WASHINGTON - A divided House on Friday passed Republican legislation that would end or consolidate dozens of duplicative job training programs with the objective of making it easier for people to gain the skills they need in a changing job market. It's a goal that President Barack Obama says he shares while disagreeing with the way the GOP would do it. The bill would also increase employers' influence in who gets job training grants.
While there is widespread agreement that current federal job training programs are inefficient and overlapping, Democrats voted overwhelmingly against the bill, saying they were locked out of the bill-writing process and that the bill would eliminate programs tailored to serve veterans, the disabled, ex-prisoners and other underserved populations. Democrats also said giving employers more power over programs came at the expense of unions, community colleges and other stakeholders.
The vote was 215-202, sending the bill to the Senate where the Democratic majority is likely to take a different approach to job training reform.
Obama, in his State of the Union address last year, said he wanted to "cut through the maze of confusing training programs" so people have a direct path to the help they require. But the White House said it strongly opposed the House bill, saying consolidation could leave some people without needed assistance.
"The current system is inefficient and ineffective," Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said in explaining the legislation that would eliminate or consolidate 35 federal programs and create a Workforce Investment Fund to act as a single conduit of support for employers and job seekers.
"Onerous rules prevent workers from accessing the training they need when they need it, and taxpayer dollars are being spent with little accountability. A bloated bureaucracy is standing between workers and the support they need," he said.
Republicans noted that while there are 12 million Americans looking for work, some 3.6 million job openings remain unfilled.
Kline also denied that the bill would hurt those most in need of help, saying it requires that funds be reserved for veterans, disadvantaged youth and other vulnerable groups.
The bill amends and reauthorizes the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, or WIA, which set up business-led workforce investment boards around the country to determine local job-training needs and sought to establish one-stop career centers to assist those wanting information or training.
But the Government Accountability Office said in a 2011 report that nine federal agencies were spending about $18 billion a year to administer 47 training programs - not all under the WIA jurisdiction - and that almost all of these programs were offering services similar to those provided by other programs.
Under the current law, which has not been reauthorized since 2003, 51 percent of the investment boards must be comprised of employers. The GOP bill would increase that percentage to two-thirds, rankling Democrats and labor groups who said this was an effort to diminish union ability to shape local programs.
That, said Rep. George Miller of California, top Democrat on the education committee, would "lock out key stakeholders, including labor, community-based organizations, community colleges, or people who work with youth or workers with disabilities."
But emphasizing the role of employers, said Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., "helps ensure that the training you receive is related to the jobs actually available in your area."
Among programs being repealed under the bill are those targeted at veterans, Native Americans, ex-offenders, seasonal farmworkers and youth.
The so-called SKILLS Act - the name stands for Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills - also gives more power to governors to decide on the location of programs in their states and further consolidate programs. It freezes current spending for the act at about $6 billion a year for the next seven years.
The House defeated, on a 227-192 party-line vote, a Democratic alternative offered by Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., that would have bolstered the role of community colleges and given more priority to training for high-growth industries and programs aimed at helping low-income people.
The House also rejected, 233-184, a Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage, now at $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 for the next three years and index future increases to the rate of inflation.