The House narrowly approved legislation Friday that would streamline and consolidate dozens of federal job-training programs, which most Democrats opposed even as Republicans said the bill meets President Obama's goal of simplifying these programs.
Members approved the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act in a 215-202 vote. Several Democrats spoke against the bill, and in the final vote, only two Democrats supported it. Fourteen Republicans voted against it, which is what made the vote so close.
The bill turns 35 separate federal job-training programs under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) into a single "Workforce Investment Fund." This fund would direct money to states for job training programs and would require some of the money to help people facing specific obstacles find work.
Republicans said this state-focused change is needed to ensure that the millions of Americans still looking for work are able to gain new skills through an improved federal training system.
"How can we be a nation that spends over $18 billion a year on job training programs — over 47 job training programs — and yet have almost 3.6 million jobs going unfilled?" Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) asked in Thursday debate on the bill. "[W]e have jobs that are unfilled because we have a system that doesn't work."
"A bloated bureaucracy is standing between workers and the support they need," House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said Friday. "We've tried the Washington-knows-best approach, and it isn't working. It's time to move in a new direction."
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said creating a single Workforce Investment Fund would help people save time that they now must use trying to figure out which federal program to ask for help. He added it would also eliminate other paperwork barriers for people looking for work.
"If you need job training, the SKILLS Act eliminates bureaucratic hurdles, such as first requiring you to work on your resume and develop an individual employment plan, so that you can access the training that you need right away," Cantor said.
The bill would give states new flexibility to determine standards that job training providers must meet and lets them work with community colleges to provide training. It would also reauthorize WIA, and require that state and local workforce investment board members, which are established to help implement WIA, ensure that two-thirds of their membership is composed of employers.
Republicans have promoted the bill for the last several weeks as one that addresses Obama's criticism last year about the "maze of confusing training programs" that the government has in place.
But several Democrats spoke against the bill, criticizing it as creating a new block grant to states that could end up making it hard for some people to find work.
"Youth, older workers, farm workers, workers with disabilities, English-language learners, veterans, low-income workers are amongst those who face the greatest barriers to employment," Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) said. "Yet programs that serve these populations are the very programs targeted by the Republicans."
Miller accused Republicans of pushing the bill as part of an attempt by the party to rebrand itself as one that is working to help people find jobs.
"Today we're here to meet the deadline set by the majority leader as part of a rebranding strategy," he said. "This bill is a political product. It puts ideology over the practical solutions and evidence-based reforms."
Miller and others also argued that the bill would freeze federal spending on the Workforce Investment Fund for seven years, which some said it tantamount to a cut.
These complaints matched those of the White House, which said on Wednesday that the House bill would eliminate many programs needed by "vulnerable populations," and would freeze funding.
Just before the final vote, the House approved a few amendments to the bill. Details on those amendment results follow here:
— Pete Gallego (D-Texas), to let veterans use federal jobs programs to seek jobs in advanced manufacturing; agreed by voice vote.
— Don Young (R-Alaska), requiring states to set aside 1 percent of available funds for job training help for Indians and other native populations; agreed by voice vote.
— Diane Black (R-Tenn.), including a sense of Congress that the costs of the bill should be offset with funds used by the USDA's marketing and outreach program, in light of GOP accusations that USDA is promoting food stamps to potential immigrants; withdrawn.
— Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), requiring a 10 percent reduction in funding under the bill if reports to Congress evaluating the program are late; agreed voice vote.
— John Tierney (D-Mass.), a Democratic substitute amendment; failed 192-227.