PROTECTION OF LAWFUL COMMERCE IN ARMS ACT-MOTION TO PROCEED
Mr. KENNEDY. Will the Chair notify me when I have a half minute left?
Mr. President, at a time when capitulation to special interest groups is a major issue in the Presidential election campaign, it is difficult to believe that the Republican leadership in the Senate is serious in asking the Senate to accept this flagrant special interest legislation. I urge my colleagues to break the stranglehold of the gun industry and gun dealers and oppose proceeding to this shameful legislation.
The list of issues that demand the Senate's immediate attention is long. Unemployment is a crisis for millions of citizens.
Retirement savings are disappearing. School budgets are plummeting. College tuition is rising. Health care costs and prescription drug costs are soaring. Federal budget deficits extend as far as the eye can see. The war in Iraq has brought new dangers, imposed new costs, and more and more American lives are being lost each week.
The well-being of most American families has declined at an alarming rate in the past 2 years. We can and should be acting to meet these challenges. Instead, the Republican leadership wants to spend time on this flagrant pro-special-interest, anti-victim, anti-law-enforcement legislation to give broad legal immunity to the gun industry.
This bill's proponents claim they are targeting "frivolous lawsuits." But we all know that its real effect would be to prevent victims of gun violence-police officers, innocent bystanders, and their families-from pursuing valid claims in State and Federal courts.
This special interest bill is a direct attack on the interests of law enforcement. Police Chief William J. Bratton of the Los Angeles Police Department recently told it like it is:
To give gun manufacturers and gun dealers immunity from lawsuits is crazy. If you give them immunity, what incentive do they have to make guns with safer designs, or what incentive do the handful of bad dealers have to follow the law when they sell guns.
The bill would prevent the families of the victims of the DC snipers from holding accountable the gunshop in the State of Washington that somehow "lost" the assault rifle that was used in the attacks. Under current law, if negligence is proved, the families of the victims are entitled to seek redress. If this bill is enacted, the gunshop will be totally immunized from liability, and the families' lawsuits will be thrown out.
Unbelievably, the gun industry and the tobacco industry are the only two consumer industries that are not subject to Federal consumer safety regulations. America does more today to regulate the safety of toy guns than real guns, and it is a national disgrace.
The gun industry has worked hard to prevent Federal consumer safety legislation. At the same time, it has conspicuously failed to use technology to make guns safer, and it has attempted to insulate itself from its distributors and dealers, once the guns leave the factory.
Now it wants to become the only industry in the Nation exempt from lawsuits. The overwhelming majority of Americans believes that gun dealers and gun manufacturers should be held responsible for their irresponsible conduct, like everyone else.
The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Senator has 30 seconds remaining.
Mr. KENNEDY. Surely, the Republican leadership has higher domestic priorities than providing legal immunity for the gun industry. Surely, we can do better than debate this extraordinarily reckless and unprecedented special interest legislation.
I withhold the remainder of my time.
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, just prior to the vote I addressed the Senate on a tight timeframe pointing out my concerns about why we were taking this action at this particular time. I have had the opportunity to travel the country.
We just ended the February recess where we had a chance to get around, as well. One of the things that has struck me over the course of those travels is the overwhelming concern working families have over the state of the economy. It is reflected in whether they are going to be able to retain their job; if they have a new job, the fact it does not pay as well as the old job; they are concerned about the cost of health care, the cost of prescription drugs; and concern over the increase of tuition. These were the issues.
One concern I have meeting at this time is we are considering special interest legislation. We have heard a great deal both by the President and during the course of the election. Hopefully, we can free ourselves from special interest legislation.
Our Republican friends offer this legislation, put a cloture motion down immediately, limit the time for any debate and discussion that provides very special interest legislation for the gun manufacturers. That must concern millions of Americans, certainly those who are concerned about the state of the economy, those concerned by the failure of the Senate to increase minimum wage over 7 years. We have 7 million Americans making $5.15 an hour who have not had a raise for 7 years and we are considering special interest legislation to protect just a single industry, the gun manufacturing industry.
There are tens of thousands of Americans losing their unemployment compensation every single week yet we are not debating the question of the extension of the unemployment compensation-which is in surplus, close to $18 billion. Senator Cantwell has an amendment to extend that for a temporary period of time, give some relief for all of the workers who cannot find work.
Finally, the administration admits we will not have good jobs, good pay, good opportunities for the future. Finally, the President has agreed with that. He differs with his Council of Economic Advisers. For weeks we heard from the other side of the aisle:
The economy is back. And now the President agrees the economy is not back.
We do not need much Senate time on the issue of a minimum wage increase. I would agree to an hour, half an hour on either side. Let's send to American workers working on the lower rung of the economic ladder a message that help is on their way. It will benefit primarily women because they are primarily the recipients of the minimum wage. It will go to mothers and children because many of the women have children. It is a children's issue, a women's issue. It is a minority issue because most of the minimum wage workers are men and women of color. It is a civil rights issue, a children's issue, and a women's issue. Most of all, it is a fairness issue.
People wonder why the Senate doesn't do something about increasing the minimum wage. We have the majority of votes but our Republican friends will not let us vote.
We hear the pious statements-look who is controlling the time-and can't we go ahead with the Nation's business. The Nation's business is increasing the minimum wage. No, no, we cannot deal with that this morning. No, we are not going to deal with that. We will have special interest legislation for just one industry-that is what the other side says-but not for the 7 million people who would be affected.
What about those in need of unemployment compensation? These men and women have paid into the unemployment compensation. Now they have lost their jobs through no fault of their own through basic mismanagement of the economy.
They lose their jobs and as a result they have difficulty paying their mortgage, putting food on the table, making sure their children are going to be looked after. It is not because of them. They are hard-working Americans. They have a record of employment.
Under the Cantwell amendment, we extend the unemployment compensation. We did that in other times of our history. We did it in the previous Democratic administration before that Democratic President had created 2 million jobs. We still provided for those who had long-term unemployment, that they would be able to get unemployment compensation even after more job were created.
Now we have the loss of 3 million jobs, a sputtering return of 78,000, a total loss of 2 million jobs, and they are out there and losing every single day whatever unemployment insurance they have. We say, let us at least provide some temporary help.
Finally, our President has agreed we are not going to get the kind of recovery and create the 2.6 million jobs the Council of Economic Advisers said would occur. They finally admit that. And we are stonewalled to not work on unemployment in the Senate. No, let's look after one industry, not the tens and thousands and millions of hard-working Americans who have worked hard, played by the rules and need enough to be able to continue to pay their mortgages and look after their families. No, no, no, we cannot do that. It might take all of an hour. Everyone in this body knows what the issues are. We have to do special interest legislation.
That is not even the end of it. We have the clock ticking on unemployment. More than half of the unemployed adults have had to postpone medical treatment, 57 percent; or cut back on spending for food, 56 percent. One in four, 26 percent, has had to move to other housing or move in with friends or relatives; 38 percent have lost telephone service; 22 percent are worried they will lose their phone. More than a third, 36 percent, have had trouble paying gas or electric bills.
One of the principal reasons for the increase in bankruptcy is because of this kind of challenge. Our Republican friends want bankruptcy reform in order to expedite the pursuit of these unemployed people who are having difficult times paying their bills and mortgage. That is what the bankruptcy bill is all about: make the Federal Government collection agencies for special corporate interests. That is why they are trying to rush it through. And more and more are going into bankruptcy.
Unemployment benefits should be extended with the economy still down over 2 million jobs. This chart reflects where we are today, with a total loss of 2.4 million jobs. These figures are from the Department of Labor. The Republicans say, no, no, we have something more important to deal with, special interest legislation.
This chart shows during the previous administration, they created 2.9 million jobs, yet they still had the extension of the unemployment compensation for those out of work who had paid in over a long time. The unemployment compensation fund is
in surplus, $17 billion. It will cost $7 billion and they say it will put a strain on the fund.
This is what is happening, the unemployment impact on the family. More than three in four, or 77 percent, of the unemployed Americans say the level of stress in their family is increased. I don't know how you put dollars and cents on that figure. Everything is dollars and cents around here. This is the kind of pressure and tension and anxiety these families are under, the 2.5 million.
Two-thirds, or 65 percent, of those with children have cut back on spending for their children. Those are working families trying to provide for their children clothes, or perhaps a birthday present, perhaps an outing, taking them to a baseball game in the spring, a hockey game or a basketball game in the winter. That is not there for any of these families.
Twenty-six percent say another family member has had to start a job or increase their working hours. Those are basically the women, the mothers, when they can find it. All those mothers are working twice as hard now as they did 20 years ago.
Twenty-three percent have had to interrupt their education. Imagine that, working families, the unemployed-2.4 million of them-and almost a quarter of their children have had to interrupt their education because their parents are unemployed through no fault of their own.
That is the pressure they are under. Do you think we can get an extension of the unemployment compensation? No, no. We have to deal with this special interest legislation.
This is the overall view of where we are in our country now. We have 13 million children who are going hungry. We have 8 million Americans who are unemployed. We have the 8 million Americans who will lose overtime pay under the Bush proposal.
This is another interesting issue. There is no increase in the minimum wage, there is no extension on unemployment compensation for workers, and now we have the proposal to eliminate overtime for 8 million Americans.
Well, you have 13 million children who are going hungry, and the millions who are without work.
We have 7 million low-wage workers waiting 7 years for an increase in the minimum wage. There are 3 million more Americans in poverty-3 million more Americans in poverty-since President Bush took office. Are we addressing this issue today? Oh, no, no, no, we do not have the time to do that. We have to rush through this special interest proposal. We do not have time out here on the floor of the Senate to address the issues of those who are living in poverty, or the 90,000 workers a week-90,000 workers a week; think of that: 90,000 workers a week.
Most of us are always impressed during Sunday football games that we watch in our stadiums when they have that incredible view from the airplanes or balloons or whatever that shows the stadiums packed with people. They will say: 89,000 people, 75,000 people. I guess it is 78,000 out in Lambeau Field out in Wisconsin, which I have been to recently. People look out there and they see the mass of people out there: 80,000, 90,000 people. Think of that number of people every single week-every single week-losing their coverage of unemployment compensation.
I want to mention one other area because I see good friends in the Chamber. My friend and colleague from Iowa will be offering an amendment on overtime. I know the Senator from the Washington, Ms. Cantwell, will be here soon to talk about her amendment on the unemployment compensation.
But one of the cruelest, cruelest, cruelest suggestions that has been made by any administration in the time I have been in the Senate is to effectively do away with overtime pay for 8 million Americans and for those who receive training in the Armed Forces and acquire special skills.
Now let us think about the administration's proposal and who they are talking about. Who would be affected by the proposal the administration is talking about? Shown on this chart is a list of the professions that would lose the coverage for overtime pay.
The idea of a 40-hour workweek has been at the heart and soul of our whole country's ethic. Certainly from the late 1930s it has been a part of it. There has been a recognition that if you are going to require people to work overtime, you are going to pay them time and a half. That has been accepted by Republicans and Democrats alike since the end of the 1930s. But not under this administration. They are talking about limiting overtime.
Who will be the groups that will be affected by the elimination of overtime? This is the group: It is going to be the policemen, it is going to be firefighters, it is going to be the nurses, among others. I mention policemen and firefighters and nurses because, as we know, they are the backbone of homeland security. If we are going to have a problem with chemical or biological warfare, it is going to be those policemen and firefighters and nurses who are going to be the first responders who are going to risk their lives locally in those communities to try to contain this kind of threat. They are the ones who are going to be on the front lines. Yet those are the very people who this administration feels are being overpaid. Even the police force that is here in the Senate in many functions would be affected.
There are a lot of things that are troubling in the United States of America today we should be and must be concerned about. I mentioned the number of children who are living in poverty and what is happening to these families who have seen their jobs outsourced. Many of these things we ought to be working on. But one of the great problems in our country today is not that our policemen, firefighters, and nurses are being overpaid. I have not heard anyone say that except the President of the United States or the Secretary of Labor. I have not heard anyone come up to me back in Massachusetts saying: You know something, Senator, those policemen and firefighters and nurses are being overpaid. Do something about it. Do something in Washington about it. I don't hear that. There is no question that some manufacturers believe that and feel that and have asked the administration to do something about it. No question about that. And they did, the administration has. I will give you an example.
But let me just conclude on this chart-police officers, nurses, firefighters. The interesting part is that women, by and large, are mostly in these areas and professions. This reduction in overtime primarily affects women in our workplace.
But something that just makes this extraordinary-and has been debated here on the floor of the Senate-this proposal was rejected by the Senate of the United States, rejected by the House, but this administration feels sufficiently strong about this issue that they insisted the Harkin-Kennedy language be taken out of the bill in the middle of the night behind closed doors-behind closed doors-at the insistence of the major manufacturing companies in this country. And we are going to face that. We are going to be facing that in these next few weeks as we have the reauthorization to do it.
Now let me point out something on the rates that have been proposed. These are the ones that have been proposed on the overtime. Listen to this. And I am talking about the kinds of skills, cumulative skills that will make people ineligible for overtime. I am reading right from the Federal Register, and I will include the appropriate reference in the RECORD:
However, the word "customarily"-
That means the definition about the skills that will be excluded-
means that the exemption is also available to employees in such professions who have substantially the same knowledge level as the degreed employees, but who attained such knowledge through a combination of work experience, training in the armed forces. . . .
There it is, the Federal Register, volume 68, No. 61, Monday, March 31, administration's proposed regs. If you get the skills, training in the Armed Forces, if you happen to be over in Iraq today or Afghanistan and you have gone to some training programs in order to provide greater protection for your fellow troops in fighting for our country, maybe a member of the National Guard or Reserve, you get those kinds of training functions, you come back here, you are out of the Guard, you return to work, and your boss says: Hey, these new regs say you got the training in the Armed Forces. Too bad. You are not getting your increase.
That is what this says. A number of us raised this in the earlier debate. The Secretary of Labor in January sent a letter to the Speaker of the House, DENNIS HASTERT, saying-and I will include the letter in the RECORD; it is only a page and a half long-
I want to assure that your military personnel and veterans are not affected by these proposed rules by virtue of their military duties or training.
But that training in the Armed Forces can make a worker an overtime-ineligible, professional employee. This is new language. It is not in the current regulation, and its only purpose is to take away overtime for veterans.
Why don't they just drop the language and free us from any kind of ambiguity? Just say, this was brought to our attention, we are going to drop it, instead of trying to explain it away.
Continuing from the letter:
First, the Part 541 "white collar exemptions" do not apply to the military. They cover only the civilian workforce.
No one is complaining that the rule affects the military workforce. The issue is the veteran who leaves the military to work in the civilian workforce and would lose overtime protections. They are rather clever. They say the white-collar exemptions don't apply to the military. No one is suggesting it applies to the military. This letter is an attempt to mislead. It is very clear. If the administration does not intend to apply these overtime regulations to those who have been in the service, they ought to just eliminate it.
I ask unanimous consent to print the letter from which I have quoted in the RECORD.
There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:
SECRETARY OF LABOR,
Washington, January 27, 2004.
Hon. J. DENNIS HASTERT,
Speaker of the House of Representatives,
DEAR MR. SPEAKER: I write to provide you with the facts to correct the record following last week's Senate floor debate on the Consolidated Appropriations Act with regard to the Department of Labor's proposed revision of the Fair Labor Standards Act's overtime exemption regulations. I also would like to thank you for your support and leadership on this important issue.
The recent allegations that military personnel and veterans will lose overtime pay, because of proposed clarifications of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) "white-collar" exemption regulations, are incorrect and harmful to the morale of veterans and of American servicemen and women. I want to assure you that military personnel and veterans are not affected by these proposed rules by virtue of their military duties or training.
First, the Part 541 "white collar exemptions" do not apply to the military. They cover only the civilian workforce.
Second, nothing in the current or proposed regulation makes any mention of veteran status. Despite claims that military training would make veterans ineligible for overtime pay, members of Congress should be clear that the Department of Labor's proposed rules will not strip any veteran of overtime eligibility.
This has been one of many criticisms intended to confuse and frighten workers about our proposal to revise the badly outdated regulations under the FLSA "white collar" exemption regulations. It is disheartening that the debate over modernizing these regulations to meet the needs of the 21st Century workforce has largely ignored the broad consensus that this rule needs substantial revision to strengthen overtime protections.
The growing ambiguities caused by time and workplace advancements have made both employers' compliance with this rule and employees' understanding of their rights increasingly difficult. More and more, employees must resort to class action lawsuits to recover their overtime pay. These workers must wait several years to have their cases adjudicated in order to get the overtime they have already earned. In fact, litigation over these rules drains nearly $2 billion a year from the economy, costing jobs and better pay.
I hope that this latest concern will be put to rest immediately. Once again, I assure you that military duties and training or veteran status have no bearing on overtime eligibility. We hope that future debate on this important provision is more constructive. If we can provide further assistance in setting the record straight, we would be pleased to do so. The Office of Management and Budget has advised that there is no objection from the standpoint of the Administration's program to the presentation of this report.
ELAINE L. CHAO.
Mr. KENNEDY. The Bush overtime proposal denies overtime to veterans. The overtime proposal explicitly states that training in the Armed Forces could disqualify workers from the overtime protection. Many employers, such as Boeing, acknowledge that this will affect much of their workforce. According to Boeing's comments on the Bush proposal:
Boeing observes that many of its most skilled technical workers received a significant portion of their knowledge and training outside the university classroom, typically in a branch of the military service. . . .
There it is. That is the reason. Because many manufacturers wanted that kind of savings for the bottom line. That is why that is in there. Because this company and others have hired people who have been in the military, and when they see they have these kinds of skills which are necessary for our Armed Forces, they are being penalized for it.
I would be interested in seeing the discussion between the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Labor in putting these out. So many of these training programs and education programs are programs that inspire young people to go in the Armed Forces. They are men and women of limited means but have ability and capabilities and understand that they cannot achieve their fullest potential unless they take these training programs or build the kind of credits in order to get advanced degrees.
They ought to be on warning now that if they go ahead and do that, they may very well be knocked out of any kind of overtime protection. That is what this basically says. It is a cruel hoax to so many who are in the National Guard now and are going to come back and be in the civilian workforce.
I want to read from a letter:
My name is Randy Fleming. I live in Haysville, Kansas-outside of Wichita-and I work as an Engineering Technician in Boeing's Metrology lab.
I'm also proud to say that I'm a military veteran. I served in the U.S. Air Force from August 1973 until February 1979.
I've worked for Boeing for 23 years. During that time I've been able to build a good, solid life for my family and I've raised a son who now has a good career and children of his own. There are two things that helped make that possible.
First, the training I received in the Air Force made me qualified for a good civilian job. That was one of the main attractions when I enlisted as a young man back in Iowa. I think it's still one of the main reasons young people today decide to enlist. Military training opens up better job opportunities-and if you don't believe me, just look at the recruiting ads on TV.
The second thing is overtime pay. That's how I was able to give my son the college education that has opened doors for him. Some years, when the company was busy and I had those college bills to pay, overtime pay was probably 10% or more of my income. My daughter is next. Danielle is only 8, but we'll be counting on my overtime to help her get her college degree, too, when that time comes. For my family overtime pay has made all the difference.
That's where I'm coming from. Why did I come to Washington? I came to talk about an issue that is very important back
home and to me personally as a working man, a family man, and a veteran. The issue is overtime rights.
The changes that this administration is trying to make in the overtime regulations would break the government's bargain with the men and women in the military and would close down opportunities that working vets and their families thought they could count on.
When I signed up back in 1973, the Air Force and I made a deal that I thought was fair. They got a chunk of my time and I got training to help me build the rest of my life. There was no part of that deal that said I would have to give up my right to overtime pay. You've heard of the marriage penalty? Well I think that what these new rules do is to create a military penalty. If you got your training in the military, no matter what your white collar profession is, your employer can make you work as many hours as they want and not pay you a dime extra.
If that's not a bait and switch, I don't know what is.
You can't make the case any better-no matter how long we speak, how many charts we have-you can't make the case any better than is being made by this former serviceman.
And I don't have any doubt that employers will take advantage of this new opportunity to cut our overtime pay. They'll tell us they have to in order to compete. They'll say if they can't take our overtime pay, they'll have to eliminate our jobs.
It won't be just the bad employers either-because these rules will make it very hard for companies to do the right thing. If they can get as many overtime hours as they want for free instead of paying us time-and-a-half, they'll say they owe it to the stockholders. And the veterans and other working people will be stuck with less time, less money, and a broken deal.
I'm luckier than some other veterans because I have a union contract that will protect my rights for a while anyway. But we know the pressure will be on, because my employer is one that pushed for these new rules and they've been trying hard to get rid of our union.
And for all of those who want to let these military penalty rules go through, I have a deal I'd like to propose. If you think it's okay for the government to renege on its deals, I think it should be your job to tell our military men and women in Iraq that when they come home, their service of their country will be used as a way to cut their overtime pay.
Madam President, is there anyone in this body who doesn't believe that eliminating that possibility isn't of greater urgency than the special interest provision presently before us in the Senate?
Why don't we clear this up once and for all? Why don't we take an hour or so and debate the Harkin-Kennedy amendment on this issue? Why don't we vote on that amendment and send it over to the House? Let's send a message to families, nurses, police officers, and firefighters. Let's send a message to those who have gotten skills in the National Guard. Let's send a message that we stand with them, that we believe their service is of importance to us in the Senate. Let's put aside the speeches for a little while that will be made by political leaders all over the country about how much we appreciate the service of men and women and do something for them in the Senate now? Now.
There are a number of other issues that we could be talking about in terms of the state of our economy. I have taken a short period of time. I see others in the Chamber who wish to address the Senate. It does seem to me that the matters I have mentioned, no matter how you come out on them, are of importance to working families in this country. And, the working families in this country are faced with economic challenges.
It is not just the questions about outsourcing, although that is enormously important and a matter of great and expanding concern. It is what is happening with the failed increase in the minimum wage, the failure of providing unemployment compensation, the failure to do the overtime provisions, the failure to deal with the high cost of prescription drugs. There is another amendment we could do to permit the Secretary of Health and Human Services to actually negotiate and do something about lowering prescription drugs for people. We could do that pretty quickly.
People are concerned about the high cost of tuition in colleges, and there are things we can do on that.
I say these are the matters that are of principal concern to working families across this country. We have seen the loss of manufacturing jobs, the concerns that working families have. They want some action. They don't want us to yield to special interest provisions. Not only do they not want us to yield to them, but those who have been victims of violence and violent gun activity don't want us to throw their cases away, and leading law enforcement officers of this country understand that we should not yield to the special interests as well.
I look forward to the opportunity for some discussion and some action on these issues prior to the time we have a vote. I yield the floor.