Congress appropriated $500 million for workers. Democrats can’t agree on whether to spend it.
According to two appropriations committee aides involved in the talks, $500 million in funding was included in the draft in hopes that Democrats and Republicans could reach an agreement to extend the TAA program, but they won’t l haven’t done. In the rush to pass the final bill, the appropriations provision was not changed and aides felt there was no need to because the program was not authorized. The aides were granted anonymity to discuss the confidential political negotiations.
While stressing that the senator supports TAA in principle, Murray’s office believes the program remains expired and the money cannot be spent without authorizing the language. After the bill was signed and Murray was appointed chair of the appropriations committee, she called the DOL to relay this information and ask the agency not to start processing TAA assistance applications again.
“The appropriations bill passed at the end of the year said the program was over, that’s how it was written,” Murray said in a brief interview on Capitol Hill Monday. She declined to comment on the language of her own committee allocating nearly $500 million to the program, reiterating that the bill “specifically said the program was over” and that “that’s all I’m going to say.”
Wyden, one of Murray’s top Democratic colleagues whose committee oversees the TAA program, disputes that interpretation.
Wyden and House Democrats tried for months to get a deal with Republicans to allow the program for another year. Republicans have insisted throughout the negotiations that the Biden administration should engage in new overseas trade talks to get TAA payments restarted — a request the White House has denied. Although they never reached an agreement on that language, Wyden says having money earmarked for the program is enough for DOL to reopen TAA.
“I believe the omnibus extended the TAA for a year,” Wyden said in a Capitol Hill interview Monday, adding that he was unaware of Murray’s advice to DOL. “The text of the law is clear,” he added later. “The Biden administration should use that authority to deliver the benefits workers are entitled to.”
DOL declined to comment on the legal debate between the senators, but has so far complied with requests from Murray and his staff that the agency keep the program frozen. An agency spokesperson confirmed that the program “remains in a state of termination” and that the DOL “cannot conduct new investigations or issue certificates of eligibility for new groups of workers.” A separate fact sheet released by the agency says more than 24,000 workers have pending claims that the DOL cannot investigate.
If lawmakers and the DOL don’t try to use the $500 million, the TAA program will be phased out once the program’s remaining workers — about 7,000, according to the DOL’s fact sheet — finish working. receive their benefits. Congress could renew the program, potentially in the year-end spending bill, but Republicans have shown no willingness to drop their demand for new free trade talks and Biden’s team won’t. didn’t move either.
The situation angers unions, such as the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which wrote to the DOL earlier this month, saying “tens of thousands of workers are currently awaiting decisions on their application for support for the TAA”. Other labor groups, including the United Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO, also sent similar letters.
The issue, say congressional aides involved in the omnibus negotiations, dates back to the year-end crisis to finalize the spending package. As Wyden and trade lawmakers negotiated on the TAA, appropriations lawmakers wrote in the $500 million in case lawmakers reached an agreement to reauthorize it. That deal never materialized, but the $500 million provision was not changed in a rush to complete the package before the winter break. The confusion was an “artefact of the moment,” as an appropriations committee aide put it, pointing out that it was the Republican opposition — not Murray — that ultimately killed the program.
Wyden’s office and the unions say the DOL should go ahead regardless and spend the $500 million earmarked for the program, pointing out that executive agencies often spend funds earmarked for expired programs without explicit new authorization. In particular, they point to a footnote in the Government Accountability Office’s Appropriation Act guidelines that says Congress “appropriates enormous sums each year to fund programs whose licenses have expired.”
But Appropriations Committee staff say that argument doesn’t apply to the TAA.
“There is long-standing case law and precedent on this issue as to when appropriation is sufficient to extend the program’s authorization,” said a committee aide involved in spending negotiations last year. “Everyone understood before the omnibus that this was not the case here.”
Additionally, the aide said the committee would not push the DOL to reopen the program because it could poison upcoming spending negotiations with Republicans that must be completed by the end of this year.
“Although it is not our preferred political outcome, we will maintain these negotiations,” said the committee aide, “because they are very delicate and we also want to have a good process for (fiscal year 2024).