Joe Biden promised Americans during the 2020 campaign that he would put cash in their pockets, accelerate the anemic vaccine rollout and throw a lifeline to struggling city and state governments – many of which employ IBEW members.
Just a month into office, the president is following through on that pledge and early in the morning Feb. 27, the House of Representatives passed it. The vote was 219–212. All Republicans voted against the bill; all but two Democrats voted for it.
The bill now moves on to the Democratically controlled Senate, where it may change dramatically.
But the the bill that passed the House – Biden’s American Rescue Plan -- includes the President’s headline proposal of a $1,400 direct payment to every American who makes less than $75,000.
It also extends unemployment benefits, provides an 85% subsidy for COBRA health coverage for six months and offers new prtections against evictions.
But for hundreds of thousands of IBEW families, perhaps the most important part of the proposal is a rescue of the multi-employer pension system.
The bill includes language from the Butch Lewis Act, a top legislative priority for the IBEW and its labor allies. While most of the IBEW’s pensions, including the National Electrical Benefit Fund, are in good shape, the same cannot be said for other unions, including the Teamsters’ troubled Central States Pension Fund. Republicans have used a few at risk pensions to attack the entire system and threaten the dignified retirements that our members have sacrificed for all their careers.
“Including the Butch Lewis Act language will change lives,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Congress kicked this problem down the road for years, increasing the difficulty and the cost of solving it and putting millions of retirees at risk through no fault of their own. I am proud that President Biden made this one of his first priorities.”
Biden discussed the plan at a Feb. 17 Oval Office meeting with Stephenson, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka; Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions; Terry O’Sullivan, general president of LIUNA; and James T. Callahan, general president of the IUOE.
The bill marks a profound shift from the priorities of the previous administration by targeting families and small businesses instead of corporations and their lawyers.
“More than 500,000 Americans have died in this pandemic. Millions more have been sickened, and every one of us has sacrificed or lost something this year,” Stephenson said. “We always seem to find trillions for billionaires. The American Rescue Plan is about using the power of collective action to help the rest of us.”
The bill is expected to pass by mid-March, a timeline driven by the March 14 expiration of direct benefits from previous stimulus packages. It’s a precarious time, before the vaccine is widespread and while long-term unemployment is reaching near record highs: nearly 40% of the unemployed have been out of work for at least 6 months.
If the new bill is not passed before expiration of the previous bill more than 10 million people would lose unemployment benefits.
Not everything, not even most, of the bill targets the unemployed.
First, nearly $130 billion is earmarked to reopen schools, an enormous help to people who would like to work but can’t leave children unattended.
Another $160 billion would go to expand vaccination and testing and ramp up production of PPE, attacking the pandemic from both ends: reducing the number of people transmitting the virus and increasing the number who are immune to it.
The Biden plan also increases the childcare tax credit to $4,000 for one child and $8,000 for two or more for families making up to $125,000, reducing that payment in steps up to an annual income of $400,000.
Second the bill provides significant support for employers of thousands of IBEW members.
For example, the bill includes significant support for public transit agencies that had been ignored in previous bailouts and more than $4.5 billion to help low-income households with energy costs.
The bill also contains a boost in the minimum wage from $7.50 to $15 an hour over a period of several years. Wages in the U.S. have been stagnant since 1978 for most Americans. Upward pressure from the bottom of the wage scale would create pressure to increase wages across the board.
The economy could return to full employment by next year if the bill is passed, said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Several non-partisan analyses back her up, including reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the Brookings Institution.
Polls since the Biden plan was announced show broad bipartisan support everywhere in the United States except for Congress.
In the Capitol, despite wide support for the plan among their constituents and a plea from Biden for bipartisanship in the face of a national emergency, Republicans appear aligned behind Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in opposition to the package.
“It isn’t that Republicans are opposed to running deficits; it’s just that they only support them when the deficit comes from cutting taxes on billionaires,” said Political and Legislative Director Austin Keyser. “When we use our nation’s resources to help working people, they somehow become deficit hawks again.”
To get around McConnell and a filibuster threat, Democrats are using the same parliamentary process Republicans used to ram through billions in billionaire tax cuts: Reconciliation.
“Reconciliation leads to worse policy than we could get in ideal world where both parties were committed to solving real problems with smart policy, but we don’t live in that world, do we?” Keyser said. “As the saying goes, elections have consequences, and the side committed to helping working families won.”