House GOP plots reform of federal job training programs
This article was originally published by the Hill on April 5, 2012.
Once back from spring recess, House Republicans plan to use President Obama's support for streamlining federal job-training programs to push their own vision of reform, which includes giving more power to states on how federal money is spent and other ideas Democrats are expected to oppose.
House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) and Reps. Virginia Fox (R-N.C.) and Joe Heck (R-Nev.) introduced H.R. 4297 just before the break. That bill reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which funds education and training programs for the unemployed and disabled.
But the bill would also consolidate and convert the federal program into a block grant program for states, maintain current funding instead of boosting it by $8 billion, as Democrats want, and require local job training boards — which help distribute the money — to have more business leaders on them.
Democrats are expected to oppose these changes, but Republicans are already preparing arguments that Obama's broad support for "reform" should let them support the bill.
"President Obama has accurately recognized the need for a better system, but the time to talk about reform is over," Kline said last week. "The legislation introduced today reflects the reforms our nation needs and the priorities the president outlined earlier this year. I hope the administration and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will work with us to advance this legislation quickly and provide workers and employers the streamlined workforce investment system they need."
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking member on Kline's committee, has already signaled opposition to any bill that doesn't boost job training funds.
"While the economy is turning around, there is much more work to be done to help the millions of Americans without a job, especially for the long-term unemployed," Miller said. "Now is not the time to gut the Workforce Investment Act's mission, like some are proposing."
Democrats John Tierney (Mass.), Ruben Hinojosa (Texas) and Miller introduced their own job training reform bill on March 20. Their bill, H.R. 4227, makes only minor changes to WIA, but it adds programs and $8 billion worth of funding. The Republican bill maintains current 2012 spending levels, which are roughly $6 billion for the entire program.
Most of the additional $8 billion in the Democrats' bill are proposals from the White House, including the president's Community College to Career Fund. Because the community college fund isn't in the GOP bill, Democrats are likely to offer an amendment to add the program during a markup hearing expected later this spring.
White House spokesperson Matt Lehrich said the proposal should be passed because it would help the economy.
"The President's Community College to Career fund will help forge new partnerships between community colleges and businesses to train two million workers for good-paying jobs in high-growth and high-demand industries," Lehrich said. "Congress should pass this proposal to start putting businesses and community colleges together and getting Americans back to work."
But with the federal deficit still a major issue for the country, Republicans are unwilling to increase spending levels for WIA.
"The bill does not reduce our commitment to these programs because they are very important," an Education and the Workforce Committee aide said. "But obviously at a time when you're running a trillion-dollar deficit, Congress has to make sure that every dollar is spent appropriately and effectively, and that's what the legislation tries to do."
Aside from the fight over funding levels, the two parties are expected to differ over language dealing with business representation in local boards that distribute WIA funds.
Appointed by governors, state and local workforce investment boards allocate funds to various education and training programs within a state. Under current law, 50 percent of the board has to be business representatives.
Republicans want to increase business representation to two-thirds on these boards and leave the remaining one-third of the board up to the discretion of governors. Under this change, Republican governors could potentially decide to stack the whole board with business leaders.
In contrast, Democrats want to ensure the presence of labor organizations and community college representatives on these boards. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has also lobbied against this Republican provision.
"In order to effectively bring federal workforce development programs into the 21st century, all stakeholders need to participate in the planning, design and implementation of efforts that will prepare people for both the jobs of today and the jobs of the future," Peter Colavito, director of government relations for SEIU, said. "The Republican proposal to restructure the board to exclude labor unions fails to meet this standard."
According the an aide on the Education and the Workforce Committee, Democrats want 20 percent of the workforce boards to be labor representatives, meaning the issue will have to be worked out in committee or the Republicans can push through their bill without Democratic support.
Last year, the Senate made a bipartisan attempt to reauthorize WIA, but it stalled in committee partly because of a disagreement on how local workforce investment boards are structured.
The Republicans' WIA reauthorization was originally three separate bills: H.R. 2295, H.R. 3610 and H.R. 3611.