Finance Committee Accomplishmentsby Senator Orrin G. Hatch
Posted on 2015-12-17
HATCH. Mr. President, as we count down the remaining days on the
2015 legislative calendar, there is still quite a bit of work to do and
a few more big-ticket items to put to bed. Still, even with so much
still on our plates, I believe it is appropriate to take a look back at
the year we are now finishing up and reflect on what we have been able
Now, 2015 has been a big year in the Senate. After many years of unproductive division and stagnation, the Senate finally has returned to work. While some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have tried to downplay the productivity we have enjoyed under the current Senate leadership--and the Washington Post Fact Checker awarded them some Pinocchios for their efforts--no one can seriously argue that things haven't changed around here.
Under the current Senate majority, the committees have been allowed to function and work. Under the current Senate majority, we have had fuller and fairer debates on the Senate floor. Probably most important of all, under the current Senate majority, the Senate has actually been doing the people's business. Instead of being bogged down with divisive, political show votes, we have tackled tough challenges-- including numerous challenges that have plagued this body for many years--and we have delivered results, usually with a strong bipartisan majority, which I find to be very heartening.
I am pleased to say this new trend toward efficiency and bipartisan success has been evident in the Senate Finance Committee, which I have been privileged to chair since the 1st of January this year. I would like to take some time to pay tribute to my colleagues on the Finance Committee and the successes we have enjoyed this year. I will start with the basics, just some top-line numbers.
In 2015, the Finance Committee held 30 full committee hearings to discuss various legislative efforts, conduct oversight of the administration, and to question executive branch nominees. There were also two subcommittee hearings. We convened 10 separate markups to consider and report legislation and nominations.
Let's dig a little deeper with the numbers. In terms of legislation, the Finance Committee moved at a historic pace in 2015, considering and reporting 37 individual bills. Those are more bills than the committee reported in the past four Congresses combined and more than any single Congress in the last 35 years. I just have to reiterate that I am not comparing 2015 to any single previous year. I am comparing it to the entirety of past Congresses. We have moved more legislation in just 1 year than the Finance Committee has in any entire Congress in the past three and one-half decades.
Even more striking is the fact that every one of the 37 bills we reported this year enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in the committee. So far, 9 of those 37 reported bills have been signed or incorporated into law, and several more are likely to get there before the end of this week. In addition, three other bills that came through the Finance Committee were discharged and subsequently signed into law.
However, while these raw numbers may be impressive, they only tell part of the story. If we take the time to delve into the specifics of our efforts on the Finance Committee, we will see that we have actually enjoyed significant successes in each of our major areas of jurisdiction, including tax, trade, health care, Social Security, and oversight. I have often spoken about many of our individual achievements on the Senate floor, but I think they deserve another mention today.
Trade. I will start by talking about our efforts with regard to international trade policy. We began 2015 with a desire to advance a bold and ambitious trade agenda that would update our trade laws for the 21st century global economy and set the stage for American leadership in the international marketplace. By any measurable standard, our efforts have been a smashing success. The centerpiece of our trade agenda was the legislation to renew trade promotion authority, or TPA. Prior to this year, it had been nearly three decades since a TPA bill was fully considered and reported out of the Senate Finance Committee. Our TPA bill received a strong bipartisan vote in the committee and another one on the floor. Actually, to be precise, we had to pass it twice in the Senate, with similar results on both occasions.
This legislation put in place strong negotiating objectives to ensure our negotiated trade agreements reflect the collective will of Congress. It also empowered our negotiators to reach the best deals possible by providing a path to getting fair up-or-down votes for future trade agreements, giving our trading partners the assurances they need to put their best offers on the table. I don't want to go into too much detail today about any specific trade agreements that may or may not make their way to Congress in the future. I just want to point out that the Finance Committee's TPA bill--now a law--will ensure that we have all the information we need to make an informed decision on any agreement that Congress has the ultimate say over whether any agreement enters into force.
In addition to TPA, the Finance Committee developed legislation to renew some of our most vital trade preference programs, including preferences for Haiti and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, Program. These programs are key tools in our arsenal for assisting developing nations and providing important benefits for job creators and consumers here at home. The preference bill was signed into law after getting a near-unanimous vote in both the House and the Senate.
We also crafted the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, a bill which will, among other things, authorize the Customs and Border Protection agency and update our processes and standards for enforcement at our borders, most notably with regard to the protection of intellectual property rights, an issue that has long been of particular interest to me.
This legislation also had a lot of support in the Senate and in the House. The conference committee, which I chaired, charged with reconciling the differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions of the bill, filed its report just this last week. My hope is that we will consider and pass this conference report as soon as possible.
International trade is a key element of a healthy U.S. economy. We have made great strides toward promoting trade and improving global trade standards already this year--and hopefully we will be able to make a few more in the very near future.
Entitlement reform. The Finance Committee has also enjoyed significant success when it comes to entitlement reform, which I think has surprised many people around here. For years--decades even--we were told that bipartisan entitlement reform was impossible. The political stakes, according to the naysayers, were far too high. The parties and stakeholders, they said, were too entrenched.
Yet, in 2015, we have successfully enacted significant reforms to our two most ``untouchable'' entitlement reform programs: Medicaid and Social Security.
In April, Congress passed, and the President signed, legislation originally drafted and reported out of the Finance Committee in late 2014 to repeal and replace the Medicare sustainable growth rate--SGR-- formula. Although it has been a little while since the bill passed, I think we all remember the periodic scramble to find short-term offsets to patch the SGR and kick the can even further down the road. It was, quite frankly, an embarrassment we forced ourselves to endure year after year and a prime example of government ineptitude and our apparent inability to do anything in Congress to fix it.
That all changed this year with the passage of the committee's legislation, which not only reformed Medicare in terms of the SGR but also featured cost-saving measures within the underlying program. These included a limitation on so-called Medigap first-dollar coverage, more robust means testing for Medicare Parts B and D, and program integrity provisions that have [[Page S8766]] strengthened Medicare's ability to fight fraud.
While we are on the subject of Medicare reform, I will mention that the Finance Committee also reported the Audit and Appeals Fairness, Integrity, and Reforms in Medicare--or AFIRM--Act earlier this year. This bipartisan bill is designed to address the already massive backlog of Medicare audit appeals while also allowing for increased efforts to improve program integrity and reduce improper payments out of the Medicare trust fund. It will make life much easier for both Medicare beneficiaries and their doctors who, under the status quo, wait, on average, a year and a half before an appeal is processed and they are able to know for sure whether their claims will be covered or if they will be paid for the services they perform.
In addition to these steps forward on Medicare, Congress also passed--as part of the recent budget and debt-ceiling bill--legislation to reform the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, or SSDI, and to prevent benefit cuts looming in the not-too-distant future.
Congress knew for years that the SSDI trust fund would be exhausted in 2016 and did little to address it. Despite my pleas and those of a handful of others, they did little to address it. I might add that for the Obama White House and our friends on the other side of the aisle to engage on this issue, it took some time. Facing the prospect of across- the-board benefit cuts for all SSDI beneficiaries, the Finance Committee developed proposals to extend the life of the trust fund and put in place needed reforms to the SSDI Program itself. Most of these proposals were included in the final legislation.
While, admittedly, these reforms are not the fundamental changes both the SSDI Program and Social Security more broadly need to be sustainable for future generations, they represented a very real first step toward that long-term goal and are the most significant changes to any Social Security Program enacted in the past three decades.
Clearly, much more work needs to be done to put both Medicare and Social Security on firm fiscal footing. The same is true of Medicaid and other entitlement reforms. Still, the steps Congress took this year toward fixing those programs were the biggest we have taken in a long time. I am pleased to acknowledge that the efforts that led to those steps began in the Senate Finance Committee.
Highways and Infrastructure. One of the biggest and greatest successes we have had in the Senate this year was the passage and enactment of a long-term extension of the highway trust fund. The final highway bill, which we passed a few weeks ago, provides 5 years of continuous highway funding, the longest extension of transportation funding since 1998 and one of the longest since the Reagan years.
Prior to this year, the typical cycle for funding highways went something like this: Step 1, leaders of Congress recognize and acknowledge a near-term exhaustion of highway funding. Step 2, those same leaders work with the relevant committee chairmen to cobble together enough offsets to pay for a short-term extension, usually somewhere between 6 and 18 months. Step 3, Congress passes a short-term extension with little fanfare and absolutely no celebration. Step 4, every Member of Congress spends the next 6 to 18 months complaining about this process. Step 5, start again at Step 1.
Thankfully, we broke that cycle this year. We began with a goal to provide the longest extension possible. I was determined to do all I could to find a way out of this rut, which is why I believed we had to think a little outside the proverbial box and look everywhere for potential offsets.
Generally speaking, the Finance Committee is responsible for the financing title of any highway bill that goes through the Senate. Usually, we focus on areas within our jurisdiction as we search for offsets. But over the years, those resources became harder and harder to come by, requiring us to look elsewhere.
The committee spent weeks examining numerous options and alternatives. Many thought we could not come up with much more than just one 1 or 2 years. Eventually, we were able to present our distinguished majority leader with a list of potential offsets that could provide funding for a long-term highway bill without raising taxes or increasing the deficit.
That list we came up with on the Finance Committee, in large part, formed the basis of the long-term highway bill that we passed earlier this month, which has provided much needed certainty for our States as they plan and complete highway projects, preserving jobs and stimulating growth in our economy. That long-term Transportation bill was, after all, a win for good Government and for bipartisanship in Congress. To a lesser but not insignificant extent, it was also a win for the Senate Finance Committee.
Tax. The committee also took important steps toward fixing our Nation's Tax Code in 2015. From the beginning of the year, the Finance Committee began considering and reporting bipartisan tax legislation aimed at specific needs for our country. For example, in January, we reported the Hire More Heroes Act, which relieves small businesses of burdensome ObamaCare mandates that made it harder for them to hire veterans. This legislation was signed into law in July.
In February, we held a markup to consider 17 separate tax bills, all of them bipartisan, all of which passed without objection through the committee. To date, two of those bills have become law, and, hopefully, before we adjourn this week we will pass legislation that incorporates at least 11 more.
Adding those 11 bills to the Finance Committee total, 20 of the 37 bills we reported will have been signed into law. That is a pretty good batting average, and when you include the bills we discharged from the committee, the grand total comes to 23 separate bills out of our committee signed or incorporated into law--not bad for a year's work.
In addition, at the beginning of the year, we launched five separate tax reform working groups in an effort to advance the larger tax reform conversation. These working groups, each of them cochaired by a Republican and a Democrat, spent months examining various areas of the Tax Code, listening to stakeholders and learning the various pressure points and tradeoffs that come with any significant changes to our tax laws. This past summer, each of the five groups released a report detailing their findings, outlining reform opportunities, and acknowledging areas of likely disagreement.
I am not naive. I know that tax reform, whenever it happens, will be a long, difficult process. However, I believe the effort our committee members put in with these working groups will make a difference in how that process plays out and how the tax reform debate unfolds in the future.
While these are important steps for tax policy and tax reform, I am hoping that we can take an even larger step before we adjourn for the year. Earlier this week, leaders and tax writers in both the House and Senate, and from both parties, reached an agreement on legislation that would provide significant tax relief for millions of families and job creators around the country. We would do so mostly by unwinding the near-annual tradition of extending expired tax provisions.
Like the SGR and highway funding, the periodic tax extenders exercise has been a constant source of consternation around here, with a new cliff or crisis developing with any hint that expiring provisions would be not be extended. Sometimes we haven't extended them. And, of course, the whole ordeal has been further evidence that Congress is incapable of making tough choices in order to govern more effectively--at least in the minds of some.
The bill we unveiled this week--which the House passed earlier today with an overwhelming bipartisan vote--would change that dynamic by making many of the most important consequential tax provisions permanent, significantly relieving the ongoing extenders pressure, and allowing for a more sensible approach to tax policy. I spoke about this legislation at length on the floor yesterday.
Permanent tax policy, such as the kind we would achieve in our bill, means more certainty for taxpayers: individuals, families, and businesses. It means an improved revenue baseline for future tax reform efforts. More than anything, it means tax relief for hardworking taxpayers, to the tune of about $680 billion over 10 years.
We moved this effort forward on the Finance Committee in July when we [[Page S8767]] marked up the so-called extenders package, taking note of Senators' priorities and desires for long-term solutions and setting the stage for a real discussion about permanence. We took that momentum into the bicameral, bipartisan negotiations, and, ultimately, the bill reflects many of the preferences expressed in the committee.
Our bipartisan tax bill also contains a 2-year moratorium on the medical device tax under ObamaCare, something that has been very harmful to our medical device industry. We will look at that in 2 more years. For years now, we have seen support grow on both sides of the aisle for repealing this horrendously misguided tax, the medical device tax. It has been a top priority of mine since the day ObamaCare was signed into law. Other Members of the Finance Committee have led on this issue as well, and one way or another we are going to get it done. For now, we have a good first step: a bill crafted by both parties to suspend the tax for 2 years.
Two similar suspensions of ObamaCare taxes are included in the Omnibus appropriations bill, including a 2-year delay of the so-called Cadillac tax--which is just a massive middle-class tax hike disguised as a tax hit on the rich--and a 1-year moratorium on the health insurance tax.
In other words, on top of permanence in the Tax Code and relief for taxpayers across the country, we have bipartisan agreement to delay or suspend some of the more harmful elements of the Affordable Care Act. It is not a bad way to end the year, if you ask me. Of course, now we have to pass these bills. In a day or so, I think we will.
Health Care and Human Services. Let me move on to another important area of our committee's jurisdiction: heath care and human services. We have been very active in the Finance Committee in this space as well. Most recently, we worked with our colleagues on the Budget and HELP Committees to put together the reconciliation legislation repealing ObamaCare, which, after it passed in the Senate, paved a way toward finally putting a repeal bill on the President's desk. This is a key promise for congressional Republicans, one that we delivered on just a few short weeks ago.
In June, the Finance Committee held a markup where we considered and reported 12 separate health care bills representing a number of priorities for our committee Members on both sides of the dais. In keeping with the ongoing trend for 2015, all of these bills had overwhelming bipartisan support. So far, three of these bills have been signed into law.
In addition to these successes, the Finance Committee has spent 2015 engaged in some very important ongoing efforts that we believe will yield results in the near future. One of those efforts is to improve Medicare services for patients living with chronic illnesses. We held two hearings this year to examine this issue. We sought and received the advice and recommendations of various stakeholders and have released those recommendations to the public.
The committee's efforts on chronic care reflect a bipartisan desire to significantly improve the quality of care for Medicare patients at greater value and lower cost, without adding to the deficit. This work will go on into next year as we continue to review and analyze proposals with an aim toward developing bipartisan legislation.
Another one of our ongoing efforts has been to improve our Nation's foster care system. This year, we held two hearings related to this topic--one on group homes and another on prevention. Last month, utilizing what we learned in these hearings and with input from numerous stakeholders, Ranking Member Wyden and I reached an agreement on legislation that we called the Family First Act, which will increase the availability of prevention services to allow children at risk of going to foster care to remain safely at home and to reduce the reliance on group homes for children under the foster system.
As we all know, entering the foster care system can be particularly traumatic for a child. Over the years, we have seen ample evidence suggesting that placement in group homes significantly increases children's risks and potential for victimization. Our bill would give States greater flexibility, with the goal of keeping children with family members and ending the overreliance on group homes.
The Family First Act is supported by advocates and stakeholders across the country. We hope to mark up and report this bipartisan legislation early in the new year.
I also need to acknowledge our committee's oversight efforts. We have been anxiously engaged in numerous efforts on the Finance Committee to shine a light on government failures and overreach, as well as some potentially corrupt practices in the private sector. Most notably, this summer we concluded our investigation into the IRS's targeting of conservative groups. This was the only bipartisan investigation into this scandal, and our report, which was roughly 5,000 pages long, provided the most detail yet about what went on at the IRS and the extent of incompetence and bad decisionmaking that led to those unfortunate events. In addition, the report provided numerous recommendations for improvement at the IRS and in a number of ways set the stage for consideration of legislation to reform that agency's operations.
In addition to the IRS report, the committee has provided the most rigorous and extensive oversight of the implementation of the so-called Affordable Care Act, revealing many of its fundamental flaws and uncovering a number of failures and missteps on the part of this administration. This has included, for example, an exhaustive look at the ObamaCare co-ops, which in recent months had been failing at an alarming rate at the cost of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds. Needless to say, we haven't taken our eyes off of ObamaCare.
The committee has also been conducting ongoing investigations and oversight into the questionable contracting practices within the Department of Treasury. We have taken a good, hard look at the tax return preparation industry and practices that have led to stolen identification and tax refund fraud. In fact, our investigation has already led to new practices at the IRS and within the industry aimed at reducing instances of this terrible crime.
This is just a small snippet of our oversight efforts over the past year. The Finance Committee, given its massive jurisdiction, has always had a reputation for aggressive oversight, and we have continued that tradition, and then some, in 2015.
Finally, I just want to remark on one more of our ongoing efforts--I suppose you could put this one in the miscellaneous or multidiscipline file--with regard to the looming debt crisis in Puerto Rico. We have taken a close look at this issue in the committee, and we even held a hearing on it. Along with the leaders on the Judiciary and Energy and National Resources Committees, we have introduced legislation that-- using the limited information we currently have about Puerto Rico's dismal predicament--would improve the island's finances and economy by providing responsible tax relief and transitional assistance to the territory's government.
In addition, we worked to get a provision in the Omnibus appropriations bill that authorizes the Treasury Department to provide Puerto Rico with technical assistance, including help with budgeting, forecasting, cash management, fiscal planning, improving tax collections, and the like.
This is something we are going to have to continue to work on, and in the coming weeks and months the Finance Committee will continue to consider various proposals--including the bill we introduced last week--aimed at helping the people of Puerto Rico.
By the way, we challenged Puerto Rico to give us audited financials so that we could really work on this under the best possible terms. I intend to see that we help Puerto Rico, and hopefully we can do that. We have now provided them the means so that they should be able to carry on through next February, and hopefully during that time we will come up with some solutions that make sense not only to Puerto Rico but to our taxpayers and others.
As you can see, we have been very busy and effective in our corner of the Senate thanks to the diligent efforts of all of our Finance Committee members. I have had the privilege of serving [[Page S8768]] as chairman of this committee during such an eventful and productive time with so many committed and honorable Members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle.
I, of course, have to thank Ranking Member Wyden for his work on the committee. He has been a valuable partner, and at every step of the way, he has worked hard to ensure that all of the committee's efforts were bipartisan. He has played a huge leadership role in almost all of the successes I have mentioned here today.
I also wish to thank the other members of our committee. If you look down the Finance Committee roster, you will see--from top to bottom-- every member has a reputation for working hard and achieving results. On the Republican side, we have Senators Grassley, Crapo, Roberts, Enzi, Cornyn, Thune, Burr, Isakson, Portman, Toomey, Coats, Heller, and Scott. They are good people who are working in the best interest of this country. For the Democrats, we have Senators Schumer, Stabenow, Cantwell, Nelson, Menendez, Carper, Cardin, Brown, Bennet, Casey, and Warner. And, of course, we have Senator Wyden. And you can also include me in there. Every one of these members has played a key role in our success on the Finance Committee, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity to work with them all.
I don't want this to sound like a farewell speech. I don't want anybody to think that with all this gushing and all these thank-yous, we are nearing the end of anything. Last time I checked, I will still be the chairman of the Finance Committee in 2016 and we are still going to have this great group of Senators serving on the committee. Most significantly, our Nation will still be facing a number of important challenges in the coming year. We can't and we won't be sitting on our laurels in 2016.
While I am pleased to have this opportunity today to take a short trip down memory lane, everyone both on and off the Finance Committee should be prepared: We are just getting started.
I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Indiana.