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Public Statements

Making Further Continuing Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2003

Location: Washington, DC

Jan. 21, 2003


Ms. CANTWELL. Mr. President, I rise today in support of this amendment to provide much-needed assistance to our Nation's low-income families. The amendment before us today would use $300 million in contingency funds included in the fiscal year 2001 supplemental appropriations bill be provide additional money for states struggling to keep pace with demand for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, LIHEAP, provides critical aid to many of our Nation's most vulnerable citizens. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, as many as 5 million households received LIHEAP assistance during fiscal year 2001—the last year for which such data is available.

Since then, of course, the need for this program has grown almost exponentially. In many places—particularly in the western part of our country—the downturn in our nation's economy has conspired with soaring retail energy costs to create record-breaking demand for LIHEAP dollars.

I want to explain to my colleagues precisely why this amendment is so important to so many families in my state. On a number of previous occasions—during debate on the Senate energy bill, at various junctures during the Western energy crisis and the ensuing investigations of Enron and others—I have spoken on this floor about the Bush administration's failure to step in and stem the economic bleeding in my state resulting from skyrocketing electricity prices. But not only did this administration sit idly by as Enron and others conspired to wreak havoc on the economy of the West, this administration has also ignored repeated pleas to release the LIHEAP money that would aid those very citizens who have suffered the most from its inaction.

As my colleagues may recall, during the height of the western energy crisis—which we now know resulted at least in part from the manipulations of Enron and potentially other energy companies—wholesale electricity prices spiked to as much as 1,000 percent above normal.

While prices on the wholesale markets have now stabilized, one daunting reality we face in Washington state is that, despite a series of rate increases that had reached almost 50 percent in some areas by September 2001, the worst of this crisis is not yet over. The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets about 70 percent of the power consumed in Washington, subsequently put in place a rate increase of more than 40 percent in October 2001.

My State and region continue to struggle to pay power costs incurred during the crisis, at least in part due to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's failure to act and void exorbitantly prices contracts signed with the likes of Enron. And just this week I learned that, as a result, the Northwest faces the prospect of yet another round of double-digit rate increases later this year.

Already, Washington State has suffered from the second or third highest unemployment rate in the nature for almost a year. Already, utility disconnection rates have quadrupled in some areas of my State.

Already I receive letters from constituents who have to make the choice between buying prescription drugs and paying their electricity bills. So my colleagues can imagine just what kind of threat further electricity rate increases pose to the prospect of an economic recovery.

I could recount in much more detail this administration's flagrant disregard for the statutory requirement that consumers be charged "just and reasonable" electricity rates. But today, I want to focus on the fact it continues to ignore the plight of citizens who have borne the brunt of the economic crisis the administration itself had a hand in creating.

During fiscal year 2002, the Bush administration had at its disposal a total of $600 million in LIHEAP contingency funds. Congress appropriated a total of $300 million of these funds as part of that year's Labor-HHS appropriations bill; the remaining funds were appropriated as part of the fiscal year 2001 Supplemental bill, which included $300 million in LIHEAP funds that remain available until expended.

Due to the dire economic circumstances in which many of my state's working families find themselves, I have repeatedly asked this administration to release a portion of those funds to Washington State.

In October 30, 2001, in testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Assistant Health and Human Service Secretary Wade Horn stated that LIHEAP fulfills a "dual responsibility to provide ongoing assistance where it is most needed and to respond to emergency situations such as extreme weather conditions, supply disruptions or price spikes." At the same time, he indicated that there were no plans to release emergency funds due to a drop in fuel prices as well as forecasts of a relatively mild winter.

In response, I was joined by my colleague Senator MURRAY as well as six other members of the Washington delegation in sending a December 10, 2001 letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, pointing out that some 73 percent of Washington's low-income households are heated by electricity—rather than natural gas or oil, as in other parts of the country—and that retail rates continued to rise rapidly. I would also point out that since 1980—when LIHEAP was first authorized—electricity prices have climbed 180 percent on a national basis, while oil, natural gas and propane prices have been relatively more stable. In light of all this, we requested an immediate release of the then-$300 million in emergency LIHEAP money. no money was released.

On March 8,, 2002, after Congress had added another $300 million to the LIHEAP contingency fund and Assistant Secretary Horn had, in his response to our first letter, suggested that should there be an emergency, the administration would release the necessary aid, I wrote again to suggest we had reached that point.

Washington State's utility shutoff moratorium was set to expire, and 5 inches of snow had just fallen in the eastern part of my State. Still no funds were released.

On April 12, 2002, I wrote yet another letter—this time to OMB Director Mitch Daniels. After a phone call, he requested more information on Washington State's particular situation. My office provided this information in an April 17, 2002 letter. Still no funds were released.

On May 28, 2002, I joined with a number of my Senate colleagues from across the country in sending a letter to President Bush, arguing that many States had already exhausted their annual LIHEAP allocation. Still no funds were released.

Finally, on August 9, the administration released $100 million of the total $300 million available in fiscal year 2002 LIHEAP contingency funds. Unfortunately, Washington State was not on the list to receive any of this additional money.

What this amendment proposes to do is take the $300 million in contingency LIHEAP funds Congress appropriated in fiscal year 2001 and distribute it to this Nation's many families in need.

I ask unanimous consent to print in the RECORD and article from the December 22, 2002 New York Times, entitled "The Legacy of Power Cost Manipulation," which describes the situation in Snohomish County, WA.

Ms. CANTWELL. Mr. President, in part the article says:

Here in Snohomish County, which has the highest energy rates in the state, more than 14,000 customers have had their electricity shut off for lack of payment this year—a 44 percent increase over 2001. They have seen electric rate increases of 50 percent, as the Snohomish County Public Utility District struggles to pay for long-term power contracts it signed with companies like Enron at the height of the price run-up .    .    .

"It's a pretty tough thing trying to explain to your 5-year old kid why the lights won't come on anymore," said Crystal Faye of Everett. "I didn't pay much attention to all that stuff about California and Enron, but it's certainly come home to hurt us now."

Ms. Faye and her husband, Rick, who are unemployed, have had their power shut off twice this year.

Brianne Dorsey, a single mother, said she removed the baseboard heater in home and has had to rely on a small wood stove for heat, because she is $1,000 behind in paying her electric bills .   
 .    .
Mr. President, this article details but two examples of the plight of far too many Washington state citizens—where an estimated 295,000 households were eligible for LIHEAP even before the Western energy crisis and economic downturn collided to exact such a devastating toll. In 2002, while the Bush administration sat idly by, some 80 percent of Washington State's eligible households received no LIHEAP assistance whatsoever.

Of the 20 percent that did, 74 percent had children in the home, 14 percent of these households included disabled Americans, and 10 percent included the elderly.

The amendment before us today sends a clear message: while the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to the very real economic pain being felt by our Nation's most vulnerable citizens—in my State, a pain exacerbated by a very real energy emergency with its roots in the western electricity crisis—this Congress must not turn its back. This amendment would ensure that an additional 11,000 households in Washington State, and many more through the Nation, would receive much-needed assistance in keeping the lights and the heat turned on. I ask my colleagues to support this amendment.

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