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Providing for Consideration of H.R. 803, Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. POLIS. I thank the gentlelady for yielding me the customary 30 minutes, and I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Today, Mr. Speaker, I rise in opposition to the rule and the underlying bill, the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills, or SKILLS Act.

For the last 40 years, the reauthorization of the Federal job training legislation has had the support of Democrats and Republicans. Members on both sides of the aisle know that the passage of this bill is critical to our Nation's recovery and future competitiveness.

I served on the State Board of Education in Colorado from 2000 to 2006, and I recall the prior authorization of the Workforce Investment Act that we're still operating under. It dates to 1998. It came up after 5 years, which was in 2003, and I remember being on the State board. In our State, like in many States, jurisdiction goes between both the Department of Labor and the State Department of Education. Under the State Department of Education, we have some of the adult literacy components and adult education components of workforce investment, and under the Department of Labor, we have other areas of responsibility.

We said, well, hopefully, Congress will act. That was in 2003-2004, but that Congress didn't act. We said, well, hopefully, Congress will act in 2005-2006. We still need a reauthorization, so let's hope Congress will act. Then I ran for Congress. I was in the next Congress from 2009-2010 with a Democratic majority. It didn't pass. In 2011-2012, with a Republican majority, there was no WIA reauthorization.

So here we are now in the 113th Congress, and, unfortunately, we have a bill that lacks bipartisan support. Unfortunately, the Republicans have departed from the long history of bipartisanship in common areas of agreement, some of which were talked about by Dr. Foxx in her opening remarks: streamlining programs; reducing the number of programs that have been shown to be ineffective by the GAO; having a workforce investment system that's more nimble and able to react to changes in the economy, to changes in the employment sector, to changes in the types of skills that people need to succeed in the 21st century workforce. Unfortunately, we have a bill today which falls short in that regard.

Even though this bill gives great authority to Governors, I have word from my own home State's Department of Labor and Unemployment of its opposition to this bill. We have statements from many other disability advocates, youth groups, civil rights groups that are opposed to this bill. Workers with disabilities, disadvantaged youth, returning veterans, low-income adults, migrant workers, and minorities are all underserved populations that a workforce investment system is designed to serve, yet these are the very populations that stand to lose the most under the current bill.

Instead of encouraging collaboration between these programs and streamlining these programs and rewarding what works and stopping what doesn't work, this bill forces effective programs to compete with one another for State funding, putting an additional burden on State and local budgets in the process. Instead of prioritizing incentives for business, which could potentially leverage our Federal investment for colleges and local governments and workforce organizations to collaborate, this bill requires that only employers be represented on Workforce Investment Boards, leaving many other stakeholders on the sidelines.

Of course, meeting the needs of employers is the goal of the Workforce Investment Act, but when you look at the stakeholders that will deliver on that and match the people to the skills, you need to include businesses, colleges, local governments, and others who work in partnership with needs assessment, driven by the employment needs of the private sector, to help determine the outputs that are important for workforce training systems so that our economy can continue to grow and succeed.

Mr. Speaker, this bill hands a blank check to Governors with a message that says to go ahead and use Federal tax dollars however you like, you can eliminate services for the underserved, and yet we, the American taxpayers, are continuing to pay for it.

Look, we are custodians of taxpayer trust here in this body. Frequently, this body doesn't do a very good job of that with the deficits that we have, with the lack of any comprehensive way of reining in Federal spending and even with regard to the sequester, which, while it makes progress on reining in Federal spending, it does so in a non-discriminate way rather than with a thoughtful approach that would be in the interest of our country. Here we are just passing out dollar bills, throwing dollar bills to the States. Here comes Uncle Sam, ready to bail out Governors. They're playing the walnut game--moving it over to this account and moving it to this account.

This is essentially a slush fund for State Governors, as it's currently constructed, at the expense of groups that traditionally have high unemployment, including veterans who so capably served our country, particularly during our two most recent wars--the Iraq War, which has wound down, and the Afghanistan war, which we hope winds down over the next couple of years--as well as the many veterans of prior conflicts, including the first Gulf War and the Vietnam conflict, who continue to suffer from unemployment at above average levels to this day.

In addition, this bill decreases the WIA State set-aside funding that facilitates targeted innovation and encourages interstate partnerships. My home State of Colorado has used this funding for a State energy sector partnership, provided scholarships to train over 20 Coloradans. It led to full-time employment, even leading to the creation of a new company.

This funding also allowed Colorado to form 10 strategy sector partnerships, which have leveraged more than three-quarters of a million in private financing and public financing towards incentives that will train over 1,200 Colorado job seekers in high-demand occupations. This vital funding would be slashed from 15 percent to 5 percent. I would add that, under the Democratic substitute, which we are grateful that this rule allows for, WIA State set-aside would be restored at the full 15 percent.

In addition, this bill would freeze authorized funding levels for WIA over the next 7 years. This freeze comes on top of the fact that WIA funding has already been cut in half since 2001. Let me say that again. WIA funding has been cut in half since 2001, at the very time when the changing needs of the global economy need to be matched so that Americans can keep up with the skills they need to compete in the 21st century economy. And while making a cut there could save a few dollars now, if we fail to invest in the future of bringing Americans along to ensure that they can have good jobs that our Nation depends on, this would have a profound negative impact on our budget and economy over time.

There are many ideas that a number of us have had to make this bill better. Many of them are included in the Democratic substitute, which is allowed under this rule and will be debated with extended debate time and discussed. However, many of us would have preferred an open rule. We proposed an open rule yesterday in the Rules Committee. Had an open rule been offered, I would have loved to bring forth a number of amendments, including one that is a bill I cosponsor with Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut that would make it easier for women to get training in jobs that they are capable of doing in fields that they are traditionally underrepresented in. There are many fields, while women have made great progress across the economy, where women only have a 2 or 3 or 4 percent presence that are high-paying jobs. We need to match women to the skills so they can fulfill those opportunities.

I also would like to see, if there had been an open process here on the floor of the House of Representatives, a requirement that State and local workforce organizations both give some of their time and effort on promoting training to empower people to start their own companies through entrepreneurship and innovation. In addition to creating access to entrepreneurship training, we can focus on reducing the skills gap in computer science and information technology, fast-growing occupations, by providing education and training for the jobs of their future.

Democrats have introduced their own workforce reauthorization bill, the Workforce Investment Act of 2013, which would streamline programs, maintain strong protections for veterans and other vulnerable populations, and create stronger accountability for employment outcomes while recognizing and expanding the central role community colleges play in job training.

Again, I'm pleased that this rule makes the Democratic substitute in order. I wish that it was an open rule that allowed for a full discussion of the many ideas that come from the entire body of membership.

It will take both sides working together on this bill, with Dr. Foxx's effort, Ranking Member MILLER's effort, Chairman Kline's effort, Ranking Member Hinojosa's effort, to create a reauthorization that will stand the test of time, replacing the 1998 law that we all continue to operate under in a world that has changed significantly since then.

Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. POLIS. I have to take a moment to correct the gentlelady from North Carolina, my colleague, Dr. Foxx, who quoted, ``The lady doth protest too much,'' saying it was from Canterbury Tales. It is actually from Shakespeare's Hamlet. I'm sure the gentlelady, upon further reflection, will concur.

I will add this bill, like Hamlet, is indeed a tragedy.

Mr. Speaker, I yield 2 minutes to gentleman from Rhode Island (Mr. Langevin).

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Mr. POLIS. I yield myself the balance of the time.

Mr. Speaker, particularly at a time of economic stagnation, recovery from a recession, skills are a more important piece than ever to ensure that Americans can compete in the 21st century workforce.

We all know that many of the jobs that helped Americans earn a solid place in the middle class in the 20th century are not necessarily going to be the same jobs that will allow Americans to live in upwardly mobile middle class lifestyle in the 21st century. There are new growth sectors, new opportunities, and yes, new challenges as well.

One of the keys to both our prosperity as a Nation as well as the prosperity and growth of the middle class is to make sure that Americans have the skills they need to compete in the 21st century economy. When we match those skills to the people who need to have them to support their families, we're talking about all American families. We're talking about veterans. We're talking about the disabled. We're talking about those who don't have a high school diploma. We're talking about immigrants.

We need to make sure that each of these groups that traditionally has had and does have a higher unemployment rate than Americans as a whole can receive the type of training, education, and skills that they need to support their families and give back to the rest of us--a hand up, rather than a hand out. That is what workforce investment is all about.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree it's long overdue for us to update and strengthen the Workforce Investment Act. It was written in 1998. The world was different in 1998. I don't think any of us saw the degree with which the economy would change. We've, since 1998, had many new technology jobs, the Internet has grown to a mainstream phenomenon, we've had a banking crisis, we've had two wars, and we're on our third President since 1998. Things have changed a lot. Things have changed a lot.

I'm amazed, Mr. Speaker, when I meet people now that were born in the 1990s and they're in the workforce. It's absolutely incredible to think about. And, yet, we're still operating under a law that doesn't reflect the changing needs of the American workforce. It is time for Democrats and Republicans to work together--to work together--to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act.

The President has stated that he doesn't support this bill, he wouldn't sign this bill. We need to work together, Democrats and Republicans, to come up with a framework that works. Yes, we all know that a committee markup process is part of that process; but so, too, is establishing the base bill, a process from which Democrats were excluded.

Former Education and Workforce Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said that he ``would like to see us work in that same mode where we really try to work together. I don't think it is the Republican bill or the Democratic bill, but it should be all of our bill.''

Unfortunately, with regards to where this bill is today, Republicans did not choose to regard this wise advice of the former chairman in how this bill was formed and brought to the floor. Now, again, while neither House Democrats or committee Democrats or the President support the underlying bill, I'm hopeful that the Republican leadership's desire to move this bill to the floor indicates the start of a process to finally reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act.

It's not an issue of left or right. It's an issue of updating the Workforce Investment Act to reflect the changing needs of our economy and the changing set of skills that Americans need to support themselves.

I'm hopeful that with the continued work of Dr. Foxx, Chairman Kline, Ranking Member MILLER, Ranking Member Hinojosa, and other esteemed Members of this body that Republicans and Democrats will work together both making concessions to improve the Nation's workforce investment system and improve the route to the middle class for working families across our country.

Workforce investment and training to address the skills gap are critical to this economy as a whole. We have a long way to go to strengthen and, yes, streamline our workforce training and investment programs. There are some good ideas with regards to streamlining workforce investment that are contained in this bill that can form a basis for bipartisan support, but we still have a long way to go. We need to work across the aisle to invest in our future and take care of fellow citizens to make sure that they have the ability to support themselves.

I look forward to continuing this process with Members on both sides of the aisle, with members of the committee and Members of the House at large. Yet the process and bill before us currently is flawed.

Therefore, I urge a ``no'' vote on this rule and the underlying bill. I yield back the balance of my time.

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