The Blackburn Report
The End of the Year Brings Victories for Fiscal Conservatives, Hope for Troops and Vets
Democrat leaders in Congress really forced us down to the wire this year, before they all rushed out of town for the Holidays. Their final act was a half-trillion dollar omnibus spending bill that rolled eleven appropriations bills and more than 9,000 earmarks into a bill so large you need a cart to haul it around.
Obviously Members couldn't scrutinize the entire bill before it came up for a vote, but a few things did stand out. In the thousands of pages that were thrown together to avert a government shutdown, Democrat leaders found the money to study fruit flies in a French laboratory and build a hippy museum in New York, but they couldn't find a cent to fund our brave men and women on the front lines in Iraq. Ultimately it took last minute Senate action spearheaded by the Republican leadership to trim some of the pork and give our troops the funds they need.
Additionally, the final days of the congressional session brought two key victories for Tennessee families. First, Democrats were turned back in their attempt to transform the SCHIP program into a massive entitlement. Secondly, fiscal responsibility prevailed when Congress passed a last minute bill to prevent the expansion of the Alternative Minimum Tax and turned back a Democrat proposal to raise taxes on millions of working class Americans.
Turning back Democrat leaders on these issues is significant, and the credit goes to you. I want to thank you for your support over the last year. Without your letters, e-mails, and phone calls offering support, as well as ideas and ammunition, we could not have held Speaker Pelosi off as well as we did.
Unfortunately a good deal was left undone as well. Tennesseans still do not have sales tax deductibility for 2008, and the Democrats "slow bleed" strategy for Iraq means that Congress will likely find itself in another fight over war funding in the spring.
Before I move to an issue-by-issue breakdown of where we are, I want to commend a holiday website to you that was recently recommended to me. NORAD Tracks Santa is a fun website run by the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The good people there devote the military's technology to tracking Santa as he makes his rounds on Christmas Eve. Your family can log on to www.noradsanta.org and track Santa along with the military. Now, on to the serious stuff...
In the last days of this session, we finally took the correct action to hold off a pending collapse of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) by passing legislation that fully funds the existing program, provides physicians a .5% payment increase through Medicare, and critical Medicaid DSH payments for Tennessee hospitals. These are three significant accomplishments for Tennessee families, and represent hard-fought efforts throughout the year to responsibly reauthorize the SCHIP program.
All Members of Congress share the goal of expanding access to quality healthcare to all children and all Americans. As a matter of fact, it was a Republican-led Congress that created SCHIP nearly 10 years ago to provide health insurance to disadvantaged children. Yet efforts to responsibly reauthorize the program for the next six years had been frustrated by a plan by the Democrat leadership to create a massive new entitlement program around SCHIP.
According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the Democrat plan would place an additional 1.2 million people onto the SCHIP rolls by 2012, including 600,000 who already have private health insurance coverage today. It would have cut out the income limit for eligibility, allowed states to expand the eligibility pool to include "children" up to the age of 21, and repealed the requirement to provide proof of citizenship when enrolling- making it easier for illegal immigrants to receive taxpayer-funded health care. The Democrat bill provided strong incentive for individuals and employers to dump private coverage and shift costs to the taxpayers -- at an estimated cost of $74,000 per person annually.
In Tennessee we watched a similar stampede to state-run coverage cripple the TennCare system -- Tennessee's state Medicaid program. TennCare placed the state's entire Medicaid population into state-run managed care. The state's Medicaid population quickly ballooned as employers rushed to dump coverage onto the tax payer. In just a few short years, the program was in crisis and nearly 200,000 people were cut from the rolls in a desperate attempt to save the system. The TennCare experience is a perfect "what not to do" model for healthcare reform, but the Democratic leadership in Washington seems to have learned precisely the wrong lessons.
Republicans proposed a clean extension of SCHIP that focused on the original intent of the program, how to fill the gap of those covered under existing government programs, and children whose parents could not afford insurance.
S. 2499, which passed this week, is an extension of this program that represents a responsible, short-term solution to the pending collapse of the SCHIP system. The bill extends SCHIP through March 31, 2009 and provides funding to cover currently eligible children without expanding eligibility definitions beyond current limits.
S. 2499 also addresses a critical problem facing Tennessee's doctors. Medicare physician reimbursement rates are determined by the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula. The SGR has proven to be a flawed formula that does not account for the rapidly increasing volume in Medicare patients or the rising costs of caring for those patients. In 2002, the SGR formula resulted in a 5% reduction in physician fees. That formula was temporarily overridden but it still presents an unacceptable situation.
Tennessee has many generous doctors who will continue to treat Medicare patients regardless of the reimbursement rate, but further cuts will make this even more difficult. Legislation passed this week eliminates for six months the reduction in physician payments scheduled to take place on December 31, 2007 and provides a .5% increase through June 30, 2008. A permanent solution, however, is needed.
The National Security issue on the forefront of everyone's mind are our troops on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am pleased to note that Coalition forces are making progress in Iraq, though that progress is certainly fragile. General Petraeus' strategy is working and Iraq is more secure. The strategy, designed primarily to secure the city of Baghdad itself, is having remarkable success. American commanders on the ground report that terrorist attacks against citizens in Baghdad have dropped 80% since November of 2006. Murders in the province of Baghdad have fallen 90% in the same time period. Car bomb incidents are down 70%. The commander of our forces in the city of Baghdad reports that marketplaces in Baghdad are open and Iraqis are once again shopping without fearing for their lives.
While these are impressive statistics, words cannot convey the true turnaround that is happening as well as this chart, recently provided from Baghdad which I am sure you would like to see.
- Chart unavailable
Source: Multinational Corps- Iraq 12/7/07
Still, in the face of this progress, Democrat leadership persists with the rhetoric of defeat and surrender, insisting on an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. I believe that such a withdrawal would be a national security disaster and would signal a major victory for al Qaeda. Congress cannot allow that to happen.
To force retreat, Speaker Pelosi and her allies have attempted time and again to cut off funding for our troops in Iraq. The Speaker believes that this "slow bleed" strategy doesn't come with a cost for our national security, but she could not be more wrong.
The latest attempt to cut off our troops, in the form of the omnibus bill, came perilously close to cutting off the men and women who support them at home. According to the Department of Defense, as many as 100,000 civilians faced lay offs next year when DoD funding began to run out of funds to provide for our troops overseas. Many of those civilians are the spouses of deployed war-fighters; others provide critical base services that families of deployed troops depend on.
Without a reliable source of funding, it is difficult for the military services to execute contracts, purchase and deploy equipment, or repair equipment damaged on the battlefield. All of this increases the stress on our force and ultimately makes America more vulnerable.
At the last moment, Congress was able to pass funding for our troops in Iraq, but I am concerned we will face another funding debate in the spring. Progress in Iraq is fragile, but if Congress comes together and offers American troops and diplomats its full support, I believe we can achieve a positive outcome in Iraq.
The same legislation that provided funds for the troops also provided funds for those we owe the most; American veterans. The legislation includes the largest funding increase for VA programs in American history, including programs that focus on veterans' healthcare, job-training, and rehabilitative services that are critical for the men and women who wore the uniform.
I am proud of the contributions of the veterans of the Volunteer State. Making them whole is a primary responsibility of Congress. I look forward to working with my colleagues next year to ensure that the bravest among us receive the quality care and services they deserve.
Fiscal Responsibility and Tax Fairness
Tennessee families can enjoy the holiday season with the full understanding that for the coming fiscal year, the long arm of the Internal Revenue Service's Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will not extend any further. House and Senate Republicans stripped out tax increases insisted upon by the Democrat Leadership, and forced passage on a clean legislation to prevent additional working class families from paying the AMT, which would have hit an additional 23 million American families in the coming year without congressional action.
After more than eleven months of broken promises, politically-motivated votes and brinksmanship by the Democrat Leadership, I am pleased that Congress was able to provide this critical relief for working Tennesseans.
However, Democrat Leaders should be ashamed to be returning home for the Holidays without extending the sales tax deductibility that is worth billions for Tennessee families each year. Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues on the coast may not be interested in providing tax relief for Tennessee families who do not pay a state income tax, but it is unacceptable to leave town while Tennessee families are at risk. I hope the Majority returns to Washington in the New Year with a spirit to negotiate a solution that permanently delivers sales tax deductibility for Tennesseans.
Republicans in Congress remain committed to securing America's borders in the New Year. While Democrat leaders pay lip service to securing the border, they act behind the scenes to undermine those efforts.
The massive omnibus spending bill passed this week provides one clear-cut example. The legislation includes critical funding to build a fence along the Southern border as mandated by the Secure Fence Act passed last year, yet also includes 15 new conditions that ensure not another link of that fence will be built.
The total conditions, which include onerous environmental and bureaucratic mandates, are designed singularly to prevent construction of the fence by a liberal leadership that never wanted to erect it to begin with. You can be sure that I will work alongside my colleagues next year to strip these impediments to fence construction out of current law, and to continue working to secure the Southern border.
The Republicans in Congress also stopped the passage of a horrendous comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate, and made Democrats take tough immigration votes in motions to recommit on issues like hiring illegal aliens or providing housing benefits to illegal immigrants. To this end, I have filed the Photo Identification Security Act and CLEAR Act, two bills that will prevent illegal immigrants from accessing the U.S. financial system and enhance interior immigration enforcement efforts.
Chuck and I wish you and your families a happy holiday season. For those of you with loved ones deployed in harms way, know that you are in our thoughts and prayers.
Armed with your ideas, my colleagues and I can continue to fight the good fight and hold back Speaker Pelosi and her excessive and costly plans. To do that, I continue to require feedback and all of the great information and ideas you send me. My door is always open, I look forward to seeing you in the 7th District and in Washington in the coming year.