CHN: House Education and Workforce Committee Passes WIA Reauthorization
Legislation Would Cut Programs and Streamline Funding
The House Education and Workforce Committee marked up legislation (HR1261) reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) over two days this week, finally reporting the bill out of committee on a 26 – 21 party line vote early Thursday afternoon. The bill was originally introduced in the House on March 13, 2003 and contains almost all of President Bush’s proposals for overhauling the country’s main job training program.
There are significant changes in this legislation from the existing WIA law passed in 1998. Amendments added in subcommittee by the bill’s sponsor Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) would allow for a more diversified membership on state workforce investment boards, restore funding for the National Institute of Literacy, change the focus of basic skills programs serving 2.7 million Americans to focus more on reading, writing, and math, and create personal re-employment accounts (PRAs) of $3,000 for unemployed individuals to use while finding a job. The PRA proposal was later removed in the full committee because it was unclear whether the $3.6 billion needed for the program would be included in the final budget reconciliation.
HR 1261 makes more significant changes to the existing law. It combines three existing programs in WIA (adults, dislocated workers, and employment services programs) into one $3.1 billion block grant given to states, eliminates or diverts funding from youth job-training programs focused in low-income communities, and allows religious organizations receiving WIA funds to discriminate in their hiring practices based on religious belief – something expressly prohibited under the original WIA law.
Anti-poverty advocates are concerned the consolidation of programs will make it easier to cut funding in later years and will restrict the delivery of specific services in local areas. Youth groups feel eliminating existing youth grant programs, such as the Youth Opportunity Grant program, will only weaken the support structure for vulnerable children at a time when many programs are stretched thin.
Democrats challenged many of these changes in subcommittee and full committee proceedings, objecting to not only the lack of time to consider many of the changes, but also to the content of the amendments. The most strenuous objections were raised over the exemption for religious organizations to discriminate in hiring practices and the streamlining of funding for the three WIA programs.
There were a number of attempts by Democrats to change the bill before passage. Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced an amendment to retain the existing prohibition against religious discrimination, which lost 18 – 22. Representative Dale Kildee (D-MI) proposed an amendment to expand unemployment benefits by $3.6 billion, restore $650 million in job training funds, and eliminate the proposed block grants. His amendment lost 16 – 25. Altogether, the full committee defeated 11 Democratic amendments during the mark up and passed a bill very similar to the President’s proposal. The bill now awaits action on the House floor.