Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act of 2014—Continuedby Senator Cory A. Booker
Posted on 2014-12-11
BOOKER. I really appreciate the words of Senator Schatz, which
are spot-on. People are so frustrated right now with Congress, and it
does not take a Ph.D. in political science to figure out why common
Americans of all backgrounds are frustrated with Congress. It is
because people are frustrated with business as usual here in the Senate
and the House. In this case, as Senator Schatz points to, here we are
at the end of the 113th Congress facing a $1 trillion spending bill--a
bill with funding that is critical to our national defense. It is
critical to the health and well-being of Americans. It is critical to
the strength of our community.
I know the sincerity and passion with which Senate and House negotiators have been working to get this done. They have been focusing on making sure the American public has those critical services that we need. I give tribute to many of the leadership in this body for working on it. Senate leaders should get credit, also--Barbara Mikulski for holding the line on so many critical priorities, for putting in this trillion dollar spending plan some very important items that should arouse the gratitude of many people. They also stood up against, fought, and prevented from getting into this some very extreme proposals. But to the many people watching this unfold in New Jersey, in Hawaii, and across this country, what they are also seeing, unfortunately, is a bill passed with policies pushed by very connected special interests--special interests with armies of high paid lobbyists looking out for their own protection. There are special interests with armies of high-paid lobbyists looking out for their own protections and looking to roll back commonsense protections for people who cannot hire those high-priced lobbyists or make donations to political candidates and elected officials.
This omnibus--this CRromnibus, as it is called--is a jagged, bitter pill for anyone to swallow.
I will start with the provision that Senator Schatz mentioned, the provision that is rolling back aspects of Dodd-Frank. Risky transactions involving asset-backed derivatives were at the heart of a 2008 fiscal crisis. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimated that the financial crisis cost the United States between $6 and $14 trillion. This amounts to $50,000 to $120,000 for every U.S. household or the equivalent of 40 to 90 percent of 1 year's economic output. It was cataclysmic.
I don't need economists to describe the pain that Americans felt. I saw it myself. I felt it as a mayor of a big city in America--Newark, NJ--New Jersey's largest city. When the Nation goes through a recession, rural and urban areas, vulnerable populations, people living at the margins go through a cataclysmic depression. Many Americans, [[Page S6661]] even today, remain unemployed or underemployed and are still struggling to make ends meet because of the risky behaviors we saw within the financial industry.
Now, Dodd-Frank--this Wall Street protection act--was passed to enhance consumer protection and increase safeguards against risky activities so we, as a country, do not go through this again. Dodd- Frank is not perfect. I am the first to admit there are ways to change it and improve it and implement its provisions, frankly, that still have yet to be fully implemented.
Changes to financial regulations should be done through a much more transparent process and in the public eye. We should openly debate these issues on the floor of the House and the Senate. It should not be done like this was, behind closed doors and definitely through what they call a must-pass omnibus bill. This is wrong.
Here we are in the last moments on an omnibus spending bill with a provision which goes to the heart of protecting American taxpayers from the risky, reckless schemes that helped to launch the crisis in the first place.
This provision is literally called the Prohibition Against the Federal Government Bailouts of Swap Entities, which ensures taxpayer dollars will not be used for the more risky Wall Street speculation and gambling. It looks to make sure that Americans are on the hook for the risky gambling of a few people seeking to make extraordinary gains.
I am outraged. I am frustrated that we are not on the floor debating this, and, instead, are having this put into a bill that everyone says must pass.
There are arguments on both sides that we should be having. If the provisions of Dodd-Frank come up, we should discuss them. The public should see it and know about it.
I will not condemn the entire financial services industry, and, indeed, we need in this country a robust network of financial institutions that support the vibrant economic activity in the United States. However, we must ensure that the necessary and important protections that shield taxpayers and our economy from the failures of 2008 remain in place.
I rebuke the slick and secretive ways that this has been done, and I will echo the concerns of people all over New Jersey that this kind of business as usual must end.
But there are other concerns that should be out in the public eye. Take, for example, truck safety. There is this ``hours of service'' language which protects America's highways, but now the language that protects us has been changed and altered in this bill. It was inserted through the appropriations process. This language suspends the administration's rules designed to prevent driver fatigue.
I will read from the rule that is now being suspended under the omnibus. It states: Only drivers who drive nights and work more than 60 or 70 hours in a week will be impacted. . . . Drivers who will be impacted by this provision work heavy and irregular schedules that include some nighttime driving. . . . The limitation reduces maximum time during which a driver may drive up to an average of 70 hours in 7 days, a decrease from the 82-hour average allowed under the 2003 rule . . . Working long daily and weekly hours on a continuing basis is associated with chronic fatigue, a high risk of crashes, and a number of serious chronic health conditions.
These right here are commonsense rules put in place to protect Americans who are driving to and from work with their families or to church to protect them against these heavy, irregular vehicles barrelling down the highway that might now have an overfatigued driver.
These regulations were put in place to try to limit those drivers from straining human endurance, but now they are being suspended within this omnibus bill.
These rules are based on years of sound scientific study, and I am outraged that despite the efforts of my colleagues and the safety community, the provisions to suspend these safety rules were included in this omnibus bill.
Each year nearly 4,000 Americans are killed in truck accidents, and over 100,000 Americans are injured on our highways in truck accidents. These drivers who drive trucks are hard-working men and women, and they have, unfortunately, been pushed to tread on the limits of human endurance.
The number of fatalities caused by truck accidents has risen 16 percent since 2009, and the number of people injured in these crashes has increased 40 percent. At a time when accidents are on such a savage rise, we are in no position to be crippling existing safety measures designed to keep our roads safe. For the sake of our Nation's security and the untold anguish and loss that comes from these highway accidents, this provision should be taken out of the bill.
There is more in this omnibus, and I feel compelled to mention another objectionable thing. The very idea of taxation without representation and self-determination is at the core of our democratic ideals as a nation. Yet, despite this, Washington, DC, with a population larger than two of our States, sees the constant undermining of this very principle. I believe it is an offense to Americans of all States, to Americans in the District of Columbia, and to all those who believe in our cherished ideals that this is done so.
When the District of Columbia votes, just as in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, to change marijuana laws--when Washington, DC, is grappling with the devastating impact of the drug war and sees the pain and the challenges and the struggles involved therein, when the people of the District come together and decide to try a different way forward--should we not honor their results? Should we not respect their self-determination as is going on in other States? This provision in this omnibus, undermining the democratic will of the District of Columbia--these great Americans--should be taken out.
My list of concerns in this bill could go on. I could continue. We should be having a discussion and debate on issues of this magnitude.
Take, for example, the rules on pensions that will slash benefits for thousands of retirees. Make no mistake. We need to address the state of multi-employer pension plans, and we need to discuss the tough choices that have to be made, but this is not the way to do it--not business as usual with no discussion and no debate.
This bill also includes provisions that roll back protections for wildlife and endangered species. This is not how we should do this-- business as usual with no discussion and no debate it.
There are provisions that keep the USDA from addressing an array of fraudulent, deceptive, anticompetitive, and retaliatory practices which will now undermine important protections for farmers against unfair practices. This is not the way to do it--business as usual, no discussion, no debate.
When people wonder how Washington does things in such a manner that is skewed in favor of the connected, skewed in favor of high-priced lobbyists, and skewed in favor special interests, when they see how the common good and common sense gets undermined, this is how it happens. This is how it happens.
I have been in this body for a little over 12 months, and the way we are doing this is offensive. The American people deserve better. We should do better.
I object to so much being put in this that deserves to be on this floor, discussed and debated in the light of the public. This is no way to run the globe's greatest democracy.
I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland.
Tribute to Kelly McKellogg Swaine