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Legislative Updates

Keeping you up to date on policy action from the presidential administration and the U.S. Congress.

February 2012

Download PDF: February 2012

» Education

“2013 Education Budget”
President Obama’s 2013 budget proposal to Congress included education investments aimed at providing professional development for teachers and making college more affordable. The U.S. Department of Education is requesting an overall increase of $1.7 billion, or 2.5%, from 2012.

The funds would establish a Community College to Career Fund, which helps community colleges become community career centers where people can gain the skills needed to be hired by local businesses. In addition, local businesses would have opportunities to offer paid internships to low-income students to help them gain the experience needed for full-time positions after graduation. A key component of this initiative is to ensure education is aligned with workforce demands. The funds would support reauthorization of the Career and Technical Education Program. Click here for more information.

» Energy, Transportation, and Environment

“Transportation Reauthorization”
Currently, the nation’s surface transportation programs are set to expire on March 31, 2012, and the chance of congressional passage appears to be in jeopardy. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ended an 18-hour session marking up their Surface Transportation Reauthorization. Democrats oppose how the legislation will be financed, which includes opening up additional land for drilling and energy production. The President has already issued a veto threat for the House legislation.

Alternatively, the Senate’s version of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization passed unanimously out of committee in November. Although it initially had a high likelihood of passing through the chamber,the legislation currently faces the possibility of being abandoned in favor of a simple extension of the existing bill.

Further complicating the issue is the Highway Trust Fund, poised for a $10 billion shortfall this year. It will likely run out of money in October, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This means that any extension will need to include an influx of money to ensure the highway projects are not halted prematurely.

TRANSPORTATION REAUTHORIZATION COMPARISON CHART

transportation-reauthorization-comparison-chart

» Labor, Military, and Veterans Affairs

“Unemployment Rate for African Americans Shows Vast Improvement”
The U.S. Department of Labor released the January 2012 Employment Situation Summary showing a total number of 12.8 million Americans unemployed. The unemployment rate dropped 0.2 percentage points, to 8.3%, a 0.8 point-decline since August. “Job growth was widespread in the private sector, with large employment gains in professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and manufacturing,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. According to the January 2012 data from BLS, the unemployment rate among Caucasian Americans continues to be significantly lower (7.4%) compared to African Americans (13.6%) and Hispanic or Latinos (10.5%). Although these latest figures still show disparity between whites and minorities, there have been significant gains. Between December 2011 and January 2012, 380,000 African Americans secured jobs, and roughly 39,000 Hispanic or Latino Americans gained employment. Unemployment is now at its lowest point since President Barack Obama’s first full month in office. Click here to read the January 2012 Employment Situation Summary.

 

The President’s FY2013 budget was released on Monday, February 13th. The President’s $3.8 trillion budget would follow the budget reductions agreed upon this past summer, and further attempt to reduce the deficit by ending tax cuts for the highest tax brackets established under the previous administration. The Super Committee’s failure to reach an agreement and present a long-term solution to deficit reduction means that the President’s budget faces new restrictions. With these restrictions, the budget is set under certain caps which must be met; otherwise, automatic cuts will go into place.

Click here for a budget summary of key programs!

Extending the Payroll Tax Cut
At the end of 2011, Congress failed to reach an agreement on extending the Payroll Tax Cut and Unemployment Extension for 2012. Instead, they opted instead for a two-month extension, which would grant more time to devise an alternative. Congress reached an agreement in February and passed another extension of the Payroll Tax Cut and Unemployment Insurance. The most important note about the package is that it is completely paid for, with the exception of the Payroll Tax Cut extension. This could force Congress to raise the debt ceiling shortly before November, something members are likely to take into account as election season approaches.

The Payroll Tax Extension will:
  • Allow employees to continue to pay only 4.2% on wages (as opposed to a 6.2% tax). Self-employed individuals will pay only 10.4% on self-employment income through the end of 2012 (as opposed to a 12.2% tax);
  • Include unemployment benefits at current levels through August. However, starting in September, states with an unemployment rate of 8.3% will have a reduction in the maximum number of weeks that a person is eligible to receive benefits from 93 weeks to 63 weeks. Further reductions will take place in December, and the maximum number of weeks will depend on each state’s unemployment rate;
  • Implement a voluntary program under the Department of Labor that allows up to ten states to implement programs where unemployment benefits can be used to supplement a worker’s wages for a limited period of time;
  • Allocate the D-Block spectrum to first responders for national broadband network deployment. It also includes $7 billion in grants to aid in deployment; and
  • Provide doctors, who are set to receive a 27.5% cut in their Medicare payments, with a payment freeze through the end of the year.

» Housing

“Landmark $26 Billion Agreement Reached with Five Largest Mortgage Servicers”
After many months of negotiation, on February 9, 2012, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, and Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers announced that the federal government and 49 state attorneys general reached a landmark $26 billion agreement with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers: Bank of America Corporation, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Company, Citigroup Inc., and Ally Financial Inc. (formerly GMAC) to address mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure abuses.

The agreement settles state and federal investigations, finding that these loan servicers routinely signed foreclosure-related documents without the presence of a notary public and without knowing whether the facts contained in the documents were correct (the unlawful practice of “robo-signing”). The agreement provides financial relief to homeowners and establishes new homeowner protections. “This settlement has broad bipartisan support from the states because the attorneys general realize that the partnership with the federal agencies made it possible to achieve favorable terms and conditions that would have been difficult for the states or the federal government to achieve on their own,” said Colorado Attorney General Suthers.

Under the terms of the agreement, the servicers are required to collectively dedicate $20 billion toward various forms of financial relief to borrowers. At least $10 billion will go toward reducing the principal on loans for borrowers who, as of the date of the settlement, are either delinquent or at imminent risk of default, and owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. At least $3 billion will go toward refinancing loans for those who are current on their mortgages but who owe more on their mortgage than their homes are worth. Borrowers who meet basic criteria will be eligible for refinancing, which will reduce interest rates for borrowers who are currently paying much higher rates or whose adjustable rate mortgages have ballooned due to sudden rise in the interest rate. Up to $7 billion will go towards other forms of relief, including forbearance of principal for unemployed borrowers and benefits for service members who are forced to sell their home at a loss as a result of a Permanent Change in Station order. Because servicers will receive only partial credit for every dollar spent on some of the required activities, the settlement will provide direct benefits to borrowers in excess of $20 billion. For more information about the mortgage servicing settlement please visit: www.NationalMortgageSettlement.com

» Emergency Preparedness/Homeland Security

“2012 Homeland Security Priorities”
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security released the 2012 priorities during the second session of the 112th Congress. Rep. King stated that there will be a continued focus on counterterrorism issues with follow-up hearings on the topic of Muslim Radicalization in America, which drew criticism from civil rights organizations, panel Democrats, and Muslim advocates. Rep. King and fellow GOP panelists, however, have called the hearings productive and promised to continue the efforts. The committee will also evaluate and examine a host of other homeland security issues which include the following:
  • Studying the presence and activities of Iran’s intelligence agencies;
  • Studying the presence and activities of groups such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda;
  • Studying security preparations for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London;
  • Assessing whether enemy veterans of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia pose dangers to the U.S. homeland; and
  • Examining potential leaks of classified information regarding sensitive counterterrorism operations.

» International Affairs

“Foreign Aid in the Middle East”
In mid-February, the White House announced plans to assist countries “swept by the Arab Spring” with more than $800 million in economic aid and relief. During the President’s annual budget message to Congress, he requested military aid in Egypt to be kept at the same level as previous years at $1.3 billion, while asking for an additional $250 million in general economic aid to assist the country in a smooth governmental transition. The President’s proposal would establish a “Middle East and North African Incentive Fund,” which would incentivize long-term economic, trade, and political reform efforts. Given the budget shortfalls, some members of Congress are looking to concentrate budget priorities on domestic programs over international spending. Other lawmakers are in favor of completely cutting off aid due to the recent accusations against American democracy activists.

» Health and Human Services

President Barack Obama Proclaims February as American Heart Month
Every year, heart disease takes the lives of over half a million Americans, and it remains the leading cause of death in the United States. This month, we remember the steps each of us can take to reduce the risk of heart disease and recommit to better heart health for all Americans. To help win the fight against heartdisease, the Obama Administration is working to ensure individuals and communities have the tools needed to make real gains in this critical effort. Last September, the Administration launched the Million Hearts Initiative, which coordinates programs across Federal agencies and forges new public-private partnerships. The goal of the initiative is to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes over the next five years. The National Institutes of Health is pursuing cutting-edge research to unlock new treatments for cardiovascular disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working in communities across the country to help reduce risk factors and prevent heart disease. In acknowledgement of the importance of the ongoing fight against cardiovascular disease, the Congress, by Joint Resolution approved December 30, 1963, as amended (77 Stat. 843; 36 U.S.C. 101), has requested that the President issue an annual proclamation designating February as “American Heart Month.”

Major Progress in Medical Use of Health Information Technology
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the number of hospitals using health information technology (HIT) has more than doubled in the last two years. HHS announced new data showing nearly 2,000 hospitals and more than 41,000 doctors have received $3.1 billion in incentive payments for ensuring meaningful use of HIT, particularly certified Electronic Health Records (EHR). “Health IT is the foundation for a truly 21st century health system where we pay for the right care, not just more care,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Health care professionals and hospitals are taking advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to begin using smarter, new technology that improves care and creates the jobs we need for an economy built to last.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of HIT jobs across the country is expected to increase by 20% from 2008 to 2018, a pace much faster than the average for all occupations through 2018. To meet the demand for workers with HIT experience and training, the Obama Administration has launched four workforce training programs. Training is provided through 82 community colleges and nine universities nationwide. As of January 2012, over 9,000 community college students have been trained for HIT careers and another 8,706 students have enrolled. As of February 2012, participating universities have enrolled over 1,200 students and graduated nearly 600 post-graduate and masters-level HIT professionals, with over 1,700 expected to graduate by the summer of 2013.

Health Reform to Require Insurers to Use Plain Language in Describing Health Plan Benefits, Coverage
Final Affordable Care Act regulations, published jointly on February 9th by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury will require health insurers and group health plans to provide what it considers concise and comprehensible information about health plan benefits, including private coverage. The new rules also seek to make it easier for consumers and employers to compare one plan to another. “All consumers, for the first time, will really be able to comprehend the sometimes confusing language insurance plans often use in marketing,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “This will give them a new edge in deciding which plan will best suit their needs and those of their families or employees.” The new explanations, which will be available beginning, or soon after, September 23, 2012, will be a critical resource for the roughly 150 million Americans with private health insurance today. Specifically, these rules will allow consumers access to two key documents that will help them understand and evaluate their health insurance choices:
  • A short, easy-to-understand Summary of Benefits and Coverage (or “SBC”); and
  • A uniform glossary of terms commonly used in health insurance coverage, such as “deductible” and “ co-payment.”

A key feature of the SBC is a new, standardized plan comparison tool called “coverage examples,” similar to the Nutrition Facts label required for packaged foods. The coverage examples will help consumers understand and compare what they would have to pay under each plan they are considering. To view the template for the Summary of Benefits and Coverage and the glossary, click here.

What Happened in February?

  1. February is designated as National Black History Month. Celebrations preserve and highlight groundbreaking contributions and achievements of Black Americans while recognizing new pioneers.
  2. American Heart Month is a time to battle cardiovascular disease and educate Americans on what we can do to live heart-healthy lives.
  3. Youth Leadership Month is dedicated to celebrating young people who take on leadership roles. It is also dedicated to encouraging those who have not yet done so to consider doing so.
  4. World Cancer Day, commemorated on February 4, 2012, is the occasion to unite the world in the fight against the disease through raising awareness, educating the public, and lobbying for change.
  5. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was founded by five national organizations funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1999 to establish a national HIV testing and treatment community mobilization initiative targeted at Blacks in the United States and the Diaspora.
  6. Presidents Day is a United States federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of all presidents but, most particularly, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born in February.