Floor Actionby Senator Michael B. Enzi
Posted on 2013-12-15
ENZI. Mr. President, we are here today dealing with a non-
essential distraction from the issues our country should be dealing
with. None of these nominees need to be confirmed right now. Rather, we
should be dealing with the problems we see each day. I talked about two
of the biggest problems we face last Wednesday: Obamacare and our debt
and deficit. I want to expand on those matters and discuss some of the
other things we should be addressing.
We are here today dealing with a non-essential distraction from the mounting Obamacare problems. None of these nominees need to be confirmed right now. Rather, we should be dealing with the problems we see each day of how the health care law will fail to live up to the promises made by the administration. We must repeal this law, because as these reports demonstrate, it is bad for consumers and bad for small businesses. The outcry of millions of people who lost health care plans they were told they could keep forced President Obama to admit that he broke his promise. He then announced a new initiative that he said would really allow people to keep their existing health insurance plans this time--for a short time.
This isn't true either because for one thing he doesn't have the power under the Constitution to rewrite or ignore laws passed by Congress. It would also mean he would have to be willing to ignore a 2010 administration regulation that has prevented insurers from continuing to offer insurance for millions of individuals and small businesses. That's right, at the same time the President was promising out of one side of his mouth that people could keep their health insurance, the other side was approving rules that would make that impossible.
And everyone who was in the Senate at the time knew it. It was right there in the Federal Register and written by the President's own administration. Congress knew and the administration knew the President was not telling the truth, but kept making the promise anyway.
When one party has 60 votes in the Senate, the minority party is very limited in what it can do. There are few exceptions to the majority leader's control. He decides what the Senate can debate and vote on. Through parliamentary manipulation he can also block amendments.
One sure way to inject something not approved by the majority leader is to find an offensive regulation and petition the Senate for a debate and a simple majority vote. I did that in 2010. One catch is that has to be acted upon within 60 days of the regulation's publication in the Federal Register. Miss that date and it can't be brought up again. Lose the vote and the opportunity is also gone. That's an opportunity Democrats in the Senate squandered. Every single one voted to defeat my resolution and many ridiculed the effort. Over the next few months their constituents are going to make them answer for this.
I have fought against the new health care law for the past 4 years because I knew that there was no way the President could keep all of the promises he was making about how the law would affect average Americans. As an accountant and former small business owner, I understood that you cannot mandate that everyone must purchase gold- plated health insurance plans without increasing costs and causing millions of people to lose their existing insurance plans.
But wait. There is more. If you can't keep the health plans that you like, then you are going to have a tougher time keeping the doctors and hospitals you like. Get ready for the next wave of disappointment and frustration when expectations created by this President and his PR machine come crashing up against the harsh reality of the real world. Obamacare casualties will continue to grow even as this President launches media blitz after media blitz in attempt to convince people that higher premiums, worse coverage and a bigger debt for this country is a good thing.
During the health care debate, the President and his Congressional allies also promised that the new health care [[Page S8818]] law would reduce health insurance premiums for American families. I and my colleagues argued that rather than saving money, the new law would instead drive up the costs of insurance for millions of families.
Disastrous planning and implementation of the healthcare.gov website have made it difficult for Americans to learn just how much this partisan law has driven up costs. People are starting to learn how much their premiums are increasing, and the more they do the more people will not appreciate how the President's promise failed to reflect the reality of the new health care law.
The President and his allies also promised that the new law would improve the economy and protect Medicare beneficiaries. We now know that small businesses across the country are not hiring new workers because of the impact the health care law will have on their bottom lines. In addition, millions of Medicare beneficiaries face reductions in their existing benefits as a result of the $500 billion that was taken from Medicare to fund the new law.
It is not quite 2014 yet and most of the 2,700 pages of the new law haven't gone into effect. But each day it seems there is a new breaking story about what a debacle this health care law is turning out to be.
I received a letter from Jessica in Laramie who explains how this health care law is negatively affecting her. Jessica's ``catastrophic'' health care plan as a single adult, according to healthcare.gov, is $297 per month. This is with the premium support from the Federal Government. I repeat, this is with the subsidy. The University of Wyoming health insurance rate for a semester is $452. That's over the course of 4 months. The university's rate is nothing new. It has been available to students long before the Democrats forced their health care disaster through Congress. Today, Jessica's premiums would cost more than any of her medical bills to date. Jessica recently fractured her foot, a very common injury, and this cost her less than $300 in medical bills. Jessica's mother also works for the State government, and has a health care through the state. However, even though she is under the age of 26, Jessica is not allowed to join her mother's insurance plan. This is yet another example of a broken promise from the Obama administration. The President's flawed health care bill is a raw deal for our students, and for our Nation. Jessica said, ``It feels like the government is punishing everyone for the few people who have health bills worth more than a house. It isn't remotely fair.'' Karen from Cody contacted me because her construction company had to drop their Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance plan. Why is this? The President's flawed health care plan mandates health care coverage for full time employees that work more than 90 days for the company. The company was already providing health care plans for their employees, and now these folks can't keep their health care plan they liked. Their employees are mostly young Americans and are trying to make their budgets work. They couldn't afford to sign up for health care plans that would reduce their pay. As a result, all of her employees will have to seek individual policies in 2014. Karen also said there is a lack of information on insurance plans. She doesn't know what doctors and medical facilities will be included or even available in any health insurance plan next year. Karen is upset. I am upset, too.
It is time for Congress to heed the calls of the majority of Americans and repeal this partisan law, but that won't happen unless ordinary Americans continue to speak out and demand those who brought them Obamacare keep their promises--all of them.
I also want to talk about the recently announced Murray/Ryan budget legislation. I had hoped we would have an open process to finally come up with a solution to our Nation's spending problems, but that didn't happen. Instead, we have another backroom deal put together by two members that is bad for our country. It increases spending and shows that one thing some Democrats and Republicans can agree on is putting off hard decisions.
This plan spends more than current law. It charges people and States more for things and uses the money to increase spending in non-related areas. Spending cuts are scheduled for outlying years and the so-called ``savings'' are used up right away. It isn't real.
This bill has a lot of problems. It again raises rates for premiums that private companies pay the Federal Government to guarantee their pension benefits. Raising premiums for all companies participating in PBGC is effectively a tax increase. Moreover, this money isn't going to shore up PBGC. The ``savings'' that these rate increases generate will be spent on other Federal discretionary programs. And employers are still in the process of implementing a $9 billion rate increase to pay for highways per last year's transit bill. To put it simply, over 2 years the flat-rate premium will have increased 40 percent and over 3 years, the variable-rate premium will have increased over 100 percent. This is a huge tax that will cause companies to end their voluntary pension and retirement plans. These pensions are completely voluntary and if the cost to keep them goes up, companies may have to re- evaluate. Workers and their families will be forced to find other ways to save for retirement due to this increased ``tax'' on companies.
Under this budget deal, they are also again telling Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and other States that allow for the production of minerals on their lands that the Federal Government deserves more than half of the revenues. Under Federal law, States are entitled to half of the royalties collected by the Federal Government for energy production on their lands. To distribute the State share, the law intends for the Minerals Management Service to divide the amount of mineral royalties collected by two, write a check for that amount, and mail it to the States. But an even split is not enough under the new budget bill. In an attempt to satisfy an insatiable appetite for spending, the budget bill's plan is to take more money away from our States, about $40 million every year. This is money that our State governments use for roads, health care, education for our children, and more efficient and environmentally-friendly development of our energy resources. It is money that finds its way directly to the people, not down some bureaucratic black hole. A disproportionate share of this funding--about $20 million--comes from my home State of Wyoming, which supplies a disproportionate share of energy to our country. Yet the Federal Government still wants more. Unlike bureaucrats, we answer to our constituents. Mine are telling me they don't want the Federal Government to take any more of our State's money. I am sure yours will tell you the same thing, either now or later.
Worst of all, the so-called budget conference committee for all practical purposes did not exist. The agreement was the sole product of one House member and one Senate member. I sat on the conference committee and I can tell you that I learned the particulars of the deal at the same time as the public. We were not part of the process or negotiations. This is a symptom of the abandonment of the committee process. Instead of Representatives and Senators offering constructive amendments and debating spending bills in public, a couple people and their staff sit in a room and then present a take-it-or-leave-it deal right before a holiday or manufactured crisis deadline.
This is not the way to operate. We have to start legislating and stop deal-making. I had hoped we could make a small move in that direction with this conference committee because I have several ideas for how to keep us out of the situation we were just in--the government shutdown and whether and to what extent to raise the debt limit--and make reasonable, but real, progress on our deficits and debt. I have a penny plan, a proposal on biennial budgeting, some relevant amendments for spending bills, the End Government Shutdowns legislation, forced prioritization for spending cuts, and tax reform.
My penny plan cuts overall spending by 1 percent for 2 years and balances the budget so that we don't have to raise the debt ceiling. We have to stop spending more than we take in and find a way to start paying down the $17 trillion--and growing--debt. The penny plan doesn't mandate any specific cuts. Congress would have the authority to make targeted cuts and focus on the [[Page S8819]] worst first, but would be required to meet the 1 percent overall cut. Everything would be on the table. And I would argue that we should focus on identifying and eliminating all of the wasteful spending that occurs in Washington before we look to other important programs and services. Let's not make the cuts hurt. Let's be smart about the spending cuts and prioritize how we spend taxpayers' dollars.
My biennial appropriations bill would allow for each of the appropriation bills to be taken up over a 2-year period, with the more controversial bills taken up in a non-election year and the less controversial bills taken up in an election year. The defense appropriations bill would be taken up each year. This would allow us to get into the spending details more and eliminate duplication and waste.
The End Government Shutdowns Act that I've cosponsored would help us move away from the crisis governing and deal making that has become a mainstay when it comes to funding the Federal Government. It would automatically continue funding for programs, but would use the mechanism from my penny plan to reduce spending across the board by one percent.
We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. We shouldn't raise taxes in order for Washington to spend more. We cannot spend our way to prosperity. Identifying a process forward for tax reform is where part of our efforts on the budget conference should be focused. If done correctly, tax reform will help to generate additional revenue through economic growth to reduce the deficits and pay down the debt. I am ready to make that happen.
We need to prioritize spending cuts--find the spending cuts that will do the least harm and start there. It worked here in Wyoming, and it can work in Washington. Raising taxes to offset more spending is not the path forward. Reigning in out-of-control spending is.
I sit up nights worrying about our Nation's debt and how it will affect Wyoming children, my children and grandchildren. This was a chance to apply reasonable constraints to impossibly high future spending, but instead we got more spending and no plan to solve the problem.
Congress should have been working on Federal spending bills and a responsible budget for months. Instead, the Senate majority put off this work. If the Senate majority would have allowed the 12 appropriations bills to move through the committee process to floor debate in a timely manner, with input and amendments from Senators on both sides, there would have been no need for a continuing resolution and no government shutdown. Deal making instead of legislating is not an appropriate way to run the country.
And even now we are not working on issues we should be working on. Instead, the Senate majority broke the rules the change the rules, and we are here processing nominations instead of dealing with the problems of Obamacare and reining in our debt and spending problems.
One of the other things we should be working on is a Defense authorization bill, but once again the Senate has been prohibited from doing its job. The Senate majority leader blocked all but two amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act from consideration, and now we will be asked to vote on a package put together in a back room by a few Members. That is not right. If you want to know what is wrong with the Senate and why people of all political persuasions are upset with Congress, that is a big part of the answer right there.
This is a very important bill for our country and there are a lot if important issues that we need to discuss. We haven't considered issues relating to our nuclear deterrent, privacy concerns relating to the NSA, how to address sexual assault in the military, or a number of other important issues. In the past, we have spent multiple weeks on the defense bill and considered dozens of amendments. That's what we should be doing this year too. Our national security needs to be fully debated by the entire Senate.
One of those important issues that we are skipping over is our nuclear deterrent on which I offered several amendments. I have the honor of representing the city of Cheyenne, WY which is the home of F.E. Warren Air Force Base and the 90th ICBM Missile Wing. These are top notch men and women who work together to maintain the world's most powerful military force.
Unfortunately, there are those in this administration who take the contributions of our military for granted. They don't have the sense of history that is needed to appreciate why these weapons were designed and put into operation in the first place. They don't see how much they are still needed to ensure our future. They don't fully appreciate the key role they have played in the past. They seem to think that nuclear weapons are part of a bygone era--a relic of the past--that has not been needed since the Cold War ended.
The President is playing a dangerous game with our nation's national security. In June he announced that the administration is reducing U.S. strategic warheads to as few as 1,000. This is 550 below the requirements under New START. This comes at a time that both Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals at a frenetic pace. Even more troubling, however, are the reports that the administration may seek to avoid Congress and undertake further nuclear reductions outside of the formal treaty process.
The administration's views on our nuclear deterrent should come as no surprise to us or anyone who has watched the development of these ideas since they were first offered for consideration. We've seen President Obama promise to do all that he can to reduce our nuclear arsenal--step by step. First, he rammed the New START Treaty through the Senate by promising commitments that he ultimately did not keep. One of those was the promise to modernize our nuclear force, which we're still waiting on.
I have serious concerns about this policy position, because I believe maintaining a strong nuclear force, which includes ICBMs, is a critical part of protecting our country, which is why I voted against New START. ICBMs are not only cost-effective and reliable, they are a visual reminder that America stands ready to protect itself and its allies from any who would do us harm. By preserving our ICBM force, states like Wyoming play an important role in keeping America strong and free.
Important issues like these are why we need to allow Senators to do their job--offer amendments, debate them, and take votes. This is the least we can do for our national security and the men and women who lay their lives on the line every day to protect our freedoms.
We should also be addressing the fact that the coal industry is under regulatory attack in Washington. Since being sworn into office, President Obama's rule-making machine has released rule-after-rule designed to make it more expensive to use coal.
Instead of encouraging production, the administration always seems to be busy trying to do everything it can to restrict production. When their policies cause a drop in supplies and prices go up they're mystified when they see that people are growing more and more concerned about their energy bills.
Instead of running from coal, we should invest in its abundance, in its power and its potential. Instead of running from coal, America needs to run on coal. Coal supplies nearly half the Nation with low cost, reliable energy. Because we generate 87 percent of our electricity from coal, Wyoming's electricity rates are among the lowest in the Nation. The coal industry also provided--directly and indirectly--over 700,000 good paying jobs in 2010. It is no wonder it is so essential to the U.S. economy.
Fortunately, we have coal champions in the House and Senate who fully realize that we have to work together to keep our coal industry active, vital and productive for the people they employ, the families in America who rely on inexpensive energy and our Nation's economy.
I hope more of my Senate colleagues will join me in fighting back against President Obama's war on coal. Working together we can take a stand against this administration's goal of higher electricity costs.
We should be working to address improper payments and duplication. These are a huge leak in our national finances. They are avoidable wastes of [[Page S8820]] taxpayer dollars. They are obstacles to better and more efficient operations. Ending waste and duplication like this not only helps get our fiscal house back in order, but can help restore some confidence in the ability of the government to operate effectively.
The Government Accountability Office has reported that 31 areas of the Federal Government are in need of reform to eliminate duplicative and unnecessary programs. Consolidating programs and agency functions that overlap would save 95 billion; 2013 is the third year the GAO has been producing its report on duplication. Unfortunately, Congress and the administration have only address a fifth of the recommendations that have been made to fix overlap and duplication.
In fiscal year 2012, there were nearly $100 billion in improper payments. These are payments that shouldn't even be going out the door, to people who are no longer eligible for benefits or overpayments of benefits or, in the worst cases, payments to people who are deceased. To put the overpayments in perspective, the annual spending reductions required under sequestration are $85 billion. That's almost 15 billion less than the improper payments going out the door.
We should be working on the problems that have arisen as a result of Dodd-Frank. In 2010, I voted against the Dodd-Frank act because I had serious concerns about the excessive regulations it created and the unintended consequences it would have for folks who had nothing to do with the financial crisis.
The law requires a host of new regulations for banks and non-banking entities no matter what size they are. The big banks that have more funds and man power to handle the new regulations are fine; it's the small banks in our communities that don't have the resources to keep up with all the extra paperwork.
The 300 plus new regulations from the act--only about 40 percent of the total expected--are already creating regulatory uncertainty as they are written and implemented. We are now seeing some of the consequences I spoke about in 2010. The problems are numerous and I am glad that some of my colleagues are starting to listen and help look for solutions.
One of my constituents, Wesley from Jackson, WY, wrote to me with a great example of some of the unintended consequences of this law and its effect on small business. Here's what he had to say: ``I am writing to you as member of the Wyoming small business community to report on the implementation of an add-on to the Dodd-Frank act. Specifically section 1502, conflict minerals. This legislation is imposing a very severe burden especially on small businesses in the tech sector. I and others struggling to conform to the new requirements have found that they are usually impossible to meet in either the spirit or the letter of the law. I will explain. Section 1502 requires as I understand that publicly traded American companies must certify that their products do not contain conflict minerals--minerals obtained in the DRC--a noble goal indeed. The basic problem is that in practice, this certification is nearly impossible to meet. We are a small private company and are not explicitly subject to the regulation. However we have received numerous requests for these certifications from our (publicly traded) clients, which means that for them to meet the regulation, we must do so as well, and on down the line. Attempting to fulfill these requirements in order to keep our business will occupy 100s of man hours this year that we don't have. This chain of requirements goes all the way to the raw material suppliers, where the ore originates. This is perhaps hundreds of levels in the chain for us. For the vast majority of materials we would want to purchase, our suppliers (of finished parts) cannot provide the certification, which means that we cannot provide it to our clients, which means that they will not buy from us. It is not possible for any honest firm to actually meet the requirements, because it is not possible to buy certified parts in many cases. For example we purchase resistors, which are purchased from large wholesalers and may come from many different vendors. Some of these vendors are overseas, and will not provide the certification even though the products are probably conflict-free. This means that the wholesaler must either lie to certify his product to us, or provide a certification that says ``we don't know the status of our parts but are looking into it''. We must then do the same to our clients, and on up the chain. At no point in this process is it possible for an honest citizen to actually know the conflict status of their materials. We have received boilerplate ``we don't know'' certificates from nearly every vendor we have asked for certification, and this is happening all across the industry. No one can provide a real certificate: if anyone along the supply chain is foreign-owned, the chain of certification usually ends there. Nearly everything we would want to use in our products has some components that are foreign, and not certifiable. I would suggest that the burden of proof should be confined to companies that purchase the raw materials from smelters. At this level of the supply chain it would be possible to actually verify one's sources, but for thousands of small to large businesses across the nation, this is simply a severe paperwork burden which does not actually serve to meet the intended goal. Please let us get back to our work.'' First let me say I love representing folks in Wyoming. They understand the issues and offer great common sense solutions. What Wesley pointed out in his letter is what I talked about when we debated this bill--the unintended consequences associated with a massive bill like this one that the majority crams through without consideration in the committee of jurisdiction will be many and they will be complex. It is unfortunate that businesses like Wesley's are being stymied by regulations while trying to maintain honest business practices. As a former small business owner, I have been an advocate for small business and have worked to scale back the inundation of federal regulations on businesses large and small.
Dodd-Frank also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has no congressional oversight and is funded not through the congressional appropriations process but by the FED. I have serious concerns about this agency and the lack of oversight and transparency.
The Bureau, as allowed by the Dodd-Frank act, could spend up to $600 million every year, but is not subject to the congressional appropriations process, the same congressional appropriations process that approves the budgets of other agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. Instead, the agency is funded through revenues from the Federal Reserve, funds that are supposed to be remitted to the Treasury for deficit reduction. The CFPBs cut is 10 percent for fiscal year 2011, 11 percent for fiscal year 2012, and will be 12 percent for fiscal year 2013 and beyond. This means 12 percent of the combined earnings of the Federal Reserve System, which was $4.98 billion in 2009. At that time, 10 percent would be just under $500 million.
We are giving all this money to an agency to look into, and track, the financial decisions of American consumers. That's right. News reports in April 2013 indicated the CFPB was collecting information on as many as 10 million Americans and compiling sophisticated, layered consumer profiles including credit card, overdraft, mortgage and student loan information on individuals. Most recently, reports indicate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is seeking to monitor four out of every five U.S. credit card transactions this year--up to 42 billion transactions. The agency also has the goal of monitoring up to 95 percent of all mortgage transactions.
When the Dodd-Frank act was under consideration in the Senate, I filed an amendment to require the CFPB to obtain the written consent of the consumer before they could collect any financial data. My amendment was not allowed to come up for a vote. I most recently filed a similar amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, NDAA, to address this issue. Right now consumers have no say; the CFPB can and will collect their financial data with no input from consumers at all. I have long believed in the importance of financial literacy and consumer protections, but I can't condone the CFPB putting together a ``Google Earth'' of the financial transactions of American citizens.
[[Page S8821]] Any conversation I have with the banking community in my home State of Wyoming invariably turns to concerns over the regulatory burden being passed down to them by the CFPB. Just last month a longtime member of the banking community in Wyoming relayed that a small community bank in Lusk, WY--population around 1,550--has discontinued residential real estate lending because they don't have the man power to comply with new regulations from the CFPB.
The bad actors this agency is supposed to weed out is hitting the folks who provide needed services in our country's smallest communities with their one-size-fits-all regulations and requirements. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
Mr. President, these are not the only issues we need to address, but they are some of the most important. And the United States would be better served if we were working on these issues than voting on non- essential nominations.