Proceedings, Debates of the U.S. Congress
December 15, 2014
113th Congress, 2nd Session
Issue: Vol. 160, No. 154 — Daily Edition
Entire Issue (PDF)
OMNIBUS APPROPRIATIONS BILL; Congressional Record Vol. 160, No. 154
(Senate - December 15, 2014)
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[Pages S6860-S6863] From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov] OMNIBUS APPROPRIATIONS BILL Mr. GRASSLEY. Madam President, I wish to clarify my understanding of the following report language included with H.R. 83, the Omnibus Appropriations Act: The Secretary is directed to operate the marketing assistance loan program in a way that encourages redemption and minimizes forfeitures of loan commodities to the Federal government, and enables the orderly marketing of loan commodities throughout the year. Further, the Secretary shall ensure that the marketing assistance loan program remains a viable tool for all producers to use in marketing loan commodities freely and competitively. The Senate Agriculture Committee has confirmed this language simply intends to encourage USDA to better inform farmers of the status of any marketing loan gains they may receive during a marketing year for eligible commodities. Furthermore, it was also conveyed by minority staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee that the referenced language in no way seeks to change implementation or enforcement of Section 1603 of the Agricultural Act of 2014.
Mr. WYDEN. Madam President, I wish to thank Chair Mikulski for her tireless work in keeping our government open for another year. I understand Chair Mikulski and Ranking Member Shelby have worked hard on this bill. In the big picture, this bill continues to honor our commitment to our veterans by allowing advance funding for Veterans Administration accounts so they are locked in a year in advance, ending uncertainty. This bill also provides desperately needed funds to respond to and prepare for Ebola at its epicenter. This bill keeps faith with the American people who dream of a better life by increasing Pell Grants and making college more affordable. It creates jobs by strengthening our infrastructure, building roads and bridges, to keep the economy moving, and helps develop our economy by investing in research in agriculture, health, and geosciences, among other areas. I am glad that the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program was fully funded at $40 million. The program is one of the successes in collaboration and forest management and deserves strong support. The Land and Water Conservation Fund--LWCF--also received sustained funding at the same level as last year. Although this is only one-third of the total authorized for LWCF, I am pleased that the program received consistent funding and I remain hopeful that we will fully fund this program in the future. I am also glad that the National Park Service received $10 million for the Centennial Challenge. As the National Park Service moves into celebrating its centennial, it is so important that our parks receive the care and attention they need. However, I also have to voice my disappointment over a number of provisions included in H.R. 83, as well as several provisions that were blocked from inclusion in H.R. 83. Keeping the government running is imperative but it should not come at the cost of stripping the rights of voters, further chipping away at what is left of our eroding campaign finance laws, and rolling back Dodd-Frank protections meant to reduce taxpayer risk from ``too-big-to-fail'' entities, just to name a few of the objectionable provisions in this bill. One such provision greatly expands donations to the Republican and Democratic parties by allowing a tenfold increase in the maximum amount that donors may contribute to their political party's various national committees in one election cycle. The donation amounts skyrocket from $32,400 to $324,000 per year and ultimately up to a total contribution of $1.5 million to a party per each 2-year election cycle. At a time when more and more Americans are convinced our political system is rigged toward the rich, this provision only confirms that view. This bill also contains a provision that will put taxpayers back on the hook for big banks by rolling back the regulatory protections that Congress put into place in response to the financial crisis that devastated our economy in 2008. With the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress sought to ensure that high-stakes gambling on Wall Street by reckless risk takers would not threaten the livelihood of the American taxpayer. As part of this effort, Dodd-Frank included a provision known as the ``swaps push out'' which requires Federally insured banks to separate out their riskiest activities into subsidiaries. This way, the risky trading activities that contributed to the meltdown would be separated from the insured banking entity and ensure that banks--not taxpayers-- would be responsible if risky trades fail. Today, this spending bill repeals that provision and once again potentially leaves the taxpayer on the hook for Wall Street gambling gone wrong. I am particularly dismayed that last-minute partisan maneuvering has left America's rural counties in the dust. Two funds that are lifelines for cash-strapped rural counties and school districts struggling to fund basic education, road improvements, law enforcement, and other public services were hurt by this bill. First, House Republican Leadership blocked repeated efforts to include the Secure Rural Schools--SRS--funding program, though it came with offset funding. Instead, they split it from the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program-- PILT--funded PILT, and left SRS behind. This is a problem for two distinct reasons. First, PILT is a laudable program for rural counties around the country who host our public lands. But so is SRS, which funds education, roads and critical services in more than 700 counties across the country, and these counties will now be forced to lay off teachers, close libraries and jails, and lay off sheriffs. Second, PILT's formula is connected with SRS funding levels, in fact, and while this bill includes funding for PILT, in the absence of Secure Rural Schools, the funding level for PILT provided in this bill actually reduces PILT payments as compared to last year. We have seen this movie before and it never ends well--a last-minute scheme worked out largely in private to solve a complex problem without the full and public consideration of Congress--leads to mistakes. This is one of those mistakes that will reverberate across rural America. I am disappointed this mistake was not averted simply by providing SRS funding. Speaking of hampering rural America, there is another provision missing that would help the rural West and one missing that would help the rural West were it included. This package fails to include the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act--a bill I introduced with my colleague Senator Crapo and 17 additional bipartisan cosponsors, and which was also a strong bipartisan measure in the House. This legislation would have solved the problem of paying for the ever-increasing costs of fighting wildland fires without decimating the agencies' core budgets, where they get the money to pay for their essential work--including the forest restoration work that can help us get ahead of these infernos. Our commonsense solution would have paid for these natural disasters like other natural disasters are paid for, instead of cannibalizing the agencies' budgets. In addition, this bill interferes with the work that private landowners are [[Page S6861]] doing for sage grouse restoration. This bill blocks the administration from complying with its Endangered Species Act obligations--and its deadline in a court-approved settlement agreement--by barring any funds from being used in efforts to list the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Now, while I join my colleagues and others in wanting to see a listing avoided, this kind of blunt force prohibition of compliance with legal obligations--one that sends the message that these obligations can be ignored when they are deemed inconvenient--is very disturbing. In my State, and across the West, numerous parties have come together to try to tackle the threats to this species, which is just an indicator of threats to an entire ecosystem. I commend these great efforts by ranchers, conservationists, Governors and others who have come to the table, signed agreements, and worked hard on the ground to protect the landscape and avoid a sage-grouse listing. Those efforts are the right way to avoid a listing, not through dangerous riders as we see in this bill. It is my hope the administration will continue to work to manage and improve sage-grouse habitat to avoid undermining those efforts. On a global scale, this legislation would reverse a policy that takes a step toward saving our global climate. The United States has made tremendous and continued progress to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as well as transition our electricity sector to cleaner energy sources. That progress gets undermined if other nations continue to grow their economies based upon high-carbon emitting electricity sources such as coal, without also putting in place the technologies to clean it up, capture, and store the emissions from those powerplants. It only makes sense then that the United States currently has in place a policy that it will not use its funds, through the Export-Import Bank and through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to build power sources overseas that are dirtier than are allowed here at home, and that will continue polluting the atmosphere for many decades. A rider carried by this legislation up-ends that agreement. This bill is flexible in its approaches to environmental degradation--it easily transitions from the global, as discussed above, to the very local: this legislation bans the Department of Energy-- DOE--from implementing or enforcing light bulb efficiency standards. No environmental improvement is too small or too commonsensical to not attract an opponent. This legislation hampers progress by taking aim at particular agencies: it takes aim at environmental protection by going directly after the Environmental Protection Agency. At a time when climate change is already hurting Americans and holding back the United States economy, the omnibus takes aim at the only agency with the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, slashing its budget to levels not seen since 1989. And this bill takes aim at the Internal Revenue Service by cutting their budget by another $400 million. That's the lowest level since 2008. Now, I get it. Some people might think that is a good thing: who wants to fund the tax collector? Except that the IRS is responsible for more than just cashing checks; it also has to make sure that tax fraud is under control, that Americans get their tax refunds in a timely way, and that taxpayers can get their questions about their taxes answered, again, in a timely way. All of that is hobbled by an insufficient budget. In addition, it is hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news these days without finding a story about ever more aggressive efforts to dodge taxes. The average American does not cheat on her taxes, but for those who do, the IRS needs the resources to catch them. Otherwise, every honest, hard-working American ends up on the hook for more. By continuing to cut the IRS budget, I am afraid Congress is sending a message that tax enforcement is not so important. It communicates an unfortunate signal that fighting tax cheating is not a priority, and enforcement is not a priority. Ultimately, that is a problem for every American taxpayer. Congress also continues to cut funding to the IRS while adding more duties to the agency, including in this spending bill. Next year is already a busy year for the IRS. In addition to administering the filing season and combating identity theft and fraud, the IRS will also be implementing the late-passed extenders bill, the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act, and the health premium tax credits. But that is not all. Congress is cutting the funding, but telling the IRS to use the funding to improve the 1-800 help line service and allocate resources to improve response time. Why? Because maintaining an acceptable level of service for the American taxpayer has been strained substantially due to previous budget cuts. Congress is asking the IRS to do all these things while cutting funding. Congress is telling the IRS to do more, but with much, much less. I have long been an ardent proponent of tax reform. We have a broken tax code in desperate need of fixing. Why does that matter in this context? I will tell you why. If Congress finally succeeds in meaningfully reforming our antiquated tax code, implementing those changes will require a substantial investment in the IRS. Will Congress have the same attitude toward funding the IRS when it is charged with the implementation of a reformed and modern tax code? I wonder, and I worry. On the defense side, there is no doubt that this omnibus bill includes funding for important national security priorities. However, it also contains billions in wasteful and unnecessary military spending--like nearly $500 million to buy more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters than the Pentagon requested. The bill also contains more than $8 billion for nuclear weapons activities, which is nearly $390 million more than the President requested. During the Reagan years, we spent about $8 billion annually to develop, test, produce and maintain more than 20,000 nuclear warheads. Today we spend that same $8 billion on fewer than 5,000 warheads. What is wrong with this picture? This bill also handicaps efforts to invest in infrastructure and keep our Nation competitive. Buried in the pages of this bill is a $100 million cut to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant program. Since Congress created this program in the 2009 Recovery Act, the competitive grants have played a critical role in funding road, rail, port and transit projects across the country. Cutting this program makes absolutely no sense when Congress is struggling to shore up the Highway Trust Fund and meet infrastructure needs in Oregon and across the country. And I would be remiss if I didn't highlight my disappointment with the multiemployer pension provisions. These reforms were rushed through by a few House Members in private during the final days of the legislative year without consideration by the Senate Finance Committee and other committees of jurisdiction. That flawed process has produced a lopsided solution leaving existing retirees to shoulder a disproportionate share of sacrifice. It also will result in the rolling back of a major tenet enshrined in pension law--never take away money a pensioner has already earned. Under this bill, for the first time, Congress will allow multiemployer plans to cut retirees' earned pension benefits. This is unprecedented and I worry about the impact on retirees and the slippery slope we are about to head down. No matter what one thinks about the underlying policy, legislation this complex and controversial requires thorough review and analysis. That hasn't happened here. In fact, no one in the Senate, including the committees of jurisdiction, had the opportunity to fully review these provisions. Even a single, small, unintentional misstep in the rush to legislate could have serious and negative consequences to retirees and businesses alike. I am working hard to protect retirees' pensions, and jamming these reforms through Congress virtually sight unseen is no way to solve the problems with multiemployer pensions. As a conglomerate, these provisions tip the balance of this fine bill to one that I cannot support and with that I regretfully voted against its final passage. Mr. REED. Madam President, I wish to explain my opposition to the Fiscal Year 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill. [[Page S6862]] For months, I worked hard alongside Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, Ranking Member Richard Shelby, and our colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee to craft a bipartisan agreement, which fit within stringent spending limits, to fund the government and strengthen our economy. Regrettably, the last minute addition of an unrelated bill on multiemployer pension plans tilted the balance away from a bill that reflects a tough bipartisan compromise to a bill that, hastily and without thorough review, makes fundamental changes to numerous private retirement plans. Moreover, another provision of the bill seeks to undo a portion of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that would force large banks to separate the riskiest derivatives trades away from subsidiaries that benefit from federal deposit insurance. Because of the inclusion of these provisions, I am unable to vote for the omnibus. It is a shame, because there is otherwise much good here. This compromise bill includes federal funds, which I advocated for, to boost economic and community development and environmental restoration projects in Rhode Island, as well as key education, manufacturing, workforce training, health care, nutrition, energy efficiency, transportation, and defense initiatives. I thank Chairwoman Mikulski for her boundless energy and ceaseless efforts in putting a bill together with these kinds of investments. As chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, I am proud of what we were able to accomplish. I particularly commend Senator Lisa Murkowski for being an outstanding partner, as well as her clerk, Leif Fonnesbeck, and her subcommittee staff, Brent Wiles, and Emy Lesofski. I also thank the majority staff: Rachael Taylor, Virginia James, Ryan Hunt, and Rita Culp for their work and guidance during my tenure as chairman. I especially wish to recognize Virginia James, who is retiring this January after a distinguished 27-year Senate career. Ginny has served as a trusted adviser on tribal health, science, and arts and cultural issues to both Democrats and Republicans, stretching back to her days serving as an aide to former Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark O. Hatfield. There are many Federal agencies--from the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art to the U.S. Geological Survey and the Indian Health Service--that owe Ginny a debt of gratitude for her work, as does the Senate. She will be missed for both her skill and her humor. Because of the bipartisan efforts of the staff and members of our Subcommittee, the Interior Appropriations bill included in this omnibus legislation has $2.356 billion for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which is $581 million above the fiscal year 2015 budget request. This funding will help states and localities make important infrastructure investments, create jobs here in the U.S., and improve environmental quality. While I am disappointed that the House insisted on the inclusion of a few controversial policy riders, I'm pleased that we were able to eliminate many of the most damaging legislative provisions that those on the other side of the aisle were demanding. These provisions would have impacted the ability of agencies under the Subcommittee's jurisdiction to do their jobs to protect the public and the environment, including their ability to address climate change. I am dismayed, however, that the House refused to accept the Senate's language that would have allowed for a more rational way to account and pay for emergency wildfire suppression. Every member of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee had cosponsored nearly identical legislation and the House Committee report expressed support for this change. Yet the House refused to adopt it in this agreement. I believe my colleagues in the West may regret not taking the opportunity when they had the chance. I am also disappointed that my colleagues in the House could not agree, at long last, that it is time for oil and gas companies to pay a share of the costs of inspecting their on-shore drilling operations. There are other aspects of the omnibus that are troubling. As the long time champion of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), along with Senator Susan Collins, I regret seeing the program cut by $34 million. Although significantly higher than the President's request, the reduction comes after years of cuts or stagnant appropriations. Meanwhile, the number of households eligible for LIHEAP assistance continues to exceed available funds and those receiving assistance have seen their grants decrease. I hope we can do better in the future. While the bill includes important investments in surface transportation and aviation systems, I think we should be doing more, given the benefits to our economy. I am especially disappointed that the TIGER grant program, which has helped advance a number of critical transportation projects in Rhode Island, has been cut by $100 million from a year ago. I am also troubled by language that would set aside the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Hours of Service regulation in order to have further study of the rule, which has been in effect for nearly 1\1/2\ years. While I welcome additional studies on driver safety, I don't think it is appropriate to simply set aside a rule that has been the subject of more than a decade of work and legal review. What concerns me most is that it could force truck drivers, who have one of the most grueling jobs in the country, to work longer hours, potentially increasing fatigue and putting more people at risk on our roadways. The bill also hobbles the Department of Homeland Security, providing only enough funding to keep it running until February 27 of next year. This is the response by my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to the actions the President has taken with respect to immigration. Due to this intransigence, some initiatives to secure the border cannot be funded nor can measures to address the humanitarian crisis of children crossing our Southwest border or security weaknesses at the White House. Even if these faults could be overlooked because of the many positive provisions in the bill, it is, for me, irreparably damaged by two controversial riders that have nothing to do with funding the government. The bill would repeal section 716 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. Section 716 prevents bank subsidiaries that are covered by federal deposit insurance or that take advantage of Federal Reserve lending programs from engaging in the riskiest derivatives trades. In essence, the riskiest derivatives trades would be pushed out from these subsidiaries in an effort to reduce systemic risk and provide greater assurances that Wall Street gambles would not be subsidized by taxpayers. Whether you are in favor of preserving or repealing section 716, everyone should understand by now that the last thing Congress should be doing is passing incredibly complex and consequential derivatives legislation with little deliberation as part of an omnibus appropriations bill. Serious concerns have been raised about repealing Section 716. Some have pointed out that the riskiest derivatives are so volatile that it will be impossible to charge the proper deposit insurance premium to account for the additional risk that the most unpredictable swaps will bring to FDIC insured banking subsidiaries. In other words, the potential losses could far exceed the amounts that have been reserved for contingencies. This should be concerning to all of my colleagues, especially in light of the 2008 financial crisis. It is clear that big Wall Street banks have more than had their say. I merely ask that taxpayers be given an equal opportunity to have their say before they are asked yet again, perhaps years from now, to bail out Wall Street for their excesses. The deep irony is that when my colleagues and I transparently fight for foreclosure prevention for Americans who were harmed by the recklessness of big banks and financial institutions, we are told that it was our constituents who were reckless and that we shouldn't be encouraging moral hazard. By repealing a section that seeks to establish a prohibition against federal government bailouts of swaps entities, some of my colleagues are revealing [[Page S6863]] their view that our largest banks should be held to a significantly lesser standard than distressed American homeowners. They seem to believe that when it comes to the potentially reckless choices of banks, they can continue to wreak havoc in our financial markets--and if their bets fail spectacularly, taxpayers will be there to clean up their mess. This shouldn't be the case. If Members want to debate and vote on this issue in the open, I welcome the opportunity, but to avoid the debate by tucking this provision in a 1,600 page funding bill is a disservice to the seriousness of the issue. I am disheartened that despite what past experience has shown us, we are rushing towards what could be another grave mistake. While much attention has been paid to the repeal of section 716 and other controversial pieces of this legislation, I am even more troubled by the last-minute addition of a bill that would make major changes to the multiemployer pension system. The multiemployer pension program, guaranteed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), is in financial distress. Just 1 month ago, the PBGC's annual report raised a number of concerns about the increasing deficits of the multiemployer pension program. Alarmingly, the report predicted a high likelihood of many plans failing over the next decade, which would jeopardize the PBGC's ability to ensure retirees even a minimum guarantee on their pensions. We must take action to ensure that middle-income employees and retirees do not have the rug cut out from under them and lose retirement benefits. We should have a thoughtful, open debate about how we ensure that middle-income employees and retirees receive the pension benefits they have earned so they are able to enjoy a secure retirement. We need a solution that honors these retirees' lifelong work. Regrettably, this legislation--for the first time--opens the door to cutting pension benefits for current retirees. It would renege on the commitments made to middle-income families across the country. Hamstrung by budget constraints over the last few years, we have not done as much as I would have liked to protect programs that provide much needed support to hard-working families. My efforts to extend unemployment insurance, which benefits a broad cross-section of Americans, have been rebuffed by House Republicans time after time this year. And now even hard earned pension benefits are not safe. The financial stability of multiemployer plans is a serious challenge that Congress will have to confront. However, we must consider a range of options before we move to dismantle the longstanding protections afforded to employees and their families by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). One of the most important aspects of this law stipulates that benefits for troubled multiemployer pension plans must be paid out first with remaining assets. The legislation we are considering flies in the face of that commitment by allowing benefit cuts to be the first option for restoring solvency to these plans. Any solution is going to require tough compromises from everyone, but all stakeholders should have the opportunity to participate in crafting a solution instead of having it developed in secret and rammed through as part of a must-pass spending bill. This is the sort of action that infuriates the people we represent. But more important than process, this bill will have an effect on people's lives for years to come and gives further cause for Americans to think that their government doesn't have their back or care about their economic security. We shouldn't approach it so frivolously. We need to make sure the policy is right. Given the outstanding efforts of Chairwoman Mikulski and my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee it is difficult for me to say this, but because of the reasons I have explained, I voted no on this bill. Ms. BALDWIN. Madam President, this is not the time for another government shutdown. The American people have had enough of Washington's dysfunction. They want us to do our job and work together to get the job done. Since the Budget Committee, on which I serve, crafted a bipartisan agreement that ended last year's government shutdown and paved the way for a cease-fire on recent budget wars, the economy has gained an average of 240,000 jobs per month. In Wisconsin, our economy continues to lag behind, so we need to build on this progress and strengthen the economic security of families and businesses that are working hard to move our economy forward. This bipartisan appropriations bill will help do that by increasing the Child Care and Development Block Grant funding by $75 million; increasing the maximum Pell grant award; providing a cost of living pay raise for our men and women in the Armed Forces; increasing funding for science and research at the National Institutes of Health by $150 million; providing grants to States for job training and assistance to dislocated workers; extending Trade Adjustments Assistance for workers who lose their jobs due to international trade; and moving bipartisan Manufacturing Hubs legislation forward that I support to keep our country on the leading edge of advanced manufacturing. I also fought to include in this legislation a number of provisions that will help us build a stronger made in Wisconsin economy, including support for our shipbuilding industry and transportation infrastructure. With all of these benefits, I am the first to admit that this bill is far from perfect. But we have a divided government and I recognize that I can't get everything I want in this bill, just as my colleagues across the aisle can't get everything they want in this bill. This bill is a compromise. Let me be very clear here: Republicans' insistence on including a Wall Street giveaway is extremely objectionable to me. I also strongly oppose a provision that weakens our already loose campaign laws and the changes made to multiemployer pensions deserved a full debate in the Senate, as separate legislation, not tucked into an appropriations bill by the House of Representatives at the last minute. I agree with my colleagues who have said these provisions represent the very worst of creating an uneven playing field for those hard working Americans who ask for nothing more than a voice in Washington and fair shot at getting ahead. I would also add that these provisions in particular are a direct assault on our proud progressive traditions in Wisconsin. But what would have happened if we did not pass this bill now? I can tell you what will happen because we saw the path the Republican controlled House of Representatives wanted to take. Republicans tried to add more than 30 additional harmful policy provisions--from more Wall Street giveaways to rolling back workers' rights to eroding environmental policy--but Senate Democrats were able to use their current leverage as the majority party in the Senate to keep them out. If this bill did not pass now, Republicans would have had the power to add more objectionable provisions when they will hold majorities in both the House and Senate next year. I supported this bipartisan compromise because I believe it is our job to deliver progress for the American people, not an endless drift from one crisis to the next or a government shutdown. ____________________