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Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2008 - Continued

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008--Continued -- (Senate - May 22, 2008)

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Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, before us today is a supplemental appropriations bill that would provide vital funding for the men and women fighting valiantly on our behalf abroad. Yet instead of acting on the needs of our military in an expeditious and efficient manner, we find ourselves considering a bloated bill, loaded down with extraneous provisions unrelated to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, this has become an unfortunate and reoccurring trend in recent years.

Congress has an obligation to provide our servicemen and women with the resources they need to fulfill their mission. Yet we have, once again, chosen to abrogate our duties and use this bill as a vehicle to fund various domestic projects that were not requested by the President, nor are they authorized, and have not been handled through the appropriate legislative process.

The President has already stated his intention to veto this measure if it arrives at his desk in its current form. Rather than demonstrating true bipartisanship and working together to produce a bill that meets the needs of our military and one that has the potential of becoming law, the Senate intends to pass a bill will be passed that is sure to be met swiftly by the President's veto pen, unnecessarily prolonging the delay in funding our troops.

Let us not underestimate the necessity of providing this funding to our military promptly and the consequences of delaying such payment. In a recent letter to Congress, Under Secretary of Defense Gordon England stated in no uncertain terms that if this funding is not provided, ``the Army will run out of Military Personnel funds by mid-June and Operation and Maintenance (O&M) funds by early July.'' In order to deal with these depleted accounts, the Department of Defense--DoD--would be required to borrow funds from other service branch accounts, hampering ongoing DoD activities around the globe. Under Secretary England goes on to state in his letter that by late July, the entire Department will have ``exhausted all avenues of funding and will be unable to make payroll for both military and civilian personnel . . . including those engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.'' Let us understand what this means. If this appropriations measure is not enacted in a timely manner, thousands upon thousands of men and women in uniform will stop receiving a paycheck and our ability to conduct operations throughout the world will be severely restricted.

When we should be working together to produce a clean bill that provides our servicemen and women with the vital resources they need to fulfill their duties, we have instead reverted to the same old Washington habit of loading spending bills with billions of dollars going to unrequested, non-emergency projects. Examples include: $75 million not requested by the administration for expenses related to economic impacts associated with commercial fishery failures, fishery resource disasters, and regulation on commercial fishing industries. This comes after Congress appropriated $128 million in 2005 for commercial fishery failures, $170 million in 2007 and included an additional $170 million in the Farm bill. Since 2005, Congress has provided almost $300 million for commercial fisheries disasters not including the $75 million in this supplemental and the proposed $170 million from the Farm bill. Additionally, questions remain by some commercial fishermen if this funding can be used to offset high gas prices which may be considered a disaster. The disaster here is that the American public isn't receiving any assistance on high gas prices.

Other examples are: $10 million not requested by the administration for Educational and Cultural Exchange programs; $75 million not requested by the administration for rehabilitation and restoration of Federal lands; more than $451 million not requested by the administration for emergency highway projects for disasters that occurred as far back as Fiscal Year 2005; $210 million not requested by the administration for the decennial census and $3.6 billion for 15 Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft. We have looked to the administration to inform Congressional budgetary decisions and the Department of Defense has been quite clear regarding the purchase of more of these cargo aircraft--they do not want them, because there is no military ``requirement'' for them and buying more C-17s is contrary to the Pentagon's current budget plan. DOD Secretary Gates, the DOD Deputy Secretary, and the Department's top acquisition official have all stated that additional C-17s were not necessary. Yet the Air Force continues to appeal to the parochial interests of Members of Congress, and once again the taxpayers find themselves on the wrong end of a bad decision. I am troubled by the Air Force's apparent disregard for proper acquisition policy, practice and procedure and seeming eagerness to further contractors' interests. As evidence of this, the Department of Defense Inspector General has an open investigation regarding how senior Air Force officials may have inappropriately solicited new orders for C-17s contrary to the orders of the President and the Secretary of Defense.

While I do not doubt the importance some may see in the various provisions included in the underlying bill, I strongly disagree with their inclusion in a war supplemental funding bill. Instead of attempting to hijack this vital legislation, the authors of these extraneous provisions should pursue their objectives through the normal legislative process and as part of appropriate authorizing and spending vehicles.

I also want to express my concerns about the authorizing legislation included in this emergency supplemental regarding veterans' educations benefits, commonly referred to as the Webb bill. There have been a lot of misrepresentations made about my position on this issue--not only on the Senate floor by the majority leader, who has alleged that I think the Webb bill is ``too generous,'' which is absolutely false, but most recently in an ad by VoteVets.org, which offers a complete misrepresentation of the facts and is a disservice to our Nation's veterans. I will once again attempt to set the record straight.

I believe America has an obligation to provide unwavering support to our veterans, active duty servicemembers, Guard and Reserves. Men and women who have served their country deserve the best education benefits we are able to give them, and they deserve to receive them as quickly as possible and in a manner that not only promotes recruitment efforts, but also promotes retention of servicemembers. I would think we could have near unanimous support for such legislation and I am confident that we will reach that point in the days ahead. But adding a $52 billion mandatory spending program to this war funding bill without any opportunity for amendments to improve the measure is not the way to move legislation nor will it expedite reaching an agreement in an efficient manner. Our vets deserve better than this.

On numerous occasions I have commended Senators Webb, Hagel and Warner for their work to bring this issue to the forefront of the Senate's attention. Their effort has been for a worthy cause, but that does not make it a perfect bill, nor should it be considered the only approach that best meets the education needs of veterans and servicemembers. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that if their bill is passed, it will harm retention rates by nearly 20 percent. That is the last thing we need when our Nation is fighting the war on terror on two fronts.

Senators Graham, Burr and I, along with 19 others, have a different approach, one that builds on the existing Montgomery GI Bill to ensure rapid implementation of increased benefits. And, unlike S. 22, we think a revitalized program should focus on the entire spectrum of military members who make up the All Volunteer Force, from the newest recruit to the career NCOs, officers, reservists and National Guardsmen, to veterans who have completed their service and retirees, as well as the families of all of these individuals.

We need to take action to encourage continued service in the military and we can do that by granting a higher education benefit for longer service. And, we need to provide a meaningful, unquestionable transferability feature to allow the serviceman and woman to have the option of transferring education benefits to their children and spouses. S. 22, unfortunately, does not allow transferability. As a matter of fact, 2 days ago, Senators Webb and Warner agreed that transferability is a serious matter that merited change. What they proposed, however, does not go far enough and would only provide for a 2-year pilot program. Their efforts underscore the need for debate and further discussion on this important issue. But I applaud them for acknowledging the Congress needs to take a proactive stance and allow transferability of earned education benefits to a spouse or children.

We cannot allow this important issue to be hijacked by the anti-war crusade funded by groups like MoveOn.org and VetsVote.org who are running ads saying that that I do not ``respect their service.'' The accusation is wrong, they know that it is, and they should be ashamed of what they are doing to all veterans and servicemembers. I respect every man and woman who have been or are currently in uniform.

It is my hope that the proponents of the pending veteran's education benefits measures can join together to ensure that Congress enacts meaningful legislation that the President will sign and as soon as possible. Such legislation should address the reality of the All Volunteer Force and ensure that we pass a bill that does not induce servicemen and women to leave the military; but instead bolsters retention so that the services may retain quality servicemen and women. It must be easily understood and implemented and responsive to the needs not only of veterans, but also of those who are serving in the active duty forces, the Guard and Reserve, and their families. Their exemplary service to our nation, and the sacrifice of their families, deserves no less.

As we move forward with consideration of this supplemental appropriations legislation, we must remember to whom we owe our allegiance--the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines fighting bravely on our behalf abroad. These brave Americans need this appropriation to carry out their vital work, and we should have provided it to them months ago. The Congress, which authorized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has an obligation to give our troops everything they need to prevail in their missions. Unfortunately, it seems we have failed to live up to this obligation today, instead producing a bill fraught with wasteful spending more attuned to political interests instead of the interests of our military men and women.

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