They’re not completely clear why this was an impeachable offense,” Lake said, referring to the president’s alleged attempt to withhold U.S. foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The public, she continued, doesn’t understand why the Ukraine call triggered an impeachment inquiry — even though their ability to understand the exchange was reportedly a key factor in Pelosi’s decision to launch a formal impeachment investigation. The public also wonders why other, seemingly more egregious grievances aren’t the focus of the inquiry, Lake said.

As such, Democrats are emphasizing the broad themes of democracy, safety and security — values the public can easily understand — and tapping experts to serve as messengers on the finer points of the implications of the president’s actions on foreign policy.

Others, however, say pointing to the president’s behavior is a more effective strategy, with the phrase “abuse of power” the most compelling shorthand, according to a Nov. 12 report by Navigator Research, a progressive firm.

Democrats are using that language too. Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, used the phrase in a tweet last week. Rep. Susie Lee, a Nevada Democrat, used it at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas over the weekend.

Many Democrats have also made a linguistic shift — swapping out the wonky Latin phrase “quid pro quo” for the more familiar word “bribery” — a move Lake said has helped the public understand the allegations against the president. The word “bribery” is much stronger because it connotes illegal activity, whereas “quid pro quo” suggests business as usual, she said.

GOP ‘all over the map’

Republicans, meanwhile, have yet to coalesce around a single message on impeachment — a strategy often seen as necessary to communicate effectively in today’s fractured media environment. Read more