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Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2008

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I thank the Senators for their hard work on this bill. As the tragedy in Minnesota showed, priorities are important.

I notice Senator Bond referred earlier to the IG's report I had requested on the Department of Transportation.

I must thank both the inspector general and Secretary Peters for their forthrightness and plain-spokenness in this report. The report is pretty significant. I wish to spend a few minutes talking about it.

First, I want to show the American people the significance of where we stand on the National Highway System. This doesn't have anything to do with States; this is national highways--designated national highways or interstate highways--in terms of the structurally deficient bridges in this country. This is from the U.S. Department of Transportation. These are not my numbers. As you can see on this chart, throughout the country--and it is emphasized in the most populous States, with the exception of Florida--we have significant problems when it comes to bridges. I contend that it is not necessarily too low of a gas tax that has created this; it has been a lack of priority.

I have several amendments I plan to offer to this bill. However, I will probably limit those if my overall first amendment passes.

There were several key points that the IG made and the Secretary of Commerce commented on when it comes to earmarks. Probably the most important of those is that earmarks, when they are made, don't fully account for the cost of those earmarks. As a matter of fact, the IG found substantial reduction in all of the other programs throughout the Department of Transportation because of the underallocation of the moneys necessary to complete an earmark.

What does that mean? It means that when we put an earmark in--authorized or unauthorized--and we say it costs $100, what the Department of Transportation is finding is that often it doesn't cost $100; because it is mandated by law, we spend $150. That $50 goes out of the rest of the programs at the Department of Transportation; therefore, it cuts. They talked about this as overearmarking, not in terms of the numbers but earmarking a result without putting in the dollars to do it. I think there is a comment on one of these charts out of the IG's report which states just that.

Here is another chart. It says:

99 percent of the earmarks reviewed by the inspector general bypassed merit review.

What does that mean? That means had they not been earmarked, they would not have been a priority in a State transportation project and would not have met a priority of the standards the DOT has on highways and bridges--there are five. Only 1 percent of the earmarks placed in the appropriations bill actually pass or meet merit review. The very thing our States do is sit up and say: This is how we want to prioritize spending in our States for safety and infrastructure in terms of transportation. These are not my words; these are the IG's words from the Department of transportation:

7,724 out of 7,760 transportation earmarks in 2006 were not subject to the agency's priority ranking, review, or selection process, or bypassed the States' normal planning and program processes.

So it comes back to the point, why don't we have all these bridges inspected, and why did we see a tragedy in Minnesota? It is because we failed; the bridge didn't fail. We failed to put in the proper amount of money, and we failed to put priorities on what is most important for our transportation sector.

Here is the next chart. Here is another point the IG made:

Recent Department of Transportation reauthorizations have included a significant number of specific projects with associated funding directed to specific State and local agencies or locations. For example, the current Department of Transportation authorization for surface transportation accounted for 6,474 of the Department of Transportation's 8,056 earmarked projects for FY2006.

We are taking money away from the priorities the States and Department of Transportation have that are out there and are transparent, and we are moving them away. That means there is less money for the tremendous number of bridges that are structurally deficient right now in our highway system.

How do we solve that? How do we meet the needs? The State of North Carolina has somebody up here full time to make sure that when an earmark is requested, it meets the State's guidelines. The State Department of Transportation of North Carolina has to lobby its own members to make sure the requests are within the guidelines of the priorities of the State of North Carolina.

How did we get to the point that we disconnect priorities to the fact that we want to help a certain group that is outside the priorities of our State but inside the priorities of our political purposes? I think we need to reexamine what we are doing. I think we need to reprioritize.

The fact is that a lot has been said about the tragedy that happened in Minnesota. I honestly believe President Reagan was right in 1982 when he vetoed a Transportation bill that had 11 earmarks. His point was that these take away from the priorities. Those 11 earmarks have grown to over 8,000 now. So each year, we have lessened the priorities of safety and efficient transportation to help us politically.

Better planning and prioritization of existing transportation funds could improve road safety and bridge safety. Realize that 13,000 people a year in this country die because of inadequate or poor-quality roads--Federal roads, not State roads. What are some of the things we do with transportation dollars? We build transportation museums, we build bike paths, we build parking garages. We have multitudes of earmarks that are anything except a priority for safety for transportation in this country.


Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to call up amendment No. 2810.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Is there objection to setting aside the pending amendment?

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to set aside the pending amendment and call up amendment No. 2810.

Mr. BOND. Mr. President, what is amendment No. 2810?

Mr. COBURN. This amendment is an earmark moratorium until all bridges are repaired.

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

The clerk will report.

The legislative clerk read as follows:

The Senator from Oklahoma [Mr. Coburn] proposes an amendment numbered 2810.

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 prohibit funds appropriated under title I from being used for earmarks until all structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges have been repaired, with limited exceptions)

On page 70, between lines 20 and 21, insert the following:

Sec. 194. (a) Except as provided under subsection (b), none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available under this title may be used for any earmark until all bridges in the United States that are classified under the Federal Highway Administration's bridge inspection program, as of the date of the enactment of this Act, as ``structurally deficient'' or ``functionally obsolete'' have been sufficiently repaired to no longer meet the criteria for such classifications.

(b) Funds appropriated under this title may be used for an earmark that is designated to repair--

(1) a bridge that is classified as ``structurally deficient'' or ``functionally obsolete''; or

(2) a road with ride quality that is not classified as ``good'' or ``acceptable''.

(c) In this section, the term ``earmark'' means a provision or report language providing, authorizing, or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula-driven or competitive award process.

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, what does this amendment do? This amendment does not get rid of earmarks. What this amendment does is it delays earmarks. What it says is that for all the earmarks we have had, both authorized and through the appropriations process, unless they are going to build and fix structurally deficient bridges in this country, or they are going to improve a highway that brings it up to standards, that makes it safe, we ought to delay the implementation of those earmarks until we have solved this problem.

How many more bridges have to collapse until we get the message? How many more people have to die until we get the message? The Minnesota bridge that collapsed was noticed in 1990 as being structurally deficient. In 1999, the State department of transportation in Minnesota said there needs to be a priority on this bridge, and yet we did not respond.

The earmark that should have been made was for the repairs for that bridge, and yet they were not made.

This amendment is very simple. I know it goes against the grain of a lot of the processes we use, but it makes common sense that if we are going to forego another Minnesota tragedy, we have to change our priorities.

All this amendment says is the priorities ought to be the safety of the American people and quality so that 13,000 people do not die this next year on roads that are not within the quality classified as ``good'' or ``acceptable.'' All we do is say let's put our priority where it needs to be right now. Let's set the priority for making sure there is not another Minnesota.

My State leads the Nation in the percentage of bridges that are classified as deficient. Oklahoma, as a State, has never received back what it has paid in to the transportation fund. As a matter of fact, there is over $1.8 million that we have paid in that we never received back. But we have disproportionately shared that in other areas. My State does not begrudge this point. The fact is, our State is small compared to the Northeast and the west coast in terms of structurally deficient bridges.

The point ought to be: How do we change the priority, how do we respond to the concerns of the American people over what, in fact, has to be the right priorities for transportation?

A couple of actions can be taken on this amendment. We can vote it down, and we can say safety and bridges and safe roads are not a priority, but museums and bike trails and theaters and parking garages are because they help us politically. Or we can adopt this amendment and send a message to the American people that: We hear you, we understand what you are saying, and we agree that your safety ought to outperform and be above our political necessities and our directed spending.

This does not limit any directed spending for any of these bridges or any of the Federal highways that will move them to good or acceptable. So in terms of transportation, it will not eliminate anything that is important to our safety, important to repairing the infrastructure in this country.

The third action that can be taken on this amendment is that we can pass this amendment, and because it is not liked, it will get trashed in conference. So we can all look good by voting for this amendment, but if we do not insist on this amendment when we get to conference, we will have winked and nodded to the American people again. We would have brought our numbers down by not paying attention to what their concerns are. And, most importantly, we will keep American drivers and pedestrians and passengers at risk.

I hope the chair and ranking member will agree to this amendment, will accept it, and fight for it in conference. I believe we should vote on this amendment. This is an amendment we ought to have a vote on in the Senate. I believe it is about time we start getting our priorities right.

I yield the floor for the present time and wish to speak on this amendment later.


Mr. COBURN. Madam President, I appreciate the words of Senator Bond, although I was misquoted. I don't like any earmark.

I accept that authorized earmarks have, in fact, been reviewed by an authorizing committee, but I would make a couple of points. This year, the appropriators will spend $188 billion appropriating money for something that has not been authorized. So you can use that as a debate tool, but the fact is, the authorizers have limited influence over the Appropriations Committee because they will spend 20 percent of our discretionary budget on items that are not authorized by the authorizing committees.

The other point I would make is that the Senator will get a chance to vote against bike paths because I have another amendment that eliminates funding for bike paths until we have restored the bridges. This amendment cares for the roads that Senator Bond just made a point of. The fact is, this amendment allows the money to bring roads up to quality and safety standards. So it would not eliminate where the 13,000 people die in this country from unsafe and poor quality national highways; it will, in fact, allow those to happen.

What it would not allow is $600,000 to be spent on horse-riding facilities in Virginia; a snow mobile trail in Vermont of $5.9 million; parking for New York's Harlem Hospital of $8 million; $532,000 for a bicycle and pedestrian trail in Tennessee; a daycare center and park and ride facility in Illinois; dust control mitigation for rural Arkansas of $3 million; the National Packard Museum in Ohio, $2.75 million; a historical pilot project in Washington for $200,000. I think we are going to have trouble convincing the American people those things are a higher priority than bridge safety in this country. And that is just a small example of the congressionally directed spending in this bill.

So I don't deny that those may be priorities, but what I would state is they are lower priorities than safety on our roads and rebuilding our bridges and making sure our highways are safe. And I would wager that the vast proportion of Americans, by far, would agree with that statement. We have lost our way if, in fact, we are going to fund these things at the expense of not funding bridge repair in this country.

I think the projects that are funded, many of them, a great many of them, fit into the priorities of restoring bridges and highways, but many don't. And the question around this amendment is, Will we do that which is the highest priority for us?

It is kind of like the war. We are spending about $8.5 billion a month. But whose money are we spending on the war? We are spending our children and grandchildren's money because every bit of it has been outside the budget guidelines, so it goes straight to debt. The point is, we don't have the money right now to do some of the things we would like to do because we should be doing the things that we need to do. And the things we need to do should be the highest priority for the American people. That certainly isn't horse-riding facilities in Virginia or a snow mobile trail in Vermont.

Madam President, I yield back and hope to speak again on this amendment.

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