By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer
A wide-ranging bipartisan federal budget agreement, covering from now through most of 2017, apparently avoids a further hit on federal workers, the two top unions for those workers say. But a summary of the pact, provided to Press Associates Union News Service by one of the unions, also potentially blows a big hole in large private employers’ responsibility for providing health insurance to their workers, a close reading shows.
The budget blueprint, reached between President Barack Obama (D) and bipartisan congressional leaders, covers from now through Sept. 30, 2017. It raises budget caps on both defense spending – which Congress’ ruling Republicans want – and domestic discretionary spending, which Obama and the Democrats demanded.
And it raises the nation’s debt ceiling – the amount of cumulative red ink the U.S. owes after all of its existence. The nation was scheduled to hit that ceiling, and be unable to pay all of its bills, on Nov. 3, and right-wing Republicans threatened to put the U.S. into default unless their demands on other issues were met.
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Both the American Federation of Government Employees – the largest federal worker union, which just passed the 300,000-member mark – and the National Treasury Employees Union welcomed the pact. But NTEU pointed out it’s only a spending blueprint, not actual money bills themselves.
“This budget deal is an exceedingly rare example of what can be accomplished when elected leaders put aside their partisan bickering and govern in a responsible way that benefits working families,” said AFGE President J. David Cox, a former VA nurse.
It “would suspend sequestration for the next two years and provide much-needed increases in military and domestic spending. Federal workers have endured $159 billion in cuts under the guise of fiscal restraint, and our members were united in opposing any budget that would target them for additional sacrifice,” he added.
NTEU agreed, but warned the budget drama isn’t over yet. That’s because a temporary spending bill, covering all government agencies, expires Dec. 11.
“NTEU is relieved the two-year budget deal addresses funding issues without requiring the federal workforce to make additional sacrifices. While the legislation includes spending cuts, or offsets, in exchange for increasing sequester spending levels, those offsets do not directly affect federal pay or benefits. Federal employees have already sacrificed more than $159 billion in cuts over a 10-year period,” it said.
Besides raising the budget caps, other sections of the budget blueprint include:
• Repeals section 1511 of the Affordable Care Act. That section “requires employers with more than 200 employees to automatically enroll new full-time equivalents into a qualifying health plan if offered by that employer, and to automatically continue enrollment of current employees,” the budget agreement summary says.
• Increases civil fines government agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, can levy against violators, to account for inflation since 1996, with a maximum hike of 150 percent. Workers and unions have long contended that OSHA’s fines against job safety and health violators are too low to deter deaths and injuries.
After the one-time jump, the fines would thereafter rise with inflation.
• Lets the government use robocalls even to cell phones to collect debts owed to the feds, such as back taxes. But it tells the Federal Communications Commission to write rules limiting the robocalls.
• Increases the amount that firms with traditional defined benefit pension plans pay to the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp. PBGC steps in when such plans go bust, as they have in airline bankruptcies in past years. It takes over payments to pensioners, but at much lower figures. But PBGC needs money, so single-employer plans would pay $64 per person next year under current law, and after that the amount is indexed to inflation.
Under the budget agreement, they’ll pay $68 per person in 2017, $73 in 2018, $78 in 2019 and then they’ll be re-indexed to inflation. But the budget pact also lets plans change mortality tables, used to calculate how healthy they are and how much they must set aside to pay pensioners in the future, to data that is more real-world.
• Tens of thousands of Medicare beneficiaries who don’t get Social Security – such as former government and Postal Service workers – will see their premiums for covering Part B (medical and physicians) payments raise next year by $19 monthly, not more than $55 monthly as current law would demand. That was an increase of more than 50 percent, to $159.30. AFGE and NTEU hailed that provision. The labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans has been campaigning against the big hike, urging seniors to write or e-mail lawmakers.
• Shores up the Social Security Disability Trust Fund, which provides some income to millions of permanently disabled people, by diverting some payroll tax revenues to it. The trust fund was scheduled to run out of money for full payments to beneficiaries next year.