Incoming Workforce Panel Chair Seeks to Address Middle-Class Concerns

December 13, 2006
Vowing to bolster the middle class, the incoming chairman of the House workforce committee asserted that the panel will help Americans who have seen their wages stagnate.

In a Capitol Hill press conference on Tuesday, December 12, Rep. George Miller, D-California and the chairman-designate of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, promised to improve public education, reduce college costs, raise the minimum wage, facilitate unionization and strengthen Social Security and private pensions.

He also said the committee will reach out to more people through electronic hearings, videoconferencing and field hearings.

Seeking to consolidate Democratic gains from the November midterm elections, Miller said his agenda would address the desire voters demonstrated to “end … economic policies that overwhelmingly favor the wealthiest Americans to the exclusion and detriment of everyone else.”

Miller repeatedly invoked a mantra that has resonated in politics since the Andrew Jackson era: helping the middle class. He cited increases during the last five years in health care premiums, college tuition and gasoline.

America are rising faster than paychecks,” he said. “The mission of our committee will be simple: strengthening America’s middle class.”

Congress likely will address two of Miller’s priorities—raising the minimum wage and increasing funding for higher education—during the Democrats’ “first 100 hours” legislative push in January.

Other goals—like so-called “card check” legislation—will take more time. Under that bill, a company would have to recognize unions if more than 50 percent of its employees sign a card authorizing collective bargaining.

Miller argues that the measure, which is dear to organized labor and already has more than 200 House co-sponsors, would make workplace elections fairer.

“Today, under current rules, you have massive intimidation” by companies, Miller said.

Critics say that unions can coerce workers through the card-check system. Republicans are promoting a bill that would mandate secret-ballot elections.

Although bipartisan comity may be achieved on education, like reauthorizing a law to raise K-12 standards, it is likely to break down over union policy.

The card-check bill “will present an opportunity for committee Republicans to shine a spotlight on some glaring differences” with their Democratic counterparts, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California and the incoming ranking member of the panel, said in a statement.

“The recent calls by congressional Democrat leaders for quick action on the decidedly un-democratic card-check union organizing bill will present exactly that kind of opportunity, and I anticipate a robust committee debate,” he said.

Party differences arose in the just-completed Congress regarding pension reform. Although the bill signed by President Bush in the summer drew bipartisan support, it also engendered much Democratic opposition.

Miller said the bill “failed to take into consideration the needs of those who had the most to lose.”

But he didn’t indicate that he wanted to undo the pension bill during the next Congress, which will grapple with technical corrections to the measure.

Instead, Miller wants to foster a broader discussion of retirement security.

“We are going to examine the larger questions, of which [pensions] will be a part,” he said.

Miller also will champion the Democrats’ Innovation Agenda, a plan whose initiatives include increasing the number of U.S. engineering and science graduates and enhancing research and development.

He said that workforce development has lagged under President Bush. “Time and again, this Congress and the Bush administration shunned or directly undermined our ability and need to invest in high-risk, high-reward research and development, first-class job training and high-quality education,” Miller said.

It may be a challenge for Democrats to fund their priorities because the party will reinstate congressional rules that require any increase in spending or reduction in taxes to be matched by tax increases or spending reductions elsewhere in the budget.

Miller supports stringent funding discipline, but he laments the decline of a federal budget surplus during the Clinton administration to today’s deficit of more than $200 billion.

“[Bush] and the Republicans have squandered it,” Miller said. “We have to start over again.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.