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Public Statements

Making Available Funds for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, 2006--Continued

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the ethics and lobbying reform bill we will be considering this week.

Over 100 years ago, at the dawn of the last century, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to take hold in America, creating unimaginable wealth and sprawling metropolises all across the country.

As factories multiplied and profits grew, the winnings of the new economy became more and more concentrated in the hands of a few robber barons, railroad tycoons, and oil magnets. In the cities, power was maintained by a corrupt system of political machines and ward bosses. In the State of New York, there was a young Governor who was determined to give government back to the people.

In his first year, he had already begun antagonizing the State's political machine by attacking its system of favors and corporate giveaways. He signed a workers' compensation bill, and even fired the superintendent of insurance for taking money from the very industry he was supposed to be regulating.

None of this sat too well with New York's powerful party bosses, who finally plotted to get rid of the reform-minded Governor by making sure he was nominated for the Vice Presidency that year.

What no one could have expected is that soon after the election, when President William McKinley was assassinated, the greatest fears of the corrupt machine bosses and power brokers became true when that former Governor became President of the United States and went on to bust trusts, break up monopolies, and return the government to its people.

His name, of course, was Theodore Roosevelt. He was a Republican. Throughout his public life, he demonstrated a willingness to put party and politics aside in order to battle corruption and give people an open, honest government that would fight for their interests and for their values.

I think today we face a similar crisis of corruption and a similar crisis of confidence. I believe we need similar leadership from those in power as well.

The American people are tired of a Washington that is open only to those with the most cash and the right connections. They are tired of a political process where the vote you cast is not as important as the favors you can do. They are tired of trusting us with their tax dollars when they see them spent on frivolous pet projects and corporate giveaways.

It is not that the games that are played in this town are new or surprising to the public. People are not naive to the existence of corruption. They know that over the years it has worn both a Republican and a Democratic face.

Moreover, the underlying issue of how extensively money influences politics is the ``original sin'' of everyone who has ever run for office, including me. In order to get elected, we need to raise vast sums of money by meeting and dealing with people who are disproportionately wealthy. This is a problem that predates Jack Abramoff.

So I agree with those on both sides of the aisle who believe we should not let half measures and partisan posturing on campaign finance reform derail our current efforts on ethics and lobbying, but I also think this is an issue and a conversation we are going to have to have in the months to come--the conversation about campaign financing. That is not, however, the topic that is before us this week.

While people know that both parties are vulnerable to these problems, I do not think it is fair to say that the scandals we have seen most recently under the current White House and Congress--both legal and illegal--are entirely predictable or the standard fare. They are worse than most of us could have imagined.

Think about it. In the past several months, we have seen the head of the White House procurement office arrested. We have seen some of our most powerful leaders of both the House and the Senate under Federal investigation. We have seen the indictment of Jack Abramoff and his cronies. And, of course, last week, we saw a Member of Congress sentenced to 8 years in prison for bribery.

Now, there are some in the media who dismiss these scandals by saying: Everybody does it. The truth is that not everybody does it. We should not lump people together--those of us who have to raise funds to run campaigns but do so in a legal and ethical way with those who invite lobbyists into their offices to write bad legislation. Those are not equivalent. And we are not being partisan by pointing that out.

The fact is, since our Federal Government has been controlled by one party, this kind of scandal has become, unfortunately, a regular order of business in this town. For years now, some on the other side of the aisle have openly bragged about stocking K Street lobbying firms with former staffers to increase their power in Washington--a practice that should stop today and never happen again.

But what is truly offensive to the American people about all of this goes far beyond people such as Jack Abramoff. It is bigger than how much time he will spend in jail or how many Members of Congress he ends up turning in. It is bigger even than the K Street project and golf junkets to Scotland and lavish gifts for lawmakers.

What is truly offensive about these scandals is they do not just lead to morally offensive conduct on the part of politicians; they lead to morally offensive legislation that hurts hard-working Americans.

When big oil companies are invited into the White House for secret energy meetings, it is no wonder they end up with billions in tax breaks while most working people struggle to fill up their gas tanks and heat their homes.

When a committee chairman negotiates a Medicare bill one day, and after the bill is passed is negotiating for a job with the drug industry, it is hardly a surprise that industry gets taxpayer-funded giveaways in the same bill that forbids seniors from bargaining for better drug prices.

When the people running Washington are accountable only to the special interests that fund their campaigns, it is not shocking that the American people find their tax dollars being spent with reckless abandon.

I have to point out that since the current administration took office, we have seen the number of registered lobbyists in Washington double. In 2004, over $2.1 billion was spent lobbying Congress. That amounts to over $4.8 million per Member of Congress.

How much do you think the American people were able to spend on their Senators or Representatives last year? How much money could the folks back home, who cannot even fill up their gas tanks, spend on lobbying? How much could the seniors forced to choose between their medications and their groceries spend on lobbyists? Not $4.8 million--not even close.

This is the bigger story here. The American people believe that the well-connected CEOs and hired guns on K Street who have helped write our laws have gotten what they paid for. They got all the tax breaks and loopholes and access they could ever want. But outside this city, the people who cannot afford the high-priced lobbyists and do not want to break the law are wondering: When is it our turn? When will somebody in Washington stand up for me?

We need to answer that call. Because while only some are to blame for the corruption that has plagued this city, we are all responsible for fixing it.

As you know, I am from Chicago, a city that has not always had the most stellar reputation when it comes to politics. But during my first year in the Illinois State Senate, I helped lead the fight to pass Illinois' first ethics reform bill in 25 years. If we can do it in Illinois, we can do something like that here.

But we have to pass a serious bill that has to go a long way toward correcting some of the most egregious offenses of the last few years and preventing future offenses as well. This is not a time for window dressing or putting a Band-Aid on a problem to score some political points. I think this is a time for real reform.

I commend the work the two committees that have dealt with this issue have already put in under the leadership of Senator Lott and Senator Dodd, Senator Lieberman and Senator Collins. I want to note that the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which was originally sponsored by those of us on this side of the aisle, has 41 cosponsors and, I think, established a good marker for reform. I commend my leader, HARRY REID, and his staff for their hard work in putting it together.

But real reform means making sure that Members of Congress and senior administration officials are dealing with this in as thoughtful and aggressive a fashion as is possible. Let me give you some examples of some provisions that are already in, but also some provisions I would like to see included.

Real reform means making sure that Members of Congress and senior administration officials wait until they leave office before pursuing jobs with industries they are responsible for regulating.

I understand that former Congressman Billy Tauzin has said he was not negotiating for a job with the drug industry at the same time he was negotiating the Medicare bill, but the fact is this: While he was a Member of Congress, he was negotiating for lobbying jobs with not one but two different industries that he was responsible for regulating--the drug industry and the motion picture association.

That is wrong. This should not happen anymore. Real reform means ensuring that a ban on lobbying after Members of Congress leave this office is real and includes behind-the-scenes coordination and supervision of activities now used to skirt the ban. Real reform means giving the public access to now secret conference committee meetings and posting all bills on the Internet at least a day before they are voted on so the public can scrutinize what is in them. Real reform means passing a bill that eliminates all gifts and meals from lobbyists, not just the expensive ones. And real reform has to mean real enforcement because no matter how many new rules we pass, it will mean very little unless we have a system to enforce them.

I commend Senators LIEBERMAN and COLLINS for their efforts to create such an enforcement mechanism through an independent office of public integrity. While this proposal doesn't go quite as far as my proposal for an outside ethics fact-finding commission, it is still very good, and I am looking forward to working with them to try to get it included in the bill that has been marked up. But to truly earn back the people's trust, to show them we are working for them and looking out for their interests, we have to do more than just pass a good bill this week; we are going to have to fundamentally change the way we do business around here.

That means instead of meetings with lobbyists, it is time to start meeting with the 45 million Americans who don't have any health care. Instead of finding cushy political jobs for unqualified buddies, it is time to start finding good-paying jobs for hard-working Americans trying to raise a family. Instead of hitting up the big firms on K Street, it is time to start visiting the workers on Main Street who wonder how they will send their kids to college or whether their pension is going to be around when they retire.

All these people have done, our constituents, to earn access and gain influence is to cast their ballot. But in this democracy, that is all anyone should have to do.

A century ago that young, reform-minded Governor of New York, who later became our 26th President, gave us words about our country that everyone in this town would do well to listen to today. Here is what Teddy Roosevelt said back then:

No republic can permanently endure when its politics are corrupt and base ..... we can afford to differ on the currency, the tariff, and foreign policy, but we cannot afford to differ on the question of honesty. There is a soul in the community, a soul in the Nation, just exactly as there is a soul in the individual; and exactly as the individual hopelessly mars himself if he lets his conscience be dulled by the constant repetition of unworthy acts, so the Nation will hopelessly blunt the popular conscience if it permits its public men continually to do acts which the Nation in its heart of hearts knows are acts which cast discredit upon our whole public life.

I have come to know the Members of this body and know that the people who serve here are hard-working, thoughtful, and honorable men and women. But the fact is, the entire Congress has been marred and is under a cloud. Our consciences have been dulled by the activity of the few. We have to make certain we are sending a strong signal to the American public that we are no longer going to tolerate that kind of activity, that our conscience has been sharpened, and we are willing to take the steps necessary to restore credibility to this August body.

I hope this week we in the Senate will take the first step towards strengthening this Nation's soul and bringing credit back to our public life.

I suggest the absence of a quorum.


Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to speak in favor of greater funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, LIHEAP.

As I have traveled around Illinois this winter, I have heard from many low-income families and senior citizens about the burden of rising heating costs. These families are being forced to spend considerable portions of their incomes on gas bills, and many of them simply cannot afford it. Some families are having to keep their thermostats low just so they can buy groceries. It is essential that States have the funding they need through LIHEAP to help these families pay their heating bills during the cold months.

That is why, last year, I joined a number of my Senate colleagues in sending a letter to the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee requesting $3 billion in funding so that low-income families, disabled individuals, and senior citizens who live on fixed incomes have access to affordable energy when they need it most. We also asked that advance funding be allocated in the budget for LIHEAP. This would allow States to plan more economically in preparing for the winter heating season by purchasing fuels during the spring and summer months. Unfortunately, our request was denied.

Months later, during consideration of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress reauthorized the LIHEAP program from fiscal year 2005 to 2007, providing for a yearly appropriation of $5.1 billion. However, in the fiscal year 2006 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Act, Congress provided $2.2 billion for LIHEAP funding--the same allotment given to the program in fiscal year 2005. During Senate consideration of several bills in the final weeks of 2005, I voted for a number of amendments providing more funding for LIHEAP, but those amendments were defeated.

Funding for LIHEAP has remained level for the past 20 years, but energy prices are at an all-time high. According to the Department of Energy, DOE, natural gas prices in the Midwest were expected to rise between 69 percent and 77 percent during the winter heating season. The National Energy Assistance Directors Association estimates that for families using natural gas, heating bills would average well over $1,500 per consumer, an increase of over $600 per consumer as compared to the winter of 2004-2005. As a result, we have seen an unprecedented rise in requests for LIHEAP assistance across the country. In Illinois, requests in 2005 were up 41.4 percent from the year before. That is nearly a quarter of a million Americans asking for help in my State alone.

I think we often forget how much our working families need this program, and just how heavy the burden of heating one's home can be these days. In a thank-you note to the staff at Illinois LIHEAP, a woman in Lake County, IL, wrote:

Having you help me and my mother this year with our utility bill was a godsend. It was over my head and I didn't know what I was going to do ..... My mother is on oxygen 24-hours a day, and we couldn't be without electricity, so you see it was a matter of life and death also for me.

I commend Senator Snowe for her tenacity in pushing this legislation, and I commend Senator Jack Reed for his longstanding commitment to this issue.

I hope my colleagues will recognize the importance of this problem and support this measure, as well as greater LIHEAP funding in the future. With natural gas prices increasing so severely, more Americans than usual are expected to apply for LIHEAP assistance in paying their heating bills.

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