NOMINATION OF ROBERT M. GATES, TO BE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE -- (Senate - December 06, 2006)
Mr. DeMINT. Madam President, reserving the right to object, let me say that I strongly support this legislation that will maintain and improve the quality of life for our military personnel. I believe that the Senator from Texas, the chairwoman of the subcommittee, has done an excellent job with the bill.
I am also pleased that the Senator from Texas obviously feels there is still time to conference this bill, since the House committee has been saying in the newspapers that there is not enough time. I agree with Senator Hutchison that if we appointed conferees today, with some hard work, this bill could get finished.
I, also, add that the Senator from Texas is committed to keeping this bill clean in conference, which we greatly appreciate. I agree with her that we are at war, but those of us who sent our troops to war should not be back home selling out the country for which they are fighting. It is my understanding that the chairman of the Appropriations Committee has refused to make the assurances that we need to keep this bill clean in conference and, therefore, if I consent to letting this bill go to conference, there is a risk that it will return to the Senate as a foot-tall Omnibus appropriations bill, with thousands of earmarks in an unamendable form. Therefore, Madam President, I object.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Objection is heard. The Senator from South Carolina.
Mr. DeMINT. Madam President, over the last several weeks, I have made it clear that I believe this bill, which is a good bill, needs to stay clean of additional appropriations and earmarks if it is to go to conference. I was asked by the members of the Senate steering committee to protect their interests in keeping these appropriations bills clean.
I informed the leader that the steering committee did not believe it was wise to send a bill to conference without an understanding of what the conference agreement would look like. I have made it clear that all we want is a commitment from the leadership and the Appropriations Committee that this is what will happen. I am not looking for anything extraordinary, a unanimous consent agreement or anything like that. We would be satisfied with a commitment from the chairman of the committee or the leadership that this is what will happen.
At one point, it appeared that we had such an agreement. Leader Frist asked me to put on paper what our specific concerns were to avoid any confusion. I did so.
I ask unanimous consent that a copy of this letter from myself, Senator Coburn, and Senator Inhofe be printed in the RECORD.
There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:
UNITED STATES SENATE,
Washington, DC, December 4, 2006.
Hon. BILL FRIST,
Majority Leader U. S. Senate, Washington, DC.
DEAR MR. LEADER, We share your commitment to addressing the needs of our veterans, service members, and their families, while protecting the interests of hard working American taxpayers. As we have said from the beginning, we will support a clean Military Construction, Military Quality of Life, and Veterans Affairs conference report, as long as it is not used as a vehicle for a pork-laden omnibus.
Therefore, we hereby reiterate our support for a conference if, and only if, it is limited to producing a military construction and veterans spending conference report and potentially a clean continuing resolution for the remaining unfunded appropriation bills to ensure the uninterrupted operations of the Federal government.
Additionally, with respect to the military construction and veterans spending legislation--
1..Each spending provision or directive language in either the text of the final legislation or the statement of the managers must meet one of the following criteria--
a. it is authorized in current law, and the amount in the conference report does not exceed the authorized level;
b. it was requested in the President's Budget, and the amount in the conference report does not exceed the amount in the President's Budget;
c. it is listed on the Future Years Defense Plan and the amount in the conference report does not exceed the amount in the Future Years Defense Plan.
2..Each spending item contained in the conference report must be contained in either the House or Senate bills and must not exceed the higher of the two amounts for that specific provision.
3..The total spending level in the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill shall not exceed the current 302(b) allocations.
Thank you for your leadership and willingness to do the right thing for American taxpayers.
Mr. DeMINT. Madam President, the leader then told me he wanted to talk with Senator Hutchison and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee before he responded to the letter. Senator Hutchison agreed to the parameters of the letter. The chairman of the committee, however, felt that he could not agree to the request we made in the letter. Unfortunately, that means the Military Construction bill will have to wait until next year.
I take my colleague from Texas at her word when she says she will keep the bill clean. I know she will keep the bill clean. However, when the chairman of the committee says he will not make such a commitment, I must take him at his word as well. I believe the veterans and military projects need to be funded and should not be used as a vehicle for unrelated, wasteful earmarks.
Let me explain how we got to this point. In the November 7 elections, one of the top issues for the voters was wasteful spending. While we have done some things to control taxes and spending, we have not done nearly enough, and the voters are right. Earmarks have gone up in numbers every year and are now at an all-time high. If this does not end, we will never regain the trust of the American people.
When the military construction and veterans spending bill passed the Senate, I strongly supported it. However, it was clear that the intent was to use the bill as a shell to carry the Omnibus appropriations bill and other add-ons. Because the scope of the conference rules has become so relaxed, the conferees, under our rules, would have the ability to put into the bill any projects they please, with no opportunity for us to amend them or even vote, except on final passage of the bill, which would be overwhelmingly approved.
The conference process has rendered the Senate floor consideration of bills almost irrelevant. Nothing we do in this Chamber matters until a bill goes to conference. When a bill goes to conference, conferees may remove provisions that are in both the House and the Senate bills, even if they were approved by both Houses overwhelmingly. Conferees may add provisions that are unrelated to either bill.
Through this process, a clean Military Construction bill could grow into a foot-tall Omnibus appropriations bill, with thousands of earmarks and wasteful spending. The process is flawed, and it cannot continue this way. When a bill comes back that funds the entire Government and we are forced to vote for the bill or shut down the Government, that bill is going to pass. This means that if I consent to letting this bill go to conference, I am essentially consenting to enact whatever the conferees want to insert in the bill unamended.
We put a lot of trust in our conferees, and all I was asking was for an understanding from the committee that we know, at least in general, where the conference will be headed. I have not been able to get this commitment. I was given no information and no assurances.
Therefore, I am compelled to do what I think is right to protect the taxpayers and to provide integrity and accountability in the spending process.
Madam President, I yield the floor.