By Ethan Forman
---- — Congressman John Tierney walked out of a committee debate with other Democrats Wednesday to protest a Republican bill they say lacks Democratic input.
Tierney and the other Democrats on the House Education and Workforce Committee say Republicans are refusing to consider their changes or negotiate any compromise on an update of the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, a measure that funds training programs for workers.
The Republican bill favors block grants to the states, while Democrats want to fund specific programs targeted to veterans, younger workers, low-income job seekers, dislocated workers, English-language learners and the disabled. Local leaders say the Republican bill also would boot union and community college representatives off local workforce investment boards, which determine how federal training money is spent.
The bill is scheduled to go to a vote in the House next week.
After boycotting debate Wednesday, Tierney; Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas; and George Miller, D-Calif., put out a statement that read: “We didn’t come to this decision lightly. Unfortunately, we viewed boycotting this proceeding as our only alternative after many months of repeatedly requesting bipartisan negotiations and being rebuffed by committee Republicans.”
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee accused Democrats, in turn, of playing politics.
“John Tierney’s actions today are pathetic and embarrassing,” spokesman Ian Prior said in a prepared statement. “Walking out of a committee vote because he can’t get his way is not only disrespectful to the institution of Congress, but it is a slap in the face to his constituents that pay him to vote, not to throw petulant tantrums to score political points in Washington, D.C.”
Democrats say the Republican bill is unpopular and is more for show and politics than improving the nation’s worker-training system. Tierney said it is similar to the one that withered on the vine last year, and it does not have a chance in the Democratically controlled Senate.
At a hearing last week, the Democrats called unsuccessfully for a bipartisan effort to rewrite the bill. On Monday, they sent a letter asking Republican leaders on the committee to cancel the Wednesday session and instead negotiate with Democratic members to come up with a compromise. When Republicans refused, they walked out.
“We didn’t want to be part of the charade,” said Tierney, the nine-term Democrat whose 6th District includes all of Cape Ann.
So, what is the difference between the Republican and Democratic bills?
Mary Sarris, executive director of the Salem-based North Shore Workforce Investment Board, said she provided input to Tierney to help craft his version of the Workforce Investment Act update.
Tierney’s bill, Sarris said, would provide opportunities for workforce investment boards to work with certain industries to train workers, such as, for example, offering a program for machinists at a community college. She said the current law does not allow the board to use federal money to provide for group training, which could be more cost-effective.
Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College, one of the North Shore Workforce Investment Board’s largest providers, said the Republican bill would have “major repercussions for us of the negative kind” by consolidating programs and making it uncertain where the worker training money might go. The legislation calls for business leaders to sit on workforce investment boards, eliminating community college representation.
Prior defended the Republican bill, saying it “allows people to get access to job training, and it allows job training to be done more effectively.” The GOP bill “streamlines 35 job-training programs,” he said.
“The funding goes to the people that need it, and it’s not hung up in the bureaucracy,” he said.
Tierney is not convinced.
With block grants, he said, “everyone is going to fight for a piece of the pie, and you take your best shot.”
Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.