Welcome to "Kansas Common Sense." Thank you for your continued interest in receiving my weekly newsletter. Please feel free to forward it on to your family and friends if it would interest them.
Flying at Half-Staff
Last week was difficult for all Americans. Tremendous loss of life, gross violence and terrorizing fear struck our nation from Boston to Washington, D.C. to Texas and elsewhere. Weeks like these, so catastrophic and sorrowful, can shake us to the core, but also unite us as Americans and remind us of what is most important in life. My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the events of last week, particularly those who have lost loved ones.
Our nation breathed a sigh of relief on Friday with the simple words "we got him." I am incredibly grateful for the bravery, persistence and expertise of our law enforcement, military and intelligence officials who worked together seamlessly to make certain justice will be served for the victims of these senseless attacks.
I am confident our nation will heal, affected communities will rebuild, and justice will be served. I look forward to seeing our flag return to full-staff after such a trying week.
Reaction to Immigration Bill Introduction
With Wednesday's introduction of the Gang of Eight's Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, there is much talk about the 11 million undocumented immigrants. We must also remember the other 11 million -- those 11.7 million Americans who are unemployed. As the debate moves forward, we must keep an eye toward how immigration reforms can help our economy grow.
Committed to a Common-Sense Approach to Gun Safety
As our nation looks for real and lasting solutions that will keep our children safe, it is essential that we focus on what works and be realistic about what doesn't. One amendment I supported -- the Grassley-Cruz Amendment -- would improve the current background check system; enhance awareness, prevention and early detection of mental illness; supplement resources to address gun violence and school safety; and strengthen existing criminal law with gun trafficking statutes -- all while protecting Americans' Second Amendment rights. However, the amendment failed to garner the 60 votes required for adoption.
The other two amendments I supported, which were approved, would protect the private and personal information of law-abiding gun owners; reauthorize various programs designed to enhance awareness, prevention and early detection of mental health conditions; and provide targeted improvements to help states address the unique mental health care needs in their communities.
I voted against the Manchin-Toomey amendment because under current law, licensed merchants are already required to conduct background checks on purchases. Engaging in the business of selling guns without a license is already a felony offense -- even at gun shows. A Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, the most comprehensive of its kind, indicates that less than 1 percent of criminals obtain firearms from gun shows. The Manchin-Toomey proposal of expanding background checks to include those who trade and collect guns is a solution in search of a problem. Additionally, a widely-circulated Department of Justice memo states that universal background checks will not work without registering every single firearm in America, but a national registry is impractical and was absent from the amendment. The amendment also failed to reach the 60 votes required for adoption.
While the underlying bill, S. 649, did not have sufficient support to pass the Senate, it is worth our efforts to find workable, continued solutions. We can immediately start keeping our neighborhoods and communities safer by properly enforcing all of our existing gun laws. Criminals who misuse firearms should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I am committed to addressing the safety and concerns of Kansans. Thank you to the thousands of Kansans who contacted me regarding this issue.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Hearing and Claim Backlog Announcement
This week began by attending the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing and listening to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and other VA officials discuss their goals for the upcoming year. I used this opportunity to question them on the understaffing of rural Community Based Outpatient Clinics and ask why Marriage and Family Therapists and Licensed Professional Counselors have not been more included in providing mental health care to our veterans. I also requested information on the progress of the proposed Department of Defense/VA joint hospital in Wichita between the Dole VA Medical Center and McConnell Air Force Base. These issues are crucial to the care of our nation's heroes.
A step in the right direction was announced on Friday from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), who stated that they are responding to our concerns about claims backlogs and expediting the process for claims that have been held up for more than a year. It is absurd that veterans have been waiting for a year or more to have their claims processed, and I'm pleased to see the VA is finally taking action. I've heard countless stories from folks who wait months -- and in some cases years -- to have their claims make it through all the wickets of the VA, and I'm glad the message is being heard.
Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing with FAA Administrator Huerta and FAA Furloughs
On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development held a hearing with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta. I had the opportunity to question the Administration about disproportionately targeting FAA Contract Control Towers with sequestration cuts. Administrator Huerta responded that he did not have the authority to use unobligated funds to keep the towers open, but my amendment to the Continuing Resolution, which was blocked from being voted on and opposed by the Administration, would have given the FAA the authority use those unobligated funds. It baffles me as to why the Obama Administration fought this common sense, bipartisan effort.
Additionally, I have introduced the Protect Our Skies Act, which now has more than 30 bipartisan cosponsors, and would prohibit the Department of Transportation (DOT) from closing any air traffic control towers during FY 2013 or 2014 including those that are operated by the FAA. I am committed to finding more responsible ways to cut spending than by compromising safety. The simple fact that the FAA was able to delay the closures until June shows that the agency's financial state is not as dire as initially projected.
After neglecting to mention it during the hearing on Thursday, Administrator Huerta announced that air traffic controller furloughs would begin Sunday and would force delays at airports across the country.
The Administration's insistence on deliberately inconveniencing air travelers instead of prioritizing their safety falls right in line with its history of putting politics before common sense. They do have flexibility when it comes to sequestration. Savings can and should be found elsewhere, and the Senate stands ready to work with them on a bipartisan basis to find a solution, but they refuse to come to the table. I am again baffled by the Administration's continued insistence on putting its top-line message -- that we can't cut a dime without severe consequences -- before the safety and well-being of Americans.
Military Spouse Job Continuity Act
On Thursday, I introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation called the Military Spouse Job Continuity Act, which would help military spouses more easily re-enter the workforce by offering a tax credit to any military spouse who has to renew or transfer a professional license due to a military Change of Station order. Our men and women in uniform are only as strong as the families who support them, and military spouses deserve the opportunity to seamlessly transition employment and continue working in their licensed career fields when moving across state lines.
Approximately 85 percent of military spouses either work, or desire to work, outside the home and nearly 35 percent of these require licenses or certification. At the end of 2012, there were 27 states, including Kansas, that moved toward "state-to-state transfer of credentials" best practice legislation, made policy changes, or showed where the state has policy supporting the desired outcome. Last year, the Kansas Legislature passed a law expediting the process for military spouses currently licensed in another state. The Military Spouse Job Continuity Act makes certain that this kind of smooth transition is carried out across the country.
Questioning Secretary Duncan about Kansas Education Priorities
On Wednesday, I participated in a Senate Appropriations Labor-Health-Education Subcommittee hearing on the Administration's Fiscal Year 2014 budget request for the U.S. Department of Education. This was my first hearing as Ranking Member, which has jurisdiction over funding for all accounts at the Department. Secretary Arne Duncan was the witness at this hearing so it presented an opportunity to ask his perspective on a range of education issues important to Kansans.
The Administration's budget requests a more than $3 billion increase compared to FY 2012 levels, yet it does not contain any increases for formula grant programs that Kansas schools rely on significantly, such as Title I, Special Education Grants to States, and Impact Aid that supports children of military service members in our state. I asked Sec. Duncan to explain the Administration's rationale for increasing funds to new, unproven competitive grant programs while electing not to increase support for these existing formula grant programs, which are the primary source of federal education investments in Kansas. I also asked the Secretary to detail the Administration's planned changes for student financial aid assistance, including new requirements and obligations of higher education institutions within this proposed new framework. Another request I had for the Secretary was to discuss the process the Department takes to make certain that schools within rural states like Kansas, which often have lower student enrollments and tighter administrative budgets, have the opportunity to effectively compete for resources related to Department initiatives, such as early childhood learning and TRIO programs that provide a variety of services to improve higher education opportunities for low-income individuals, veterans, and first-generation college students.
Finally, this hearing gave me the chance to reiterate my invitation to Sec. Duncan to join me in Kansas to visit McPherson Unified School District 418. Over the past several years, McPherson has worked to obtain to a waiver from certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act to implement an innovative, locally-designed plan to ensure its students learn the skills needed for success in higher education and the workplace. McPherson was the first school district in the country to earn this type of flexibility to go above and beyond to hold its students, teachers, administrators, and community to a higher standard of achievement. I think it would be very useful for the Secretary to see this innovative work taking place in Kansas without additional money or federal intervention.
State of Veteran Entrepreneurship Roundtable
Veterans in Kansas, as well as across the country, face challenges when they return to the workforce after serving in the Armed Forces. While the VA often focuses on job training and employment, our veterans are also great businessmen and women. It's important for them to have the opportunity to explore starting a business of their own, which is why I hosted a State of Veteran Entrepreneurship Roundtable with the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Thursday. It was an opportunity to highlight the success stories and insights of veterans who have lived the American Dream and established a business after serving their country.
Some of the topics we discussed touched on the state of existing federal government programs and the ability to conduct outreach to veterans and those still serving in the Armed Forces, ideas on how current programs may be improved to better support veteran entrepreneurs such as using post-9/11 GI Bill benefits toward a startup, and gaps or issues not being addressed by current programs such as mentoring networks that reach service members at the local level. Most of the participants were veterans themselves and engaged in a passionate and dynamic discussion, they include: Karl Monger, GallantFew Executive Director, Wichita, Kan.; Dali Rivera, Elite Revolutionary Solutions Owner; Blake Hall, TroopID Founder and CEO; Michele Markey, Kauffman Foundation FastTrac Vice President; Tak Lo, TechStars Associate; Rhett Jeppson, Small Business Administration Associate Administrator; and Davy Leghorn, National Economic Commission Assistant Director and The American Legion.
This spring I've had a great group of interns assisting me with legislative and administrative duties on behalf of the state of Kansas. Rachael DeGarmo of Valley Center, Nick Herrman of Holcomb, Dustin Morris of Wichita, and Mitch Rucker of Burdett are bright young Kansans who have been doing important work for Kansans and gaining valuable experience that will help them in the future.
Kansans interested in applying for U.S. Senate Internships in Washington, D.C., Hays, Manhattan, Pittsburg, Wichita or Olathe can learn more by visiting my website.
Doolittle Tokyo Raiders
This week, I cosponsored a Senate Resolution to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 1942 Doolittle Tokyo Raiders -- a group of WWII pilots who have become an enduring model of courage and patriotism. The four surviving members were reuniting for the last time this week to mark the 70th Anniversary of their "extremely hazardous" bomber mission -- which they volunteered for without knowing the target, location or assignment. Led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, the Raiders were forced to launch their airplanes 650 miles from their target. After hitting their military and industrial targets in Tokyo and five other cities, low on fuel and in setting night and deteriorating weather, all 16 airplanes were forced to crash-land in China or Russia. Of the eight Raiders who were captured, three were executed -- including Sergeant Harold Spatz of Lebo, Kansas -- one died of disease, and four returned home. A dormitory at McConnell AFB is named in Sergeant Spatz's honor.
Shawnee Chamber After Hours
While home in Kansas, I had the opportunity to visit with Shawnee Chamber of Commerce members at an "after hours" event hosted by Weaver Auto Center, Inc. We discussed Congressional legislation and its effect on their businesses. I appreciate hearing their feedback before returning to Washington, D.C. Thank you to Jody and Tony Adams and John and Susan Weaver for hosting the event.
Receiving the CEA Digital Patriots Award
On Wednesday evening, I joined executives and technologists for the Consumer Electronics Association's (CEA) annual Digital Patriots Dinner. CEA has been an important voice in explaining how technology and innovation can improve our society and solve some of our greatest challenges. This year, I was awarded the Digital Patriot Award for my support of entrepreneurship, job creation and innovation. I am grateful for the recognition and will continue my support for entrepreneurs who have had such a substantial impact on job creation. Thank you to CEA President and CEO, Gary Shapiro, for honoring me and inviting me to speak at the event.