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Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, 2004-Continued

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

DEPARTMENTS OF VETERANS AFFAIRS AND HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT AND INDEPENDENT AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2004-CONTINUED

Ms. LANDRIEU. Mr. President, I rise to speak on the underlying bill as well as to make some general comments about the Defense authorization bill we just passed and a few comments about the veterans provisions generally.

I thank the Chair and the ranking member for their good work on the underlying bill. I understand we hope to pass this very important appropriations bill before 6 o'clock this evening.

I was unable to be here earlier today. I want to make a couple of comments regarding veterans generally.

There are 400,000 veterans in Louisiana, and 12,000 of them are directly affected in a very positive way by the underlying bill.

Before I speak about that, I wish to say that the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Warner from Virginia, and our ranking member, Senator Levin, should be commended for crafting a very good Defense authorization bill at a very difficult time.

I was formerly a member of the Armed Services Committee and worked for many years to fashion a bill, and I know how difficult it is even in times that are not stressful, much less in a time when we are in a war against terror in Iraq, here at home and other places around the world. It seems to me, as a former member of the committee, that the conference could have imploded many different times. But to Senator Warner's and Senator Levin's credit and very good bipartisan working relationship, that bill was passed earlier today.

While I don't agree with all the provisions of it, there are a couple which are very important to our troops in Louisiana: No. 1, the 4.1 percent pay raise for all of our troops. And, No. 2, we moved closer to completely eliminating the disability tax on veterans in Louisiana with 20 years of service; that is, 12,000 men and women who now, when they retire, do not get their full retirement and disability benefits but basically have to give up 50 percent of that benefit. This bill we passed earlier today corrects that. For those families and their loved ones, that will mean immediate help.

In addition, the TRICARE eligibility expansion for guardsmen and reservists, if they are unemployed or cannot acquire health insurance from their employers, is a tremendous gesture to the Guard and Reserve who we are counting on and depending on to help defend us at this time. We literally could not win this war or even begin this endeavor without their commitment.

We must remain committed to the quality of life of our veterans and to letting our Guard and Reserve men and women know how much we appreciate them. We must keep ever vigilant, particularly when it comes to the Guard and Reserve. We are getting ready to send another 43,000.

I wish to make a couple of comments about the tax treatment of our Guard and Reserve and speak about some disappointment in that area.

Yesterday, with some fanfare, the Military Family Tax Relief Act was passed. It is a help, but in my mind it is an insufficient gesture. It is too modest for what our men and women in uniform deserve. The bill provided $1.1 billion in tax relief, which was asked for and which is most certainly deserved. It doubles the amount of payments to survivors of soldiers killed in action from $6,000 to $12,000-not a lot of money, but it helps the families better than the $6,000 that was in the previous law. It allows guards and reservists to deduct travel expenses, it allows troops to deduct the cost of equipment they buy themselves, and it reduces the residency requirement so our troops can take full benefit of the capital gains provision in the law as do other Americans who are not in the service.

But this bill did not go far enough. I wish to speak for a minute about this and my strong objection to moving forward with it without additional help and support.

The bill that was signed, Tax Relief for Families in the Military, represented .006 percent of the $1.75 trillion in tax relief that has been passed by this Congress at the urging of this administration. Let me repeat. The bill that was signed on Tuesday for the military only represented .006 percent of the tax cuts that have been provided by this administration to Americans generally. Yet the military, the men and women in uniform today, the over 1 million men and women in uniform, are providing 100 percent of our security, one could argue. That is not to diminish the role of our men and women in uniform, police and fire on the home front, but protecting our borders, fighting the battles overseas, they are providing 100 percent of the protection. Yet they only receive in this bill .006 percent of the tax cut.

We asked, Republicans and Democrats alike, to please include a provision that would have allowed the Guard and Reserve who are leaving their jobs and leaving their businesses to go fight in Iraq, to please have the Federal Government recognize that many of these families are losing income, sometimes as much as 60, 70, or 80 percent. We are asking them not just to go and put their life on the line, but we are asking them to put their livelihood on the line.

When some Members petitioned this administration, and particularly the House Republican leadership, to give some relief, to provide some tax relief to these businesses to encourage them to maintain those salaries for our Guard and Reserve, we were told: We do not have enough money.

We had 1.75 trillion to give tax cuts generally to people not in the military, but we could not find a few pennies to help our businesses in this country, to help their employees meet their salaries for the benefit of their families. I know the Senator wants to get back to the HUD bill, and I will in a minute, but I want to make this point and then get to the underlying bill, VA-HUD.

What we have to do in every way we can, whether it is this veterans bill we are debating now, whether it is in Defense authorization, or whether it is in our tax bills, to recognize our first priority should be to our men and women in uniform, overseas and here on our home front. When we design tax packages and tax benefits, they should be the first, not the last, to receive the help. They should be getting the lion's share or the essence or the core, not the crumbs that fall from the table.

Unfortunately, still, despite the lives that are being given, despite the effort that is being made, they still are receiving crumbs when they deserve the whole loaf of bread.

I will submit for the RECORD an article about a reservist reward for MSG Rodriguez: His reward was bankruptcy. When MSG Rodriquez and his company were activated for 1 year, they were given an 8-hour notice. He had to leave behind his wife to run the couple's construction company. He comes home and his daughter, of course, is crying and in tears, his wife is upset because they lost their business. Their income was cut by 80 percent. I ask unanimous consent to have this article printed in the RECORD.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

[From CBS Evening News, Nov. 11, 2003]

A RESERVIST'S REWARD-BANKRUPTCY

On a sun soaked street in northern California, Air Force reservist Oscar Rodriguez is finally back home from active duty, where, as CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports, the high and unexpected cost of war has taken a toll.

"They ain't giving us a loan cause I got bad credit," says Rodriguez.

"It was hard seeing my mom," says his daughter Desiree. "I mean seeing her stressed and seeing her cry-it hurts a lot."

When Master Sgt. Rodriguez and his company were activated for one year-on eight hours notice-he left behind his wife to run the couple's construction company.

"My dad was away and so she's pretty much was doing this on her own cause he can't do anything about it when he's gone, and I can't really do anything about it, but I try," says Desiree.

They all tried, but with Rodriguez at war, repairing Air Force cargo planes, the family income was cut by 80 percent.

"I lost the bids for my construction projects," says Rodriguez. "I lost my savings. I lost my credit. My credit history-it's in shambles."

Despite federal laws protecting active duty reservists from creditors during wartime, the creditors kept calling. Their home is now in foreclosure.

"You do everything that you're supposed to do without asking for help," says his wife Kathy. "All you want is for everyone to do the right thing."

The Rodriguez family aren't the only ones who've sacrificed. Of the nearly 200,000 reservists on active duty in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world, one-third have taken a pay cut in order to serve their country.

Rodriguez is now trying to rebuild his business one step at a time. He's gone from building hotels to kitchen counters. He's suing his creditors as much for the principle as the money.

"It's about every soldier, sailor, airman or marine," says Rodriguez. "Anybody who's serving our country has a right to at least not be concerned about the wolves knocking at the door."

Asked if they're going to recover, Rodriguez and his wife say they aren't sure.

"We're separated," said Kathy Rodriguez, as her husband sat silently beside her.

The strain of duty and debt may have cost this couple their marriage. Yet, Rodriguez has re-enlisted.

He's a member of an Air Force Honor Guard.

For him, sacrifice isn't a slogan. In war there are casualties, both overseas and at home.

Ms. LANDRIEU. The efforts some Members made to get this issue dealt with were rejected because we did not have enough money to help this reservist or the thousands and hundreds of thousands who are fighting for us, taking the cut in pay and losing their companies in the process.

Also I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the RECORD an article printed regarding 120,000 Federal employees who serve in the National Guard and Reserve. Nearly 14,000 have been called to active duty to help fight the war in Iraq. Senator Durbin and I wanted to get in the tax bill that was passed a provision that would allow them to maintain their salaries, their Federal salaries, so as not to fall down, basically, to receive the lower salary they receive in the Guard and Reserve. The sad thing is it would not have cost the Government anything because we had already budgeted to pay them their full salaries. This was rejected.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

[From Government Executive Magazine, Apr. 2, 2003]

BILL WOULD CLOSE PAY GAP FOR ACTIVE DUTY FEDS
(By Tanya N. Ballard)

Three Senate lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday that would require the government to pay the difference between civilian and military wages for federal employees called to active duty.

More than 120,000 federal employees serve in the National Guard and Reserves, and nearly 14,000 of them have been called to active duty to help fight the war in Iraq. But most of those employees earn less as active duty reservists than as civilian workers, according to Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. Durbin joined with Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. to introduce legislation that would close the gap between military and civilian pay for those workers.

"We cannot simultaneously encourage Americans to serve their country in the National Guard and Reserves and then punish those who enlist by taking away a large portion of their income," Durbin said.

The Illinois senator described the case of one Air Force reservist who took a $45,000 cut in pay when he was called to duty and left his job as an air traffic controller in Chicago.

"This was a severe blow to his family," Durbin said.

According to Landrieu, several local and state governments, as well as private companies, have a pay gap plan in place to address this issue and the federal government needs to do the same.

"Reserve and guard employees-whether working in the public or private sector-should not have to take a pay cut when called to active duty, and that's exactly what's happening now," Landrieu said. "These men and women are not getting a tax cut, they are taking a pay cut to serve. It does not make sense."

According to Durbin, the gap in salary can range from 2 percent to 48 percent.

"We must provide our reservist employees with financial support so they can leave their civilian lives to serve our country without the added burden of worrying whether their loved ones back home can make the monthly mortgage payment or provide new shoes for their kids." Durbin said. "They are doing so much for us, we should do no less for them."

Ms. LANDRIEU. I say for the benefit of the people in Louisiana, we do not understand how we can give our tax credits to everybody but the Guard and Reserve. We can give out help to everybody except those Federal employees who take off one uniform and put on another, leave their homes for 6 months to a year, sometimes longer, and we expect them to take a cut in pay when we are giving tax credits to people who are not fighting.

If I could conclude on this one issue which really pours salt into the wound, when people say, Senator, we could not afford it, we actually found a way to pay for it. We said we should pay for it by making people who are right now evading U.S. taxes because they have made so much money in America because our troops have put their life on the line to protect the way of life which allows business people to make a lot of money in America, these business people who have made a lot of money because of what these men and women are doing in the Armed Forces, these business people are now deciding they are paying too much in tax, so they go to another country. They do not want to pay their taxes.

So we said let's make those folks pay their taxes and use those proceeds to pay for tax relief for the men and women in the military. We were told we cannot do that. We cannot possibly make people who owe taxes to America pay their taxes so that we can pay the men and women in uniform and give them a tax cut. I hope we will change our policy because it is wrong. We have missed an opportunity to help these families.

I conclude by thanking Senator Mikulski and Senator Bond for their hard work on behalf of veterans. They have restored a lot of the cuts that were proposed by this administration. I am proud to be part of helping to pass a veterans bill. But let's not forget it is not just about appropriations bills where we can help our men and women in uniform. Tax bills can help them. Other direct spending bills can help them. No one deserves our help more than people who put on a uniform every day and actually put their life on the line.

This Senator does not think we are doing enough and can afford to do more when we found an offset to make regular people pay the taxes they owe. If they do not want to put on a uniform and fight, that is fine, but at least give the benefits to the people who are protecting their ability to make a living.

I yield the floor.

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