Omnibus Appropriations Billby Senator Ron Wyden
Posted on 2014-12-15
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
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.