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Republicans Are Trying To Roll Back A Key Obama Accomplishment For Workers

Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) are using a major spending bill to roll back President Obama’s worker-friendly reforms of the federal contracting process. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS, FILE
Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) are using a major spending bill to roll back President Obama’s worker-friendly reforms of the federal contracting process. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS, FILE

Republicans are trying to keep taxpayer dollars flowing to companies that disregard employee safety and steal their workers’ wages.

The House approved a more than $600 billion spending package for the Department of Defense on Wednesday night, with majority conservatives blocking Democrats’ efforts to strip various tag-along measures from the appropriations bill.

The House-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes policy riders that would roll back two of President Obama’s signature achievements in the multi-billion-dollar world of government contracting. A provision allowing contractors to fire workers over their sexual orientation or gender identity has received significant attention and criticism from LGBT groups and from Democrats in Washington.

But another tacked-on idea in the House’s NDAA has generated less scrutiny. Those same contractors would be free to ignore U.S. labor law with impunity under the lower chamber’s version of the defense package.

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Language introduced by Rep. John Kline (R-MN) carves Department of Defense contracts out from the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order, issued in 2014. Obama’s action tightens enforcement of a litany of wage, hour, safety, equal opportunity, and other workplace laws, and invokes nearly every piece of the legal code pertaining to jobs and work.

Contractors have an abysmal record on basic labor law. They stole a combined $82 million in wages from their own workers from 2007 to 2012 alone. More than 40 workers died in connection to safety violations at these companies in that time period.

Federal Contracts Send Billions Of Dollars To CEOs But Pay Workers A Poverty WageEconomy by CREDIT: Shutterstock The contracting practices that make the federal government the largest low-wage…thinkprogress.orgThe Obama order does not prohibit the government from contracting with corporations that have broken labor laws in the past. It merely requires companies to disclose any such violations from the last three years when they bid on a contract, and instructs federal officials to factor those violations into their decisions.

Federal contracts play an enormous role in the U.S. economy. Companies that receive contracts employ more than a fifth of the entire American workforce. Taxpayers now spend almost half a trillion dollars every year paying private companies to work for the public.

The vast majority of that spending goes to the DOD contractors who would be free to ignore labor law under the House-passed NDAA. In 2012, for example, DOD deals accounted for seven out of every 10 taxpayer dollars that went to private contractors.

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And the money keeps flowing regardless of how egregiously companies violate workplace safety codes, wage-and-hour laws, and other basic labor protections. The Government Accountability Office has found billions of taxpayer dollars go to a relative handful of contractors which had been cited for labor law violations. A subsequent 2013 Senate investigation corroborated that pattern and detailed dozens of companies that broke the law and kept getting government work.

Congressional Republicans Attach North Carolina-Style Discrimination To Defense BudgetLGBT by CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki Republicans in Congress have indicated that they like what’s been happening in…thinkprogress.orgOne example comes from right next door to Kline’s Minnesota district. The electronics company Honeywell, founded in the Twin Cities in 1885, pulled in about $2 billion in total federal contracts last year. But the massive conglomerate also has a hair-raising record with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), with dozens of violations and over $70,000 in penalties over the past three years.

Funny thing about companies with lousy records of complying with the law: They often deliver sub-standard work on the contracts they receive.

The high-profile contractor Kellogg Brown & Root, which now does business as simply KBR after waves of bad press last decade over its close ties to former Vice President Dick Cheney, cheated workers out of $1.1 million in pay in the mid-2000s. Despite that, KBR got another $11.4 billion in government contracts from 2009 to 2013, a Center for American Progress (CAP) report shows — and then tried to bilk the DOD and did such a lousy job on some electrical wiring in Iraq that the Pentagon withheld a $20 million payment.

But perhaps the best example is Akal Security, Ink. After cheating workers of over a million dollars in pay in the early 2000s, Akal continued to get billions in government contracts, including some to provide trained security guards at federal courthouses. But Akal allegedly failed to put several of those guards through the proper basic firearms tests for the job, and ended up paying nearly $2 million to settle the charges.

These People Serve Meals In The Halls Of Power And They Still Can’t Make Ends MeetEconomy by CREDIT: Good Jobs Nation Workers at the U.S. Capitol building are welcoming Congress back to town with a…thinkprogress.orgThe 2014 Obama executive order would mean procurement officers charged with stewarding public dollars could see exactly who they’re getting into bed with. The House-passed NDAA keeps them in the dark.

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Contractors have wanted the kind of carve-out Kline helmed for a long time. Through bland-sounding trade groups like the HR Policy Association and the Professional Services Council, the companies have lobbied hard against the 2014 order since it was signed.

House leaders blocked a Congressional Progressive Caucus effort to strip Kline’s language out of the bill on Wednesday, prompting Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) to call Kline’s colleagues out on the House floor for preventing the chamber from even debating the contractors provision.

Unless public pressure and Democratic maneuvering can strip the language out of the NDAA in the Senate, the White House and the GOP leadership are headed for another game of legislative chicken.

The administration has condemned the anti-LGBT and anti-worker riders attached to Wednesday’s bill, and threatened to veto the entire package if they are not removed. But conservative lawmakers have had some success in the recent past with similar showdowns involving large, complicated spending packages.