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Press Conference With Senators Russell Feingold, John McCain, Claire McCaskill and Tom Coburn

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. FEINGOLD: (In progress) -- days of earmarks to avoid the scrutiny of the authorizing process or of competitive grants are coming to an end, and it's no accident that the presidential nominees of the two major parties were major players on that reform package.

The Lobbying and Ethics Reform Bill was a significant step forward, although I know some of my colleagues felt it didn't do enough to address earmarks and, of course, I agreed with them. But we all agree that more reform is needed. The fiscal discipline, earmark reform and accountability act of 2009, S. 162, will build on that achievement. It's time to move from what has been largely a system designed to dissuade the use of earmarks through disclosure to one that actually makes it harder to enact them in the first place.

The principal provision of this measure is a ban on unauthorized earmarks on appropriations bill. So the way it will work is under our bill any unauthorized earmark is subject to a point of order. To overcome the point of order and keep that earmark in the bill, supporters of the unauthorized earmark will have to obtain the supermajority of the Senate of 60 votes.

And to make it even tougher, the bill provides that any earmark funding which is successfully stricken from the appropriations bill will be unavailable for any other spending in the bill, so it will actually reduce the appropriation bill. And this is kind of similar to the -- for the supermajority requirement that we have in the paygo legislation, where you can still do something without paying for it, but you got to get a supermajority; you got to get 60 votes in order to do that.

The measure also closes a loophole in last year's Lobbying and Ethics Reform Bill by requiring all appropriations conference reports and all authorizing conference reports to be electronically searchable 48 hours before the Senate considers the conference report, and it requires all recipients of federal funds to disclose any money spent on registered lobbyists.

Now, I applaud President-elect Obama's announcement that the expected economic recovery bill should be kept free of earmarks. I couldn't agree more. And the best way to keep that bill and other spending bills free of earmarks is to pass the reforms we are proposing. That is why we intend to offer these reforms as an amendment to the economic recovery bill.

It's not enough to keep earmarks out of just one bill. We should try to eliminate them, period. With the economic challenges we face, it's more important than ever that we enact tough earmark reform that reigns in wasteful spending.

I look forward to working with my colleagues here today and other colleagues from both parties to pass this bill. I'm pleased to announce, too, that, in a surprise move, Senator Lieberman has agreed to join with John McCain in co-sponsoring our bill as well. So it's a tripartisan bill.

And now I would like to -- I'd like to turn to my colleague here. After the "Saturday Night Live" appearance where the McCain-Feingold jewelry was introduced, at Senator McCain's request, this will be known as the Feingold-McCain bill.

Senator McCain.

SEN. MCCAIN: It's still a wonderful bargain really, the Feingold. (Laughter.)

I'd like to again thank my friend for joining forces in our efforts, in our bipartisan efforts towards reform. One of the great honors of my political career has been the opportunity to work with Senator Feingold on issues of reform for many years.

And of course, I'd like to thank Senator McCaskill, who was a key and the most important person in addressing some of the issues, in the Armed Services Committee, so there's more transparency in the way that we do business there, that I would like to see adopted by every committee.

And of course, Dr. Coburn who is our leader and our valiant fighter in behalf of reform.

Senator Feingold just mentioned that the bill does really three key things: eliminates the unauthorized earmarks in the bills, conference reports and amending the Senate rules to allow points of order, as Senator Feingold mentioned. I'm not going to repeat him.

But it does also require all appropriations and authorization, conference reports to be electronically searchable, at least 48 hours before full Senate consideration, and the recipients of federal dollars to disclose any amounts that the recipient expends on registered lobbyists.

I don't have to tell anybody that our economy is in shambles. And we have enormous deficits, as the president-elect said yesterday, trillion dollars for the foreseeable -- per annually at least for years to come. And American families are suffering very badly right now.

As Senator Feingold mentioned, the ethics bill that passed the Senate was watered down. And unfortunately although there were some improvements certainly not what our goal is: Our goal is not transparency. Our goal is elimination of earmarks. There's no place for them in the process.

Finally let me just remind you of some of the things we've done since we passed the bill in January of 2007. Hundred and eighty eight thousand dollars for the Lobster Institute.

According to their website, the Lobster Institute is a cooperative program of research and education, with the lobster industry, at the University of Maine.

The Lobster Institute has been working on its Lobster Cam. That's (sic/ This is a lobster trap at the bottom of the ocean with a camera in it.

Your dog can now -- one of the institute's major accomplishments has been lobster dog biscuits. Quote, "Your dog can now be a lobster connoisseur. Blue Seal Feeds Incorporated has launched the newest additions to its dog-biscuit line," Blue Seal Lobster Biscay-its -- Bisque-its. Bisque-its. Bisque-its. Excuse me. I -- my French is not that -- (laughter). And it's based on a concept devised by the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine and their commercialization partner, Saltwater Marketing LLC. Since yesterday afternoon my staff has been endeavoring and attempting to view the Lobster Cam online, and the page continues to be blank. That's 188,000 (dollars).

And speaking of my French, there is a -- also, there's one in Paris that -- yeah, $212,000 for olive fruit fly research in Paris, France.

There's many others, including 150,000 (dollars) for the Montana Sheep Institute, tree plantings -- and all of these places, obviously, are identified by a city or town so that there will be no doubt as to the recipient of the pork; $125,000 for International Mother's Day Shrine in Grafton, West Virginia; maritime museum in Mobile, Alabama; Hawaii rain gauges; et cetera, et cetera.

We can't afford this. We simply can't afford it. And we ridicule it, but we also are saddened by it because it's obvious that at least some members of Congress don't know how serious the fiscal situation we're in, or they would not be making these kinds of proposals. So we're going to have to do everything we can to at least (kind of have ?) -- give Congress a real ability to eliminate them.

I want to thank Senator Feingold again for his leadership. And we will be working on other reform issues in the coming weeks.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Thanks, John.

Senator McCaskill?

SEN. MCCASKILL: Thank you.

Well, it is a great honor to be here today, especially with Senator John McCain, and Russ Feingold and Dr. Coburn, but I have admired from afar these men and their commitment to fiscal accountability.

And I think that it's important as we begin the new Congress that in a bipartisan way we look forward to real reform in the area of how we spend taxpayer money.

I was here when Senate Bill 1 was passed, as a brand spanking-new freshman, and I had stars in my eyes that we had taken such meaningful steps to real reform in the way that we spend money. And then I watched as a golf course was put in the defense authorization bill and as earmarks continued to be air-dropped in conference reports with the only people knowing that they were there being a handful of staff members and the lobbyists who pushed for them.

I think part of this bill is extremely important, and that is the disclosure of those people who receive federal funding, whether or not they've spent money on lobbyists to get that federal funding. I think that's an important part of cleaning up this business. I think also the searchable database, so that all of you and all of the people I work for can go on the Internet and in a searchable database find out who is asking for what, what it's supposed to be doing, and whether or not there is any cost benefit to taxpayers for this expenditure.

And finally, I look forward to continuing to work to do more. I think there is more that needs to be done. I think we need to do more at looking at previous earmarks and finding out what happened to that money. I think that is something that I know my colleagues agree with me on, but until we expose how much of this money might have been wasted through the earmarking process, we're probably never going to get the public's full support to getting rid of earmarks entirely.

I look forward to telling the new freshmen that there is life after refusing earmarks and that you can survive if you refuse to participate in the process. And I'm hopeful that more and more members will join this cause.

And I, once again, especially want to be respectful of Senator John McCain and his long record in this regard, and I'm really tickled pink to be here on stage with him today.

SEN. MCCAIN: Thank you.

SEN. COBURN: Well, let me say to you, Russ, and to you, John, thank you for your leadership. You've done a lot of things that's been great for our country.

This is an issue about confidence. We're in the deepest recession in 50 years. And the answer to getting out of a recession is competency and the confidence in the consumer that tomorrow is better, the day is brighter. And the problem is, as long as earmarks exist the way they do today, we're never going to have the confidence of the American people that we have their best interest at heart.

And the battle is between the best interests of the politician versus the best interests of the country. And this bill will go a long way towards starting to make sure we reassure Americans that we care about the long-term interests of this country more than we care about our political careers.

Any questions?

Q Senator McCain, they say you can't go home again. Here you are, standing on the stage with Senator Feingold. Could you address what it's like to be back in the Senate working on legislation, after being on the campaign trail? And I think I saw Senator McCaskill a couple times during the campaign, as well -- maybe on television. (Laughter.) Can you address what it's like to be back -- back here?

SEN. MCCAIN: Unfortunately, I saw her, too. (Laughter.)

Look, I'm happy to be back. Senator McCaskill I saw come to the Armed Services Committee and assume a very important and lead role, not only on issues of national security, but also on reform. And I was very pleased to see that. I'm looking forward to working with her again on the Armed Services Committee and on other issues.

Dr. Coburn always inspires me. I think he's the most courageous man in the United States Senate. And Russ and I have had a relationship that goes back now many, many years.

And so I'm very happy to be back and move on and get back to work, as the people of Arizona expect me to.

Q Did you learn anything on the campaign trail that you bring back to this particular issue? Did you hear about earmarks?

SEN. MCCAIN: I can only echo Dr. Coburn's words. There's a profound lack of confidence and trust on the part of the American people that the Congress will do the right thing. And I talked about this on the campaign trail. And I don't like to -- it's not pleasant, but there is corruption here. That's why we have former members of Congress residing in federal prison. It's not -- I mean, it's just a fact, a matter of record.

So we have to restore the trust and confidence in the American -- on the part of the -- for the American people, by fixing what we do, and do it in a transparent, accountable fashion, which we have not been doing in the past.

And finally, again, we have seen earmarks grow and grow and grow. And despite claims to the contrary, they are still huge and they are still a very, very big problem.

And it's like any other evil. You either eradicate the evil or over time, it grows. And that holds true clearly for the work we do here in Congress.

Q Senator Feingold, what if you've got a big highway bill or a big water project bill, like was here last summer? And all those projects were authorized. And then in the appropriations bill later that paid for them, those are authorized. But then even though you might find some Lobster Cams in there, there wouldn't be anything you could do about those, right?

SEN. FEINGOLD: No. If it's ultimately reflected in an appropriations bill, this is where it hits it.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. FEINGOLD: If it's authorized, no, this does not address that. And that's something people might want to consider. But the main problem of course is things that aren't authorized.

When a bill is voted on in a committee, authorized bill comes out to the floor and is debated, that is one aspect. If that -- if the practice still continues that way, I think, it's much more difficult. So be it. But the main problem is that it doesn't cover appropriations bill. And that's what we're trying to accomplish here.

SEN. MCCAIN: Could I just say, we are not judging every project that goes through the Congress. That's -- we're not that knowledgeable. What we are saying is, the system is broken.

If it's authorized and then it is appropriated, then I may not like it and I may vote against it. But the fact is, that's the process. I may -- we may not like the outcome of the process. But that's not what we're fighting against here.

What we're fighting against here is a project, like Senator McCaskill points out, that are stuffed in, in the middle of the night. We now have evidence that even after a bill was signed, by the president, there was earmark projects put in.

So we're not after projects that are duly authorized. We're after these -- this unconscionable violation of the Senate -- the way the Senate functions itself.

Do you want to --

SEN. COBURN: Well, I just, you know, look. When you go through an authorizing committee, it may be questionable. But your peers in the Senate vote on it. So there has been a transparent look at what you're putting forward. The motivation may still be the same. But at least it's authorized by your peers, a committee, a bipartisan committee.

The other way, when you sneak something in that wasn't authorized and wasn't exposed to the bipartisan look of a committee, what you've done is a disservice to the whole institution because you've undermined the trust.

And when you actually go and -- we had one agriculture earmark that we had to go back 16 years in appropriations to find out what it was. And it was placed in -- I can't even remember what it was now. But it was placed in at one time.

And then it just said, duplicate as line such in appropriation bill from year of this. And it went forward 16 years and it had never been looked at by the committee.

It was only on the Approps Committee that it got -- and we spent 20 (million dollars) or $30 million on something, and it was a small deal that was totally parochial.

And that's the other interest that we have to raise. Our country's in enough trouble that we have to think about the country in total, more so than we have to think about our parochial interests. That doesn't mean we ignore our constituency, but we have to do what's best for the country as a whole and our constituency, thinking long term, not short term in a political sense.

SEN. MCCAIN: I introduced a couple of pieces of legislation, one of them concerning Walnut Canyon in Arizona, Dr. Coburn may object to, but I want it authorized and then I want it appropriated. That's -- that -- yeah.

Q Senators McCain and Feingold, sorry -- Senator and now Vice President-elect Biden is -- (off mike) -- Pakistan. Do you think that risks sending a mixed message to regional leaders, as to whether -- (off mike) -- administration? Do you think it contradicts President- elect Obama's statement there's only one president at a time?

SEN. FEINGOLD: No, I don't think Senator Biden as a senator -- chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee making a visit to Pakistan, where he certainly has been before, knows the leaders, undercuts either the current president or the next president.

SEN. MCCAIN: I think it's important that they go. The situation continues to be very serious, particularly Pakistan, Afghanistan. And I'm glad they're going.

Q The last time that Senator McCain and Feingold, you stood together, it was campaign finance reform. Given the last election was -- (off mike) -- your opponent didn't take -- (off mike) -- are you two planning on doing anything for the presidential election for this year?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, in the past, I've taken the lead with Senator McCain in trying to reform the presidential funding system. While he was running, Senator Collins and I introduced the legislation. Senator Obama was one of our original co-sponsors. And even though I regretted the fact that, for the first time, public financing was not followed in the general election, I've had every indication from the president-elect and the administration that they do support the idea of getting this job done.

And it needs to be done quickly, because as this gentleman knows, better than anybody, this process starts right away. So we need to enact a new law and I'm hopeful that the administration will help us to try to fix both the primary and the general election aspect of public financing.

Q Senator Feingold, back to earmarks, can you talk -- (off mike) -- this bill will be passed before the -- (off mike)? How do you ensure that the bill won't be -- (off mike)?

SEN. FEINGOLD: I don't know whether or not yet whether the new president will support this. I'm hopeful. He's given every indication in terms of his work with us in the past on earmarks. His talk during the debates, some of the best discussions in the debates were these two candidates talking about this issue. He seems to be one of the people that really cares about this issue.

Now, if we don't pass this, you know, John and I for years have -- and Tom and others -- when a bill comes up, we have a "porkbusters" system. We can put that in place, but it is time to go from that to a law that simply makes it almost impossible to do this. But we're going to try to get this done. This is truly a bipartisan issue that should have the support of the majority of the Senate.

SEN. MCCAIN: I'm very encouraged by the fact that the president- elect said that there would be no earmarks -- that his position was that there would be no earmarks on the stimulus package. That's very encouraging.

Thank you all.


Q (Off mike) -- project that needs to be funded out there, what constitutes an earmark -- (off mike)?

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, we have a definition of earmarks that is already --

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. FEINGOLD: Yes, the one that was defined out of the last legislation.

Thank you very much.

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