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America Competes Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

AMERICA COMPETES ACT -- (Senate - April 25, 2007)


The Senator from Oklahoma [Mr. COBURN] proposes an amendment numbered 918.

The amendment is as follows:
(Purpose: To provide a sunset date)

At the end, add the following:


SEC. 5001. SUNSET.

The provisions of this Act, and the amendments made by this Act, shall cease to have force or effect on and after October 1, 2011.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Under the order, the Senator is recognized for up to 20 minutes.

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, this is a sunset amendment. It is very plain, very straightforward. It says, can we be assured that we have, with absolute certainty, all the wisdom, facts, and knowledge we will need 4 years from now as to the viability of the programs expressed in this bill?

It is one thing the American people would like to see us do--relook at, on a regular basis, what we authorize to make sure what we are doing still has application. As a matter of fact, the biggest problem I have noticed in our Government is that we don't do oversight, we don't review and reassess, except in very rare instances.

This amendment is very simple. It just says that in 4 years, we are going to look at it again. We are going to sunset the bill, and probably a year before that Senator Alexander and his companions will come back, relook at it, tweak this, make the changes they need to make, and then have the America COMPETES Act again 4 years from now. The key component of what it does is it forces us to look at it because it is going to expire, it is going to run out of gas.

What happens now is that we pass things and don't ever look at them again. I believe the Senator from Tennessee, as well as the Senator from New Mexico, would agree that we fail to do proper oversight in this body. That is one of the very lacking components of the job. It is hard work, oftentimes not fun, but it is very important to the future of this country.

Some people will say that we should not sunset this, that the implication is that we know now what we are going to need to know 4 years from now. But, in fact, we sunset a lot of things, from the PATRIOT Act, to the tax bills, to the Ryan White health care bill, to Defense bills, to veterans bills. I put forward that we need more sunsets because of the discipline it will force on us as representatives of the American people to do what is in their best interest, with the knowledge we have on hand at that time.

I don't know whether this amendment will pass, but it is a great judgment for the American people to look at us and say are we serious about doing the business or are we so arrogant or elitist that we think we know now absolutely what we need to know 4 years from now.

I had a good debate with Senator Durbin on the previous bill the body considered. One of his suggestions was that I should have offered a sunset to that legislation. I think that is a great suggestion. I think it is equally apropos that we do it on this legislation. It gives us the benefit of our experience over the next 3 years, it allows us to have the hearings in the committee and the committee work we need to do--as a parenthesis, this bill didn't go through any committees, didn't have the pleasure of the Commerce or HELP Committee--and allows us to look at and see what we have been doing and whether it is effective, whether or not the American people actually get good value for the money over what we intend them to do. That is our real obligation. It is not to create an America COMPETES Act, it is not to pass a piece of legislation, but, in fact, it is to make sure that whatever we do, the American taxpayer dollar gets a great accomplishment for that.

I reserve the remainder of my time and will listen to the opposing points of view on this amendment.


Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, the claim of Senator Bingaman that a point of order will lie against this is wrong. Paragraph 7, rule XVI only requires the Appropriations Committee to list the unauthorized programs. He made my point: 20 percent of our appropriations are unauthorized from expired or sunsetted programs. It won't stop anything if it is a good program.

I contend with Senator Domenici that he thinks this is a great bill, but the only way we are going to know is the results of the bill. So based on what we think, not on what we know, is the reason this bill should be sunsetted so that it forces us to go back and look at what we might think we know today but didn't know and change it.

It is about putting discipline into our body. It is about forcing us to do the work the people told us they wanted done when we came here. It requires us to not be fortune tellers, to not be seance dwellers, but to, in fact, look at the facts after 3 years, see what it has accomplished, and forces us to make the changes.

The Senator knows quite well that on most of the programs we haven't done that. That is one of the reasons we had a $350 billion deficit. That is one of the reasons we had $200 billion that we spent on wasteful, duplicated, or fraudulent programs last year out of the $1 trillion we spent in the discretionary budget.

What I am trying to do is force us to do the hard work of relooking. I agree, does that make it hard? Yes. Nobody said it was going to be easy. But I would want any Senator in this body who says they know the outcome of this bill to put something behind that and say we don't need to relook at it. That is the question. This is a disciplinary force that says we have to come back and look at it.

Let me remind my colleagues again. There are great ideas in this legislation. I don't doubt that for a minute. This didn't go through the committee process. This wasn't made available for amendments. On an $80 billion authorization--which is what it is going to be if we guess at the sums that are authorized for this bill--to not have it go through either committees of jurisdiction and come to the floor, and we are going to spend this kind of money and we are going to think rather than know it is going to work, and to say we should not look at it I find really ironic, and I feel pretty sure most of the American people would think we can't know for sure.

It is a commonsense amendment and will cause us to do what is necessary.


Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to set the pending amendment aside.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. COBURN. I call up amendment No. 922.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The clerk will report the amendment.

The legislative clerk read as follows:

The Senator from Oklahoma [Mr. COBURN] proposes an amendment numbered 922.

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the reading of the amendment be dispensed with.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so ordered.

The amendment is as follows:
(Purpose: To promote transparency at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

At the end of title V of division A, add the following:


(a) Review of Activities Carried Out With NOAA Funds.--

(1) REQUIREMENT FOR REVIEW.--The Inspector General of the Department of Commerce shall conduct routine, independent reviews of the activities carried out with grants or other financial assistance made available by the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Such reviews shall include cost-benefit analysis of such activities and reviews to determine if the goals of such activities are being accomplished.

(2) AVAILABILITY TO THE PUBLIC.--The Administrator shall make each review conducted pursuant to paragraph (1) available to the public through the website of the Administration not later than 60 days after the date such review is completed.

(b) Prohibition on Use of NOAA Funds for Meetings.--No funds made available by the Administrator through a grant or contract may be used by the person who received such grant or contract, including any subcontractor to such person, for a banquet or conference, other than a conference related to training or a routine meeting with officers or employees of the Administration to discuss an ongoing project or training.

(c) Prohibition on Conflicts of Interest.--Each person who receives funds from the Administrator through a grant or contract shall submit to the Administrator a certification stating that none of such funds will be made available through a subcontract or in any other manner to another person who has a financial interest or other conflict of interest with the person who received such funds from the Administrator.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Senator from Oklahoma is recognized.

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, we passed the Fisheries Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which was reauthorized this year in which Senator Stevens undertook, correctly, the responsibility of eliminating conflicts of interest and created oversight on the fisheries boards.

We have recently had notification and seen some pretty significant abuse within NOAA of some of their grant processes. All this amendment says is, we are going to add some accountability and transparency to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants program.

I refer my colleagues to a Baltimore Sun article which has been prominent in that newspaper over the last couple of weeks where over $10 million in a grant has failed to demonstrate results. It is riddled with conflicts of interest, and it has had little to no oversight from NOAA.

Before we expand NOAA, one of the things we ought to do is make sure there are no conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, in the grant process.

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record both articles outlining this situation, as well as a Stanford study on other areas of NOAA where there is a lack of informed consent and a lack of conflict of interest rules for NOAA.


Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, it has come to mind that NOAA, when they do the grants, lets the grantee set the terms of oversight. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record from NOAA's official Web site their financial assistance application for their grants where they ask the grantee what kind of oversight they want rather than setting it up themselves.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

NOAA Financial Assistance Application


C1. Is the proposed activity going to be conducted in partnership with NOAA or would the proposed activity require NOAA's direct involvement, activity, or oversight? If yes, describe NOAA's involvement, activity, or oversight, including the name of the office or program that is involved.

C2. Would the proposed activity involve any other federal agency(ies) partnership, direct involvement, activity, or oversight? If yes, provide the name(s) of the agency(ies) and describe its involvement, activity, or oversight.

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, let me describe what has happened. There was an earmark which NOAA believed they did not have the responsibility to oversee, since it was an earmark, in terms of rehabitating oyster beds. We have seen from the investigations so far that it has been highly ineffective. But more importantly, what we have seen is conflicts of interest in terms of the board that manages the program and the ownership of the companies that are given the grant money.

I won't go into the details. Senator Mikulski is in agreement that they should be oversighted and looked at and conflict of interest should be eliminated. This amendment is very simple. It just says that ought to happen and there ought to be a review, there ought to be a prohibition of use of NOAA funds for meetings. There is $46,000 yearly going out for a meeting out of this grant money with no real concern. There is no conflict of interest requirement in the grant authority-making process at NOAA. So this amendment simply sets out that we ought to have basic conflict of interest rules of engagement in the grant-making process with NOAA.

I reserve the remainder of my time.


Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, what you just heard was a denial that we need oversight and that people shouldn't be accountable for how they spend Federal dollars. The fact is, this is one program and one meeting. This doesn't stop meetings. This doesn't stop any legitimate function. This was a golf tournament and a meeting for 2 days that cost $46,000 of Federal funds. I will tell you, NOAA does not have any conflict of interest rules presently in their guidelines.

So what the Senator is saying is, leave it the way it is today. Let's don't change it. That is exactly the problem, because this didn't come through the Commerce Committee. They would have fixed it, as Senator Stevens fixed the fishery boards. Instead, what we are trying to do with this is to fix the same thing Senator Stevens did with the fishery boards. Because it didn't come through committee, that didn't get attached. Now that we want to attach it on the floor, we don't want to have that done.

The fact is, there is no oversight catalyst with these grant programs. By defeating this amendment, we are going to continue saying there is none. If you don't like this amendment, then fix it in conference. There is no reason why we shouldn't hold these grants to the light of day. There is no reason why they shouldn't be transparent. Everything in this Government should be transparent.

There is nothing in these grants that is fiduciary or private that shouldn't be exposed. The fact is, if you are going to take money from the Federal Government, the American people ought to know what you do with it. What we are saying is, we don't want that to happen. That is what defeating this amendment means. It means more secrecy, less transparency. It means, by the way, if there is a financial conflict of interest, don't worry about it, we don't want to hold them accountable.

I understand the resistance, but the American people won't understand the resistance. The real problem we are faced with is our Government is so big and into so many things that we don't know where it is being handled right or wrong. This is one small step to say there shouldn't be a conflict of interest. There ought to be reporting, there ought to be oversight, which there is not. We ought to be asking the GAO to oversee it and to look at it. That is all it does.

Mr. President, I will rest with the will of the body on that amendment.



Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the pending amendment be set aside, and that amendment No. 921 be called up.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, the amendment will be set aside, and the clerk will report the amendment.

The assistant legislative clerk read as follows:

The Senator from Oklahoma [Mr. COBURN] proposes amendment No. 921.

The amendment is as follows:
(Purpose: To discontinue the Advanced Technology Program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology)

At the appropriate place, insert the following:


(a) Repeal.--Section 28 of the Act of March 3, 1901 (15 U.S.C. 278n) is repealed.

(b) Unobligated Balances.--Any amounts appropriated for the Advanced Technology Program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which are unobligated as of the effective date of this section, shall be deposited in the General Fund of the Treasury of the United States for debt reduction.

(c) Effective Date.--This section shall take effect on the date that is 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act.

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, this is an amendment to eliminate the Advanced Technology Program. I see the Senator from Michigan is here, and I am sure she will mount a rigorous defense in regard to it.

There are some things people should be aware of. We had an oversight hearing on this program in my Federal Financial Management Subcommittee. We showed it to be ineffective. Between 1990 and 2004, 35 percent of the $2 billion of this program went to Fortune 500 companies--Fortune 500 companies--with 65 percent of the grants under this program never being asked to be funded outside of the program. In other words, they never went to the private sector. Almost two-thirds never attempted to get funding in the private sector.

This was a program that was designed to help with technology. It wasn't designed to be a corporate welfare program. In fact, what has happened is that five companies since 1990 have consumed $376 million of this money. Let me tell you who the companies were. They were: General Motors, hardly in need of taxpayer money to fund research; IBM, hardly in need of taxpayer money to fund research; General Electric, hardly in need of taxpayer money to fund research; Minnesota Mining, 3M; and Motorola. Their combined revenues yearly are in excess of $50 billion.

We are going to see a large defense of this program, because there have been some instances where it has done some good. I don't deny that. But for the $2 billion we have spent on it, what have we gotten? The House has eliminated this program, by the way. We decreased it over the last 2 years. This is a program that is not working efficiently, is not working effectively, and we are not getting great return for our money.

Mr. President, with that, I will withhold the rest of my comments and retain the balance of my time.


Mr. COBURN. I thank the Senator for his comments. I would note that the House didn't find it hard to eliminate ATP on their component piece of legislation that will be matched up with this and, in fact, last year we eliminated ATP in the funding cycle on the appropriations side.

I know there are some positive things about the program, but overall it is a poor investment for the Federal taxpayer.


Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I am somewhat perplexed. We had a debate on Medicare Part D. The debate was about corporate welfare. I find it hard to believe that we want to continue to fund General Electric and IBM and Intel and all these other companies with taxpayer money after we have claimed we do not want to do corporate welfare.

Tell me where in that process--if the Senator from New Mexico would care to put his sign back up--this money is? Tell me why an IBM needs money at that stage. Tell me why a General Electric needs taxpayer money at that stage, money that is going to go to them. They have all the resources. IBM just announced they are buying back 10 percent of their stock. They have plenty of cash. They are buying back their stock. Tell me why, in a time when we have a $300 billion deficit, $300 billion we borrowed from two generations from now, that we should give a penny to IBM, corporate welfare to enhance anything. They have all the resources they need. Tell me why we should give a penny to General Electric or Intel or any of those large companies that consume 30 percent of this money.

If we want to have an Advanced Technology Program, why wouldn't we say, yes, we will do it, but you have to be at a certain size. You have to truly not be able to access the capital markets. They have no problems accessing the capital markets for research. So what we are doing is taking from two generations from now and giving it to the richest corporations in this country and making ourselves feel good because it wouldn't happen otherwise. It will happen otherwise. That is what markets are all about.

I will be happy to have the Senator respond to my question.

Mr. BINGAMAN. Mr. President, I am happy to respond. I would respond by saying we are not providing funds to particular companies so they can compete effectively. What we are doing is saying there are sectors of U.S. industry which are in very substantial competition with their counterparts worldwide. Whether it is the automobile industry, whether it is the semiconductor industry, whether it is the biologics industry, whatever the area is, we have companies in our country that are competing in those areas, and there is early stage research and seed development--early stage development into which they should be putting significant efforts.

When you look at it from the point of any individual company, it might not make that much sense to say we are going to devote a substantial portion of our research dollars to this because it is long term. It may not pay off in 10 years. It may never pay off. But here we can use some taxpayer dollars to prime the pump, so to speak, and to go to these companies on a cost-shared basis and say: You guys get together. We will help you develop advanced battery technology because otherwise we may eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. But we are going to become dependent on foreign battery cells. That is not good for the U.S. economy as a whole.

If General Motors happens to be one of the participants in that consortium of companies that is working on that advanced battery technology, then so much the better. But I do not consider that corporate welfare. I consider that good, intelligent allocation of our resources in order to keep our industry competitive in the world marketplace.

Mr. COBURN. Let me reclaim my time. I thank the Senator for answering my question. I guess the difference is, in the long run, where is the benefit? If any of those industries are going to survive, they are going to be putting research dollars into those areas already. That is my contention. We know from the studies that, of all the Fortune 500 companies, the money that has been given to them they would have spent anyway. This is just money that they don't have to spend because we are going to spend American taxpayer dollars on it. The fact is, anybody in any of those areas, especially major companies that have all the capital resources they need--they have an inherent self-interest to fund that research. Why? Because their livelihood and their existence depends on it.

What we are doing is we are saying, for the big companies, the Fortune 500 companies, we are going to take away their risk. The market has already created the risk. Their risk is to develop the program. So I would disagree. I think it is corporate welfare, especially with regard to the Fortune 500 companies that have significant assets.

All you have to do is look at what is out there today, look at the share buy-backs. They have more than enough money with which to fund all these things.

I can give you specific examples from GE, IBM, and Intel. All of those projects were going to be funded anyway. We just gave them a gift. We just simply gave them a gift.

Mr. BINGAMAN. Mr. President, I ask the Senator if he will yield for a question.

Mr. COBURN. I am happy to yield for a question.

Mr. BINGAMAN. Here is the information I am given. I

would cite this to the Senator and ask if he has a reason to disagree.

Of the single applicant awards under the Advanced Technology Program, 78 percent have gone to small businesses, 11 percent have gone to medium-size businesses and nonprofits, and only 11 percent of solo awards have gone to large businesses. Is that accurate?

Mr. COBURN. That is inaccurate; 21 percent of the ATP grants over the last 14 years went to Fortune 500 companies.

Mr. BINGAMAN. That is 21 percent over the last 14 years?

Mr. COBURN. Yes.

Mr. BINGAMAN. That is contrary to the information I was given. I thank the Senator for yielding for the question.

Mr. COBURN. Let me just summarize, and then I will yield back the remainder of my time. How much time do I have?

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Senator has 14 1/2 minutes.

Mr. COBURN. I will be happy to yield after I finish this last statement, and I appreciate the managers of this bill for the time they have given me on these amendments, and their courtesy.

There is no question, there are positive aspects of this program. I said that before. The question comes--and it really comes from what Senator Stabenow said. We already give them an R&D tax credit. They already get a direct writeoff for doing this research anyway. So the American taxpayers are already paying for it. Now we come along and give them more.

The point is, we do not need both. We do not need both. IBM gets an R&D tax credit, and then they get money from us under ATP for things they were going to do anyway. General Electric gets an R&D tax credit, then they get money from us in the ATP program for these things they are going to do anyway.

I believe there has to come a time when we start thinking about how we spend our money and whether we are getting a good return. The fact is, with ATP, overall, all the money we have spent, we have not gotten back a return.

The other point I would make is, only four States have received about 60 percent of the money on this ATP program. Ironic, isn't it? Four States. So
there is great consensus among those people on a parochial basis to support this program because it is a big program for those individual States.

Mr. President, I will finish by saying that all three amendments I have offered today are designed to increase transparency, increase accountability, eliminate conflicts of interests, and eliminate wasteful Government spending. That is what we have to be about if we, in fact, want to leave the heritage to our children and grandchildren that we will receive by such great sacrifice of those people who came before us. That is the real deal. The way you leave a heritage is to sacrifice today. We cannot have everything we want today if we want our kids and grandkids to have what we have experienced.

I yield back the remainder of my time.

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