Earlier this month, I met Anna Ives, a 4-year-old Tennessean who was in Washington with her father, Zac, to talk about the importance of Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis. Anna handed me her "All-Star Card," which featured her picture and the story of how neurologists at Le Bonheur successfully removed a tumor from her frontal lobe.
Anna reminds us of the very personal impact our decisions in Washington have on citizens across our state and our country. This makes me even more devoted to waking up each day committed to taking on complex problems, sorting through the issues, finding common sense solutions and then communicating those solutions to you in a no nonsense way that is understandable and brings us together around solving the big problems our country faces.
I hope all of you have a wonderful Fourth of July and are able to enjoy some time with your loved ones as we celebrate our great country.
Easing Prices at the Pump
For several weeks I've been working with other members of the Senate Republican Energy Working Group to craft balanced legislation to increase energy supplies while decreasing demand and last week I joined 43 Republican senators to introduce the Gas Price Reduction Act. The bill supports increasing domestic supply through deep sea exploration from the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and use of domestic oil shale, decreases the use of gasoline by investing in advanced vehicles, and strengthens the U.S. energy futures markets to ensure manipulation is not occurring by requiring greater transparency and oversight.
Freeing up domestic oil production in the U.S., accompanied with a strong sense of urgency in developing new technologies, will send a powerful signal to the markets that we are working to increase supplies while decreasing demand and should have an immediate impact on easing prices at the pump for Tennesseans.
A great deal of attention has been given to the possible role of speculation in the oil markets. I believe it's important to strengthen our U.S. futures markets and for that reason, this bill provides the Commodity Futures Trading Commission with 100 additional employees to increase market surveillance and collect data to maximize transparency and ensure the integrity of the markets. Since the CFTC was created in 1974, the volume on futures exchanges has grown 8,000 percent while CFTC staff has decreased 12 percent. Adding 100 employees to the CFTC will be akin to adding 100 cops on the beat.
I am sincerely anxious for the day, hopefully in our near future, when most Americans will be driving vehicles powered by electricity and other non-petroleum based technologies.
But the reality is we cannot make the transition to alternatives overnight, and while we're getting there, does it not make sense to use our own oil reserves rather than shipping billions and trillions of dollars overseas to countries that would do us harm? I support environmentally friendly offshore oil production because I believe it is a bridge to the future while we invest in alternative energy technology.
The U.S. currently consumes over 20 million barrels of petroleum every day, two-thirds of which is imported. Approximately 20 percent of those imports come from the Middle East, which also contains over half of the world's total proved oil reserves. Unless we make changes we will be even more dependent on this volatile region. Presently, this dependence is resulting in a massive transference of wealth and accumulation of trade deficits for our country.
Roughly 85 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) is off limits today and currently only 2.4 percent of the OCS has been made available to oil companies for exploration and production. At a time when Americans are paying record fuel prices and want to reduce our country's reliance on foreign oil, states should be allowed to pursue environmentally responsible exploration and production offshore if they choose. This can be done without compromising the scenic beauty and recreational opportunities along our shorelines. Recent proposals to open up the OCS have maintained a buffer of 50 miles, within which no exploration can occur.
Some argue that oil companies already have access to thousands of acres from which they are not producing any oil and therefore do not need access to additional acres. Just because a well is not producing oil today does not mean that it is not under active development. It takes huge investments and many years to get from the initial stages of exploration to actual production on a commercial scale.
We simply don't have the luxury of relying on a silver bullet to meet our energy needs, so our bill encourages several approaches that include alternative vehicle technologies and domestic resources.
Debate on Climate Security Act Was a Squandered Opportunity
The Senate spent a week this month debating the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008, and unfortunately, it was a squandered opportunity. We could have done something to address climate security and energy security, while at the same time making sure that we continue to experience economic growth in this country. Instead, this bill doled out trillions of dollars on the backs of hard-working Americans who would pay more for gasoline, more for electricity, more for food, and more for everything they buy if this bill were to pass. The bill was, in fact, the mother of all earmarks.
As I told Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes in a meeting a few weeks ago, I hope in the future we will come together around legislation that focuses on broadly advancing our country's need for energy security in a way that ensures a higher standard of living for those generations that come after us.
Talking With Providers to Craft Meaningful Health Insurance Reforms
During the Senate's May recess, I held health care roundtables in Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, and Jackson as well as Sumner, Putnam, Marion, Fayette, Hardeman, and Dickson counties.
Over 800,000 Tennesseans lack adequate health insurance, and of those, 69 percent come from families with at least one full-time job. Our health care roundtables throughout the state were extremely valuable and underscored the critical need for health care and health insurance reform in this country.
In the ten roundtables, we heard frustration from health care providers about insurance regulations and the lack of aligned interests. We were also given firsthand examples of the cost-shifting that results from uncompensated care. Americans don't lack health CARE, they lack health INSURANCE. Those without health insurance often resort to seeking care in emergency rooms, resulting in extremely high bills that sometimes go unpaid. This mounting volume of uncompensated care results in cost-shifting to those that have private coverage.
By enabling all Americans to own a policy, cost-shifting would be dramatically reduced and the newly covered as well as those already covered would benefit through lower premiums, lower out-of-pocket expenses, and potentially higher wages. I am committed to working toward health care reform that ensures all Americans have access to affordable, quality health insurance that is deeply rooted in the private market and does not add to the federal deficit. The only way this change can happen is by both sides coming together - Republicans and Democrats alike - and I have a strong hope that this time has finally come.
During the Senate Finance Committee's 2008 Health Reform Summit earlier this month, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and I chaired a panel discussion about the role of public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid in the context of the health care reform debate. The panelists included Regina Herzlinger of the Harvard University Business School, Mark McClellan of the Brookings Institute, Jeanne Lambrew of the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs and Karen David of the Commonwealth Fund.
Putting in Place Tools to Deal with Our Troubled Housing Market
Last week, the Senate voted 79-16 to pass the first section of a housing package, which included language to modernize the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and reform oversight of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
I believe this is a reasonable approach to putting in place tools to help deal with our troubled housing market. These tools will go a long way toward enabling the private sector to stabilize falling housing prices and toward creating safety and soundness guidelines for the lending industry to help prevent this type of situation from occurring in the future.
FHA modernization is long past overdue, and by including it in this bill we will allow the private sector to respond to our housing dilemma responsibly.
The bill also included long overdue and significant reform to the oversight of the government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie were created to provide liquidity and stability to the conventional conforming loan mortgage market, and they are needed now more than ever. The inferred liability that our taxpayers have as it relates to these entities demands that we have a strong regulator in place. This bill is a very positive development to ensure the integrity of these organizations and to ensure that they do not become liabilities to our citizens.
Establishing a One-stop Shop for Questions About America's Financial Institutions
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and I have introduced a bill to establish a single, toll-free telephone number for people to call if they have a problem with their bank and want to speak to the appropriate regulatory agency. Because banks and other institutions where people deposit money are regulated by one of five federal agencies and potentially a state agency as well, people often don't know who to call if they have a problem.
During my administration as mayor of Chattanooga, we recognized that our citizens had difficulty knowing who to call about city services, so we introduced a 3-1-1 call center to eliminate that confusion and witnessed a dramatic positive turnaround in the performance of city government. I believe establishing a similar one-stop shop for questions about America's financial institutions will enhance consumer protection and inject greater accountability in our nation's banking system, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass this bill so we can help Americans feel more secure about their bank accounts.
Voting Against Excessive Spending
After 17 months in office, I am convinced there is absolutely no construct for fiscal discipline at the federal level. Earlier this month, I voted against the fiscal year 2009 budget resolution, which is intended to set congressional budget totals and broad spending priorities, because I felt it ignored reality and contained excessive spending. We have to get our country's fiscal situation under control by making more disciplined and honest fiscal decisions, and it is my hope that in the near future, we will work in a bipartisan manner to put mechanisms in place to do so. A good first step would be not cooking the books and using budget gimmickry to manipulate the numbers just so things look better than they actually are. As our national debt continues to increase, bringing spending increases under control should be top priority to ensure our children and grandchildren are not saddled with crushing federal debt. We must also not be afraid to take a hard look at the future of our entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare - which are the real elephants in the room that nobody seems to want to acknowledge and deal with.
After Months, Senate Approves Bishop Graves' Confirmation to TVA Board
I'm very pleased the Senate finally confirmed Bishop William Graves' reappointment to the TVA board. Bishop Graves is an outstanding individual and I know he will continue to ably serve our region on the board. I am highly disappointed that Susan Richardson Williams' reappointment is still being blocked, and I will continue pursuing her confirmation. Both Graves and Williams were unanimously approved in committee, and their delayed confirmations are a real disservice to the Senate, the Tennessee Valley, and TVA customers.