President Obama is opposed to a Republican-sponsored job training bill that has a goal he ardently supports--boosting workforce skills. Such is the nature of partisan debate on the government's job training programs, which have suffered from lack of attention and funding for more than a decade.
Democrats last week boycotted a committee markup of legislation that would streamline the government’s job-training programs and update their performance measures. The measure is expected to be on the House floor Thursday.
On Wednesday, the administration said in a statement that the White House strongly opposes the bill because it consolidates or eliminates job training programs that help targeted populations.
The Democrats’ protest of the measure, which passed the committee solely with Republican votes, signals that the once-bipartisan job-training measure has taken on a decidedly partisan tinge. That could doom the legislation this year, and maybe forever, despite repeated calls from Republicans and Democrats that Americans need to update their skills to meet the nation’s workforce needs.
The little-known Workforce Investment Act, first passed in 1998 when the unemployment rate hovered around 4.5 percent, has not been updated since it was enacted. At the time (as the tech bubble was expanding), the law converted government job listings and youth training programs into a multidimensional, one-stop resource for a variety of job seekers.
In the past few years, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have tried without success to re-create the bipartisan consensus that existed in the late 1990s so that the law can get a long-overdue overhaul. All parties agree that the performance measures for multiple job-training programs—Pell Grants, adult education, and the one-stop resource centers—need to be better integrated. They also agree that the system needs to be more responsive to the employment needs within any given region.
But they disagree on how it’s done, and the fight lays bare the question of whether the law is worth the trouble at all. Funding has been cut over the last decade, and there are rumblings in the business community that the program is worthless for employers. Employee advocates, however, say the law is worthwhile because it provides much needed benefits to out-of-work people who have few options in upgrading their skills. Get rid of the law and you get rid of the money.
Last year in the Senate, Republican and Democratic sponsors were putting the finishing touches on a job-training reauthorization bill. Lack of support from the Republican caucus kept the measure from even being considered in committee.
In the House, the Republican job-training measure would consolidate 35 separate programs and convert much of the current funding mechanisms into block grants for states. Democrats are horrified. “This bill puts at risk services for disadvantaged populations, including youth, older workers, farmworkers, workers with disabilities, women, English-language learners, and low-income workers,” said committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., in a letter to Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., earlier this week, asking that the markup be postponed.
Republicans accuse the Democrats of simply wanting the same programs that have always been in place. “Democrats offered a rote defense of the status quo and political theatrics,” Kline said of the boycott.
Democrats say they walked out of the markup this year because last year, every single one of their suggestions for changing a similar Republican measure was rejected on a party-line vote. (That is typical of labor issues in this committee.)
This article appears in the March 7, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.