STIMULUS HITS ROADBLOCK
The House is in recess. The Senate is back in session. There is a CR until December 11. Stimulus Negotiations
There seems to be some progress in committee work on a final COVID stimulus deal, but state and local funding and liability remain as major hurdles that are no closer to being solved. On Wednesday, October 21, Senate Democrats blocked a targeted $500 billion package of coronavirus relief, which would have provided a new round of funding for a small business loan program. The legislation included a federal unemployment benefit, another round of Paycheck Protection Program funding, more than $100 billion for schools and new funding for coronavirus testing and vaccine research and distribution.
While Democrats derided the vote as a stunt, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) was eager to force the minority party to go on the record on the proposed legislation. Also on Wednesday, talks between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (CA) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin resumed, which many close to the negotiations said brought the two sides closer to being able to write legislation. Trump reiterated his opposition to any package including substantial funding for state and local governments.
McConnell has advised the Administration not to reach a deal with Speaker Pelosi on a package before the elections, suggesting that even if Pelosi and Mnuchin are able to reach an agreement the Senate will not vote on the bill until after elections. McConnell feels that a deal could disrupt the Senate’s plans to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
If Democrats flip the Senate after elections next week, Senator Patty Murray (WA) is ready to take up the chair position of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Current Chair, Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), is retiring this year leaving a GOP vacancy at the top of the committee. The next senator in line is Mike Enzi (WY), who is also on his way out, leaving Senator Richard Burr (NC), who stepped down this spring as chair of the Intelligence Committee amid an FBI investigation into his stock trades. If Burr doesn’t ascend to the top GOP spot on the committee, next in line is libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul (KY).
Department of Labor
If Vice President Joe Biden wins the Presidency, Senator Bernie Sanders might make a play to become Secretary of Labor. Senator Sanders declined to comment on whether or not he’s putting his name forward for the position, but, according to insiders, he plans to push Biden to include progressive voices in both the transition and in a new administration. The Vermont senator — who throughout his decades long career has called for laws to raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize — won significant support from local unions and rank-and-file members in the 2016 Democratic primary race, even as most major national unions endorsed his rival Hillary Clinton. Sanders has made labor a priority issue throughout his presidential campaigns and emphasized the need to strengthen and expand the right to join a union and rebuild America’s middle class.
Other names that have been floated for Labor secretary in a Biden administration include Bill Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO and a Howard University economics professor; Sharon Block, a veteran of the DOL and Obama White House who is now executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University; Congressman Andy Levin (MI), a former union organizer and leader of Michigan’s Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth; and Seth Harris, the former deputy secretary of Labor in the Obama administration. There has also been some discussion of Biden looking to appoint a union official to his Cabinet, possibly atop the DOL or the H-1B Visa Rules
On Monday, October 19, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation, among others, filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California contending that the Departments of Labor (DOL) and Homeland (DHS) failed to seek public input on two interim final rules issued earlier this month that would make it harder for businesses to obtain high-skilled foreign employees.
The groups feel the Administration’s recent rules that raised wage rates and added new restrictions to the foreign specialty worker visa program would ‘sever the employment relationship of hundreds of thousands of existing employees in the United States and foreclose the hiring of new individuals via the H-1B program.’ The administration said earlier this month that the changes to the program are necessary because of the pandemic-induced economic downturn and predicted that a third of H-1B petitions will be affected by the new rules.
The interim final rules announced October 8 would affect H-1B visas, H-1B1 and E-3 visas, which are frequently used by the technology industry to temporarily employ foreign workers with advanced degrees. The DHS rule amended the definition of a “specialty occupation” to clarify that there must be "a direct relationship between the required degree field(s)" and the worker's job duties. Additionally, the rule change states that a position would not qualify "if attainment of a general degree, without further specialization, is sufficient to qualify for the position. It would also limit visa stays for beneficiaries who are working third-party job sites to just one year as opposed to three. The rule is scheduled to go into effect December 7. The DOL rule, which is currently in effect, raises the minimum wage that employers must pay high-skilled workers. Click here to access the DHS rule. Click here to access the DOL rule. Pell Grants for Prisoners
On Wednesday, October 21, CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest operators of private prisons, announced its support for a congressional effort to overturn the federal ban on incarcerated students receiving Pell Grants. The company’s support for restoring Pell Grants for prisoners is part of a package of reforms it said it would advocate for at the state and federal level.
Other policies include restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people as well as making it easier for them to get occupational licenses and jobs. The new positions come as the private industry braces for major changes if Democrats take the White House and Congress. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has committed to ending the federal government’s use of private prisons.
There is bipartisan support for restoring prisoners’ ability to get Pell Grants. Under President Obama, a pilot program was implemented that allowed the Department of Education to send a limited number of Pell Grants to incarcerated students. Current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has expanded the program and called on Congress to make it permanent.
House Democrats passed legislation that would overturn the ban on incarcerated students receiving Pell Grants earlier this year as part of an education funding bill, and Senate HELP Chair Lamar Alexander (TN) has said he would support restoring prisoners’ access to Pell Grants as part of an overhaul of the Higher Education Act. The bipartisan Restoring Education And Learning (REAL) Act that would make the change was introduced by Senators Brian Schatz (HI) and Mike Lee (UT) in 2019.
Executive Order On Wednesday, October 21, President Trump issued the Executive Order (EO) on Creating Schedule F in the Excepted Service, which strips some employment protections from civil servants whose responsibilities include policy, making it easier to hire and fire career employees before a potential change in administration. Federal employee unions have described it as the biggest change to federal workforce protections in a century, converting many federal workers to “at will” employment. On Friday, October 23, personnel officials at federal agencies were tasked with reviewing all jobs and deciding exactly which roles would qualify.
The White House has declined to say how many jobs would be affected, but civil service experts and union leaders estimated anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands in the 2.1 million-strong workforce. Each administration names about 4,000 political appointees, who typically change with each administration. The order is a year in the making. The Administration consulted with its attorneys and concluded that federal personnel laws give the president latitude to shift employees among different groups. The pandemic delayed the rollout, along with other planned initiatives, but even if Trump loses the election and a Biden administration rescinds the order, “there is a marker around this.” Initial Jobless Claims
In the week ending October 17, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 787,000, a decrease of 55,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised down by 56,000 from 898,000 to 842,000. The 4-week moving average was 811,250, a decrease of 21,500 from the previous week's revised average. The previous week's average was revised down by 33,500 from 866,250 to 832,750. The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 5.7 percent for the week ending October 10, a decrease of 0.7 percentage point from the previous week's revised rate.
Click here to read the full report.
Click here to read the entire October 26 weekly legislative update.