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Public Statements

Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I thank Senator McCain for highlighting some of the problems with the bill. The real problem is that we last year spent $434 billion of our grandkids' money that we could not come up with. We did not collect taxes; we lowered their standard of living in the future. How did we get there?

We got there because we use earmarks to buy votes on appropriations bills. So we never look at the appropriations bill, we only look to see if our little thing is in it. Not all earmarks are bad. What is bad is a lack of transparency in our Government.

I know, Mr. President, you have helped me in terms of the Transparency and Accountability Act, but that is all after the fact. What this bill does is create a lie. That is what it is. It is not anything less than that.

We are lying to the American people that we are fixing earmarks, when we are not. The reason is, the vast majority of people in this body do not want their earmarks disclosed because it limits their ability to play the power game with the well connected who get something ahead of everybody else.

The other problem with earmarks is it takes our eye off the priorities for our country. Earmarks cause us not to do what is best for the country as a whole in the long term. It makes us short-term thinkers. It makes us parochial in our interests. I challenge any Member of this body to look at the oath they took and see if it says anything about your State when you swore to uphold the Constitution and serve as a Senator. Your duty is to the country as a whole, not to the well-heeled special interests who are the beneficiaries, whether they are parochial or not, to your earmark.

So there is no question this bill will pass. But the question the Senators have to ask is: Was I intellectually honest when every one of them out there is saying: We will have to fix this later because we do not like it, but we do not have the courage to vote against it--because they know we have not fixed the problem. But they are afraid of the public outrage and the pressure that has been created, in the essence of creating the impression that we fixed the problem.

Now, why do I say we have not fixed the problem? You go through this. What the Senate passed was Dick Durbin-Nancy Pelosi's bill on transparency and earmarks, brought to the Senate by the Senator from South Carolina.

The first provision prohibits Senators from trading earmarks for votes. In other words, I will give you your earmark if you will vote for my bill. It is gone. It is not there anymore.

Prohibiting Senators and staff from promoting earmarks from which they or their families would receive a direct financial benefit, it is gone. We now say it has to be for that person, even though you may be connected. So we have gutted that. One of the greatest problems we have, we have gutted. So no longer is there a prohibition that your family member cannot benefit from an earmark from Congress. That is the greatest conflict of interest there is. Yet it goes on every day.

Third. Allows the Senate Parliamentarian, not the majority leader, not the chairman of the committee, to determine if a bill complies with earmark disclosure and transparency rules. The American people are never going to be able to hold us accountable until they can see what we are doing.

We have now said that, whoever is the leader, Republican or Democrat, this is not about who is in charge, it is about whether who is in charge will have the courage to go against the whole political power of their own party to certify.

The first appropriations bill we had so far in the Senate, the only one we passed, was certified that it was totally compliant. It missed it by $7 billion. They did not list all the earmarks, and they certainly were not transparent, but they certified they were.

The next provision prohibits consideration of bills, joint resolutions, or conference reports if earmarks are not disclosed. You can't bring it to the floor anymore if they are not disclosed. You still can bring it to the floor under the rules of this new ethics bills.

The next provision requires earmarks attached to a conference report to be publicly available on the Internet in a searchable format 48 hours before consideration. It still says it, but there is an out. The way this place works, we bring conference reports up such as that all the time. So every time it is going to get waived, and we are not going to know. We are going to be voting on bills where the earmarks aren't disclosed.

Next provision: Requires 67 votes to suspend the earmark disclosure rule. That is what we passed 98 to nothing. Now if you want to fight that, you have to have 61 votes to say it doesn't. We have totally put on it the other side. We have totally made it so that you can in fact not disclose earmarks, and the majority will vote with you. We have made it hard for transparency rather than easy.

The next provision requires a full day's notice prior to attempting to suspend the earmark disclosure rule. Not anymore. No notice. So you could suspend it and don't have to notify anybody that you are suspending it.

Finally, it requires all earmark certifications from Senators to be posted on the Internet within 48 hours. Not anymore, not if the chairman of the Appropriations Committee doesn't think they can get it done. They just waive it.

So where are the problems? Why is it that the country has between 14 and 28 percent confidence in the Congress? It is because we continue to use sleight of hand to tell them we are doing something when we are not. I don't have any problems with the other things in the bill basically, but those are symptoms of the disease. The disease is right here. It is called earmarks. If we don't treat the disease rather than the symptoms, we are never going to fix the problem.

I am adamantly opposed to this bill and what it has done to gut earmark disclosure. I have been around here long enough to know what will happen under the time pressures and the constraints and the way we operate. This will all go away. It may not go away on the first bill or the second bill, but it will go away. So we find ourselves with the Senate getting ready to vote on an ethics and disclosure rule, and every Senator is saying: How do we fix the things we don't like? Well, we will do it later.

Nobody loves this bill, but we are going to vote for it, not because we are fixing the problem, but it looks as if we are fixing it. The confidence in Congress isn't going to go up; it is going to go down.

We started this debate 2 1/2 years ago on an amendment on a bridge to 50 people in Alaska of which 15 Members of this body voted with me. But the American people came to realize that the bridge to nowhere stood for something more than the bridge to nowhere. It stood for the lack of character and integrity in this body in terms of making long-term decisions and putting the country first instead of political careers. We haven't solved anything with this ethics bills in terms of that problem and rebuilding confidence. There is a crisis of confidence in this country. There is a rumble that we don't deserve the positions we hold because we haven't earned them, because we are going to use sleight of hand. We are going to lessen confidence in this country. We talk about money. It is great, except what is going to happen is we are going to bundle $14,900 every 6 months and it is not going to be reported. Over a 6-year career, that is $180,000 that one lobbyist can bundle for you that does not have to be reported. So tell me how we fixed the problem? The bundling is a symptom of the earmarks. It is a symptom. Where is the connection between earmarks and campaign contributions? It is there almost every time. You just have to look for it.

With the President's help we passed the post-transparency bill, Senator Obama and I, to where we get a look at it after the fact. But now we don't want to have transparency before the fact. We have failed the American people with this bill. We are also failing the Senate and ultimately we fail ourselves.

I ask the American people to look at the pictures of their children and grandchildren. Do you want them to have the same opportunities, the same benefits, the same freedoms and liberties? This is the thing that is going to take it away--the lack of an honest and open debate about priorities, the continued spending of money we don't have, and most of it on the basis that we have a gateway drug to spending addiction called earmarks.

I yield the floor.

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