30-SOMETHING WORKING GROUP
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Thank you so much to my friend from Connecticut. It is a pleasure to join you in the 30-something Working Group once again.
And we need to remind our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, Mr. Speaker, that, on November 7, the American people sent us a very loud message. They sent us a loud message that they wanted us to move this country in a new direction. We began to do that. We heard them, and we began to do that in implementing our 100 hours agenda, our Six in '06 agenda, by adopting a bill that would establish an increase in the minimum wage, by having the student loan interest rate, by making sure that we hold pharmaceutical companies' feet to the fire and ensure that, for Medicare part D prescription drug beneficiaries, that we negotiate for lower drug prices. We wanted to make sure that we expand the research into uses of alternative energy.
So what do we do? We repealed the subsidies that were given away by the Republicans to the oil industry so that we can use that money more appropriately to fund alternative energy research. We passed legislation that would implement fully the 9/11 Commission recommendations.
And, on top of that, the other piece of the new direction pie was clearly the message sent by the American people, Mr. Murphy, that they want a new direction in terms of the war in Iraq. They are sick and tired of the rubber-stamp Republican Congress that we used to have giving the President a blank check, allowing the administration to go unchecked in terms of its utter lack of accountability, allowing contracts to be let with no questions asked; no hearings during the course of the years. We have now completed 4 years of this war, and up until the time when Democrats took over this Congress no questions, no hearings about the direction that the administration was taking this country and this war. A total shift from the war of necessity, which was the war in Afghanistan, which really was in direct response and had the widespread support of the American people, that really and truly was a response to the 9/11 attack; instead, a shift to a war of choice in the war in Iraq. And that was utterly unacceptable when Congress was misled and was given a set of facts on intelligence 4 years ago, when they misled Congress into voting for this war.
Now, we are still mired in chaos there. The administration has allowed Afghanistan to descend back into chaos when we had brought them democracy, and we had beaten the Taliban, and women had been given an opportunity to have freedom. Girls could go to school again. It was a new day in Afghanistan. And that has essentially been squandered. In favor of what? In favor of civil war in Iraq? In favor of us intervening and trying to resolve a civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiites that has gone on for hundreds if not 1,000 years?
When is this administration going to recognize that when we say the word, when we refer to the troops, Mr. Speaker, it is very easy to think, let's examine the term ``troops.'' I think it is very easy to look at that word and not see it in a personal way. I think that we throw the word ``troops'' around so much that we forget that troops, a troop is a person.
We are talking about individuals who are fighting for this country and who are doing their duty. And most of them that are over there are on their third tour of duty, Mr. Murphy.
I know I have told this the last few times that I have been here with my 30-something colleagues, but I went to Walter Reed. I cannot get it out of my mind, because I have two 7-year-old kids and a 3-year-old, and I can't imagine what this family has gone through.
But one of the soldiers that I visited when I went to Walter Reed before we voted on the escalation resolution and rejected the President's policy, when we voted to adopt that resolution, rejecting the President's policy on escalating this war, I went to Walter Reed before we voted on that. And one of the soldiers I met was with his wife and with his young child, who was 6 years old, this beautiful 6-year-old little boy. And that 6-year-old little boy was so excited that his dad's tour was going to be done in August, and he said, my daddy is coming home forever in August.
His dad was sick in Walter Reed. He had contracted a mysterious illness. But he had been through three tours of duty. Each were a year. And his only son, his only child was 6 years old. And that meant that he missed half of his son's life already.
So when we refer, you know, without thinking to the troops, the troops, if it is a brigade or any one of a number of military terms that we use for individual troops or a collection of troops, we are talking about people.
And if we do not make sure that this supplemental passes, the choice is a plan to get our troops home and provide them with the equipment that they need and an exit strategy and benchmarks to ensure that the we and the administration hold the Iraqi government accountable to meet those benchmarks. The alternative is a continued blank check and a directionless war that has no end in sight.
It is a pretty stark contrast. We can eventually see our way clear and had there been a light at the end of the tunnel and adopt the supplemental and, in addition to that, provide the support that our troops need, the equipment that they need, the plan to get them home, and support for our veterans, which is incredibly important; $1.7 billion in this bill for health care for our veterans.
We have this glaring, horrific problem at Walter Reed that went ignored by this administration. And thank God we had those, the heads that have rolled. But would they have rolled if Democrats weren't in charge of Congress? No. We know they wouldn't have, because, yet again another scandal would have been swept under the rug. The administration would have tried to ride it out, keep their fingers crossed, squeeze their eyes shut tight and hoped that they could endure until the next media news cycle went through.
No more, not now that we have balanced government, that we have the ability of this Congress to assert our oversight role and to reassert what the founding fathers envisioned, which was our system of checks and balances.
And I think we are all about third party validators here in the 30-Something Working Group. And I noted what this Washington Post article from Wednesday of last week, it was appropriately titled ``White House Finds Trouble Harder to Shrug Off.'' And it goes on to talk about how, in the past, questions about its, meaning the White House's, actions might have died down without the internal administration e-mails being made public, referring to the U.S. attorney scandal.
There are many issues that would have just been swept aside by this administration in the past, allowed to occur and ignored by the then Republican leadership here. But not now that we have a democratic Congress that is going to make sure that we hold this administration's feet to the fire, and make sure that they are responsible for civil liberties for all Americans, and fiscal responsibility.
I would be happy to yield to the gentleman.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. You know, you are absolutely right. And in addition to the oversight and accountability and new direction that the supplemental on Iraq seeks to provide for the direction that the actual conduct of the war is taking, it is really imperative that we focus on the portion of the bill that relates to what it does for our veterans because, clearly, this administration, and the former Republican leadership of this Congress, did a disservice to them. They spent, in the 2 years that I was here prior to your arrival, the careless disregard that I noticed for veterans coming from the former Republican leadership was just really unbelievable because so often, Mr. Speaker, I heard our colleagues and friends on the other side of the aisle stand on the floor and profess undying devotion to our Nation's veterans and how it was imperative that we support them.
Well, words are nice. But that is all they were because every opportunity that our colleagues had, in the time that I was here, when I first got here as a freshman, to help our Nation's veterans, the Republicans said no. No.
In January of 2003, which is actually prior to my getting here, the Bush administration actually cut off veterans health care for 164,000 veterans. Don't believe me? You have only to look at the Federal Register to see the documentation of that.
March 2003, the Republican budget cut $14 billion from veterans health care that was passed by Congress, with 199 Democrats voting no. That was H. Con. Res. 95, vote Number 82 on March 21, 2003.
Then we moved to a year later, March 2004. One would think that the Republicans had a year to think about it and would have finally realized that it was time to stand up for our Nation's veterans. They certainly said it a lot. When it came to doing it, they fell short.
The Republican budget shortchanged veterans health care then by $1.5 billion. That was passed by Congress with 201 Democrats voting against it.
In March of 2005, another year later, President Bush's budget shortchanged veterans health care by more than $2 billion for 2005, and cut veterans health care by $14 billion over 5 years, and passed with 201 Democrats again voting against it.
Now, let's go to the summer of 2005. And I was here by then. I could not believe that this happened, because for months and months the Bush administration denied that there was a shortfall, said that there was no problem, stalled and pushed back. And finally, in summer of 2005, Mr. Murphy, after democratic pressure, the Bush administration finally had to acknowledge in Fiscal Year 2006 that there was a short fall in veterans health care that was their error of $2.7 billion. And we had to fight all summer to get it fixed and have an emergency supplemental bill just to address the shortfall. It took pressure and cajoling and shame to finally bring them to the table and get them to do that.
And then in March of 2006, President Bush's budget cut veterans funding by $6 billion, Mr. Speaker, over 5 years. That was passed by the then Republican controlled Congress.
Fast forward to January 31st of 2007. The new direction Democrats increased the VA health care budget by $3.6 billion in the joint funding resolution.
And now, I can tell you that in our supplemental that passed out of the House Appropriations Committee last Thursday, on which I sit, with none of the Republicans, zero voting for it, $1.7 billion to the request for veterans health care, including $550 million, Mr. Speaker, to address the backlog at the VA health care facilities so we can prevent similar situations like what happened at Walter Reed because certainly, if we didn't know what was going on in Walter Reed, we have to make sure we address the needs of our veterans in health care facilities across this country that are run by this administration's VA agency.
$250 million for medical administration so that we can insure we have sufficient personnel to address the rising number of veterans that are coming back from Iraq, and that we have to make sure we maintain a high level of services.
$229 million for treating the growing number of veterans. $100 million to allow the VA to contract with private mental health care providers to provide veterans, including Guard and Reserve members who so often are neglected, Mr. Murphy, with quality and timely care; and $62 million so that we can speed claims processing for returning veterans.
When I went to Walter Reed, and when I have gone home and talked to my veterans, and I know that you have experienced this too, the bureaucracy and the red tape that our veterans have to go through to get care. It is like they put roadblocks, it is like the VA and this administration puts roadblocks in front of our veterans on purpose.
It is like they delight in stalling them. I mean, it is not their money. I don't get it.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Thank you. Because now they finally have responsive government, Mr. Murphy. They finally know that the Members who represent them collectively in this Chamber, the Members that are leading this Chamber are hearing them, that it is not falling on deaf ears; that this institution is not of the special interests, for the special interests, and by the special interests any longer. Now we have restored this to actually be the people's House, and our leadership and our agenda is a reflection of the interests of the people.
And as much as they might like to say that that wasn't the case, privately in their heart of hearts when they went to sleep at night, our Republican colleagues had to lay down in the dark by themselves when they went to bed and know that they weren't addressing the needs of the American people.
I mean, I am not someone who lives and dies by polling, but look at the polling. Look at the numbers towards the end of last year and how the American people generally felt about the job that this Congress was doing. That is a reflection on all of us. It is just appalling that the American people would have confidence in the twenties in the likelihood that Congress was going to be responsive to them. They would express support for their individual Member of Congress, but collectively as an institution they have lost confidence in us.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. I want to segue to the U.S. attorney matter because what you just said brought something to mind. But before I do that, I do want to throw out yet another example of the neglect, of the just stark neglect, that this administration has and has had for our veterans. I mean, take Walter Reed. I have a timeline in front of me, a neglect timeline for the treatment of the soldiers that are housed at Walter Reed and that seek services at Walter Reed, going back to July of 2004.
First I want to just put up this Newsweek Magazine cover, Mr. Speaker. This is a young woman who clearly has lost her legs, and I think the picture speaks all that it needs to without words. But the caption on the picture on the cover of Newsweek, which was the week of March 5 of this year, says: ``Shattered in body and mind. Too many veterans are facing poor care and red tape. Why we're failing our wounded.'' And Walter Reed, there is no better example of what this article spoke to, Mr. Speaker, than the neglect timeline at Walter Reed.
If you go back to July of 2004, again, Mr. Murphy, in the summer before I was elected, you had Major General Kevin Kiley appointed Walter Reed Army Medical Center's Commander.
In mid to late 2004, you actually had our colleague from Florida (Mr. Young) and his wife stop visiting the wounded at Walter Reed out of frustration; Mr. Young, who has been a champion for veterans. Believe me when I tell you that our colleague from Florida Mr. Young is a legend, an absolute legend, that is revered in a bipartisan way in this institution. But Mr. Young said he voiced concerns to commanders, including Major General Kiley, over troubling incidents he witnessed, but was rebuffed or ignored. He said, ``When Bev or I would bring problems to the attention of authorities at Walter Reed, we were made to feel very uncomfortable.'' And the source of that was the Washington Post.
November of 2005, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman STEVE BUYER announced that for the first time in at least 55 years, ``Veterans service organizations will no longer have the opportunity to present testimony before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees.''
Now, talking about closing off access to the people that we are here to serve, can you imagine that they wouldn't let veterans service organizations testify in front of the Veterans' Affairs Committee? I mean, it is just mind-boggling.
August of 2006, Army Major General George Weightman assumes command of Walter Reed, replacing Major General Kiley.
September 2006, 13 Senators, 11 Democrats and 2 Republicans, sent a letter to urge then-Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman THAD COCHRAN, Republican from Mississippi, and Ranking Member ROBERT BYRD, Democrat from West Virginia, to preserve language in the House defense appropriations bill that prohibits the U.S. Army from outsourcing 350 Federal jobs at Walter Reed. A similar provision, introduced by Senators MIKULSKI and SARBANES, was defeated by a close 50-48 vote during the bill's consideration in the previous week.
Then in September 2006, Walter Reed awards a 5-year, $120 million contract to IAP Worldwide Services, which is run by Al Neffgen, a former senior Halliburton official, to replace a staff of 300 Federal employees. Halliburton again. Who headed up Halliburton, Mr. Murphy? Do you recall who headed up Halliburton?
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Yes, I believe you are right. The gentleman that is currently our Vice President.
In February of 2007, just about a month ago, the number of Federal employees providing facilities management services at Walter Reed, Mr. Speaker, had dropped from 300. There were 300 Federal employees that were replaced with a $120 million private contract run by a former senior Halliburton official, and the 300 dropped to fewer than 60. The remaining 60 employees went to only 50 private workers; 300 to 50 private workers.
February 19, we know it was revealed by the Washington Post that there was an expose detailing mistreatment of veterans at housing on the grounds of Walter Reed Medical Center. And what has unfolded since then is resignations of top generals, resignations of the Secretary of the Army. Heads are rolling, Mr. Murphy, as they should be, because of the profound neglect of our wounded veterans and our veterans that need assistance from that very fine institution.
Not only did the heads roll, but it led the Appropriations Committee last week to adopt an amendment offered by my colleague who sits on my subcommittee, Mr. LaHood, to ensure that Walter Reed Army Medical Center is not closed down because not only do we need to get to the bottom of what is going on there, but we need to make sure that that institution not only continues to serve our Nation's veterans, but serves them well.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Mr. Speaker, it is essential that we honor those commitments. And I was stricken by what our colleague from Georgia said at the end of the last hour when he referenced the need to be bipartisan, to come together and work on bipartisan solutions and move forward together. I was really glad to hear him say that.
But the room was shockingly silent for the last 2 years that I served here, that there really weren't calls for bipartisanship or locking elbows together and finding the way to the best public policy on issues of mutual concern.
But be that as it may, we agree that we should move forward in a bipartisan way. And, in fact, the open government and ethics package that we adopted as part of our New Direction agenda on the first day that we were here was a commitment on the part of our leadership and on the part of our Speaker Nancy Pelosi that we would have the most inclusive, open, and honest Congress in American history. And we have steadily been doing that every single day.
Unfortunately, the administration doesn't seem to be buying into that same concept of bipartisanship. Again, very nice words are said. I have seen the President stand in the Rose Garden and stand on the South Lawn and stand in lots of different really attractive camera shots talking about the need for bipartisanship. And yet, again, when it has come to light that there was a proposal out of the White House to fire 93 U.S. attorneys and subsequently we have gone back and forth with the White House about what the actual truth behind those suggested and then eventual firing of eight of them was, we have not been able to get a straight answer.
In fact, we have had a concern that administration officials, including the Attorney General, have come before Congress and been less than forthcoming. I want to be careful about the words I choose, but it has gotten to the point where we have been told so many different things about what was behind those firings that we are at the-boy-who-cried-wolf point now.
Again, speaking as a mom, I know I have talked to my kids, and sometimes children will be less than truthful when they are concerned that they might get in trouble. I know that my kids sometimes are worried they are going to get in trouble and that the potential punishment is worse if they tell me the truth than if they kind of soft-pedal the actual facts, and maybe what happens to them will be not the worst thing. But I always find out. I always eventually know what really happened. And that is exactly what is going on here.
Any parent will tell you that they have sat their children down and counseled them, ``You know, it is always better to just tell me the truth, because I am going to find out anyway, and the consequences are going to be far worse for you when I do find out than if you were just up front with me in the beginning.''
Maybe we have to talk to the President and the White House and the administration like moms talk to their kids.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Not to be your mother or anything now, but, seriously, maybe an elementary back-to-basics conversation is what is necessary, because clearly the process that they have been taking us through has been less than honest. We have had a lot of misleading excuses.
We have reached a point, and I sit on the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Murphy, where now our subcommittee has taken the step of feeling like in order to get to the bottom of it, we had to authorize the committee to issue subpoenas to bring the Attorney General and to bring Karl Rove and the administration officials associated with this scandal, with potentially being less than truthful to this Congress, with covering up what actually happened, maybe a subpoena may be necessary.
I think that is sad and unfortunate, but we cannot have less than truth when we ask administration officials questions when they come before this institution.
I am glad about the potential for bipartisanship. During the hearing we had in Judiciary yesterday, a number of our Republican colleagues indicated they were also unhappy with what was going on with this administration. In fact, specifically on the issue of the attorney firings, one of their top leaders, another good friend from Florida, Congressman Putnam, actually said that he questioned the Attorney General's ability to continue to serve. I will quote what he said in the Washington Post.
He said, ``His ability to effectively serve the President and lead the Justice Department is greatly compromised.'' During a lunchtime interview with reporters, he said, ``I think he himself should evaluate his ability to serve as an effective Attorney General.''
We are talking about the number four ranking Republican in their leadership on that side. Believe me, I know ADAM PUTNAM. He has served with integrity in our legislature in Florida, and does so here. If he is at that point, then you know there is something seriously wrong. There is seriously something wrong.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. If the gentleman will yield for a second, when then-President Clinton did that, correct me if I am wrong, he was asking for the resignations of the Bush appointees, of the Republican appointees of his predecessor.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Now, my understanding when this scandal occurred, we are talking about a situation where the President, I believe, was considering asking for the resignation of 93 of his own U.S. attorneys. Subsequently, they decided maybe that was going a little too far, so I think the number is eight, they only fired eight.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. My recollection also is that there was some interference and some questions about specific cases for each individual U.S. attorney that were raised by some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle during this process before those firings.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. If the gentleman will yield, we should point out the President believes he magnanimously offered was to offer that the officials associated with this scandal to speak with, essentially, the Judiciary Committee, not under oath, that there be no transcript, and that Congress would not subsequently subpoena them.
That is when Mr. Conyers said, yes, we could just go have a drink and have that kind of private conversation which reveals nothing, which has no accountability whatsoever.
Mr. Murphy, the other thing that I think is important to note is that the first answer that we were given about why, and these people do serve at the pleasure of President. Again, that is why I drew my kid analogy. Because I never understand when I ask my kids, and, fortunately, I have very honest children, so this doesn't happen often, but little kids, when they are learning as they are growing up, they do dumb things.
What brought this to mind was the first answer that the administration gave was that, well, you know, we were concerned. We lost confidence in their ability. They weren't up to snuff, they weren't very good attorneys and they weren't doing a very good job.
As you might imagine, these are eight pretty capable people who thought they were doing a good job. When they had their ability questioned, a bunch of them got mad. We are talking about very loyal Republicans here, some who had been long-standing supporters and contributors to the Republican Party. They went out there and defended themselves and said, wait a second. I am pretty darn qualified individual. How dare you.
Then we dug a little deeper. It turns out, well, it is not that they were not qualified. It is more that they weren't aggressively pursuing Democrats who were being investigated in their jurisdiction.
The bottom line is we really don't know. And then they started pointing fingers at each other inside the administration. First, it was really Karl Rove. No, it wasn't Karl Rove, it was Harriet Miers that called for the firings.
The bottom line is to restore the confidential of the American people in their government, which is what we absolutely need to do, and that is our goal. Because it was badly shaken by the Republican leadership, we need to get to the bottom of scandals like this.
I know we are getting closer to our end time and we want to make sure we have an opportunity to encourage people, if they have any questions or want to see the charts more closely we have seen tonight, we will give out the Web site.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. It has been a pleasure to join you, Mr. Murphy. I have to tell you how thrilled I was that we expanded the 30-Something Working Group and we have now given ourselves a new chapter to talk about the issues that are important to the American people, and we have now the ability to hold the administration's feet to the fire and exercise Congress' oversight role which the Founding Fathers envisioned.
I would be happy to yield back to the gentleman to close us out.
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