Senate Accomplishmentsby Senator John Thune
Posted on 2015-12-15
THUNE. Mr. President, from voting to repeal ObamaCare to passing
the first long-term Transportation bill in a decade and the first joint
balanced budget in 14 years, Senate Republicans have worked hard this
year to fulfill our promise to get Washington working again for
While some of our efforts have been blocked by Senate Democrats or by the President, we have still managed to get a lot done. I am particularly proud of some of the legislation we passed this year that will benefit South Dakota families and businesses as well as families and businesses across the country. One bill that I have been working on for a long time--a bill that will mean a lot to South Dakota's farmers and ranchers--is the legislation the House passed last week, the Surface Transportation Board reauthorization bill.
The Surface Transportation Board is responsible for helping to ensure the efficiency of our rail system by addressing problems and adjudicating disputes between railroads and shippers. Unfortunately, it has been clear for several years now that the Surface Transportation Board needs to work better. This became particularly apparent in 2013 and 2014 when a sharp increase in shipping demand and harsh winter weather conditions combined to create massive backlogs in the availability of railcars for grain shipping which, in turn, caused storage issues for farmers across the Midwest.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the rail backlog lowered the price of corn, wheat, and soybeans in the upper Midwest. It forced shippers to pay record-high railroad-car premiums--in the neighborhood of 28 percent to 150 percent above the previous average levels--for roughly 65 consecutive weeks.
The Surface Transportation Board legislation that Congress sent to the President last week will help prevent another situation such as this in the future. The bill, which I spearheaded, makes a number of significant reforms to the Board. For starters, it establishes the number of Board members and establishes a more collaborative process that will allow members to work together to identify and solve problems as they emerge. The bill also provides the Board with the investigative authority to address rail service issues even if an official complaint has not been made. This will allow and encourage the Board to be more proactive when it comes to addressing problems in our Nation's rail system.
The bill also increases transparency by requiring the Surface Transportation Board to establish a data base of complaints and to provide quarterly reports with key information to facilitate the effective monitoring of service issues. Finally, the bill improves the current process for resolving disputes between railroads and shippers.
Right now, disputes can take multiple years and literally millions of dollars to resolve, putting a tremendous burden on shippers and on railroads as well. The legislation we developed improves this process by setting timelines for rate reviews, expanding voluntary arbitrary procedures, and requiring the Surface Transportation Board to study alternative rate review methodologies to streamline and to expedite cases. It requires the Surface Transportation Board to maintain at least one simplified, expedited rate review methodology. These changes will increase efficiency throughout the rate review process.
South Dakota farmers and ranchers depend on our Nation's railroads to bring their goods to market. They also depend on our Nation's highways. This year I was proud to work with my colleagues in the Senate on the first long-term Transportation bill in a decade.
Over the past several years, Congress made a habit of passing numerous short-term funding extensions for Federal transportation programs. Over the past several years of short-term extensions, the latest, I think, was No. 38. That was an incredibly inefficient way to manage our Nation's infrastructure needs, and it wasted an incredible amount of money. It also put a lot of transportation jobs in jeopardy.
When Congress fails to make clear how transportation funding will be allocated, States and local governments are left without the certainty they need to authorize projects or to make long-term plans for addressing various transportation infrastructure needs. That means essential projects, construction projects, get deferred. Necessary repairs may not get made, and the jobs that depend on these projects and repairs are put at risk.
The Transportation bill we passed this month changes all that. It reauthorizes transportation programs for the long term, and it provides 5 years of guaranteed funding. It means States and local governments will have the certainty they need to invest in big transportation projects and the jobs that they create. That, in turn, means a stronger economy and a more reliable, safer, and effective transportation system.
As chairman of the commerce committee, I spend a lot of time working with committee members on both sides of the aisle to develop the Transportation bill's safety provisions. Our portion of the bill includes a host of important safety improvements, including enhancements to the notification process to ensure that consumers are informed of auto-related recalls, and also important reforms at the government agency responsible for overseeing safety in our Nation's cars and trucks.
Another important success for South Dakota this year was the final approval of the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex--the military training airspace over South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. The expanded airspace approved by the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration will allow our air men and women to carry out critical training in conditions that more closely resemble combat missions. After working with the Air Force on this project for nearly 9 years, I was proud to see this expansion finally completed and even more delighted to see the first large-force training exercise take place at the expanded Powder River Training Complex just this month. Forty-one aircraft took part in the exercise, including the B-1 bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
[[Page S8661]] The expanded training complex will save Ellsworth $23 million per year in training costs by reducing the need for the B-1 bombers to commute to other places, such as Nevada and Utah, for training.
Supporting our men and women in uniform--like our airmen at Ellsworth--is one of the most important jobs we have as Members of Congress.
This year I am proud to report that the Senate passed a national defense authorization bill that incorporates a number of critical reforms that will expand the resources available to our servicemembers and strengthen our national security. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 tackles waste and inefficiency at the Department of Defense and focuses funding on our warfighters rather than on the Pentagon bureaucracy.
The bill also overhauls our military retirement system. Before this bill, the system limited retirement benefits to servicemembers who had served for 20 years or more, which means huge numbers of military personnel, including many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, retired after years of service without having accrued any retirement benefits. The National Defense Authorization Act replaces this system with a new retirement system that will ensure that the majority of our Nation's servicemembers receive retirement benefits for their years of service to our country even if they have not reached the 20-year mark.
The bills I have discussed today are just a few of the accomplishments of the Republican-led Senate. Over the course of this year, we have passed a number of significant pieces of legislation that will benefit Americans for years to come.
We have worked hard to help our Nation's veterans by expanding access to mental health resources, reducing wait times for medical care, and increasing the number of providers who can serve veterans. We voted to repeal ObamaCare and start the process of moving toward the real health care reform Americans are looking for: an affordable, accountable, patient-focused system that puts individuals in control of their health care decisions. We passed legislation to contain the out-of-control bureaucracy at the EPA and legislation to begin the process of safeguarding Medicare and Social Security by putting them on a more sustainable financial footing going forward. We passed cyber security legislation to protect Americans' privacy and a major education reform bill that puts States, parents, teachers, and local school boards--not Washington bureaucrats--in charge of our children's education.
While we may have accomplished a lot this year, we know there is still a lot more that needs to be done. Americans are still suffering in the Obama economy, and our Nation continues to face terrorist threats at home and abroad.
Whether it is enacting pro-economic growth policies at home or ensuring that our military has the resources it needs to protect us from threats abroad, Republicans will redouble our efforts to make sure Washington is meeting the needs of American families and addressing the American people's priorities. We plan to spend the second year of the 114th Congress next year the way we have spent the first: fighting to make our economy stronger, our government more efficient and more accountable, and our Nation and our world safer and more secure.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.
I suggest the absence of a quorum.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.
The senior assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.