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Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 - Continued

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I would like to speak a few minutes on the Emmett Till amendment that I have up. We heard this morning from the Honorable Senator from Maryland, utilizing the letter from the Attorney General saying they would work hard in approving and working on the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. However, the defense for not approving my amendment was the fact that the Justice Department is going to work hard on it anyway.

I would note for my colleagues that is exactly the opposite amendment that we had last year when we were trying to pass this bill, when it was my contention that we didn't need additional money and that the Justice Department could do it. What we heard almost unanimously outside this Chamber is they couldn't do it without funding.

So now we have an amendment that actually puts in funding to go after these perpetrators of these heinous crimes. Yet we don't want to do it because now the very excuse we said wasn't good enough last year is good enough this year.

That is disloyal to the cause, No. 1; and, No. 2, it does not make any sense in light of the very statements made by some of the very same Senators last year.

The fact is, not funding this will make a real difference in the number of cases that get brought to prosecution. We have a letter from the Attorney General that says he will try, but what we are talking about is giving him more money so he does not have any excuse for not trying--which lines up exactly with the reasoning behind the appropriations bills on almost every other topic.

I say to my colleagues, having a letter which was generated last year in my support for trying not to increase the funding--which was said that wasn't adequate, that we needed funding--now the fact that you refused to fund something you promised to fund and say it will get done anyway does not speak very well of our effort in that behalf.

It is my hope the Senate will look hard and long at this. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say you need to authorize funding, we need to have funding, and send out a press release saying you authorized $15 million a year for the next few years to do something and then have a chance to fund it and not fund it and say we didn't need to authorize the funding in the first place. It is hypocritical, in my opinion, and my hope is we will give great and concerted consideration to my amendment.

I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.

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Mr. COBURN. Madam President, it is interesting, the first of the Senator's remarks had to do with the Constitution. He conveniently skipped over article I, section 8, and went straight to article I, section 9. If you read what Madison and the Founders wrote about article I, section 9, they had a very limited scope for what we ought to be doing. As a matter of fact, the trouble we find ourselves in today is because we have abandoned the enumerated powers of the Constitution. We have excused them and we have said: We should fund it all.

As far as education, Federal funds fund 20 percent of education but 80 percent of the problems. If you think our schools are successful, look at our scores compared to everywhere else in the world. Our scores started going down when the Federal Government started getting involved in education, not prior.

The other assumption is, you have to have a great building to have a great education. That is absolutely wrong. Education is based on the incentive of the children, the quality of the teacher, and the control of discipline. You can teach as well in a Quonset hut as you can the most modern school, if you have motivated kids, great teachers, and great control of the classroom.

The purpose for trying to eliminate these earmarks isn't necessarily that they are wrong. They are truly unauthorized, but that would be a totally different story if a group of peers had said these are priorities, but they haven't. The problem is, is it a priority now, when every penny you will use, whether it is the new school program you want me to cosign or the earmarks
you have in the bill today, is going to be borrowed from your grandchildren.

The very schools you are going to build in Iowa, that we are not going to build in the rest of the country, by leveraging Federal dollars are going to be charged to the kids of the kids who are there. They are going to pay for it. It is not about whether it is right or wrong; it is about whether it is a priority, whether we ought to be doing it now.

The Agricultural Research Service is a fine organization. Every time we need money for agriculture, we steal money from the Agricultural Research Service. There is nothing wrong with studying manure and its application as both a fertilizer, soil enhancer, and other things. There is nothing wrong with studying the other aspect of the odor. We slaughter 10,000 hogs a day in one plant in Oklahoma. I know exactly what it smells like. I have traveled every farm area in my State. As a matter of fact, to me a lot of it smells pretty good compared to what you smell in the cities. But the fact is, is it a priority that we spend that money now?

The real problem we have isn't earmarks. It is two: One is, we give this document short shrift; No. 2, we have become parochialized. We forget what our oath was that we signed when we came in here, to uphold the Constitution, to do the right things for this country as a whole in the long term and do the best things we can for the future of the children who follow. But what we have turned into is what can we take home; how do we look good at home; how do we send Federal dollars home.

The reason the stimulus bill was bad is because we took the lack of fiscal discipline in this body and we transferred it to every State house in the country. Ask any Governor what is happening now that we have passed the stimulus. The hard choices will not be made in the States. So the future prospect for fiscal discipline in the States is now gone. The next time they have problems, they will be counting on us. We have now transferred our bad habit of being fiscally irresponsible to the States.

I think it is ridiculous that at this time in our Nation, when we are going to have a $1.7 trillion deficit, we would spend the first penny on anything other than a necessity because when we have a $1.6 trillion deficit, it is not just $1.6 trillion, it is $1.6 trillion we are going to borrow over the next 30 years, and we are going to be paying awfully high interest rates. It is not very long--2015--when we are going to be at 40 percent of the budget going to interest. There will not be a Harkin school program for Iowa in 2015 because there will not be any money. We will not be able to borrow any more money because the interest rates and the cost to borrow it will be too high because the rest of the world will doubt whether we can pay back the money.

So the prudence I am asking for in trying to eliminate some of the earmarks is to think about the long term rather than the short term, to think about what is best for our country in the long term, not what is best for us and how we look at home, and to do what is within the framework of the Constitution.

The final point I will make: Presidential earmarks ought to have exactly the same dealing as we do with congressional earmarks--get them authorized, put them in a list of priorities, and then fund them. But do not send an earmark to the floor that is not authorized by the Congress and the relevant committee it comes through.

With that, I yield the floor.

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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, this amendment is a very straightforward amendment. This Senate made a commitment last year through the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act that we would fund in this bill money to be applied to the Justice Department to start and bring up to a level that is appropriate the funding of the investigative, prosecutorial, and other necessary agencies with which to go after these unsolved crimes.

The reason it is important is that in most of these crimes, the witnesses are very elderly. So the timeliness of it is very important.

It is interesting today that the other side produced a letter from the Attorney General that states exactly the opposite position they took last year when I opposed trying to get the money to pay for this bill. They bring forth a letter that says Attorney General Holder is going to make sure we try to do this within the funds he has. That is the very argument I made last year, but it was not good enough. So we had hundreds of press releases go out on all these things we are going to do on the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. Yet when it comes time to fund it this year, we cannot find $10 million in a $410 billion bill to do it. Either we mean to do it and we mean to uphold the promise we made to this group that has worked hard to have that bill passed or we are full of hot air.

This amendment takes $10 million from a program that has questionable results in half of its grant money. I will not go into the details of it. Yet we will not fund this bill. I said last year on the Senate floor, we will see if you fund it. And sure enough, you didn't fund it. So you didn't keep your commitment, you didn't keep your commitment to Alvin Sykes, a guy who has worked 10 years to get that bill passed. And now we come up and say we will take care of it through the administration, which was the very argument I used that said we didn't need increased authorization. Now all of a sudden you say that is good enough. Well, it is not good enough. It breaks your commitment to fully fund this program to bring to justice those who committed these terrible crimes.

I reserve the remainder of my time.

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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, first, I regret the inference that my obstruction to this bill was anything other than financial. To me it is a fairly low blow to imply, by the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that I had a motivation other than financial. I am known in this body for trying to make us more efficient and to save money.

The second thing is it is laughable to call it an earmark. It is authorized. That is what we passed last year. It is authorized. It is authorized by 100 Senators. The commitment that was made was that we would fund it.

One of my negotiations for finally agreeing is that if you are going to do this and you are going to authorize it at $15 million a year, you ought to at least fund it since the very statements were that we didn't have the money within the Justice Department to do this the way the Justice Department was funded.

There is not one mention of this bill in either the report language or the text of the bill related to this particular act. So what we see is cover.

I truly wish to see us solve all these. But the game that is being played today is somebody forgot to fund it.

The final point I will make before my time runs out is that if this gets added, we are not going to not fund this. This bill is still going to pass, we are still going to do the hard work, and we are still going to fund the agencies. To imply otherwise is disingenuous.

This amendment was put up in a sincere effort to keep a commitment to Alvin Sykes, not to create mischief, not to be a bill killer, but to create a commitment. The last thing I told Alvin Sykes: You got it authorized. Your problem is going to be getting it funded. He was assured by the office of Senator Dodd and others that it would be funded. And what do you know, the bill comes through and it is not funded. I don't know if it was a mistake. Just say it was a mistake and we will take care of it in the next bill. But to deny the fact we made a commitment and now are not keeping it and assign all sorts of motives different than what they are is pretty distasteful, I would say.

I reserve the remainder of my time.

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Mr. COBURN. I thank the Chair.

You know, it is interesting, when I hold bills it is hardly ever on policy. Every one of you got a letter from me--everybody in this body--which said I will oppose all new legislation if you are spending new money unless you decrease authorization somewhere else. The American people get that.

You can't keep growing the government and promising we will do things. So we are seeing it wrung out--the true operations of the Senate--because what we are doing is promising something, but when it comes down to dividing the pie, we don't have the money. So instead of recalling our press releases, we don't fund them. We don't keep our commitments.

No wonder the American people don't trust Congress. We play games. We manipulate. This is something that should have had, and was committed to having, a line item in the appropriations bill to make sure this money funds what is necessary on a timely basis.

The letter the chairman of the Judiciary just submitted for the Record has already been submitted for the Record. It was submitted this morning. But it is ironic that the very argument I used in trying to get them to offset this bill last year is the very argument they are using now to say we don't need to have a line item in the appropriations bill for it. It wasn't a good enough argument last year, but it is a good enough argument now that you don't want to fund this directly.

This is a matter of timing. We ought to put the money in this on a timely basis to make sure we solve these crimes. The witnesses are dying and the information is going away. Justice denied comes about because we are delaying justice. Regardless of the good intentions of the Attorney General, we can force them to spend this money in that way, and the way to do that is to put a line item in the bill.

Mr. President, I reserve the remainder of my time.

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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, this amendment would not kill this bill. What it will do is, it will go back to the House, and they will have to agree to it. Everybody knows that. We have known this day was coming for a long time. Whatever the outcome, the fact is, those commitments weren't kept. We didn't do what we told the very people who worked very hard to accomplish this we would do, and it sheds a light on our body that should not be there.

Mr. President, I yield back the remainder of my time, and I ask for the yeas and nays.

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Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, this amendment is straightforward. There is an alleged significant violation of Federal law associated with the firm that was responsible for lobbying for the insertion of these 13 earmarks. I have not said anything about the quality of these earmarks. I have not said anything about the individuals who actually placed them. What I ask my colleagues is, in light of where we are today, should we not back off and say these should be stricken from the bill at this time until that situation is clarified?

It is prudent from a couple of standpoints. The investigation is rolling forward. We have had private residences now searched by the FBI, computers taken, and information pulled under subpoenas and search warrants issued by Federal courts. Do we want to be in the midst of passing things that were connected with what appears to be and is alleged to be improper behavior both in terms of the source of the funds, the payment of campaign funds, and the lobbying efforts on behalf of these firms?

I cast no aspersion on the firms or the entities that are getting this, nor on the individuals who have placed these earmarks. But I can tell my colleagues the American people are not going to be happy if we don't recognize that maybe there is a checkpoint here where we ought to reconsider what we are doing in light of the developing situation around this firm. If we go forward and assume there will be prosecutions and convictions, we find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position of having encouraged it. We also send a signal to other individual lobbying firms that there isn't a standard of behavior to which we will not respond to their lobbying efforts.

I ask my colleagues to take a look at this not as Members of the Senate but as individual citizens outside of the Senate in the country, as others look at us and say, What are you doing?

Is there not a point in time--again, I make the point that the Senator from Arizona made that it would be totally different if these were authorized earmarks, but they are not. They went through the Appropriations Committee, not the authorizing committees. They have never been judged by a group of our peers. They weren't voted on; they were inserted. We raise the specter of whether we can be trustworthy in front of the American people. We need to work to regain their trust.

I will not say any more. This will speak a lot about our body and what the American people say. I understand the votes are lining up. I understand that. But I will assure you that I will keep coming to the floor on earmarks--not because I am against earmarks. If you authorize an earmark, I will give you your right to do whatever you want to do. On unauthorized earmarks that aren't vetted and are put out in front of the rest of the Congress and the rest of the individuals on committees to have a vote on whether they are a priority, I am going to keep raising that issue. I am sorry if that is irritating, but that is the way it is going to be.

Mr. President, Senator Boxer defended an earmark she sponsored that I have singled out as an example of misplaced priorities.

The Boxer earmark, which is one of nearly 9,000 tucked into this bill, is listed on page 100 of the bill's report and is described only as $475,000 ``for improvements to the Orange County Great Park'' from the Economic Development Initiatives to ``Orange County Great Park Corporation, CA.''

Nothing more is stated as to the purpose or intent of this earmark.

Senator Boxer claimed that my criticism of this earmark was an insult to veterans in her state. This is apparently because the unwritten and unspecified intention of the earmark according to her statement is to restore the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station Hangar Number 244 into a history museum and welcoming center.

The reality is this type of legislating without transparency is an insult to all taxpayers.

With nearly 9,000 earmarks in this bill described with nothing more than a few words or a single vague phrase, it is next to impossible for anyone other than the Senators and lobbyists who requested these earmarks to know the real intent of how billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars are intended to be spent.

As I found from statements made by the Senator from California and the Great Park's own Website, the Great Park ``will be larger than New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park COMBINED.''

This municipal park is expected to cost $1.1 billion. Its main attraction is a massive helium balloon operated by two pilots with six-figure salaries. According to the Orange County Great Park Corporation Website, ``The Orange County Great Park Plan will provide a wide array of active and passive uses, including a 2.5 mile canyon and lake, miles of walking and biking trails, a cultural terrace, Orange County's largest sports park, a botanical garden, and a tethered helium observation balloon that will be an icon for the Great Park. More than 3,885 of the 4,700 acres will be dedicated to open space, education, and other public uses.''

As found by the Los Angeles Times, the Great Park also includes a $300,000 tent designed to resemble an airplane hangar that costs $75,000 a year to clean; a four-person visitor center crew hired under a $370,000 annual contract; a series of orange dots painted along the park's entrance road at a cost of $14,000.

Additional costs have included $838,000 to build a road to the balloon, plant citrus trees and buy a $300,000 special 50-by-50-foot tent that will serve as the visitor center, $380,000 a year for two balloon pilots, a hostess and maintenance, $100,000 a year for a balloon replacement fund, $94,000 a year for portable restrooms, $52,000 annually for security between 1 and 5 a.m., and $30,000 a year for trash removal.

This appropriation of almost half a million dollars could have gone to any of these initiatives none of which sound like true national priorities.

Local county officials were, in fact, outraged with what local funds were being appropriated for. The bulk of the first $52 million the city spent on this project went to hire a team of dozens of design, engineering and public relations consultants, to build the balloon ride and to pay administrative staff.

``To have nothing more than a balloon and the possibility of a 27-acre park is disappointing,'' said county Supervisor Bill Campbel, `` They're spending a lot on engineers, PR people and other things, and they're not delivering.''

State Assemblyman Todd Spitzer--a Republican from Orange Country--also criticized the city for not building recreation facilities that could be used by the public, while wasting money on ``a ridiculous, oversized balloon and free rides.''

With a state-wide unemployment rate at over 10 percent and almost 2 million unemployed, Californians may also prefer these funds to be spent on other more pressing priorities.

While we all want to honor the great sacrifices or our veterans, I do not believe this earmark is a national priority, especially in light of the poor local spending decisions made in the past on this ambitious municipal park project. Perhaps this money and the billions spent on the other pork projects in this bill could have been better spent on veterans health care or survivor benefits for the spouses and families of those who lost their lives fighting for our great Nation.

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