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Department Of Interior, Environment, And Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR, ENVIRONMENT, AND RELATED AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2006 -- (Senate - June 29, 2005)

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Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, yesterday, our friend and colleague from New Hampshire said this amendment is not about being a wild-eyed environmentalist, but that it is about being fiscally responsible. So I am going to take the fiscally responsible side of that argument and say, let us open Pandora's box. I think this amendment does it. This bill includes $254 million for State and private forestry assistance. I doubt that New Hampshire gets any of that. It also includes $257 million for recreation, wilderness, and heritage management.

Should we not hold the recreational industry to the same standard we are holding the logging industry--no subsidy and everybody who hikes pay your own way? That is part of the argument. If we are going to hold the Tongass Forest to the standards we would be holding it to in this amendment, to cut the resources--what about the community action programs? The Senator from New Mexico said he made the decision--are we not going to invest in the community forestry program for the State of New Mexico and the communities that benefit from that? Cut them all. If that is the principle we apply here, cut them all. Eighty percent of the timber sales on public lands in this country to supply our fiber needs are now held up in the courts for legal action. Those are the realities, while the timber pours in out of Canada and cuts jobs out from rural America. That is exactly what is going on.

No, not a wild-eyed environmental logic, a fiscal logic; let's take out the programs for recreation and wilderness and trail maintenance and let the public pay their fair share.

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[AMENDMENT NO. 1071 TO AMENDMENT NO. 1052]

Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I thank Senator Santorum, a member of the Republican leadership, a gentleman who has brought forth this amendment, who recognized the problem that has very rapidly emerged in the last several weeks with veterans health care.

At the outset--and I know a good deal has already been said and we are collectively working on this issue--health care, as you know, is a very dynamic entity. It is subject to a variety of forces that are not as predictable as we would like to have them be in the normal budgeting processes of Government.

The difficulty inside the Veterans' Administration today is health care. That is the area that is consuming these large amounts of dollars at this moment at a very aggressive rate, just like health care is costing more everywhere around the United States, both public and private.

We found in the last several weeks something that we didn't know a month or two ago. It is something I wish we had known. I stood here on the floor telling my colleagues one thing, both in a supplemental and in amendments, as it relates to veterans' needs and, therefore, veterans health care services that at that time was not true. It was a frustration to me and an embarrassment. But that doesn't mean I hunkered down or that anybody else did. It means we solve a problem, because while we are dealing with a dynamic entity known as veterans health care, we are first and foremost concerned about caring for veterans and making sure they have access to the health care system we have promised them, and that they are being provided the best care.

Having said all of that, we were talking about a 2006 budget, feeling we had adequately resourced a 2005 budget. Here is what we didn't know, and probably some have already talked about it; that is, the peculiarity of the budgeting process inside our Government and inside the second largest bureaucracy in Government, known as Veterans' Administration--the difficulty of projecting a reasonable, contemporary budget 18 months out from implementation.

We did not do it well. The Veterans' Administration did not do it well. The actuarial organization that was doing it for the Veterans' Administration and has a great reputation around the country did not have a model that was feeding in all the right indices. So they were looking at 2003 expenditure levels in veterans health care to project a 2005 budget and factored in about a 2.3- or 4-percent growth rate. That is what we thought would work.

It did not work. It did not work for a lot of reasons. It did not work because the model was probably wrong. It did not have all the inflationary costs in that were needed. It did not foresee that in 2003, 2004, and 2005 we would invest nearly 10 percent more on an annualized basis in the veterans health care system and that it would improve it to the extent that it became a health care system of first choice to veterans when to some it had been a health care system of second choice.

You know the old adage: Build it and they will come. We did. We improved it dramatically, and they came. They came in numbers that could not be addressed effectively by the models. That is one part of the problem.

Here is the other part of the problem: The 2003 numbers had no reflection of Iraq, no reflection of Afghanistan, no reflection of active service personnel who would find themselves substantially injured in a way that they would have to seek the services of the veterans health care system. That is something in the 30-plus-percent range of these new figures.

The Veterans' Administration began to see this problem and did not communicate it to us effectively and responsibly. Then they did their midyear review. If you were going to graph this, you would have to graph it as a spike. All of a sudden, they saw their numbers spiking up. So that 2003 model of actuarial soundness of service at 2.3 percent all of a sudden becomes a 5-plus percent, 5.3, 5.4. Some would say, 3 percent in big business is not a bad miss. But 3 percent in a nearly $80 billion budget is big money.

When it comes to delivery of services, when it comes to the improvement of services, and you have to curtail that to fund other kinds of services, you have a problem. That is where we are today.

The Senator from Washington is absolutely right. Her view of it was different than mine at the time. She saw a different picture and proposed a different level of funding. I opposed her at the time, believing the numbers I had were accurate. I was successful. But I did tell her that if these numbers changed, if there were any indication of change, I would be the first to tell her and we would be back solving this problem. Why? We may disagree on some things, but we do all agree on one thing, and that is that the service to America's veterans should never be jeopardized and that we would stand united and bipartisan in that effort.

Within 4 or 5 hours after I knew these numbers, I was visiting with the Senator from Washington. The Senator from Texas, who has been an active partner and is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee for MILCON and Veterans Affairs, was engaged with us immediately, and we began to try to figure out how to solve the problem.

Solving the problem is getting the best numbers we can get in as factual a way as we can get them. I must tell you that all of us were a little suspicious that we had not been told what we needed to be told in a timely fashion. That is why I insisted and Secretary Nicholson responded yesterday to the full committee with a very valuable hearing in which a lot of these issues began to be laid out.

I must also tell you I believe the Secretary was every bit as frustrated as we were. He is new on the job, but he is a very skilled and successful businessman. If there is one thing he believes in, it is getting the numbers right and being able to deal from a position of truthfulness and understanding. You do not work that way in Government. You sure do not work that way in business, and Secretary Nicholson knows it. He was very forthright with us and very clear in what is necessary.

Do we know at this moment exactly what the numbers ought to be? No, we do not. The fair analysis is we do not, but we have a very good idea of where they probably will be and what is most important at this moment. As the agency borrows from one account and uses up another account, we effectively replenish that so services do not go lagging in certain areas.

As important is that the capital expenditure and the reinvestment in equipment and health care-related services to our veterans stays on schedule so the quality of health care to America's veterans does not slip.

While we are figuring all of that out, and they are scrambling at this moment--they, the Veterans' Administration, along with the Office of Management and Budget--while they are scrambling to get the numbers right, we are going to act. You can see by the character of what we are doing now it is going to be bipartisan once again, and we are going to stand united in behalf of America's veterans.

The Republican leadership understands that, the Democratic leadership understands that, I as chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee understand that, the ranking member, Senator Akaka, who has been on the floor, clearly understands that, and certainly Senator Murray, who has been a strong advocate for veterans, understands that.

I see the Senator from West Virginia on the floor, Mr. Rockefeller. He, too, has been the same and, of course, Senator KAY HUTCHISON of Texas, now chairman of the subcommittee that appropriates all this money, understands it. It is why we want to speak in a united voice today on behalf of America's veterans.

While that is going on, we have to figure out the rest of the story, and that we will. It will be accurate, and we will make sure that this--you never say ``never''--will not happen again. But I have had conversations with the Secretary, and he is a very frustrated Secretary at this moment to find out on his watch that the numbers are not right and that what he was advocating has now slipped out from under him.

I am confident that he, working with his people, and the system will not only come up with a better way to do the numbers, but we are going to be insistent they come up with a better way to do the numbers. We are going to be insistent they report to us, not on an annual basis, but how about a quarterly basis, how about a quarterly analysis of where the expenditure of this kind of money is, because it is big money serving an awful lot of needy and worthy people, and we want to make sure it sustains itself in the appropriate way.

We also understand the limited nature of the public resource. It is not an endless system of money. We would expect efficiencies at the Veterans' Administration. We would expect responsibility at the Veterans' Administration. And what we do not expect and what we will not have happen again is for them to quietly think they can spend the money out and then, knowing they can come back to us and under the argument of motherhood and responsibility to America's brave men and women, we are going to fork over more money and never look back. This is one chairman who will look back, who is going to demand that systems are accurately accounted for, and that there is a reasonable and responsible quarterly measurement of the resources expended and the resources allocated.

As much as we owe to the veterans, we owe to the American taxpayers, who have agreed to help these veterans, a similar kind of responsibility and dedication to cost. That is not an unmanageable, an unsolvable, or an unmergeable concept. That is what we are about here, to deal with this in a direct way, and that we will. I think we are going to see a very strong vote today in behalf of what we are proposing.

The House is struggling with the numbers now. They may do something differently. But in the end, we will come together.

Our language is specific in one form. It is specific in recognizing that we do not have the exact figures yet. So we say the moneys that this authorizes are to be expended in 2005 and 2006, and then the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee and I and the ranking member--all of us together--will look at the 2006 needs in light of potential carryover that could come out of the appropriation we are talking about here. We will bring those numbers together and, very frankly, we will bring them together in a way that will cause the Veterans' Administration to come forward on a quarterly basis to report to us about their categories of expenditures and where they are in all of this issue.

We have to know the numbers. They have to be accurate. Our cause to serve America's veterans cannot be modified, nor will it be deterred. But it has to be accurate and it needs to be responsible. I support this amendment. I think it is the right thing to do now. It is now our job to make sure the future is one that is clear, understandable to all, and, most importantly, responsible both to the veteran and to America's taxpayers.

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Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I thought my comments on this issue had concluded, but I feel the statements just made by the Democratic leader deserve some response.

I will work very hard to sustain a calm tone and a bipartisan tone, as has been the character of the debate on this issue up until just a few moments ago when it took a dramatically partisan tone, tuned to the November 2006 elections. To me, that is disappointing, at best, and it is, at best, very misdirected.

To suggest that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is only a party chairman means that that minority leader has not even read his bio, nor does he care to. So let me suggest that this Secretary of Veterans Affairs is a 1961 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he served 8 years on active duty as a paratrooper and Ranger-qualified Army officer, then 22 years in the Army Reserves. While he was in the Army Reserves, he finished his master's degree at Columbia University in New York City and his law degree at Denver University.

It means that you have to be highly qualified to be ``just'' a party chairman.

No, I am sorry, Democratic leader. This Secretary is highly qualified to be Secretary.

I am disappointed, at best, and I hope my colleagues will join with me in an overwhelming disappointment at a dramatically partisan statement at a time when this chairman has worked in good faith to be extremely bipartisan to resolve a problem.

The minority leader forgets that every year during the Clinton administration they proposed to underfund the Veterans Affairs and Veterans' Administration and we, in a bipartisan way, said ``no.'' And every year since then, in the Bush administration, they funded it less than the Congress did. And we said ``no,'' because we expected a higher level of service than the budget crunchers down at OMB would admit; Democrats and Republicans, that is the fact that the minority leader has forgotten for the purpose of partisan politics.

Minority Leader Reid, I am highly disappointed. I will step back from the level of anger. You have impugned the integrity of a brave American, who is serving as Secretary of our Veterans' Administration, and you have impugned my integrity as a Senator, and I am disappointed.

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