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Public Statements

Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2007

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

FEDERAL RAILROAD SAFETY IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - September 29, 2008)


Mr. COBURN. Reserving the right to object, first let me say to my colleague, I know he is dedicated to this cause. It is an important cause. I have four basic problems with what we are doing here.

We did negotiate this bill. I also expressed in public that I would not allow this bill to go unless we had a full debate on the Senate floor. That has never been in confusion.

I also stated if we were in fact to offset the authorizations in the bill with some of the wasteful spending that we have today--and I understand the contention by the Senator from Iowa, who is also an appropriator who does not believe this will lead to spending--if we do not believe it will lead to spending, why authorize it in the first place? It is a false hope.

The third point I would make is everything this bill wants to do can already be done, except name it after Christopher and Dana Reeve--everything. So what I would like is a unanimous consent request, after rebuttal from the Senator from Iowa, that I be given 10 minutes to explain my objections to the bill in detail, and also to offer for the record a letter from Dr. Zerhouni, dated July 30 of this year, in which he adamantly opposes any disease-specific bills. He outlined specifically why they should not be there.

The final point I would make, we spend $5.9 billion on this right now. We should spend more, but we do not have the money to spend more because this Congress will not get rid of $300 billion worth of wasteful spending. We appropriate $300 billion that is pure waste every year. It is not that we do not have the money. It is not that this bill will spend the money. It is not that we cannot have this; it can happen right now under the leadership at NIH. It is the fact that the very problems we are faced with today in terms of the financial collapse of this country and the liquidity of this country is because we have gone down a road of fiscal irresponsibility.

On that basis, I will object and await Senator Harkin's rebuttal. I do congratulate him for his commitment and his dedication. I believe the people at NIH want to solve this as well as anybody else and they recognize that they already have the power to do this.

I will make one final comment. This bill could have come to the floor. We could have taken care of it in 2 1/2 hours if we had debate and amendments. The majority leader refused to let this bill come to the floor.

It is important for the American people know what a hold is. A hold is saying: Let the bill come to the floor, but I don't want to pass it with my vote unless I have an opportunity to debate it and amend it, and what has been done has precluded us on that.

We did a lot of negotiations on this. The one thing we couldn't get negotiated is offsetting the negotiating level. Everybody knows that is a nonstarter with me. That is the only way we establish fiscal discipline in this country.

The PRESIDING OFFICER (Ms. Stabenow). Objection is heard.

Mr. HARKIN. Madam President, as I mentioned, and I ask my friend from Oklahoma, two bills I understand went through by unanimous consent this week, the Drug Endangered Children's Act and the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes bills. I understand the Senator from Oklahoma had holds on those bills. Is that correct?

Mr. COBURN. Absolutely. In response to your question, the Emmett Till bill, we attempted to do that. It was passed in connection with other bills, and we believed, since we had assurances that the appropriators would in fact take care of that inside the Department of Justice, we did not have that in the bill but outside, the appropriators would take care of that and we wouldn't spend additional money.

Mr. HARKIN. Do I understand from my friend from Oklahoma there was not an offset for the authorizations in that bill? And then the other was the Drug Endangered Children's Act. I am told there was not an offset for the authorization in that bill either. The Senator did not have a hold on that bill?

Mr. COBURN. No, I never had a hold on that.

Mr. HARKIN. Those were just two passed by unanimous consent that did not have----

Mr. COBURN. Will the Senator yield for a moment?

Mr. HARKIN. Certainly.

Mr. COBURN. What I can tell the Senator is I have held every bill that comes before this body that we have an objection to constitutionally, or from the Director of NIH, that does spend money that is already for them.

Mr. HARKIN. I ask my friend from Oklahoma, did the director of NIH--I don't have a copy of that letter. Did the Director of NIH object to this bill? Because he already said he supported it.

Mr. COBURN. I will gladly deliver to the Senator a copy of his letter. You can read it. What he objects to is any disease-specific bill. The reason for that is very simple. There are over--let me give you the exact number. There are 12,161 subcategories of diseases. His principle is we ought to let the scientists decide the direction of the research, not Congress. Because if we decided on this and we set it up and a consortium will take it directly from the research--if we did that on everything, we would have the most misguided, misdirected, and wasteful expenditures on research you could imagine. He lists specifically the fact that we had 2,036 categories and over 12,000 subcategories, and philosophically he objects to all disease-specific bills.

Mr. HARKIN. I respond to my friend from Oklahoma, one of the reasons he wouldn't mention this is because, as my friend from Oklahoma surely knows, paralysis is not a specific disease. Paralysis can happen across a wide spectrum of diseases and illnesses and conditions. So this is not a specific disease. In that way, this is not a disease-specific bill as such, and that is probably where the confusion comes in. Because Dr. Zerhouni was very supportive of this approach; I read it in his comments that he made. But he is against disease-specific authorizations or appropriations. I can tell the Senator from Oklahoma, so am I, and I chair that. I chair it now. I have been ranking member or chair of that subcommittee going back 18 years. I cannot remember one time ever appropriating specifically one disease over another.

There are times, of course, I say to my friend from Oklahoma, in which we as legislators, as public servants, take information and input from our constituents or from the country and through the hearing process--and this is usually on the authorizing side more than the appropriating side--try to give some guidance and direction to those to whom we give our taxpayers' money. Again, we have prodded NIH in the past to perhaps do certain things.

I mean we, the Congress, have started different institutes at the National Institutes of Health. At different times people come together and say there should be an institute to look at this and we, as public policy people, set that up.

Then there are times when we get the Director of NIH, or some of the other heads, some of these people here from these different institutes, and we ask them, What are you doing about this kind of research? Spinal muscular atrophy, which I never heard of before until a few years ago, I found out it is even more prevalent and has a higher mortality rate than muscular dystrophy. But they weren't doing much research into spinal muscular atrophy, so we talked about that, we explored that. We talked about a lot of things in cancer or Parkinson's disease, in which we explored with these heads of NIH what the public wants and what we are hearing from the public. They take that into account. They may make some adjustments one way or the other.

I don't see anything wrong with that. That is part of our legitimate role as public servants, and responding to the legitimate requests and needs of the public. The people who work at NIH, and the people who run these institutes, are not high priests of some religious order who do not answer to anyone except the head person. They have to answer to the public. These are public moneys that go in there.

Sometimes we consult with them, we talk with them, bring them information and say, here, the public wants to know why we are not doing more in this area. They take that into account, sometimes respond--sometimes better than others--sometimes not. But at least that is the input we have and that is what we are saying here with this legislation. We are not telling them exactly what they have to do.

Again, the Senator from Oklahoma says they can do everything that is in this bill. But they are not doing it. That is the point. They are not doing it. You can disagree. You can say they should not do it. I did not hear the Senator from Oklahoma say they should not be doing what we have in the bill. He is not saying that. All I heard him say was that he wanted to debate it for a couple of hours and offer an amendment.

I say to my friend from Oklahoma, as a member of the HELP Committee from which this bill came, the Senator from Oklahoma had all kinds of opportunities in the committee to amend this bill. For all I know, some of the changes we made may have come from him. They came through Senator Enzi, who is the ranking member, and we incorporated them into the bill. But the Senator from Oklahoma cannot deny that he was a member of this committee when this bill passed out of committee. If the Senator from Oklahoma wanted to amend it, he had every opportunity to do so at that time. Yet no objection was raised when we passed it out of committee; only when we get it here on the floor.

We operate around here a lot of times on unanimous consent. And we usually do it on bills that are generally accepted by everybody. We hotline, and our staffs look at them to see whether anyone has an objection. This bill has been hotlined on both sides of the aisle. Out of 100 Senators, only one Senator has an objection, the Senator from Oklahoma.

Now, again, people wonder--this one letter from this one woman says: How can one Senator stop something like this? Well, you are seeing one Senator can.

Now, again, to the extent that the Senator from Oklahoma has a legitimate point, his point is that this could be brought up under the normal process and debated and passed. Well, it looks as though we are going to be back again on Wednesday. I will have to consult with our leadership. But if the Senator from Oklahoma would agree to a couple of hours of debate, an amendment that would be voted up or down, if he has an amendment or two, and then final passage, maybe we could do that on Wednesday.

I do not know what the heck we are going to be doing Wednesday. Quite frankly, we could do that. I understand we are going to be in tomorrow, but no legislative business can be done tomorrow under the Jewish holiday, but we could on Wednesday.

So if the Senator from Oklahoma wants to enter into an agreement for an hour or two, I do not know if anyone else wants to debate it. If he wants to offer an amendment or two or something like that, maybe we can have a vote on it, voice vote it. Maybe he wants a record vote on it. I do not know. But I have not heard any kind of a suggestion from the Senator from Oklahoma that we could do something like that.

So, again, we operate around here in a spirit of comity. What that means is we kind of trust one another. You know, I kind of trust the Senator from Michigan; I trust the Senator from Idaho on a lot of things. We build ourselves on trust. We do not try to pull the wool over someone's eyes here. We do not try to slip something through to which someone may have an objection.

So if we have bills like this we hotline them. We have them called around. Lord knows, we have plenty of staff around here. They look at all of these things to see if there is something in a bill their Senator would object to or want to change. We do that for bills that are generally widely accepted. A lot of times bills come back: There is no objection. Go ahead and pass them through.

I thought this was one of those simply because it came out of committee. The Senator from Oklahoma was on the committee--is on the committee--and had no objections when it came out of committee. We had incorporated all of the changes that Senator Enzi gave us. We incorporated those plus changes from NIH and the Department of Health and Human Services. So it is very frustrating then to have this objection at this time.

Now, one other point the Senator from Oklahoma said. He said this is an authorization for appropriations. That is true as most of the bills are that we pass around here. One way or the other it is an authorization. But he says that will lead to new spending and blah, blah, blah. That is not necessarily true. It may be that we may want to put some money in this program, but we may want to take it from someplace else. We could do that. That has been done a lot around here. We may think that, well, perhaps we will take a little bit here and a little bit here and put it into this. Appropriations committees do that all the time. So it is not necessarily true this is going to lead to any new spending. It may lead to a realignment of spending but not necessarily new. So the Senator from Oklahoma is not quite correct that it would lead to new spending.

Secondly, paralysis is not a disease-specific illness. It cuts across all kinds of diseases, illnesses, and conditions. Then I do not know--the Senator mentioned something about $5.9 million. I brought that down, but I have no idea what that is all about.

I also have a letter from the Congressional Budget Office, dated July 25, 2008, to the Honorable Kent Conrad as chairman of the Committee on Budget. There were certain questions in here that I thought were pertinent to one of the objections raised by the Senator from Oklahoma.

Question No. 1: Does an authorization of future appropriations provide the authority for Federal programs or agencies to incur obligations and make payments from the Treasury?

Answer: No. A simple authorization of appropriations does not provide an agency with the authority to incur obligations or make payments from the Treasury.

Question: Even if legislation authorizes appropriations for a program, is it not the case that a subsequent act of Congress is required before an agency can spend money pursuant to the authorization?

Answer: Yes.

This is from the head of the Congressional Budget Office.

For discretionary programs created through an authorization, the authority to incur obligations is usually provided in a subsequent appropriations act. An agency must have such an appropriation before it can incur obligations.

Question No. 4: If no new spending occurs under authorizing legislation, does it have the effect of increasing the Federal deficit and/or reducing the Federal surplus?

Answer: No. An authorization of appropriations by itself does not increase Federal deficits or decrease surpluses. However, any subsequent appropriation to fund the authorized activity would affect the Federal budget.

I ask unanimous consent this letter appear at this point in the Record, as well as the July 30, 2008, letter to Congressman Barton from Dr. Zerhouni.


Mr. HARKIN. I am about done.

Well, I am sorry for so many people who suffer from paralysis in this country who really have, many of them, traveled to Washington at their own expense, at great personal not only expense but inconvenience and trouble and effort--can you imagine what it must be like--who had every reason to believe this would pass and give them new hope, new encouragement that we were now going to be able to bring a new focus, coordination, to this.

Now, again, the Senator says they can do everything that is in this bill already. The fact is, they are not. That is why we are here. That is why we are Senators. That is why we are public servants. That is why the public elected us to come here and do things, to get the Government to do things that it is not doing or to stop it from doing something that it is doing.

This is one of the things we ought to be telling the people who are involved in this research they ought to be doing. They ought to do this. We do it all the time. And if they will not do it, we ought to be telling them to do it. I am sorry, again, that this Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act has been stopped by a single Senator. I wish we could find some way of getting around it. I ask my friend from Oklahoma if he does not mind, the Senator said something about debating this bill and opening it for amendment.

We are going to be here on Wednesday. Now, I have not cleared this with our leadership--I have to do that, of course; I do not run the Senate. But I would have to clear it with our leadership, and then our leadership would have to clear it with the other side. But if we can get a couple of hours on Wednesday to debate this bill and amend it in a 2-hour period of time, with an up-or-down vote on an amendment or two, would that be acceptable to the Senator?

Mr. COBURN. It would be more than acceptable provided the bill comes to the floor and offsets the authorizations. The problem we have is that in the last year, in your subcommittee alone on appropriations, we had 398 million dollars' worth of earmarks outside of the authorization process. None of them were authorized.

Now you want to spend more money on programs that you want to authorize, but you will not take away the $398 million of earmarks that were never authorized. That is my whole point. Bring the bill to the floor, offset some spending somewhere else, and we will not even have to go to the floor. Just offset it; you can have the bill.

But the fact is, nobody wants to offset it. The intention is to spend this money. Even though we play the games, how did we get $9.6 trillion in debt? We got it playing this same game, saying: Here is $115 million; it does not cost anything. But that is really untrue because it does. If you authorize it, you are going to spend more money. We have grown 61 percent since 2001 in terms of discretionary spending in this country, and we are broke. And we have a financial crisis in front of us.

I am trying to stand and say, if you want to do something, get rid of some of the 300 billion dollars' worth of waste, which I consider 398 million dollars' worth of earmarks that were unauthorized waste. So it is easy to bring it up. Bring this bill without the authorizing money, put it in, you got it.

Mr. HARKIN. I say to my friend from Oklahoma again, the Senator from Oklahoma did not object to a bill passing this week by unanimous consent that has an authorization for appropriations in it. Is that not correct?

Mr. COBURN. That is true.

Mr. HARKIN. I say to my friend from Oklahoma, that is very true, on the Emmett Till bill, but not on this one.

Mr. COBURN. We received assurances that it would be offset at the appropriations level.

Mr. HARKIN. Well, I can assure my friend--I said this when my friend from Oklahoma was off the floor--the Senator from Oklahoma seems to say that since it was an authorization for appropriations in here, that we are going to appropriate new money. That is not always the case. Sometimes the Appropriations Committee will take money from other things; maybe take a little bit here, take a little bit here and put it into something else. That happens a lot, I can tell the Senator, as an appropriator.

So it does not always necessarily follow because we authorize the money that we are going to add new money. We could take it from other places. We do not know.

Mr. COBURN. In response to the Senator through the Chair, that is a rarity that occurs here. The fact is, the Federal Government is growing three times faster than the income of the people in this country. It is because we will not put our own financial house in order.

I want to do the best we can do for people with paralysis. I think we ought to get rid of some of the 380 billion dollars' worth of waste and double the money in NIH. That is what I think. But we will not, nobody can, including my colleague from Iowa. When I have offered amendments on the floor to get rid of wasteful spending, rarely, if ever, have you joined me to get rid of the wasteful spending. Instead, we have continued wasteful spending.

Just like we are going to talking about Amtrak. Amtrak has a $100 million subsidy. Nobody in this country, other than us, would allow Amtrak to continue losing $100 million a year on food subsidies on the train. No airline does that. No bus company does that. But because we have a $2.6 billion subsidy, we think it is fine that we should subsidize people's food on the train.

I can give you a thousand examples of things that we should be doing that we are not. I am not opposed to the efforts that you want to try to accomplish. What I am saying is we need a discipline change in this Congress. The American people have had it with us. We are wasting money hand over foot. And it is not what you want to do is bad, I am for what you want to do, I am saying let's get some discipline and let's make some priority choices.

Every family out there has to choose among priorities. They have to make a hard choice on what is important and what is not.

This is important, yes. We have told your staff the moment this passed the committee that we were going to hold it on the Senate floor unless it was offset. That is not a new threat. That is not news to your staff. They have known that for a long time, and so does every Member of this body. In fact, you received a letter from me in January of 2007 that said very specifically: If you bring a bill to the floor that is not offset, that is going to spend new money, unless we are going to get it debated and offer amendments, we are going to object. So that is where we stand.

Mr. HARKIN. I say to my friend, he just let a bill go through this week that had an authorization for appropriations on it and let it go through under unanimous consent, but not this one. So I see it is up to the Senator from Oklahoma, as one Senator, to decide what is good and what is bad around here.

Mr. COBURN. Well, we also stopped 10 billion dollars' worth of new authorizations this year. We also stopped $10 billion. There is no question the Emmett Till bill went through with the assurances. I am not 100 percent.

Mr. HARKIN. What assurances? I am an appropriator. I did not give you any assurances. No one asked me about it. So, obviously, now the Senator from Oklahoma has set himself up as the arbitrator of what is good and bad and right and wrong and everything else around here.

Now, come on, there are 100 Senators around here.

I wish to respond to one other thing about Amtrak. The Senator from Oklahoma mentioned the airlines. This is something I know a little bit about. I fly a lot of airplanes. Every commercial airline in the country now uses GPS, global positioning satellites. Do you know how much they spent to put all those satellites up there? Zero. The taxpayers of this country put up billions of dollars. We maintain them. We keep them in orbit. When one decays, we put another one up. We keep 24 in orbit all the time. Not only do our airlines use it, every airline around the world uses it, as do ships and everybody else. That is not a subsidy for the airlines? How about all the traffic controllers? They don't work for the airlines, they work for the Government. How about all the navigation systems we maintain, the Approach System, the ILSs, and everything else, paid for by the taxpayers? We appropriate money around here all the time for airports, runway lights, approach systems that all the airlines use. They don't pay for all of those facilities. How about all the airports? Local cities provide the land.

If my friend really wants to see how much we are subsidizing the airlines, add it up. It would be a heck of a lot more than what we are subsidizing Amtrak. But I am not opposed to that, subsidies for transportation, for new technologies, for moving people. I am not opposed.

The Senator from Oklahoma is sort of saying we subsidize Amtrak but we don't the airlines. I didn't mean to get into that, but that is the point I was trying to make.

Lastly, on this issue of offsetting authorizations, now we have to offset every authorization that comes up here. I want to ask the Senator from Oklahoma--we just passed a Defense authorization bill, authorizes a lot of new things in there. I ask the Senator from Oklahoma, were any of those offset?

Mr. COBURN. Absolutely not. I voted against it and proudly did so because we had $16.8 billion worth of earmarks in there that will be forced onto the American taxpayer that will never see the light of day. They were in the report language, and we put something in the bill that said you couldn't amend it. None of those are competitively bid; $16 billion worth of earmarks, none of them competitively bid. So what happens? Defense authorization, we got $16 billion that we probably could have bought for 10, but because we have a system that says we are not going to watch out for the taxpayer, we will not do it.

So what I would say to the Senator is, what you want to do is great. I am not against it. How you are doing it I am against. Unless we change how we do things here, until we start becoming responsible fiscally, there has to be somebody putting on the brakes. I don't want to be known as a Senator who blocks research, but in fact, as the doctor related, this can all be done, and they are probably doing it.

The Senator from Iowa voted for the reform of NIH. You proudly voted for the reform of NIH. Paralysis is a disease-specific category because it is based on a problem in terms of mobility. So it falls into a category.

I don't know whether he wants this specifically, but what I am saying to you is, if you will bring a bill with $115 million worth of offsets to the floor in terms of authorization, we will say yes tomorrow.

The point is, until we establish with the American people that we are going to be as wise with their money as they are with their money, then we have to do some changing.

I do not apologize at all for standing in the way of this bill on principle. Somebody has to say timeout in this country in terms of spending. A newborn child born this year faces $400,000 in unfunded liability. When you fund the $115 million and if you offset it with something else, something else will get offset. The average increase in this area has been about 7.5 percent per year. What is the name of all those children who aren't going to get to go to college, will not have a great opportunity economically for the future, because we won't live within our means?

The last time I knew, when the airlines made money, they paid taxes. So, in fact, they are contributing to all those things that were mentioned because they are taxed at one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. One of the reasons the airlines can't compete is because we have a tax rate that essentially is close to 50 percent by the time we add in State income taxes. So they participated in the development of all those programs. They are great advancements.

Let's finish this debate. Let's talk off the floor. I will gladly work with Senator Harkin to accomplish whatever he wants, but I will not break down on the letter I sent in January of 2007 that says I believe we have to change the way we operate. I know there is tremendous resistance to that in this body. I understand that. But the American people don't understand it. What they understand is they have to make hard choices. Either we mean to fund the $115 million or we are sending a charade to the people who want this bill passed. It is one or the other. The fact is, they have had a chance.

I will also put in the Record that in the last Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill, there was $105 million that Senator Harkin specifically put in for earmarks that he directed. That is real spending. That is enough to pay for the whole bill over 10 years.

The fact is, we have a major disagreement on specifics on how we control and how we change this country. I will fight for the taxpayer every time. I apologize to the Senator for some of my emotion. It is because I am thinking about the kids who are coming, not the political realm of today. I understand that we need to do more in NIH. I am on public record to take that to $60 billion. I will pay for it, easily pay for it. There is $80 billion worth of fraud in Medicare. What have we done about that? Nothing. We gutted the very program that cut spending for medical devices, durable medical equipment, the last bill through here. We had a way to save over $2 billion a year. We gutted it. The Senator voted for it. He voted to gut the $2 billion worth of savings.

So there are plenty of things we can do, but what we are not going to do anymore with my consent is to pass bills that increase the liability for our children in the future, even when we do it for the sake of doing something good.

I yield the floor.

Mr. HARKIN. You can look at society and say there are a lot of problems out there. You can look at this Congress and say we spend a lot of money that we don't agree on. There is a lot of money spent in this Congress I don't like, that I don't agree with. But does that mean this one Senator should stand here and stop good things from happening just because I don't like the way something is being spent, the way something is being done, that I should use the privilege of being a Senator, a privilege, a right, a privilege of being a Senator to just stop something that is good?

There are 435 Members of the House, not one objection; 99 Members of the Senate, not one objection. But one Senator, the Senator from Oklahoma, is concerned about deficits and about appropriations. OK. I agree. There are some problems. We have to face our deficits and debt. Does that mean, then, that we stop every good thing from happening around here until that is taken care of? That is taking the privilege of being a Senator way beyond what we ought to have a right to do, to stop something like this just because we are upset about something else that is bad about spending.

Heck, I can share with the Senator from Oklahoma a lot of horror stories about how we are wasting money in this Government. He doesn't have a corner on that market, I assure him. Some of the things he may think are wasteful, I might agree. Maybe some of the things I think are wasteful, he may not agree. I don't know. But that is how we work things out here, in a collegial manner, working together to try to get these things solved.

It is very hard to explain, when I tell people that one Senator can stop something like this. They don't understand how that is possible, but it is. One Senator can stop things around here. I wish this weren't so in this case because there are too many people with paralysis who were counting on us to get this done and move ahead to coordinate the research in paralysis and bring all of it together. But we never give up. We just keep trying.

I yield the floor.


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