Senator Maria Cantwell's Weekly Update for Washington State
Delivering Affordable Health Care to Small Business Employees
Dozens of small business owners have told me they want to help their employees pay for health insurance but can't afford today's high costs. To help business owners get their employees the affordable health insurance they deserve, I've joined a coalition of senators to propose a new health insurance program for America's small businesses. The Small Employers Health Benefits Program (SEHBP) would let small business join together to pool risk and leverage purchasing power, reducing costs and promoting choice between competing plans. The proposed program is based on a successful, decades-old health insurance program that provides extensive, affordable benefit choices to Congressional and federal employees.
By combining small business employees in a large purchasing pool, SEHBP would encourage more private insurance companies to offer affordable plans to program participants. Federal oversight would guarantee that small business employees receive appropriate benefits, reduce administrative costs, and free business owners from the burden of negotiating with health plans. State consumer protection laws would cover local plans. All small businesses with 100 employees or fewer would be eligible, with employees choosing for themselves which plan, if any, they want to join. To encourage participation, the program would provide tax credits to businesses that cover the premiums of low-income employees, or more than 60 percent of other premiums. By helping employers join together, we can control costs, reduce the burden on small businesses, and provide quality health care to more Americans.
Addressing the National Guard's Equipment and Troop Needs
I want to make sure the men and women of our National Guard have the support and equipment they need to do their job safely and effectively. That's why I've asked the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves to examine the National Guard's equipment and troop needs in light of proposed funding cuts and today's more frequent deployments. Congress created the Commission to recommend changes and ensure that the Guard and Reserves are organized, trained, and equipped to meet national security needs.
I'm also concerned about proposed funding cuts. The president's budget proposal for next year would cut current troops levels by 17,100. In addition, the Army plans to convert six National Guard combat brigades to combat support units, which could make it more difficult for the Guard to meet near-term training needs and long-term military requirements. We also need to make sure our National Guard gets the equipment it needs. Right now, for example, Washington's 81st Brigade has 106% of its authorized troop level but only 60% of its equipment. When these brave men and women put their lives on the line, we have a responsibility to help them in their mission in every way we can.
Investigating Years of Rising Fuel Costs
Sky-high fuel costs aren't new. We've watched a steady run-up in prices and increased volatility for several years now. Supply constraints, or even last year's hurricane, don't fully account for this winter's inflated home heating costs and projected high summer fuel prices. American consumers deserve answers and we need to better understand the fuel market's fundamental dynamics. To get to the bottom of high prices, I'm calling on the Government Accountability Office to conduct a comprehensive investigation into fuel inventory practices, refining capacity, and market transparency in an effort to get answers oil companies refused to provide at hearings last year. We need to determine how to keep fuel costs stable and affordable. Our economy depends on it.
Investing in Our Energy Future
In January, I joined a bipartisan coalition of senators to call for increased investments in research, development, and education to help America maintain its competitive edge. The Protecting America's Competitive Edge (PACE) Acts I cosponsored consist of three billsone focusing on education, another on energy, and a third on tax incentives. They aim to increase America's talent pool through higher education investments, incentives for innovation, and scholarships and fellowships for future scientists and teachers. On Wednesday, the Senate Energy Committee, of which I am a member, approved the PACE-Energy Actthe energy portion of the larger package. The PACE-Energy Act would create a new federal office to coordinate math, science, and engineering education programs and provide financial assistance to bolster math and science at all levels. It also authorizes an independent research grant program for scientists and engineers who have recently completed their degrees, and creates an office within the Department of Energy to support groundbreaking energy research.
Celebrating Women's History Month
March is Women's History montha time to reflect on the work of so many women in the life of our nation who have worked to make America a better place. From Sacajawea to Amelia Earhart to Madeleine Albright, American history is filled with women whose lives stir us to action, inspire us to new heights, and offer hope to all. Generations of American women have served as pioneersredefining the role, rights, and reach of women in our country. Many have earned great praise and well-deserved fame; many more have labored tirelessly as unsung heroes. From these bold womenamong them activists, artists, soldiers, scientists, mothers, educators, entrepreneurs, and community leaderswe have much to learn.