Legislative & Political Dept.
In the Halls of Congress
(This article by Legislative & Political Department officers Myke Reid and Steve Albanese first appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
By almost everyone’s standard, the 109th Congress was not a very successful one for working women and men. There were very few highlights, and there is a long list of issues that will need to be addressed by the 110th session beginning in January. As we go to press, we have not had the 2006 elections, and we can only hope that the next Congress is more responsive to the needs of American workers.
Voting Rights Act
One of the few bright spots in the last session of Congress was the passage of a bill that extended the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights legislation that first became law in 1965 and effectively ended decades of racial discrimination at the ballot box.
Passage of this bill should have been a no-brainer, but conservative members of the House initially sought to keep the act from being extended, arguing that it was no longer necessary. Ultimately, however, both the House and the Senate adopted the measure. With the president’s signature in July, this law has been extended another 25 years.
Minimum Wage Increase
Nine years have passed since Congress raised the federal minimum wage, sinking millions
Nine years have now passed since Congress raised the federal minimum wage, sinking millions of American workers further into poverty. Early signs indicated that the recent Congress was ready to pass important legislation to at least partially undo the years of injustice. But in a brazen political stunt, House Republicans announced that they were in favor of a proposed raise in the minimum wage, provided that the legislation also contained deep cuts in the estate tax, which benefits only the wealthiest Americans, and an assortment of tax cuts for other special interests. Clearly a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour (approximately $10,000 annually) is woefully inadequate — and unfair — to working people.
A real setback for American workers occurred relatively early in the 109th Congress. In August 2005, President Bush signed into law the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). With this law, the administration not only failed to create jobs here, but did little for workers in developing countries. As AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney has said, “This agreement leaves workers, family farmers, the environment, and communities more vulnerable, while enriching and empowering corporate elites.” The measure barely passed the House (217 votes in favor to 215 against) and went pretty much along party lines in the Senate (55-45). Several years ago a similar trade bill, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was passed, and most economic assessments show that it has resulted in the loss of more than 1 million American jobs. History is supposed to be an experience from which lessons are learned. With this Congress, apparently, that lesson just didn’t sink in.
The 109th Congress spent a lot of time postal “reform” legislation. Throughout the entire debate, the APWU has withheld support because some aspects of the bills would do more harm than good, and because the terms of the bills kept changing — and not necessarily for the better. We ultimately came to the conclusion that the status quo was better than the bills pending in either chamber. This legislation could still be acted upon during a “lame duck” session following the election, however. We continue to closely monitor the bills. For a postcript on postal reform in this Congress, see President Burrus' article in the November/December 2006 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine, "Bad Postal Legislation Temporarily Defeated."
Legislation introduced in the 109th Congress was designed to eliminate the penalties imposed on Civil Service Retirement System (CSRA) retirees by the so-called Windfall Elimination and Government Pension Offset (GPO) provisions of current Social Security law.
The Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) reduces the Social Security benefits of many CSRA retirees who do not have at least 30 years of “substantial earnings” over the course of their working lives from jobs outside of the federal sector from which Social Security taxes were deducted. Many CSRA retirees have some non-federal earnings, but may be unable to meet the “substantial earnings” test. They therefore will see reductions in their Social Security benefits unless the WEP is repealed. The legislation to repeal the WEP has plenty of co-sponsors, but the current leadership in both chambers have refused to let the bills come to the floor for a vote.
The Government Pension Offset Provision (GPO) affects CSRS retirees by reducing and even eliminating Social Security survivor benefits if one’s surviving spouse receives a CSRS pension. In other words, if a retiree loses a spouse who was receiving Social Security benefits, the survivor benefit is reduced by two-thirds of the amount of the CSRS annuity.
Perhaps the makeup of 110th Congress will be such that it will have a different set of priorities and these important measures will be addressed. We can always hope.