NOMINATION OF JOHN ROBERTS
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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, in a few moments, I will offer several amendments, but I feel inclined, because of what we have heard about the last two or three amendments that have come forward here, to comment.
There are products offered called crop insurance. It is very important for us as a Senate to remember that everything in life has risk. As we look at Katrina and the tremendous issues that have come forward, not everybody who has a loss in this country is entitled for the Federal taxpayers to pay for that loss. If my house burns down and I am underinsured, is that a Federal Government responsibility? At what level do we recognize personal responsibility and risk in terms of natural events?
There is no question we are going to be working hard to do our part at the Federal level to aid those involved in the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, but the very idea that now we are considering helping those people means we jump on with everybody else who has a need in this country right now is a very dangerous trend that I guarantee we cannot afford.
I applaud the statement of the Senator from Utah in recognizing there is a limit to what we can afford. I know these issues will come through in regular order and process, but I think it has to be said that these are meritorious, that is right, but they are going to have to be listed with the rest of the priorities in this country of what has to come first.
We do not have an unending source of funds, although sometimes we act as if we do. These are going to have to be put in that order of priority. I am sure this body will do that in terms of priority, but what we cannot do is continue to mortgage the future of the next two generations by not making those hard choices.
I suggest the absence of a quorum.
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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.
The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. ISAKSON). Without objection, it is so ordered.
AMENDMENT NO. 1773
Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I would like to call up amendment 1773.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, the pending amendment is laid aside. The clerk will report the amendment.
The legislative clerk read as follows:
The Senator from Oklahoma [Mr. COBURN] proposes an amendment numbered 1773.
Mr. COBURN. I ask unanimous consent that further reading of the amendment be dispensed with.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
The amendment is as follows:
(Purpose: To reduce spending levels, to promote more efficient use of resources, and to encourage more appropriate budget estimates)
On page 122, line 24, strike ``$653,102,000'' and insert ``$610,754,560''.
Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, this is the first of many amendments I am going to be offering the rest of the year to make a downpayment for our grandchildren to pay for Hurricane Katrina. I start small, but there are many in Washington who say we cannot do it, that there is not the waste, fraud, and abuse, there are not significant dollars that are not spent wisely and prioritized. This is one that I am not sure will pass, but it certainly cannot not be recognized by anybody who looks at the books of the rental assistance program that this is an appropriate amendment. The appropriation for this program in 2005 was $587,264,000. The budget estimate for 2006 was $650 million, the House allowance was $650 million, and the committee recommendation is $653 million.
According to the committee, this program and the objective of the program is to reduce rents paid by low-income families living in rural housing service financed with rental projects and farm labor housing projects. That is a meritorious goal. It is something we ought to be doing, and I fully support doing that. However, the payments from the fund are made to the project owner for the difference between the tenant's payment and the approved rental rate established for the unit.
Why would I offer an amendment to trim that back? It is because the rental assistance program has been gaming us, according to the Government Accountability Office. Let me explain how.
In March 2004, they reported that since 1990--this is 14 years--the rental housing program had consistently overestimated its budget needs for the rental assistance program. Concern had arisen about the issue in early 2003 because RLS reported hundreds of millions in unexpended balances tied to its rental assistance contracts. Specifically, in estimating the needs for rental assistance contracts, it routinely uses higher inflation factors than recommended by OMB, did not apply the inflation rates that are recommended to each year of a contract, and based the estimates of future spending on recent high usage rather than the average usage of the rental assistance program.
First, the agency used inflated factors that were higher than those recommended by the OMB budget process, that they didn't apply it separately to each year, but they did it cumulatively to gain the amount of money they were asking from Congress. The result was an inflation rate that was more than five times the rate of the last year than the first year. So therefore the numbers they are asking for and the balances that are retained are high. And they are not utilizing the money we are appropriating. They are just accumulating money. RLS based its estimates of future expenditures on recent maximum expenditures--and that may very well be right, but that is what we are doing in supplementals, that is what we have done the supplementals for--rather than the average rates for which the units were funded historically.
According to GAO in its most recent report the agency was not following the guidelines, and they actually overestimated their need last year by $51 million or 6 percent of their appropriations.
That is not TOM COBURN saying that. That is the General Accounting Office saying it. The GAO has harshly criticized the agency for lacking proper internal control standards through its administration of this program. As a matter of fact, one single employee has largely been responsible for both budget estimating and allocating rental assistance funds. This amendment simply reduces it from a growth rate of 10 percent to a growth rate of 4 percent. That is higher than our rate of inflation, but it brings it back in line.
The agency has proven it cannot forecast its real needs accurately. It has not forecast its real needs accurately. It fails to track its real needs and fails to track its basic expenditures.
Let me underscore one point. This program will still receive a $23.5 million increase this year under this amendment. If we hope to approach any type of fiscal sanity in the Senate or in this country through this Government, then we have to start holding agencies accountable. We can have all the GAO reports we want. If they keep getting the money on the same basis that they are getting the money, then we are not going to change behavior. What we want to do is not hurt one person who is relying on us for this rental assistance, but what we do want is the agency to apply and come up to the standards that are recognized as necessary in the Federal Government.
This is one of several amendments I will be offering over the next couple of months. But it proves to the American taxpayer that we can do better. My hope is that the committee will look at this amendment, decide that the GAO was right, decide that they have overestimated it, and trim back this money.
This money is money that can be saved and used to start to offset the costs of this catastrophe that is in front of us.
I yield the floor.
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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I will be happy to respond. The Senator from Utah has my great respect. I know he is an accountant and has a tremendous background in terms of finance. But if you overestimate for the 3 years prior to coming into this before you change it, and you have contracts based on that that were overestimated, you do have an excess of funds in there now. There will be no shortage of rental payments because of the over-roll of the overpayments, the overestimate of the contracts that have been made.
The good answer for the American people is this is going to throw people out. It is not going to throw a person out. There is plenty of money in this account. There is almost $50 million at the end of this year left in this account that is not expended and can be spent. So it is not accurate to say people will not be able to have the homes that they have.
I think the Senator will agree that if, in fact, you overestimate inflation rates 4 years running, and you have been appropriated all that money looking forward for that, and you had contracts on costs that were less than that, if anything the surplus will grow if the usage is the same.
To make the argument that we should not do this because somebody might be thrown out, when, in fact, it is not accurate based on the funding that is in this account at this time, doesn't do justice to the very problems that we have before us.
I do not expect this amendment to pass, and I probably will not ask for a rollcall vote. I don't know what I am going to do in terms of asking for a rollcall vote. But it is that kind of thing we have to look at. We have to tighten our belts. There is loose money in this program. It can be done better. They have demonstrated they have started to do better, but they have not demonstrated they are doing better. What I would ask is for us to send a message: Do better. It doesn't undercut the first person we are trying to help. We have already sent $62 billion out there for this disaster, and we are planning on sending more. If we need to make an adjustment in one of those appropriations bills, if in fact I am wrong and you are right--which I do not believe to be the case--we can do it then. But send the signal: Do it right, do it efficiently, and do it for the best price you can because our grandchildren are counting on you.
I hope at some point in time we will start getting to the realization that we have to start making some choices. This is a choice that is not going to hurt the first person, but it is going to change an agency to make them recognize you are going to start playing with real numbers and quit gaming the system. They have a cushion. They know they have a cushion. I believe the appropriators and accounting staff know they have a cushion, and we ought to take that cushion away and make them do what they should be doing.
Mr. BENNETT. Mr. President, I am unaware of the existence of the cushion. I would be happy to work with the Senator to try to find out exactly whether there is one and how much it is. But the information that I received both from the staff and, admittedly, from the Department, is there is no cushion and passage of this amendment would, in fact, cause people who are currently in housing to lose their housing.
I am not in a position to challenge the Senator's sources. I simply state that my sources have given me an additional answer. I have not looked over the books. I have not personally gone into the accounting of this situation, and therefore I am not in a position to do any more than state, as I have stated, that my information is different than his.
Clearly, this is a subject that needs to be pursued. I congratulate him on raising it. The question for the Senate now is how we proceed on this amendment, whether the Senator will ask for a rollcall vote and, if he does, when we schedule it.
Mr. COBURN. Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. President.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator may state his inquiry.
Mr. COBURN. Does a decision on a rollcall vote have to be made at this time?
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator is not under any obligation to ask for the yeas and nays at this time.
Mr. COBURN. I will defer that at this time and have a discussion with the Senator from Utah about having a vote on this amendment.
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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I call up amendment No. 1775 and ask to set the pending amendment aside.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, the pending amendment is set aside. The clerk will report.
The legislative clerk read as follows:
The Senator from Oklahoma [Mr. COBURN] proposes an amendment numbered 1775:
At the appropriate place, insert the following:
SEC. __. Any limitation, directive, or earmarking contained in either the House of Representatives or Senate report accompanying H.R. 2744 shall also be included in the conference report or joint statement accompanying H.R. 2744 in order to be considered as having been approved by both Houses of Congress.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator is recognized.
Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, this is an amendment I offered earlier in the year on a previous appropriations bill. I want to set the stage for this because I think this is probably one of the most important amendments I will offer in the Senate. It is important the American public recognize what this amendment does.
Appropriations bills start in the House. They come to the Senate. They are met in conference.
In the House bill there is report language. In the Senate bill there is report language. In that report language is where you find out where the money is going to be spent. The purpose of this amendment is to make sure, when a bill comes out of conference, that the Members of this body know where all the money is going to be spent before they vote on the bill.
There is no lack of desire for many of us who want to know that, but it is hard to find out as you approach the conference bill; that is, for us. But it is also difficult for the American people to know.
What this amendment is about is about sunshine. It is about sunshine on the legislative process so that the American people know items that are special projects for Members of Congress, items that have been earmarked or especially directed that we ought to know of, and what that is ought to be in the report language, where it is going and to whom it is going.
This amendment received 34 votes last time. I think it is absolutely imperative for us to keep the integrity of our appropriations process so that we know, No. 1, what is in the bills that we vote on and have available to us--that information on report language, but, No. 2, for the American people to know.
It has been said they can find it on the Internet. They can if they care to really dig through it. But if there is report language that has it where you can go to, you can, in fact, know before we vote what the special interests are that influence the appropriations bills of this country.
This is simply saying sunshine, let us know what is in it, let us print what is in it, and let us not deny what is in it. If it is good, great; if not, take the lumps that go along with it.
If you are doing a special favor for someone, or earmarking one of your political constituencies, it ought to be out there, and it ought to be looked at.
This is a simple, straightforward amendment that we ought to honestly say that we like sunshine rather than darkness and less than straightforwardness.
It is my hope that the body will again consider this and add it to this bill so that, when we go to conference, everybody understands what is in the bill when it comes out of conference. We are going to know what is in the bill, and we will not have to play games to know what is in the bill.
I yield the floor.
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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, so the Members of the body know, I intend to offer this on every bill that doesn't have it. Some of the bills have had it but some have not. So my intention is to offer this amendment for the next 6 years on every appropriations bill that comes through because I believe more information going to the American public is a whole lot better than information hidden and sequestered away from them to know what we are doing.
We are accountable. If we are doing our work, then we ought to be proud of our work, and we ought to put it out.
I will be happy to discuss this with the chairman of the committee. He knows. I have had this debate with him before. I am persistent, and the Senator from Utah knows that. I believe the people of Oklahoma believe it. I believe that the vast majority of Americans believe it. We ought to know what we are voting on, where the money is going and who is going to benefit from it ought to be printed.
On this amendment, I ask for the yeas and nays, and I ask for a rollcall vote on this amendment.
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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, this is an area I am all too familiar with. If we are going to solve the health care crisis in America, it starts with prevention. In the year 2070, one out of every $2 of Medicare we spend will be for diabetes. Fifty percent of the diabetes that will occur in the future can be prevented by good nutrition education in the early years, not only of the children but of the parents.
This is a fantastic amendment. I told the Senator from New Mexico I wished I had thought of it. For every $1 we spend on prevention, we get $17 back. For every $1 we spend on computers, we probably get $2 or $3 back. It comes back to the questions of priorities.
This is a great idea. I understand the resistance to not cut anything in a bill that comes to the floor from a Committee on Appropriations. I understand that. But I think of all the amendments I have heard, including mine, other than sunshine, this is the best I have heard because it will have the greatest impact. We get the most value for the dollars we spend. That is what we should be about. I heartily support the amendment and I hope the Senate will too.