Weekly Update for Monday, January 15, 2006
Making Continuing Education More Affordable
Our region's economy depends on a highly-skilled workforce to stay competitive, and with more and more local companies requiring advanced training, we must be able to adapt. That's why I've introduced bipartisan legislation to give individuals and businesses new tax incentives to invest in continuing education and skills training opportunities. My bill would create portable asset accounts called Lifelong Learning Accounts (LiLAs), similar to 401(k)s, that workers could use to pay for continuing education and training. Workers would pay into LiLAs and employers would contribute matching funds. Both the employer and employee would receive a tax benefit for the money they contribute, up to a defined limit. Individuals could use the funds at any time, without tax consequences and with no expiration date, for education, training, and other expenses related to any effort to upgrade their skills. My plan, which would start with a demonstration project in 10 states with up to 200,000 participants, would offer a unique opportunity to save for continuing education not offered by any other federal program. By investing in new training opportunities, we can strengthen our workforce, help working Americans gain new skills, and make learning a lifelong process.
Negotiating a Better Deal for Seniors
Currently, because of a provision included in the Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Benefit law, the federal government cannot negotiate the price of drugs offered by the program. Instead, this responsibility is left to private insurance companies with little government involvement and almost no transparency. In contrast, the Veterans Administration (VA) is able to negotiate drug prices for its patients, and, not surprisingly, achieves prices far lower than those paid by Medicare Part D enrollees. In fact, for each of the 20 drugs most commonly prescribed to seniors, the lowest Part D price is higher than the lowest VA price, and the median difference between the VA and Part D prices is a staggering 58 percent.
Our seniors need more affordable drugs and I am committed to doing all I can to get Medicare Part D on the right track by improving transparency and letting the federal government play a part in negotiating lower prices for the drugs our seniors need. Last week, in one of my first hearings on the Senate Finance Committee, we took up this issue and discussed the need for more transparency. I'll continue to confront this problem throughout the year so that we can deliver seniors a better prescription drug benefit and end the practice of drug companies and big insurance conglomerates setting drug prices behind closed doors.
Advocating Open Government
This week in the Senate, I'm continuing the push for ethics reform as we consider broad legislation passed by the House earlier this month to enact much stricter ethics standards. Last Friday, I voted in favor of an amendment sponsored by Senator Jim DeMint to strengthen the disclosure requirements for earmarksprovisions inserted into legislation that target money at specific projects. The DeMint amendment would require the full disclosure of earmarks and their sponsors in all appropriations and tax bills, as well as in conference and committee reports, where most earmarks are inserted. It would cover earmarks that go to federal entities as well as earmarks that go to private entities. According to some estimates, unless this amendment is adopted, the underlying ethics reform bill would exclude about 95 percent of earmarks from new disclosure rules. We clearly need more transparency and accountability in Congress, and as Congress continues to consider ethics reform, I'll keep pushing to improve open government, get federal spending under control, and reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests on Capitol Hill.
Honoring Martin Luther King
On Martin Luther King Day, we celebrate a man and honor his legacy. It's an opportunity to recognize the movement he inspired and carry it forward with renewed energy, giving both his work and his words new life.
"The arc of the moral universe is long," King said, "but it bends towards justice." As a national community, we must never rest in the pursuit of justice. We must always demand that our community leaders and elected officials pursue their work with compassion and integrity. This year, as we commemorate Dr. King's bold vision and great spirit, our nation stands at a critical point along that arc. Today, too many hard-working Americans are struggling just to get by. It's time to expand opportunity for all and make sure everyone has a real shot at the American dream.
The policies we choose to support reflect our priorities as a nation. When too many Americans get squeezed from every side, it may be easiest to relent, accept the status quo, or give in to frustration. But we have a responsibility to fight for something better. We can honor King by coming together and making that promise a reality.