The early legislative agenda for Congress in early 2010 is going to look a lot like the legislative agenda for 2009 because of much unfinished business. As of this writing, the U.S. Senate is debating a Health Care Reform bill with the hopes of a final vote on the bill on Christmas Eve. PHCC is still doing everything possible to fight the current version of the bill, which, among other things, includes tax increases on business owners and mandates businesses provide health insurance for their employees or pay a penalty for not doing so. The Senate version and the House version are significantly different, and ironing out those differences in the bill in conference committee will be a monumental task.

The window to pass major legislation, however, usually narrows in an election year like 2010, as incumbents demand more time back home to campaign. This leaves Democrats just a few months in 2010 to prioritize their agenda, which will be topped by putting the final touches on the health care legislation and on-going economic recovery efforts. The narrow timeframe — and the political calculus involved with such controversial items — could jeopardize efforts to curb global warming and a push by liberals to change immigration laws to allow some illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

With all the unfinished legislative business left on the table from 2009, PHCC is working to solidify the association's standing in the public policy arena. Aside from the issues mentioned above, there are other areas that affect the plumbing-heating-cooling industry. PHCC is working hard to ensure that the p-h-c industry is leading from the front.

The economy

With unemployment hovering around 10% (19% in the construction industry) and the economy having troubles kicking into high speed, the early focus in 2010 will be getting the economy going and creating more jobs. Before the House left Washington for the year, it passed a “jobs bill.” The bill contains infrastructure spending and an extension of unemployment and health benefits for millions of jobless Americans. The Senate is expected to act early in the year.

Along with the House-passed legislation, the Senate is planning a more sweeping effort, such as an investment in green building. PHCC is actively leading an effort to include water efficiency language that would benefit PHCC members by encouraging upgrades in the form of tax credits for water-and energy-efficient fixtures in residential and non-residential buildings.

Health care reform

As mentioned earlier, the Senate passed its version of health care reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, on Christmas Eve. The bill includes employer mandates to provide health insurance to employees or pay a fine per employee; higher tax rates for an individual earning more than $250,000 annually; and drops the employer mandate exemption from 50 to five employees for the construction industry only.

PHCC staff and members have been and continue to be engaged in the issue and are working to make sure that the p-h-c industry can still compete in the economy.

The Senate version of the legislation would have to move to conference with the House to iron out any differences, of which there are many.

Estate tax

Currently there is no estate tax for the year 2010. It will be reinstated automatically, however, at the beginning of 2011. Congress could not arrive at a compromise to freeze permanently the top rate and exemption in 2009. The Congressional majority has mentioned that it will try to pass a retroactive freeze in 2010.

PHCC is working to make the rate 35% with an individual exemption at $3.5 million and $7 million for married couples.

Climate change

As you may remember, the House passed climate change legislation with language beneficial to PHCC members in 2009. The Senate failed to act in 2009; however, in December, President Obama and the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa reached an agreement that may provide the impetus for passage of climate change legislation in the Senate. While the agreement contains no legally binding language and few details, it does reflect the stance of U.S. negotiators to base concessions and demands on what realistically could be passed by the Senate.

Senate Democratic leaders aim to bring climate change legislation to the floor in the spring. PHCC is working to ensure that what comes out of the Senate will be just as beneficial as the House language.

Immigration

While there was much talk about major immigration reform in 2009, there was no major movement. There is immigration reform language, however, that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. The largest issue is a pathway to citizenship. PHCC is working closely with our industry partners to ensure that any immigration reform addresses the need for a skilled workforce without hurting the p-h-c industry.

PHCC's legislative conference

With all the legislative action expected next year, make your voice heard and be a part of the legislative process. Meet your members of Congress and Senators face-to-face to discuss the issues affecting your business. Mark your calendars now and plan on being in Washington April 28-29, 2010, for a fun, educational and exciting PHCC Legislative Conference and Day on the Hill.

Kevin Schwalb is the government relations director for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association. He can be reached at schwalb-naphcc.org.