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Sheldon W.
Democrat RI

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  • Nomination of Antony Blinken to Be Deputy Secretary of State

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

    Posted on 2014-12-16

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    WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Climate Change Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, we are winding down the end of this year and, indeed, the end of this Congress, and I am here today to give the last ``Time to Wake Up'' speech in this Congress. I am particularly pleased to be delivering it while my friend from West Virginia is presiding. He actually took the trouble to come to Rhode Island and hear firsthand about what is happening in my State on these issues.

    The year that is ending now ushered in some mighty dubious milestones. January through November 2014--the year so far--were the hottest first 11 months of any year recorded. Unless something dramatic changes in December, 2014 is on track to be the hottest year since we began keeping records back in 1880. That would mean that 14 of the warmest 15 years on record were in this century. According to the World Meteorological Organization's secretary general, ``There is no standstill in global warming.'' This chart shows the decades-long rise in the ocean's heat content from the surface down to a depth of 2,000 meters--a little over 1 mile. Look at 2005 to 2014, the red part. NASA estimates that the amount of energy needed to [[Page S6889]] account for that much warming in that much ocean is equivalent to four magnitude-6.0 earthquakes occurring every second for those 9 years. Four 6.0 earthquakes every second for 9 years would create the kind of energy necessary to warm that much. Well, obviously it wasn't earthquakes that did it. We would have known about that. And the first law of thermodynamics--conservation of energy--decrees that all that heat in the ocean had to come from somewhere. The near certain source of that heat is increased greenhouse gases, mostly carbon pollution trapping heat from the Sun.

    Since the rise of fossil fuel energy, we have been on a carbon binge. As long as humans have been on the Earth, we have existed safely in a range of about 170 to about 300 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This year the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, measured at the famous Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, exceeded 400 parts per million for more than 3 months. Archeologists estimate that our human species has been around on this planet for about 200,000 years. The Earth last saw such high levels of carbon as 400 parts per million for that long a period more than 800,000 years ago.

    Oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat that the carbon has trapped. As seawater warms--we all know by the law of thermal expansion--it expands, and as a result sea levels rise. Satellite measurements show that in this period, global average sea level rose about an inch. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory attributes about one-third of global mean sea level rise to the warming of the upper ocean. Combine that with the melting of glaciers on land, and you can see that climate change is significantly increasing sea level worldwide. In my home State I see this. And the Presiding Officer was there. The Newport tide gauge records nearly 10 inches more water than it did in the 1930s.

    Carbon pollution in the atmosphere also dissolves in the ocean. It doesn't just warm it up, it dissolves in it. When it dissolves in it, it makes it more acidic. Indeed, the extra carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the oceans has caused a nearly 30 percent increase in the acidity of the upper ocean, which means a lot for shellfish, such as mussels and clams and oysters, that make their shells from calcium carbonate because calcium carbonate dissolves in acidified seawater.

    In July 2014 a Maine oyster farmer--a guy named Bill Mook--came to the Environment and Public Works Committee and described for us the difficulty his oyster crop--his oyster spat, they call it--had maturing. Here is what he said: Through observation, trial, and error, we reached the same conclusion made by researchers using controlled, replicated experimentation. Acidification is not a future problem. It is a problem now, and it will only get worse.

    He said it is a problem now and it will only get worse.

    Measurements of the atmosphere and ocean tell us that climate change is real. We already see the harm connected with it in storm-damaged homes, flooded cities, drought-stricken farms, and raging wildfires, in fish disappearing from warming, acidifying waters, in shifting habitats and migrating contagions. Climate change loads the dice for these events, which carry real costs to homeowners, business owners, and taxpayers. A key cause is undeniably carbon pollution.

    Some of my Republican colleagues continue to deny that climate change is even happening or at best they will stand mute in the face of the changes we see, in the face of so much evidence. ``I am not a scientist'' is all we get from some. Well, if they are not scientists, maybe they should ask one. Ask NOAA. Ask NASA. Ask our National Academies. If a Senator doesn't know what they are talking about, they should study up. That is our job. If they can't be bothered to ask a scientist, then look at what the military is saying about climate change or what the business community is saying.

    The military's 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, for example, offers a straightforward assessment of the threat climate change poses to national and international security. Even in Pentagon bureaucratese, the assessment is pretty harsh: Climate change poses [a] significant challenge for the United States and the world at large.

    Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world.

    The Pentagon also released a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap this year, detailing the military's plans for a changed climate. The report states in no uncertain terms: Climate change will affect the Department of Defense's ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security.

    That would seem to me to be a phrase worth listening to.

    The business and financial community also see climate risk. Former Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson teamed up with former New York City business tycoon and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, and others, to put together an evidence-based assessment of the risks posed by climate change to the U.S. economy. Their report found that between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing American coastal property will likely be below sea level by midcentury. That pricetag could top $500 billion by the end of the century.

    They also found extreme heat could reduce labor productivity of outdoor workers by as much as 3 percent by the end of the century.

    They found that shifting agricultural patterns could cause States in the Southeast, the lower Great Plains, and Midwest to see a 50- to 70- percent loss in average annual crop yields. It is a risk we would be reckless to ignore.

    One bright light of 2014 has been the proposed limits on carbon emissions from existing coal plants announced this year by the Obama administration. The new standard will not only reduce emissions, it will change the way the polluters think. Now that it is no longer going to be free to pollute, I suspect some new thinking by polluters will be followed in short order with some new thinking on the other side of the aisle here in the Senate.

    Another bright light of 2014 was the Obama administration's carbon- reduction agreement with China, the world's largest carbon polluter now, followed by news this weekend from Lima that every nation in the world is expected to put forward a plan to rein in its carbon pollution.

    The public is with us on this, too. A recent poll released by the insurance firm Munich Re showed that 83 percent of Americans believe the climate is changing.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator's time has expired.

    Mr. WHITEHOUSE. I ask unanimous consent for 1 additional minute to conclude the page in front of me.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Seven Americans in ten say we should use more solar and wind power to battle climate change. An AP poll released this week said that half of Republicans favor regulations on carbon dioxide emissions.

    In 2014, the physical evidence of climate change continued to mount. Our military, our business leaders, our President, and the American people all affirmed their commitment to fending off the worst effects of carbon pollution. So in 2015, Congress will need to step up to the plate.

    I have introduced carbon fee legislation that would provide a practical tool for getting this done. By charging a fee on carbon pollution, we can correct the market failure that lets polluters unload the costs of their pollution on the rest of us, and compete unfairly in energy markets. We can use those proceeds to reduce other taxes. Most important, we can significantly reduce harmful carbon pollution. We just need to wake up. Maybe 2015 will be the year.

    I thank the Senator from Oklahoma for his courtesy, and I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Oklahoma.

    Social Security Disability Program and Fraud Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I hope not to use all our remaining time. But I come to the floor to talk about an issue that should be very important to every American.

    In less than 20 months, the Social Security Disability system will be bankrupt--out of money. That may sound [[Page S6890]] like just a scare tactic, but that is what the trust fund trustees say. And we have known this for some time.

    My colleague Carl Levin, as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and myself as ranking, have spent a great deal of time oversighting Social Security disability. We issued a report that had some pretty remarkable findings in it. I thought I would go through some of those findings today, because I have two major concerns.

    One is that those people with true disabilities are going to see in 18 months a 20-percent cut in what they get paid each month, and they are barely surviving on the disability payments we give them today.

    The second thing is the failure of the Justice Department, when handed an absolutely, totally perfect case to prosecute criminals taking advantage not only of people with disabilities but other people of this country.

    Social Security disability insurance is an important safety net for a large number of people--about 11 million--in this country. In the past 5 years, we have gone from 11 million to 14.1 million applications for disability--some of that is associated with our recession, but some with true injury.

    We started out very meticulously as we looked at this, and I wish to applaud some of the employees of the Social Security Administration because they were the ones who highlighted to me--people who worked in the Oklahoma City Social Security office--the lousy quality of what was happening as these were being processed.

    So what we did is we went to the Social Security Administration and we asked them to randomly select 300 case files--100 each--from 3 different geographical locations throughout the country. That included Oklahoma County, in my home State.

    What we looked at was a large random number of cases, most of them drawn from decisions made by the Social Security Administration's 1,500 administrative law judges.

    What we found, using Social Security's own criteria, was that 25 percent of the cases were decided absolutely erroneously, according to their own rules and their own guidelines.

    But that didn't surprise the Social Security Administration, because they had been looking at it all along and they knew that, according to their records, 23 to 24 percent of all the cases had been being decided erroneously.

    Our second step was to look where we saw this abuse at the highest, and that was in the Huntington, WV, Social Security Disability Hearing Office. So Senator Levin and I set our investigators about doing a total and comprehensive investigation of that office.

    The problems we found there were similar to the problems we found in our prior investigation in these three other offices, except much worse. The Huntington office got our attention in part because it processed more disability cases than almost every other Social Security office in the Nation--much of that to just one attorney by the name of Eric Christopher Conn.

    Despite practicing in a town of only 500 people, Mr. Conn had become the third highest paid disability attorney in the entire United States. He helped thousands of people get on to the disability program, and in 2010 he received $4 million in payments from the Social Security disability program. The only other attorneys receiving more from SSA were Charles Binder of Binder and Binder--who, I noticed, filed bankruptcy this week--who received $22 million; and Thomas Nash of Chicago who received $6.3 million.

    When we looked more closely at Mr. Conn's operations, what we found were reasons for serious concern. While some of what Mr. Conn did involved outright fraud--which we have documented and proven--at times he was simply able to exploit loopholes in Social Security's system. Both of those things should be a concern to Congress.

    To ensure the cases were approved and his attorney fees kept flowing, Mr. Conn colluded with an ALJ in the Huntington office by the name of David B. Daughtery. The two men worked together to award hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in fraudulent disability claims. This is an administrative law judge.

    The plan involved several calculated steps. First, Judge Daugherty needed to ensure that Mr. Conn's cases were assigned to him. Normally, agency rules require cases to be assigned to the ALJs on a rotational basis, with the oldest case being assigned to a hearing date first. This way, no one administrative law judge receives too many of one attorney's cases.

    Judge Daugherty, however, would at times intercept Mr. Conn's cases and assign them to himself. If cases would slip past him and get assigned to another judge, Judge Daugherty would inappropriately go into the computer system and move the case to his jurisdiction.

    The next step in the plan involved Judge Daugherty calling Mr. Conn's office every month to let them know what kind of additional evidence he needed for each client to be able to award disability benefits. Judge Daugherty started the monthly call by relaying the name and Social Security number of each person he was ready to approve. He would then say whether the new piece of evidence should relate to a mental or a physical medical impairment. The list of claimants would then be typed up by employees in Mr. Conn's law firm. Mr. Conn's staff referred to these monthly lists as the DB lists--the David B. Daugherty list.

    We reviewed these DB lists, every one of them, from June 2006 through July 2010. Each list contained as many as 52 names each month. In total, the DB lists from that time period contained the names of 1,823 claimants who were all approved for disability benefits.

    After Judge Daugherty told Mr. Conn the kind of medical evidence he needed, the next step shifted to Mr. Conn to ensure a doctor provided that evidence. Fortunately for Mr. Conn, he had a crew of doctors in his pocket, ready to provide what he needed.

    To find doctors willing to go along with him, Mr. Conn searched the Internet for ones with checkered pasts. The doctors Mr. Conn used often had histories of malpractice and some had medical license revocations in multiple States. In fact, Mr. Conn's ``go-to'' doctor was the subject of numerous malpractice lawsuits and even had his medical license revoked and suspended in several States. Mr. Conn scheduled the DB list of claimants to be seen by his doctors. The doctors spent as little as 15 minutes evaluating each claimant and sometimes saw 35 to 40 claimants a day. Mr. Conn paid the doctors that he knew $500 for each claimant they saw.

    The doctors would complete a form used by the agency to determine a claimant's residual functional capacity to work in any job available in the national economy. While the evidentiary forms provided by the doctors were supposed to be specifically tailored to the physical or mental impairments of each client, all of Mr. Conn's forms were the same. They were prefilled out. He had 15 versions of the physical form and 5 versions of the mental form that were rotated among the clients. As a matter of fact, a committee determined that 97 of Mr. Conn's claimants approved by Judge Daugherty had exactly the same residual functional capacity--a statistical impossibility. It could not happen.

    Mr. Conn would then submit the RFC forms--the residual functional capacity forms--with a brief description of the claimant to Judge Daugherty. Judge Daugherty would then approve the claim for benefits in an abbreviated decision, determining the evidence presented by Mr. Conn outweighed all the other evidence in the claimant's medical file. At times, the medical evidence Judge Daugherty ignored could be thousands of pages long.

    The plan made Mr. Conn millions. In 2010 SSI paid Mr. Conn almost $4 million in attorney fees, making him the third highest-paid attorney in the country. In turn, he paid out almost $2 million to the doctors who were giving the unscrupulous, ill-advised, and absolutely erroneous premanaged outcomes. Judge Daugherty, mysteriously, under our subpoenas had received some $100,000 in unexplained cash deposits into his bank accounts during this time. But Judge Daugherty wasn't approving just Mr. Conn's cases. In the last 5 years of working for the agency, Judge Daugherty awarded more than $2.5 billion in disability benefits. During that period, he approved more cases then any other ALJ in the entire United States.

    There was another judge, Chief Judge Charlie P. Andrus, who played a major role in approving the fraudulent [[Page S6891]] claims. He allowed Judge Daugherty to decide a high number of claims. He and Judge Andrus enjoyed accolades and national recognition. The Huntington office rose to have the second fastest processing time in the entire country. No wonder--they didn't actually process claims. It was a slam dunk. You get under Judge Andrus, you get under Judge Daugherty, you get Eric Conn, and you get approved--no matter whether it is true or not. Mr. Andrus, as the acting superior judge, did nothing to stop Mr. Conn and Judge Daugherty. He actually colluded with Mr. Conn to target a whistleblower from his own office.

    The second thing I would note about Judge Andrus was he was not truthful in his testimony before the committee under oath, and we have evidence of his lying to the committee under oath.

    When all of this was exposed, the agency put Judge Andrus on paid administrative leave and filed a claim with the Merit Systems Protection Board. That was in January of 2013.

    In 2014 Mr. Andrus voluntarily retired according to a decision from the Merit Systems Protection Board. The complaint the agency filed against Mr. Andrus charged him with conduct unbecoming an ALJ; engaging in an apparent conflict of interest; lack of candor; and unauthorized disclosures.

    Despite these charges, as part of the settlement agreement, the agency agreed to refrain from pursuing any disciplinary action against Andrus and to provide a neutral reference to prospective future employers. Andrus retired with his pension. So a crook retires with their pension. So no disciplinary action is taken against Charlie Andrus, even after he turned a blind eye for years and allowed Judge Daugherty to award billions of dollars in disability benefits, admitted he conspired to retaliate against an employee, and was untruthful to Congress under oath. Nor has the Department of Justice taken any action against Mr. Conn or Judge Daugherty. In fact, Mr. Conn continues to represent disability claimants before the Social Security Administration--these two men who actively committed fraud on one of the most important safety net programs our government runs.

    We should not let the actions of these individuals go unpunished. But that is what is happening. I recently had a visit with the IG from the Social Security Administration, Mr. Patrick O'Carroll. At this point the U.S. attorneys in West Virginia and Kentucky had both recused themselves and declined to prosecute Mr. Conn. Now I wonder what he has over them. I wonder what it is when you have a closed case--a prosecutorial case that you have to do no work on--and the U.S. attorneys will not prosecute a thief of the highest order. Since both U.S. attorneys recused themselves, Mr. O'Carroll is now trying to convince the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice here in Washington, DC, to take action. But to date no charges have been filed against Mr. Conn, Judge Daugherty or Judge Andrus.

    If they do not take action against Mr. Conn, the Justice Department is sending a message that disability fraud will go unpunished. We need to be sending the opposite message--that these types of fraudulent practices by attorneys like Eric Conn must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law--otherwise the disability program, no matter how much oversight we do on it, will continue to be abused, leaving those Americans who have no choice but to rely on it with less than what they expected.

    I would add one final statement. In working with a lot of the disability community, we introduced this week what we hope the Congress will take up in future years as a reform to the disability program that takes the fraud out of it--the opportunity for fraud--that takes the ability actually to hold people accountable and also gives back the dignity to those who can get back to work and uses that to help them accomplish that goal.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Utah.

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