HIGHWAY TECHNICAL CORRECTIONS ACT OF 2007--MOTION TO PROCEED--Continued -- (Senate - April 15, 2008)
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Mr. DeMINT. Mr. President, I want to take a few minutes to speak on the transportation technical corrections bill, which we will be discussing this week. Later on I will offer a motion to recommit, with some considerations I would like to address now.
A lot of us were part of moving this through Congress. It is an important transportation bill, when roads and bridges are in desperate need of funding for repairs and widening.
There were over 6000 politically directed earmarks in the original highway bill. Now, the corrections bill involves 500 of those earmarks. I thought we should talk about the bill and what this means, as far as transportation in the United States.
First, I want to thank Senators BOXER and INHOFE for all of the work they have done on transparency on this legislation. While I strongly believe we should put an end to the practice of earmarking, if the Senate is going to earmark, it must do it in a transparent manner. I believe the chairwoman and ranking member have set an example for all committees in providing information in a way that people can look at it and debate it. It is all right for us to disagree on whether we like earmarks. In this case, we can do it with full disclosure of what is actually in the bill.
The American people deserve to know how their elected representatives are spending their money, and the way this bill handles earmark disclosure helps us do just that. The Senators from California and Oklahoma have disclosed the sponsor, the recipient, and the purpose of the earmarks in this bill, in addition to letters disclosing that the sponsors have no financial interests in the particular earmark.
I was also pleased to see that disclosures were made in a timely manner so we could review them before we began consideration of the legislation. They have gone beyond the requirements of the Senate rules, and I applaud them for their commitment to transparency. I hope the other committees are equally committed to transparency.
My colleagues have suggested on the floor that this bill is needed so States can move forward with planning and construction of authorized projects from the last highway reauthorization bill. As with all large bills, there were typos and other errors in this bill, and the technical corrections bill we are discussing this week was designed to correct those technical errors and problems. I think that is something, obviously, we need oftentimes to do with most of our legislation. But instead of correcting the errors from the last reauthorization bill, the committee decided to rewrite public law and add contract authority as well as add to spending levels for certain projects, essentially adding new earmarks to the bill.
The President's statement of administrative policy regarding this technical corrections bill contains strong language critical of this legislation, and let me quote some from that SAP.
The administration notes with strong concern that the majority of the bill is devoted to earmarks. The bill modifies hundreds of earmarks from a bill that passed in 2005, effectively creating new earmarks, including a stand-alone section that would provide mandatory funding for magnetically levitating rail. The effort through H.R. 1195 to modify these earmarks from an authorization that passed only three years ago is a further reflection of those inefficiencies. Therefore, the Administration urges that these provisions be removed from the bill.
That is effectively what my motion will address when we offer it later in the week.
Again quoting from the administration's position on this bill:
The administration urges Congress to restrict the bill to true technical changes. For example, in addition to those noted above, both the Senate-proposed substitute and the underlying bill contain substantive changes to statutory provisions regarding waiver procedures for Buy America requirements that should be removed from the bill because they are not technical corrections. In addition, section 104 of the substitute would repeal section 111(d) of title 23 of the U.S. Code, which allows idling reduction facilities at public rest areas in Interstate rights-of-way. This provision is a policy change, not a technical amendment. Repealing this section of the U.S. Code would eliminate a beneficial initiative first proposed by this administration.
We have heard for the past months, and will continue to hear today, that Members of Congress know what is best in their districts--know better than some unelected Federal bureaucrat. If a Member of Congress knows what is best for their district, then why are we debating a 138-page so-called technical corrections package? I suppose some of these are drafting errors, and I do not deny there should always be room for some error in the legislative process. But page after page of corrections does not speak well for our whole earmarking process.
The 1982 highway bill had only 10 earmarks. That number rose to 538 in 1991, and 1,800 in 1998. The SAFETEA-LU highway authorization bill we are talking about today contained an inexcusable 6,000 earmarks, at a cost of well over $20 billion and now nearly 500 changes in the technical corrections package. A 2007 report by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, requested by Senator TOM COBURN, found that DOT earmarks have increased in number by 1,150 percent from 1996 to 2005--an incredible increase--and, as we can see, a number that has been very difficult for us to manage effectively here in the Congress.
This administration has projected that the highway trust fund will have a negative balance of $3.2 billion by 2009 if we continue on the path of outspending the receipts in this account. So piling on the additional authorization levels to projects in this technical corrections bill will only further deplete the highway account and cause the highway trust fund to be bankrupt sooner than projected.
I know the case has been made that this technical corrections bill does not increase the overall amount, but as we went back through this and found numerous earmarks that were no longer needed or even wanted, instead of moving that money to savings, we moved it to earmarks, and new earmarks, and to add to additional earmarks at a time when we need to be trying to save money to overcome the projected deficit. Congress needs to take a timeout and examine the country's infrastructure priorities instead of relying solely on Members of Congress transportation earmarks.
Of most concern is that many of the earmarks requested and funded in highway authorization bills are neither the most effective nor efficient use of funds. Many of them, such as an earmark for renovating the Apollo Theater, have nothing to do with transportation. Senators and House Members have picked particular projects for funding that they know will result in their gaining political support. They will get more votes in their reelection campaigns for bringing home the bacon, but funding will be redirected from highway projects where it is most needed.
This is why I have proposed this motion to recommit, that will send this bill back to the committee and require that the bill be reported back to the Senate with an amendment that eliminates any provision in the bill that increases spending for earmarks that are contained in the SAFETEA bill. Increasing spending for existing earmarks is simply not a technical correction, and such provisions do not belong in this legislation, that is intended to only correct the technical aspects of the bill.
Here are a few examples of provisions in this bill that are not technical corrections but are actually inserting new earmarks into law or significantly increasing funding for existing earmarks.
Page 18 amends an earmark in current law that provides $800,000 for an intersection project in Pennsylvania by striking the $800,000 designation and increasing the earmark to $2.4 million. That is not a technical correction.
On page 19, we amend an earmark in current law that provides Federal funds for widening two blocks of Poplar Street from Park Avenue to 13th Street in Williamson County, IL, by striking that description and inserting the following new earmark, which is to construct a connector road from Rushing Drive north to Grand Avenue in Williamson County. It is not a technical correction. It is a new project and it is the elimination of another one.
Page 22 amends an earmark in current law that provides $800,000 to widen State Road 80 in Henderson County, FL, by striking the $800,000 figure and inserting $1.6 million. We double the earmark amount.
Page 29 amends an earmark in current law that provides $2.7 million for upgrades to an interchange in Pennsylvania by striking the $2.7 million amount and increasing the earmark to $3.2 million.
Page 35 amend a New York earmark in current law that provides $4 million for Miller Highway improvements by striking the existing earmark and inserting the following new earmark: pedestrian paths, stairs, seating, landscaping, lighting, and other transportation enhancement activities along Riverside Boulevard and at Riverside Park South. This is not a technical correction, and it is one of the reasons we are not rebuilding and improving and maintaining bridges in America, because we are focused on things that are not basic infrastructure.
Pages 63 and 64 amend a New York earmark in current law that provides $500,000 for design and construction of an access road to Plattsburgh International Airport by striking this description and inserting the following new earmark: preparation, demolition, disposal, and site restoration of Alert Facility on Access Road, Plattsburgh International Airport.
So we found we didn't need the money in one area, but we found a new area, instead of saving it, as we apparently need to do to keep the Highway Trust Fund on the path of solvency.
The most glaring example of a nontechnical correction made by this bill is the MAGLEV section, which provides $90 million over 2 years in mandatory spending for a MAGLEV rail project from Nevada to California. Under current law, this project was simply between two cities in Nevada, but this technical corrections bill paves the way for extending this project all the way to California and leaves the Federal Government on the hook for paying the price tag.
How will this project expand Federal spending? Well, first, it jams all the funding into the last 2 years, which increases the baseline from $30 million in 2009 to $45 million. The way we fund things here is based on year-to-year baselines. It turns the funding from an authorization to direct spending. In the original bill, it allows the funding of a project. Now it requires the funding of a project. It extends the Federal project from Primm, NV, to Anaheim, CA, and it involves the Federal Government in a dubious construction project that will create an unwanted transportation mode, the cost of which will likely expand considerably.
Along this same route, a private company has raised billions of dollars to build a high-speed rail corridor from Nevada to California without any taxpayer money. Our role in Government should be to make the private sector work, not to replace it and to compete with it with taxpayer dollars.
In addition to increasing Federal funding, this provision inserts the Government into a business that appears to need no propping up from taxpayers. Press reports indicate that the MAGLEV route is nearly identical, as I mentioned before, to a completely privately financed rail project, which is estimated to cost between $3 billion and $5 billion. This legislation would use taxpayer dollars to fund a government project that is in direct competition with an existing privately funded effort.
The Government does not need to be replacing private sector involvement. In 2005, the Los Angeles Times had this to say about MAGLEV:
The long-running debate over MAGLEV trains is a battle between faith and reason. They have to rely on faith because there is very little evidence of the practicality of these systems. Only one commercial high-speed MAGLEV train exists, covering a 19-mile stretch from Shanghai to Pudong International Airport. Why spend so much money, especially if it's from taxpayers, when you might get more bang for the buck out of cheaper alternatives? That the Primm line has gotten this far is a tribute to the power and determination of the Senate Majority Leader, who undoubtedly sees MAGLEV as promising a new transportation system for pork.
The Associated Press also reported a few weeks ago that the country of Germany has canceled its initiative to build a MAGLEV link to the Munich airport, citing escalating costs. Germany's transportation minister told reporters that it was ``not possible to finance the project'' since the cost had more than doubled.
I guess anything is possible when it is taxpayer money, but, clearly, building an unproven experimental project, where private money is already accomplishing the same thing, does not make very much sense. In this transportation bill, not only will this experimental rail provision eventually cost billions in Federal funding and insert the Government into the private market, where it doesn't belong, it would most likely also be bad for consumers. According to my last check on the Internet, the nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas are 1 hour 10 minutes and cost only $118 for a round trip. That is $59 each way.
I ask my colleagues how much these MAGLEV trips will cost. Are we absolutely certain it will cost less than $59 each way? If not, why would not consumers fly?
I would hazard a guess here that if we were asking Members of the Senate to invest their own personal money in this project, not one would reach for their wallet. But this is taxpayers' money we are spending on something none of us would do as individuals.
Even the administration has weighed in on this provision stating that the bill modifies hundreds of earmarks from a bill that passed in 2005, effectively creating new earmarks, including a stand-alone section that would provide mandatory funding for magnetic levitating rail. The administration urges these provisions be removed from the bill.
We are not talking about technical corrections. These provisions increase funding for existing earmarks and create new earmarks. Proponents of this legislation will argue that the bill spends no new Federal dollars and, in fact, even saves taxpayers a few million dollars. While that is true, the bill accomplishes this by rescinding funds left in the Treasury that were never used by a few earmarks previously authorized by Congress. However, it is clear to me that this bill is just another way for Congress to create new earmarks, increase spending for existing earmarks without actually appearing to be doing just that.
In addition, by shifting existing funding from one earmark to be used for a completely new earmark, this bill also creates new projects which now rely on the Federal Government to continue their funding in the future. In the long run, this legislation encourages wasteful Washington spending through the broken process of earmarking.
Here is an example of a true technical correction included in this legislation. On page 24 of the bill, there is a provision that would strike the word ``country'' and insert the word ``county'' in an earmark for ``New County road on Whidbey Island'' in Washington State. The current law refers to this road as ``New Country Road,'' which was a mistake, and this bill would correct that error by inserting the word ``county.'' Clearly, this is a true technical correction and represents the spirit of what this bill was intended to accomplish, which is to correct technical errors contained in current law.
Another argument we hear is that earmarking Federal tax dollars is our ``constitutional obligation.'' Our colleague, Dr. Coburn, wrote an excellent article entitled ``Founders vs. Pork'' addressing this bogus claim. I will not read the article in its entirety, but I commend it to all my colleagues. It contains some excellent quotations which I will share.
Thomas Jefferson, in a 1796 letter to James Madison regarding federally funded local projects, said that ``[O]ther revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be the source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get the most who are the meanest.''
In a 1792 letter to Alexander Hamilton conveying what he believed to be the public's perception of government, George Washington cited worries about the ``increase in the mass of the debt,'' which had ``furnished effectual means of corrupting such a portion of the legislature, as turns the balance between the honest voters[.]'' Hamilton, who famously clashed with Jefferson and Madison on fiscal matters, responded that ``[e]very session the question whether the annual provision should be continued, would be an occasion of pernicious caballing and corrupt bargaining.''
The importance of transparency in Government operations was also recognized by Jefferson. In 1808, he wrote:
The same prudence, which, in private life, would forbid our paying our money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the disposition of public moneys.
As I said before, I doubt very seriously any Member of this Senate would invest their own money in an unproven technology over a route where there is already going to be private competition.
Jefferson also astutely recognized that large amounts of spending would inevitably lead to outside efforts to redirect that money. He wrote in 1801 about the need ``to reform the waste of public money, and thus drive away the vultures who prey upon it[.]''
George Washington noted in 1792 that no mischief is ``so afflicting and fatal to every honest hope, as the corruption of the legislature.''
Congressional approval ratings, as we all know, are now at record lows because taxpayers do not believe we are being honest or open about how we spend their money.
One might argue that earmarking is a simpler system. There is really no meddling by bureaucrats, no cost-benefit analysis, no hearing just a big pie that is sliced up into pieces of varying sizes, with the senior Members getting the biggest slice. But this is no way to run a government or a country.
This bill proves that the so-called simplicity of the system is not all it is cracked up to be. One of the changes in this bill involves removing an earmark that was not even wanted but was secretly put into a bill after the bill had already passed. Now, that is the sort of technical correction we should be passing right now. Why did it take so long to identify an earmark that was not wanted or needed? Fortunately, in this bill, we could remove it. Senator Coburn has an amendment that will force an investigation of this bizarre process by which an earmark finds its way into a bill that already has passed. I look forward to the findings. I encourage my colleagues to support it.
I applaud the committee for providing earmark disclosure, more earmark disclosure than we have seen out of most committees. Senators Boxer and Inhofe are to be commended for their effort they have made to comply with the letter and the spirit of the law. As I said, I hope all the committees will follow example. However, this bill does not have a committee report. In that sense, Senators have been denied the tools we customarily rely on to decipher massive catchall bills such as this. For example, without the ``changes in existing Law'' document, which is contained in all committee reports, we are theoretically supposed to go through each earmark and try to figure out what it is amending. Since it is almost certain that few Members will actually do this beyond projects they inserted in the bill personally, the bill is largely a series of meaningless paragraphs. For example, section 105 of the bill is 63 pages containing 386 earmarks. These earmarks contain such illuminating descriptions as ``In item number 753 by striking $2,700,000 and inserting $3,200,000.'' That is all we know unless we go back to the original bill to figure it out. The earmark description for this one simply says it is from Bill Shuster and gives the SAFETEA-LU section it amends. Even with the list of earmark descriptions, one has no idea what this amendment does without going to the underlying bill. When you look at the law, you see that it has to do with ``Widening of Rt. 22 and SR 26 in Huntingdon. Upgrades to the interchange at U.S. Rt. 22 and SR 26.'' I still have no idea why this project needs a $500,000 plus-up, but at least I have a general idea what the project is. But, again, I do not expect that any of my colleagues actually looked up this earmark.
This bill highlights the fact that this is a terrible way to write legislation, where we all decide the different projects we want and force them in a single bill. This bill demonstrates to me and the American people that earmarking is out of control and that the process is inefficient.
We are spending time on the Senate floor to pass 138 pages of ``fixes'' to mistakes and errors relating to existing earmarks. I say to my colleagues, we have much more pressing needs that deserve our time and attention, such as providing health insurance to the millions of uninsured across this Nation, making health care more affordable, and passing the FISA reauthorization bill to protect our homeland. Instead, we are spending precious time fixing earmarks--hardly a high priority with taxpayers who are disgusted with the way their hard-earned tax dollars are being wasted now.
I urge my colleagues to support this amendment. Again, it does not strike any earmarks that are in law. It allows all the technical corrections that are included in this bill, but it simply says we would eliminate any new earmarks in this bill and any increases in existing earmarks. I think that is what a technical corrections bill should be.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.