Congress races to wrap up unfinished business

Sep 8, 2016

By Tonda F. Rush

NNA Director | Public Policy

WASHINGTON—A sprint to the finish line in the 114th Congress, with contestants racing not only to wrap up unfinished business but to get home for fall campaigns, could include stops to deal with postal reform and changes in new federal overtime laws. Or not.

The second session of the current Congress has only about three weeks to go, unless a lame-duck session occurs after the November elections. Most of the federal government has not yet been funded for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, a familiar situation in a capital where the “regular order” for appropriations bills barely gets lip service. Instead, the Republican leadership in both House and Senate are parsing whether it is better to have a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open until after elections, or pass one sweeping omnibus bill that will fund everything for the year. It is all easier said than done because Democrats are hoping to take control of the Senate in the 115th Congress, so they have little incentive to cooperate with any measure that extends into 2017.

One National Newspaper Association priority was accomplished this year—the updating of the federal Freedom of Information Act. Two other key community newspaper initiatives await action. Here is the status on postal reform and changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Postal Reform: No postal bill made it to the Senate floor this year. Sen. Tom Carper’s, D-DE, iPOST bill contained several provisions favorable to newspapers. But it will die in a committee where Republican leadership has shown no interest in moving a bill. In July, the leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee jointly introduced the Postal Service Reform Act of 2016. Chair Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, has pledged to get the bill to the House floor in September. That bill contains none of the provisions that strengthen newspaper service that NNA favors. It also has several provisions opposed by key stakeholders, such as a mandate to move away from door-to-door mail delivery to centralized neighborhood cluster boxes, which the letter carriers and some commercial mailers oppose.

If a bill reaches the House floor, it will look different from the version of HR 5714 that cleared the House committee. If postal reform has a hope of enactment this year, it will be because the Chaffetz bill emerges from the House in a form acceptable to a bipartisan Senate. If not, postal reform moves into the 115th Congress, and USPS likely will begin closing more mail processing plants. 

Overtime rules: The Obama administration alarmed the newspaper industry by doubling the salary requirements necessary to classify a worker as exempt from the overtime rules in the Fair Labor Standards Act. As of Dec. 1, most workers earning less than $47,476 will earn time-and-a-half overtime pay if they put in more than 40 hours a week. That threshold will automatically increase every three years. Newspapers with circulations of less than 4,000 are exempt from this rule, but newspapers in groups with aggregate circulations of more than 4,000 may have to comply. The new rule goes into effect without any action by Congress. Many industries are alarmed over the costs involved in compliance. Several bills have been filed that would change the Dec. 1 rule.

HR 4774 and S 2707 would nullify the rule and require the U.S. Department of Labor to restudy the economic impact of the salary change, particularly focusing on small businesses. HR 5813 would phase in the threshold change over several years, beginning with a threshold of $35,983 in December.

None of the bills are widely bipartisan, so they are likely to hit heavy opposition. But HR 5813 by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-OR, is sponsored by a group of moderate Democrats. It likely has the best chance of passage. None of the bills, however, have smooth sailing in a Congress anxious to offend no one in an election year.