Speakers Urge HR to Stay Involved—Despite Political Gridlock

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Mar 7, 2012
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U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., and Fox News political analyst Kirsten Powers shared the podium—and similar messages—during their March 6, 2012, closing keynote remarks at the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. The long and short of their advice: Stay involved in the political process, but don’t expect much to change on the legislative front this presidential election year.

Clyburn, the number three Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, was introduced by SHRM President and CEO Henry G. (Hank) Jackson as “one of SHRM’s best friends.” And as best friends often are, he was quite frank with attendees about what Congress’s agenda will be for 2012.

“If anybody is expecting anything of great significance before we have a definitive [November 2012 presidential] election, it is a great hope,” Clyburn said. “We will have a lot of CRs [continuing resolutions] to keep things as they are until we get to the end of the fiscal year, and a lot of extensions, including tax extensions that most of you are interested in, but not much else.”

While not mentioned specifically, an issue that might be a candidate for one of those extensions is Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code, which allows an employee to exclude from income up to $5,250 per year in financial assistance provided by their employer for educational courses at the associate, undergraduate and graduate level. Congress has extended Section 127 nine times since it was created in 1978, most recently in 2010. Section 127 will expire at the end of 2012 unless Congress renews it or makes it permanent.

On March 5, 2012, Reps. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, and Richard Neal, D-Mass., introduced H.R. 4137, the Employee Educational Assistance Act of 2012. SHRM was instrumental in the development and introduction of the bill.

Over the past few years, there have been several attempts to make Section 127 a permanent part of the tax code. Attempts to extend or make permanent any tax reduction will be difficult in the current political environment given concerns about the rising federal debt. The fate of the provision ultimately will be decided in a larger tax reform package, likely to be considered near the end of 2012 with other Bush era tax measures, according to Kathleen A. Coulombe, senior associate with SHRM Government Affairs.

On March 7, 2012, about 200 SHRM members attending the conference visited Capitol Hill to discuss Section 127, among other issues, with their legislators. In addition, a comprehensive advocacy campaign has been launched by SHRM to ask its members to contact their representatives and urge them to be co-sponsors of H.R. 4137. SHRM chairs the Coalition to Preserve Employer Provided Education Assistance, a broad-based collection of groups representing business, labor and education groups. SHRM will be working with the coalition on advocacy efforts and lobbying to increase co-sponsorship of the bill.

Powers: ‘You Control Your Message’

Kristen Powers, also a columnist for The Daily Beast and USA Today, shared how her background in business, politics and the news media has made her an expert at getting her point across while keeping composed and being gracious. A liberal voice with the staunchly conservative Fox network since 2004, Powers said that the sometimes awkward job situation has caused her to change her communication and listening styles in order to find common ground.

“In dealing with imposing people, you have to show up prepared,” she said, noting that these kinds of people smell lack of preparation like “sharks smell blood in the water. You also have to know your audience and understand their world view” to communicate with them effectively.

Powers said her experience as deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for public affairs in the Clinton White House, as vice president of international communications at AOL, and later as a press secretary for a number of political campaigns also taught her that “no matter how aggressive or how uncomfortable the situation may be, you are still in control of your message. Present your facts and adjust your style to accommodate [your audience]. The goal is not to look for things that reinforce the negative narrative.”

That’s something that she said the 2012 field of Republican candidates for president can’t seem to do.

“Look at this election and see what happens when communication goes awry,” she said, noting that the Republican field of candidates lined up to run against President Barack Obama in November is “pretty disappointing.”

“All have stumbled because of others’ attacks as well as their own communications mistakes,” which have reinforced the negatives to each candidate’s narrative, she opined. This makes it easier for “Obama to tout his message of not switching horses in midstream.”

Powers said the 2012 election process is playing out amid political and media environments that are “toxic” and that the no-compromise climate and apparent “gaming of the system” keep a lot of people out of the process.

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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