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Press Conference with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY); Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN); Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK); Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS); Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID); Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) - Recommendations from the Fiscal Reform Working Group

Interview

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, good afternoon, everyone.

I think I don't have to remind you that the whole subject of congressionally directed spending or earmarks has been a controversial issue this year in the Senate and certainly been an issue that has exhibited different points of view in the Republican Conference.

In order to try to not only bring our conference together but also to come up with what we felt was a coherent way to make additional steps in reforming the earmark process beyond what was done in last year's lobbying bill, I put together a task force of -- a working group of Republicans, led by Senator Lugar. I thought, as our principal diplomat, he might make a lot of sense to be in charge of a group to deal with this issue, upon which we've had significant differences. I added Senator Cochran and Senator Coburn and also Senator Isakson and Senator Crapo.

We -- the task that I gave them was to come up with a unanimous recommendation -- I was not interested in having a majority report and a minority report -- but a unanimous recommendation, something that everyone could agree to, that would be an improvement over the current process. They have now done that. I think you have it before you. And I'd like to call on the chairman of the working group, Senator Lugar, to explain the recommendations of the group. And then I ask each of our members to take a couple of minutes and give you their own take on what the group came together to recommend.

So with that, Senator Lugar.

SEN. LUGAR: Thank you, Leader McConnell.

It was my privilege to work with four distinguished colleagues on an important subject, and each of you have before you the report of our committee, which was unanimous, after several meetings, senators only, a vigorous debate and discussion, in which we all learned a great deal.

The essence of our report is the need for transparency with regard to earmarks. Some members would say earmarks are in fact amendments to legislation. They are offered by legislators in their constitutional role of perfecting legislation.

The report, however indicates that amendments or earmarks, as you may want to characterize them, must be a part of the text of the bill. Therefore, there's transparency because they are visible.

They are amendable. A member could vote to strike that language or to add to it as the case may be.

Now, to add to this transparency, there is a requirement that a member who offers an earmark suggestion or amendment to the appropriations committee and/or any other committee -- and there are other committees, in fact, that deal with earmarks, including the foreign relations committee, with treaties -- that those thoughts, that earmark must be on the member's website 48 hours before the debate begins. And there are specifics in our report as to what that notification must include, which is a considerable rationalization, plus, obviously, thoughts that this is not going to benefit the member, his family, staff -- various other disclaimers of that sort. So at least there is an alert 48 hours before on the member's website. That, we think is important.

Likewise, we've noted that the administration -- executive branch of government -- sometimes has what might be called earmarks. We want to illuminate those situations. We've had questions raised as to what happens if the chairman of a committee or the ranking member is called by the secretary of Defense, who wants something placed. And my response has been that the member, if he offers this and it's in the text of the bill, puts this on the website and maybe even says, "The secretary of Defense called me, wants a new battleship." But there -- once again, it's transparency as to where this came from and a rationalization as to why it is justified.

Finally, we want to work on a mechanism -- I stress it that way -- in which, if the earmark or amendment is eliminated, that the savings in money from the elimination goes to reduction of the federal deficit. That is not an easy process, and those of you who would want to challenge, "How do you get that done?" raise good questions, although Senator Crapo has had experience, as he reminds us, as long as a dozen years ago, telling me to deal with that situation. But it's an important one. Yeah, the idea of -- or one criticism has been that money is being added. But we're suggesting it also be subtracted, that it would go either way in terms of fiscal responsibility.

Finally, I just want to stress again my debt to each of my four colleagues for their willingness to discuss this, to do so vigorously, to offer the views of their own as well as other members to a product that, by our leader's definition, had to be unanimous. And that's why this is a fairly thin report -- two pages, or back and front side of one page, as the case may be.

But it is at least a set of constructive suggestions which we are hopeful that the Republican Conference might adopt, ideally that the Senate might adopt. But that will be up to our leader and to Leader Reid and to others to determine what form all of this ought to occur.

But we're grateful to you for coming out today to hear about the product of our work. And I would like to ask each of the other four members of our working group to speak. And I'll turn to Senator Isakson and then Senator Cochran, Senator Crapo and Senator Coburn.

Johnny.

SEN. ISAKSON: Well, thank you, Chairman Lugar, for taking on this responsibility. And I thank my other four colleagues for their vigorous participation. And I particularly thank Leader McConnell for doing what was exactly the right thing to do in terms of this issue.

Earmarks has been both provocative and controversial as well as totally misunderstood by a lot of people. And the five of us took a considerable amount of time looking at the responsibilities of a member of the United States Senate and looking at the accountability that's necessary in government to have a trust level. And what we're doing, it's absolutely appropriate.

And I think what we have done, as you read this, the following things. It gives integrity to the system of designating appropriations. It gives transparency to anybody who wants to see, and it gives a mechanism for the body to respond through amendment to strike what it deems is inappropriate.

And that's precisely what the world's most deliberative body is supposed to do: clearly transparent for everybody to see, clearly can be taken out if somebody finds something wrong with it, clearly a system that respects the integrity of the appropriations process, which is a constitutional responsibility of a member of the Senate.

I very much appreciate the opportunity to have been a part of it. I think if we can embrace these principles, both you in the media as well as our constituents at home will have the absolute comfort to know that you can see what's going on before it happens rather than read about it afterwards. And if there's a correction that needs to be made, there's a mechanism to make that correction in full view of the public on the floor of the United States Senate.

SEN. COCHRAN: I think you will find in reviewing the report of the Fiscal Reform Working Group that we acknowledge right away that this is a Republican Conference recommendation. We're not presumptuous enough to think that this changes the rules of the Senate or amends any law that's on the books, but it is a challenge to the Senate to change the way it does business and acknowledge the fact that our process has to be open, it has to be easily understood by members in terms of what their individual rights are to participate, to strike, to amend, to add to any provision in any bill; not just appropriations bills, either, but legislation from any committee.

So it is a broad-based consensus, and I was pleased and honored to be asked by the leader to serve on the working group. And I hope that it achieves the results that we intend: more visibility, easier to understand processes, and openness.

SEN. CRAPO: Thank you. I also want to thank my colleagues and our leader for establishing this and for working on this task force. I think if you look at the work product, it truly does achieve what needs to be achieved with regard to earmark reform. It addresses the transparency issues, it addresses the procedural changes that need to be made so that earmarks can be easily challenged once they are identified, and it addresses the substantive change in law that's necessary to make sure that once that has all happened, that there is a consequence; namely, that spending is reduced.

I want to just focus for a bit on that last part because I think that's one part of the earmark debate that is often overlooked. As most Americans talk about earmarks, they think that if we can stop an earmark or if an earmark is eliminated, that that means that that spending has been eliminated. But as you well know, that just means that that direction for how that spending is going to be made is eliminated. The amount budgeted in the bill for those dollars is still maintained and it will still be spent. It will simply be spent by someone else, a federal agency, or in some other process.

And what we are talking about in the debt reduction part of these recommendations is that we need to make sure that a process is put into place, a substantive change in the law is accomplished by which when earmarks are eliminated, those dollars are also eliminated from the budget and applied to the reduction of our national debt -- a very, very critical step.

What Senator Lugar was referring to is we had this debate about 12 or 15 years ago in the U.S. House of Representatives. It's what was the original lockbox proposal. And the idea was to lock up the earmark spending that has been eliminated and spill it over into the national debt rather than to just spilling it back into other spending projects.

SEN. COBURN: Thank you. Well, it was my pleasure to work with all my colleagues on this. As you can imagine, with Chairman Cochran and myself sitting down in the room talking about earmarks, you had to have a great referee in terms of Chairman Lugar. I appreciate that.

I also appreciate the attitude with which everybody came to this. You know, this isn't just about transparency, it's about accountability. And you can't have accountability unless the American people know what's going on up here.

And I would correct one thing Chairman Lugar said. There's a requirement in here that the Appropriations Committee list the earmarks before the bill comes out, so that we can see it.

You know, my staff spent hours digging earmarks that are very craftily hidden so we can't find them. And so this changes this. And it's not for us to find, it's for the American people to see what we're doing. We are on an unsustainable fiscal course. The appropriators are given numbers; they do a great job with how they do it. But the other aspect of this is identifying who's going to get the earmark and is that legitimate and is there a conflict of interest associated with that.

So I'm very pleased to be a part of this group. I would have wanted more, but we came to a compromise, and I think it's a great compromise.

I would also say this should become the rules of the Senate, and the way it becomes the rules of the Senate is the American people demand that it becomes the rules of the Senate. And I hope that our leadership and our conference will push that that will happen.

Thank you.

Q Senator McConnell, a lot of this stuff you need the Democrats to go along with -- (off mike) --- but there are some ideas about transparency that Republicans could sort of unilaterally adopt for their membership. Is that something you might consider recommending to your conference?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yes. I think we are of a unanimous view that our recommendations are what we would recommend to our conference. But beyond that, the next step is for me to sit down with the majority leader, apprise him of what we've agreed to, and see how he feels about it. And hopefully, this will enjoy widespread support.

And the second step, of course, would be to implement some of these proposals, probably through a rules change, as Tom Coburn indicated. So this is the conclusion of our task force. Senator Luger had an opportunity to brief a fairly significant percentage of my conference at lunch. We'll make sure everybody's acquainted with what's in the proposal, and I'll be talking to Senator Reid about it shortly.

Q But what I was asking is whether you're willing to sort of unilaterally adopt these rules on transparency as far as Republicans are concerned.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, it will be up to each senator to make that decision. Obviously, we don't have a dictatorship. I think many of our members will do that.

Q Are there any of you on this podium who will not do that, irrespective of what your conference or the full Senate does?

SEN. MCCONNELL (?): Mine are already up on my website.

SEN. : I think most of us are already --

SEN. MCCONNELL (?): Yeah, I think we're doing it already.

SEN. : I don't have any. (Laughter.)

Q Senator McConnell, do you think this will actually result in any -- if this was all adopted, would this actually result in any reduction in earmarks ultimately? Do you think it would make any difference?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I think that's happening already. I think members are more cautious about requests that they make. I think they're taking a harder look at the requests that we get from our constituents, which is where all of these originate, and -- yeah, I think that's happening already. And I think the kind of process that these senators have outlined and recommended that we adopt unanimously will further move us in that direction.

Q Senator Lugar, why is the proposal that the earmarks be identified after they have been inserted in legislation, instead of when the senator requests them?

SEN. LUGAR: So that there will not be embarrassment either to the senator or anybody else for something that is not going to be debated and is not going to happen. It's a simple answer. There may be requests in the real world in which we live from many sources, and a senator may, at least prior to all of this, respond by including all of them in the request to appropriations.

But what we're saying now is that this is a sobering situation. The senator knows that this is going to be in the bill to begin with, listed, as Senator Coburn has said, on the senator's website with a rationalization of why this is important to Indiana, but to the nation, why taxpayers generally ought to be in favor of this sort of thing. And so as a result, our conclusion was that only those situations that are actually going to be debated, that are physically going to be out there in front ought to be included, at least in the website.

Q Do you think this will resolve -- maybe at the front end reducing the number of requests you all receive from people if they respond to them by saying, just remember, this is going to be on the website? How do you think it's going to look?

SEN. LUGAR: Well, this is my own experience, so others might have different views, from different states. But we've received a number of requests just in the last month or so, while we've been working on this. My staff has been very thoughtful about how we will rationalize this, has frequently gone back to the requesting party and asked, "Really, what do you mean by this? What will be the effects that are for good? What will be the effects in case every other school, town, what have you, requests the same thing?"

And so as a result, after the sobering-up process we've all been discussing, we've indicated to a number of parties, we need a lot more justification, a filling-out of the program details, because they and we are going to have to explain to all of our constituents in Indiana why they requested this, why they're coming to the federal government as opposed to raising money in a local situation or with the state government or the local county or what have you.

So some of the burden is going to be thrown back.

Now, some people with impunity may still believe that without transparency, it's the old system, that simply you list a group of things; they're all lumped in here and not particularly identified, and maybe you get lucky. There won't be that process given this new transparency.

Q (Off mike.)

Does it change your view about earmarks? Would you lower the number of earmarks you ask for? (Off mike.)

SEN. COCHRAN: First of all, I don't think the test is, how many earmarks are going to be requested, by whom? The question is whether we're going to leave, to the executive branch, the sole responsibility for allocating the resources of the federal government.

The Constitution gives that power to the Congress. No money shall be spent by the federal government except that which is appropriated by Congress. And I take that provision just as seriously as I do every other provision of the Constitution.

So this does not anywhere say that that should be repealed, amended or changed in any way. We're going to continue to insist upon -- in my view, we are; the Congress is -- in having the power and exercising the duty to appropriate all funds that are spent by the federal government.

And just because an item of spending isn't requested by the federal government but is approved by Congress, amounts to an inappropriate use of power or judgment, I think, is just categorically incorrect and wrong.

So those, I view, who may think that we should somehow restrict our power unilaterally and not exercise what the Constitution says we should exercise, I think, are going to be disappointed. Because this report doesn't change the Constitution and it doesn't shift, from the Congress to the administration, all power to decide how federal funds are spent.

Q (Off mike.)

Do you regret that at all? (Off mike.)

SEN. COCHRAN: No.

I think the test is not the number of provisions of bills; whether appropriations bills or provisions of a highway authorization bill or a flood control protection bill or a national defense authorization bill that authorizes the construction of our national defense assets should be treated any different.

The Congress is going to have to exercise due care and restraint, thoughtful process. And it has to serve the public interests.

These are the tests that I think are the most important to consider, and counting up the requests that a chairman of a committee on appropriations or the ranking member on appropriations conveys to the committee and its staff, from sources not only in his or her own state but from government agencies -- state, local and even federal agencies make requests that aren't included in the president's budget, but have become a matter of interest and justify a special request to be made -- somebody has to say, "I support this. I recommend this." And typically it's going to be the chairman or the ranking member of a committee that's called upon to produce the result that's needed.

SEN. COBURN: Can I defend my chairman here for a minute? First of all, one of the things that we decided early in this committee is we have this power. This isn't the power of the president or the executive branch. And I agree with the chairman. It is the Congress's power to do it.

The question is, is whether we'll have transparency in how we do it. And that's the question that's going to get answered if these proposals become part of the rules of the Senate. The transparency will create any modification in behavior that needs to come about because the test of that is the American public. So I concur 100 percent with my chairman in the fact that it is our duty. And I think we're well on our way to doing that job better because we have transparency.

Q Senator Coburn, why do you request no earmarks, then? I mean, it is your --

SEN. COBURN: Well, it's personal. My request for no earmarks is I personally believe that we have to put the country on an economic course that is most appropriate for us. I've outlined $380 billion worth of wasteful spending a year. I can't see how I can request something for Oklahoma until I've gotten rid of that. And I can't see how Oklahoma can be healthy when we're not healthy as a nation because of our unsustainable course that we're on.

Q Senator Lugar, this wasn't in your report, but do you think there's a need to address the disparity in how much earmark funding lawmakers get that -- they're on the committee -- (off mike) -- there might be the political help for a close election, get more money than others?

SEN. LUGAR: I don't think that's for us to determine or for the committee, for that matter. I believe transparency means that, that the Senate as a whole finally determines specifically which of these earmarks are going to become law. They are in there in the bill. As a member, if I feel, I suppose, a sense that I want to even up the score, I systematically -- I might have a list and just X out this, this, this, this -- but I doubt whether any of us are going to do that. We are going to, I hope, take a look at the merits as outlined by the member on the website and the rationalization of the committee, subcommittee or full committee and on the merits do this.

Now I admit, as a matter of common sense, all of you list states, how many, how many dollars and so forth. There has been a correlation between membership on some committees and the number. But I think all of us are suggesting this is a new day. If you have full transparency and all of us do a good job of reporting what we're doing and you could do a good job of reporting your views of what we are doing, then there's a responsibility that may lead to more equity.

Q Senator McConnell, or anybody else, for that matter, one of the things that a lot of people find troublesome about earmarks is that states or universities or your local hospitals feel like they have to hire a lobbyist in order to figure out how to make it through the process and that, you know, in fact taxpayers are subsidizing that industry, where the earmark goes to pay the lobbyist. I mean, what can you do about that? Is there anything that can be done to unwind that cottage industry?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, those are decisions they make. Frankly, if I were in their shoes, I'm not sure I'd do that, but those are decisions they make.

One of the things Senator Lugar mentioned that I wanted to touch on that I -- I think the underlying assumption here is that project funding for members of the Senate is necessarily a great winner politically. Senator Lugar alluded to the fact that most us get a lot of requests.

A baseball umpire is at least right half the time.

Every time he makes a call, he pleases one side and doesn't please the other side. In this whole issue of project funding for states, it strikes me as we don't nearly as well as the baseball umpire. There are way more communities that are distressed that their request was not honored, and somebody else's was.

So the underlying assumption here -- that this is always sort of a politically winning proposition for the members of the Senate -- I assure you, is not necessarily the case.

Q (Off mike) -- an appropriations bill might have several hundred earmarks in it -- would strike one, there would have to be a motion to strike --

SEN. MCCONNELL: (Inaudible) -- on the floor.

Tom, do you want to address that? Because you you've offered several of them --

SEN. COBURN: An amendment on the floor, when the appropriation bill comes through -- we offer amendment. If you win the amendment, the earmark is gone. The money goes to reduce the national debt.

Q And why can't you do that now, having --

SEN. COBURN: Because you can't reduce the national debt. I have had more amendments than all the rest of the Senate combined on striking earmarks. But there's no benefit -- even if you get rid of the earmarks, the money stays there and continues to get spent. So the goal of this is, if you strike an earmark, that money's not going to get spent. It's actually going to go to reduce the debt.

Q Would it still require a change in the law to have it --

SEN. COBURN: Yes, it will.

Q -- not -- (off mike).

SEN. COBURN: Yes, it will. Yes, it will.

SEN. ISAKSON: Let me address that for just a second. One thing that hasn't been mentioned that's critically important -- our recommendations require that any of these designations be in the text of the bill, not in report language, and it's posted on the website of the individual making the request 48 hours before the debate.

Clearly, if you think of all the years where you've gone and three weeks after a budget passed, people went back and finally figured out where the language was that directed funding -- that day's over. I mean, you in the media, the public and each of us -- going to make our job a little bit easier to feel accountable about the budget -- the appropriations process itself, because we're going to easily be able to see what's being designated. We're going to have the time in advance to go after it, and we're going to have a procedural way on the floor to strike it. That has not -- because of the lack of transparency in the past and because of the sheer time constraint of going through one of these things, that really couldn't be done in the past. And that's the great contribution, I think, that this entire working group has made to the process and to the clarity and to the transparency and to the accountability.

SEN. CRAPO: And let me just add one other aspect of that, and that is that although technically a lot of this can be done today, what Tom has indicated is it's really hard to search through the committee report.

And if it's not in the bill language and it's not easily findable, it's hard to know what earmarks have been included in the legislation before we actually consider it on the floor, even though it is technically there.

What we have recommended here and, I think, we ought to clarify it. It's the committee website that will identify these things. The committee, as it is preparing its bill, to move the bill forward, will have to identify the earmarks that are being included 48 hours in advance, so that again the transparency process is facilitated.

It's not that this information isn't already there. But it's not there in an easily transparent, findable place and in a way that we can identify it quickly.

Q (Off mike) -- Excel spreadsheet rather than a PDF? (Laughter.)

REP. COBURN: It is in a searchable format.

Q (Off mike.)

(Cross talk.)

REP. COBURN: We took care of that indirectly, because it has to be in the language of the bill. And what the ruling by the parliamentarian was, is anything that's eardrop that was in report language, we couldn't get to. And it was left to Harry Reid to decide or the majority leader, whoever that may be. Now since it has to be in the language of the bill, we have the rules that are already pre- existing on a point of order on a conference report.

Q (Off mike.)

Is there any problem with the housing bill? Senator Reid had us down on the floor a few minutes ago, talking about Republican obstruction -- (off mike).

SEN. MCCONNELL: No, you know, we just laid down, this morning, a bipartisan Shelby-Dodd housing bill that took all yesterday to draft. But I think we've made substantial progress. And I understand his impatience, but sometimes pulling both sides together takes a little time.

And the drafting took literally all of yesterday. We were all sort of sitting around waiting for the legislative council to finish. I think we're on track to getting that done in the near future.

Thanks a lot, everybody.


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