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Sen Byrd Speech -- Terrible Precedents in Omnibus Bill / 01-21-04

Remarks by Senator Byrd

January 21, 2004

"Terrible Precedents in the Omnibus Conference Report"

Senator Byrd, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, delivered the remarks below as the Senate debated the Fiscal Year 2004 Omnibus Appropriations Conference Report. That legislation wraps 7 individual appropriations into one unamendable package. Initially, the conference negotiations on this appropriations package were both bipartisan and bicameral. Reasonable compromises had been reached, and Members of Congress were satisfied with the process. However, that process was set aside to allow Presidential priorities to override the will of Congress. As a result, critical portions of the balanced package that had been worked out by House and Senate conferees were gutted.

Several very controversial legislative riders were added at the last minute by the Bush White House. Disappointingly, the Republican Congressional Leadership, at the insistence of the White House, capitulated to changes that were not even contemplated when the bills were before the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Senator Byrd believes that the conference report can be fixed quickly if the Republican Congressional Leadership will allow the appropriators to present to Congress the bipartisan package of bills that had been agreed to initially.

Yesterday, the Senate opened the second session of the 108th Congress. While the calendar has changed years from the last time we met in this chamber, the Senate finds itself handcuffed by the same authoritarian dictates from the Bush Administration that last year led to some of the fiercest partisan passions that this Senate has seen in decades. Gone is the traditional spirit of cooperation. Gone is the belief that the needs of the nation are above the needs of a political party. In their place is an agenda driven by pure partisanship. It is a tragic turn for this historic chamber.

Hope for a bipartisan Medicare prescription drug benefit was bright at the start of this Congress, but, by the time the conference report returned to the Senate for final passage, all that was left was a prescription for protecting the pharmaceutical industry and a drug benefit that is a sham for America's seniors.

Progress on an energy strategy for the country began in a cooperative effort, but quickly the Democrats were locked out while industry lobbyists were welcomed in to write the conference report.

The Fiscal Year 2004 appropriations bills have suffered a similar fate. Between June 26 and September 4 of last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee reported all 13 appropriations bills, bills that were the result of bipartisan cooperation between the chairmen and ranking members of each subcommittee and those subcommittee members. The bills were tight because of unrealistic budget limits, but Senators worked in tandem to craft balanced legislation.

Despite the efforts of the Chairman of the Committee, the Senior Senator from Alaska, progress on the bills waned and, as a result, we faced the grim Frankenstein apparition of an omnibus appropriations conference report. I warned the Senate that such an omnibus appropriations bill could grow limbs never contemplated by the Senate. I warned Members on both sides of the aisle that they could not control the outcome when the seed of an omnibus bill was planted in a closed conference. I warned that a Senator's right to debate controversial legislation would be lost. And finally, I warned that such an omnibus bill would invite the White House to the table and that the Congress would once again forfeit its constitutional right to write legislation.

Negotiations on that legislation started well enough. The House and Senate appropriation subcommittees worked on their respective pieces of this mammoth bill. The conferees held an open session under the able leadership of Senate Chairman Ted Stevens and House Chairman Bill Young, and many of the chapters of this behemoth were settled.

But this tale does not have a happy ending. No, this chariot drawn by tall horses quickly turned into a pumpkin pulled by rats before the clock struck midnight.

The White House decided that bipartisan negotiations were unacceptable. The White House pulled the plug on the conference and took it behind closed doors. The Republican Congressional Leadership bowed to White House pressure. Suddenly, Democratic Members of Congress had no voice in the legislation that they had, only days before, helped to move to the verge of passage.

In the back rooms of the Capitol, the White House sat down with the Republican leadership and with fat cat lobbyists representing big corporations and produced an unamendable 1,182 page, $328 billion conference report. They produced a conference report that turns the legislative process on its head.

Four of the bills contained in this omnibus did not have a recorded vote in the Senate. One of the bills, the Commerce/Justice/State bill, was never even debated in the Senate, let alone adopted. Scores of provisions are included in the so-called Miscellaneous Appropriations Act portion of the Conference Report that were never debated in the House or Senate.

Under pressure from the White House, provisions that were approved by both the House and the Senate have been dropped. Under pressure from the White House, controversial provisions that were written as one-year limitations when they were before the House or Senate have mutated into permanent changes in authorization law.

This conference report includes an across-the-board cut never debated in the Senate, an arbitrary cut that would apply to legislation already signed into law. It would cut homeland security. It would cut counterterrorism efforts. It would cut education and health care. This across-the-board cut would reach back into laws that agencies have been operating under for four months.

In the view of the White House, the United States can afford $1.7 trillion of tax cuts. When it comes to the Medicare bill, we can afford $12 billion for subsidies for private insurance companies. When it comes to the Energy bill, we can afford over $25 billion of tax cuts and $5 billion of mandatory spending for big energy corporations. But when it comes to initiatives funded in these appropriations bills, initiatives that help Americans every day, the President insists on cuts! A cut of 0.59 percent would reduce funding for No Child Left Behind programs by more than $73 million, resulting in 24,000 fewer children being served by Title I. The across-the-board cut would reduce veterans' medical care funding by $159 million, resulting in 26,500 fewer veterans receiving medical care or 198,000 veterans not getting the prescription drugs that they need.

The across-the-board cut will chop funding for homeland security initiatives. How many more baggage screeners will be laid off, resulting in longer lines and less security at our airports? How many fewer flights will have air marshals on board? How many more containers will come into this country uninspected? How many more illegal aliens will be able to remain in this country or how many will be able to sneak into this country? How many potential terrorists will never be investigated because of cuts in the FBI?

The Bush tax cuts will cost $293 billion in the calendar year 2004. More than one out of every four dollars being spent on those tax cuts is going to the top 1 percent of taxpayers in the country. Taxpayers with incomes that average about $1 million per year will receive an average tax cut of $85,000 in the year 2010, while those taxpayers earning less than $73,000 will receive, at best, 1 percent of what a millionaire will receive, and, at worst, a paltry $98 in the year 2010. And how will we pay for this? We pay for this with cuts in education, veterans' programs, and in homeland security.

In the dark of night, behind closed doors, the White House filled this conference report with favors for big corporations. Everywhere you look, you find the interests of corporate America coming first and the needs of working Americans coming in last. The Senate approved a provision to block for one year the Administration's plan to take away the right of as many as 8 million employees to earn time and a half for extra hours worked. The Administration produced a rule so biased toward industry that it even included advice to corporations on how to avoid additional wages. Yet the Senate provision is gone.

At the request of the food marketing industry, rules to allow Americans to know where their food, such as beef and vegetables, was grown, are delayed for two years, breaking the balance crafted as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. During consideration of the 2002 Farm Bill, the United States Senate included a provision to ensure that American consumers were provided information about where their food comes from. This so-called Country of Origin requirement became law and was immediately attacked by industry forces. However, when the smoke of the Agriculture Conference cleared, we found that industry forces had worked overtime to slip out of their statutory requirements. The Country of Origin issue was not even allowed to be discussed at the conference. The decision whether to keep or kill the Country of Origin requirement was made behind closed doors after the conference was adjourned subject to the call of the Chair. Democrats of either the House or Senate were not in that room. Now, we find that the delay in implementing the Country of Origin law is not just one year, as the House provided and the Senate opposed, but two years! And that is not all. The House provision only placed a limitation on the labeling requirement for meat products. Now, the "agreement" coming out of conference expands the limitation to all the other commodities covered by the law, such as fruits and vegetables. American consumers may have thought they were going to know where their food came from, but the majority has made sure that those facts will remain deep, hidden secrets.

The one-year limitation on the FCC media ownership rule was turned into a permanent cap at 39%. The practical effect of changes demanded by the White House is to protect Rupert Murdoch's Fox television network and CBS-Viacom from having to comply with the lower 35% ownership caps the congressional version of the bill would put in place. The White House is boosting special corporate interests at the expense of the people's interest for balanced news and information. Protections for federal workers that were agreed to on a bipartisan basis in the public conference that would insure a fair competition with the private sector disappeared in the back room.

All of this and the White House sent its troops to the hill last week to press the Republican leadership to reject entreaties from Members on both sides of the aisle to make any changes to this Frankenstein of a bill. This "my way or the highway", rough shod, politics over principle approach to the Congress is incredible, especially from a White House that has done so much to undermine the credibility of this nation and its government.

One year ago, the President used the State of the Union Address before this Congress, this nation and the world to make his best case for taking the nation to war in Iraq. In the State of the Union Address and in other speeches, he told Congress and the nation that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that were an imminent threat to this nation. He told us that Saddam Hussein was trying to develop nuclear weapons. He told us that American troops would be received as liberators. He told us that Saddam Hussein was aiding terrorists, such as the Al Qaeda. What an incredible tale. What an incredible squandering of the credibility of our government in the eyes of the world.

For this President, there seems to be no limit to his appetite for rhetoric and no recognition that there is a difference between his rhetoric and reality. He promised Americans to leave no child behind but this omnibus bill would cut funding by $6 billion below the level authorized for Title I in the No Child Left Behind Act, which he signed with such promise in January of 2002. This omnibus bill would leave behind 2.1 million children who are eligible for Title I education services.

The President promised to secure our homeland, yet this bill would cut funding for port security and border security. On November 14, 2002, the Senate passed the Maritime Transportation Security Act by a vote of 95-0. The bill was signed into law by President Bush on November 25, 2002 during a celebratory White House ceremony. On that day, the President said: "We will strengthen security at our nation's 361 seaports, adding port security agents, requiring ships to provide more information about the cargo, crew and passengers they carry."

Despite these requirements, the President has requested no funding for Port Security grants and this omnibus bill would cut the funding that Congress added last Fall. Sixteen million cargo containers arrive in the United States by ship, truck and rail each year. 140 million passengers travel annually by ship each year. Thousands of employees work at our ports each day and millions of citizens live in and around our port communities. A terrorist attack through out ports would produce billions of dollars of losses to our economy, yet the President did not request a dime.

On November 19, 2001, the President signed into law the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (PL 107-71). The Act created the Transportation Security Administration and mandated that all cargo on passenger aircraft be screened. The Administration has never requested sufficient funding to meet the goals of the law. In order to bridge a $900 million funding shortfall that it created for FY03, the Administration proposed delaying advanced fire arms training for Federal Air Marshals at the same time that intelligence reports indicated an enhanced threat to aviation and the potential for hijacking planes transiting the United States.

Regarding air cargo security, the Administration has met the requirement of screening air cargo by expanding a program referred to as the "known shipper" program. This program does not actually physically screen cargo going into the bellies of jumbo passenger aircraft, but relies on paperwork to protect our citizens. Congress added $35 million above the President's request to enhance deployment of detection equipment, research other methods to screen cargo and otherwise expand air cargo security. This omnibus bill would reduce that funding.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 (PL 107-173) was signed into law by President Bush on May 14, 2002. The Act authorized funding for enhanced hiring of immigration inspectors and agents as well as for improvements to immigration facilities. The President did not request the authorized funds to hire additional immigration personnel, nor did he request funds to make the authorized improvements to immigration facilities or to hire the required number of Border Patrol agents. The omnibus would reduce funding for border patrol efforts.

Just last month, four days before Christmas, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that the nation's terror alert level was being raised to orange. He said, "The strategic indicators, including Al Qaeda's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland, are perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11." He went further to say, "Information indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will rival -- or exceed -- the scope and impact of those we experienced in New York." The President promised a safer nation when he created the new Homeland Security Department, but his Secretary says we are in greater danger than at any time since September 11, 2001. At the same time, the President is urging Congress to cut funding for homeland security.

In May of this year, the President signed into law a bill authorizing $15 billion over five years for international programs to combat HIV/AIDS. On July 12, while in Nigeria, the President said, "The House of Representatives and the United States Senate must fully fund this initiative, for the good of the people on this continent of Africa." To "fully fund this initiative" requires $3 billion. The authorization bill, which the President explicitly referenced in his speech, authorizes $3 billion in FY 2004. Yet, the President only requested that the Congress provide $2 billion for the program. This omnibus bill, after the across the board cut, would provide less than $2.4 billion for global AIDS programs, over $600 million below the level promised.

Democratic Senators, including myself, on three separate occasions offered amendments that would have ensured that HIV/AIDS funding reached the $3 billion level. All three of these amendments were defeated by the Republican leadership working with the Bush Administration.

Rhetoric and reality are two different things. Next thing you know, the President will be promising to put a man on Mars.

Somewhere along the way, the tail has begun to wag the dog. The legislative process is being steered from the Oval Office, and the Legislative Branch is being used not, as the Framers envisioned, to serve as a check on the Executive Branch, but instead as a tool to check-off accomplishments on the President's political agenda.

This is not the way the Senate should operate. I fault not any individual Senator or political party for bringing us to this point, but I do fault a system that places meaningless message votes and staged photo-op debates before the business of the nation. The real losers in this scenario are the American people. They are not well served by a Congress that fritters away opportunity after opportunity to probe, analyze, and exercise independent judgment on the urgent issues of the day in favor of rushing to do the bidding of the Executive Branch.

Under our constitution, our founding fathers had the wisdom to establish three separate and equal branches of government. Under the constitution, Congress writes the laws and the President executes them. Under the constitution, the power of the purse rests with the Congress, not the President. Under the constitution, the Congress determines how to write our laws and how to protect Members' rights to debate the important issues of the day. This omnibus bill leaves those pillars of our constitutional system in shambles.

It is our duty as the people's representatives to protect those pillars of our constitutional system of government. In 1999 and 2000, when President Clinton supported efforts by the Republican Congress to produce omnibus appropriations bills, I came to this floor to decry our loss of our right and duty to write legislation. I came to this floor to stand up for Congress' power of the purse. It made no matter to me that this was a Democratic President calling for omnibus spending legislation. I stood up for the rights of this Senate, as I do today.

In 1993, there was an effort to include President Clinton's comprehensive health care reform plan in a reconciliation bill. Proponents of the President's proposal hoped that such an approach would shelter the proposal from extended debate in the Senate. President Clinton called on me to support this effort. But I said no. Without regard to party, I felt compelled to protect Member's rights to a full debate. I stood up for the Congress as a separate and equal branch of government.

But with President Bush, he insists that Members of his party march with him step by step. Today, on the other side of the aisle, voices for a strong and equal Congress fall silent.

Last week, Senator Frist wrote to Senators and urged them to vote for the omnibus conference report because if the omnibus fails, then the only alternative is a full year continuing resolution that would force the agencies for the seven outstanding appropriations bills to operate at last year's levels. He argues that such a continuing resolution will produce deep cuts for food safety, veterans medical care, highway funding and global AIDS programs. However, the Senator presents the Senate with a false choice. If the omnibus is not approved, the Senate has other options to move forward. If the only alternative is a full year continuing resolution, then that is a choice of the Republican leadership. It would be another example of putting political posturing before the needs of the American people.

There is a clear alternative and that is to sit down and work out a compromise that can overwhelmingly pass this Senate. If Senator Frist had the will to do so, such negotiations could be completed today.

However, in its current form, I cannot vote for a bill that so ravages our constitutional process and that puts corporate interests ahead of the people's interests. I cannot vote for a bill that undermines our credibility with the American people. I urge Members to vote no on the adoption of the conference report.

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