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Transportation, Housing And Urban Development, And Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, D.C.


Mr. COBURN. Madam President, I wish to spend a little bit of time talking about the problems before us in terms of transportation, and then I will go back to these amendments based on whatever the chairman wishes and however she wishes to handle the debate on these amendments.

What I think about is that right now our transportation trust fund is not growing at the rate at which our needs are growing. I do not think anybody--neither the chairman of the Appropriations Committee nor the committee that is responsible for the transportation authorization program--would disagree with that. I do not think anybody else would disagree that in a year when we are going to have a true, not an Enron accounting, but a true budget deficit of $1.8 trillion by the time you count the money we are going to steal from Social Security and other trust funds, that we are going to have $1.8 trillion we are going to borrow from our grandchildren, and at a time when we have, at a minimum, 130,000 bridges in disrepair in this country. And that is the Department of Transportation's own numbers. Out of 600,000-plus, 130,000 either have to have lesser loads or fewer number of vehicles going across them or do not meet the designs needed for the loads they are carrying or are crumbling and are not expected to collapse but are falling apart, that at this time we ought not to be spending our money on anything except roads and bridges.

The debate Senator McCain put out here is just one way of getting at the problem. Inside the Transportation bill is a requirement that if a State gets money and they want to fix a bridge, 10 percent of the money to fix that bridge has to go to make things look nice around it. That is great if we are running a great surplus or we are not borrowing the money from our kids. But right now the fact that we mandated that obligated moneys to State highway and transportation departments, that they have to spend 10 percent of the money that is obligated on aesthetics makes no common sense. It does if we have an excess of funds. It is something to which we would all agree. But when we have the problems where we have 13,000 people a year dying because of the quality of the roads in this country--not quality of vehicles, not driver error, but the quality of roads--and we have this large number of bridges that are truly in the long run not safe, why would we be spending money on anything other than roads and bridges in a transportation project, as far as surface transportation?

I am not talking about trains and inner-city buses. I know we have to do that as well. But for the proportion that goes out, why would we not spend that money on the real needs that are out there?

Madam President, 13,000 lives is a lot of lives. Actually, it is one of those benchmarks on which you can measure Congress. We would rather have $5 billion worth of earmarks that make us look good at home than make sure that $5 billion goes toward saving somebody's life by repairing a road that needs to be fixed right now--right now--not next year, not 2 years from now, right now.

Why are we going to have these things that make us look good and may be a need but may not necessarily be a priority? How many of them are a priority over the fallen-down bridges in this country?

The families who lose members because of road quality in this country do not think those are priorities. They think fixing the roads and bridges are priorities. But you see, we have a disease in the Senate and in the Congress: We think we know better. We do not want to make the tough priorities that might not sell well in a particular area in our home State that would, in fact, solve some of the major problems with transportation in this country because we will not look as good. And yet we can spend money on taxiways for airports that have six flights a day and have very few people through it and subsidize every passenger to the tune of $130 when if they could drive an hour and find an airport, we would not have to spend any of that money on it.

Most of us drive an hour to get to the airport. But yet we do earmarks. We decide, the wisdom of us--it is pretty interesting. I heard the ranking member talk about oversight. There is not any significant oversight going on in this Congress. I almost laughed out loud. For every hearing we have, we ought to have 10 oversight hearings. We talk about we are going to say where the money goes, and then we don't follow where the money goes. We don't do our job of oversight.

The NextGen, I understand that is an important priority. I am not questioning that. But the point of Senator McCain's amendment is not NextGen, it is earmarks. It is the fact that at least here is something we know is going to buy safety in aviation, whereas the rest of the earmarks are not. We have an earmarked museum in the bill. Tell me, at a time when we have 9.7 percent unemployment, we have a trust fund for transportation that is belly up, that we are stealing the money from our kids every 6 months to keep it viable rather than from the taxes of consumption of gasoline and diesel, tell me that is a priority right now when we have run a $1.8 trillion deficit.

The fact is we refuse--we refuse--to make the hard choices in Washington. We make choices for our political purposes. We make choices for the well endowed. We make choices for the well connected, for the well heeled, whether it is beach nourishment and the hundreds of millions of dollars that are made off that or it is a museum or a bike path or the restoration of a train station. Tell me where those are in terms of priorities of the 9.7 percent of Americans who do not have a job and are looking for one and the other 6 percent who are so discouraged they are not even looking anymore. Tell me why that is a priority. Senator McCain's point is dead on.

There is a commonsense test, which is, would the average guy with the same amount of money fix the bridges and fix the highways or would he do the superfluous stuff, the enhancement stuff, the feel-good stuff if it were about his kids and his family? The average guy would not. But you see, we are not the average guy. We do not have to play by the rules because we know that the court of public opinion only comes after us once every 6 years, and if we can, in fact, enhance our ability to raise our campaign funds, if we can, in fact, look good to the well connected, then we are going to be able to find a way to say a message something different than what we actually did.

That is pretty cynical, but when we have 13,000 people dying on roads every year because of the quality of the roads--and those are not my numbers, those are NHTSA's numbers--wouldn't you think every dollar we have ought to fix the roads and fix the bridges and wait on the aesthetics until later? Wouldn't you think the common man with common sense would say, Let's do the most important thing first, that buys us the most safety and the best transportation effect, rather than make the politicians and their well-heeled buddies look good?

I understand why people are upset with the Congress. It is because we make decisions that do not have much connection with reality. And then after we do it and we don't do the oversight that is required, we blame it on an administration.

I thought the debate about whether we could trust the FAA--we can trust the FAA if we do the following things: make sure they will be before us every 2 or 3 weeks talking about the progress of what they are doing; making sure we are having the oversight hearings; making sure we are doing our job to make sure the bureaucracy with which we give the responsibility to carry out policy is, in fact, being held accountable and, if not, withdraw the funds through a special rescission package to make sure that since you are not acting responsibly, we are going to withdraw your money. The last time there was a true rescission in the Congress was 1995.

We talk a big game about what a good job we do in oversight and good judgment. What happens is staff members make the decision of what gets included and what does not get earmarked. Sometimes it is based on economic priorities and sometimes it is based on the economic priority of who is running for reelection.

The other problem we have is things are not very transparent here, in spite of our President's desire that they be that way. I have a couple of amendments that are going to make sure the public reports that are required in this bill are made available to the American people, not just to the committee staff; to make sure that HUD reports to Congress on homes they own and the cost to the taxpayers, not just to a committee of Congress.


I now call up amendment No. 2371 and ask that it be the pending amendment.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. COBURN. Madam President, I wish to talk about what this amendment does. This amendment forbids the mandatory spending of that 10 percent of money on things that are not going to make a difference when it comes to highway safety and bridge repair. And it says that Gary Ridley, the director of the department of transportation in Oklahoma, can take all of the money and make new bridges and new roads and repair bridges and does not have to worry about taking 10 percent of the money and spending it on aesthetics.

At another time, another place, maybe we would want to do that. But with our infrastructure crumbling, and with the trust fund not with enough money because of the economic shape in which we find ourselves, to continue to mandate that every transportation department in the country has to spend a full 10 percent of their money, not on what is important, but on something somebody may like, not on something that is about safety, but on what somebody may like and what may look good, to me does not connect with common sense.

I am probably a minority in that opinion in this building, but I am not in the minority in that opinion in this country. When times are good, we can afford to make such discretionary spending mandates on the States. When times are tough, when infrastructure is in poor shape, when the quality of our roads is taking people's lives every day, and when our bridges are falling down and chunks are falling off of them and injuring people severely, as happened in Tulsa 6 weeks ago on an interstate bridge, and falls through the windshield of a car and critically injures an individual who is driving down the interstate, it is time for us to use common sense on how we spend this money.

I would make one other point; that is, that this bill, compared to last year, in terms of real numbers--not in terms of the numbers that have been spun out there--is a 22-percent increase. If you go through all the appropriations bills we are bringing to the floor and what we have already passed, it is like there is no recession going on. There is absolutely no inflation. Yet we are growing government at 12 times the rate of inflation, and we are doing it on bill after bill after bill.

There is no apology anywhere from the Appropriations Committee that we are sorry we have to spend this increased amount of money, in spite of the fact we absolutely don't have it and that we can't winnow down and make our priorities sharper and better. No, what we do is we just bump the number.

In case you are interested, if you include contract authority, there is $75.8 billion. Even if you don't include contract authority, you have a 12-percent increase. In the HUD portion of the bill, we have a 10-percent increase. So it is not just transportation. We are increasing housing and urban development 10 percent. So there is no inflation; tax revenues are down. There is no question we have greater needs, but there is no force to say: How do we more efficiently put out the money? How do we hold those spending the money more accountable? How do we get greater value for the money we are spending? No. You know what we do? We take the credit card out of our pocket, and we put it in an ATM that says: Charge to our grandchildren and charge to our children. That is what we do. Then we come up here and we say: This is absolutely necessary.

The vast majority of families in this country today are making tough decisions--very tough decisions. They are either saying: I have a job or I am lucky to have a job or, boy, am I thankful. I don't want to end up without a job, so I think I will start prioritizing where I have to spend money. The people where one of the two workers in the family have lost a job are making those tough decisions every day: What is an absolute necessity and what isn't?

Actually, it is more than the average American. Almost every American is making those kinds of decisions today. But isn't it curious the Congress isn't? Isn't it curious we don't prioritize? Isn't it curious that it has been years--whether under Republican control or Democratic control--since we have had an appropriations bill that comes out and spends less money? Are all these agencies efficient? Could it be done in a better way to get better value with less money? Could we force savings in these branches of government?

Those questions aren't even being asked. There are no priority questions being asked. What we do is we say: Here is our 302(b) number; how are we going to spend the money, rather than seeing what is the need, how efficient is the bureaucracy utilizing that money under the policy proscriptions we give them, and what are we going to do about it? So we come out spending hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars with millions of earmarks.

I heard mention about the earmarks. What the American people need to know about earmarks is this: It is not the earmark that is bad, it is the extortion that comes with the earmark. Because everybody here knows that if you have an earmark in an appropriations bill and you don't vote for the appropriations bill, the next time you want an earmark, guess what happens. They happen to remind you that: Oh, you had an earmark in the last one, but you didn't vote for the bill. So since you are not supporting our bill, we are probably not going to be as likely to include your earmark. What does that do? The problem with earmarks is it takes the focus off what we are doing collectively in the best interest of the country and makes the focus about the individual and the State.

There is nothing in this document--which is the U.S. Constitution--that gives us the right to think about our States. When you are sworn in here, they do not say: Mr. Coburn, Oklahoma, you will uphold the Constitution as long as it protects Oklahoma. It says: You will uphold the Constitution. Our Founders knew that any State couldn't be healthy unless we as a nation were healthy. Yet earmarks undermine that every time and force us back to parochialism--not Federalism but parochialism. So we take the money from individuals in the various States, and then, through our wisdom of all knowledge in Washington, we send it back so we look good, rather than leaving the money there in the first place and letting you decide how best to spend your own money. So we don't lessen spending. We always increase it.

We claim oversight--which we never do to the level that is required with a government as big as this--and then we complain that somebody wants to eliminate earmarks, and not because the individual earmark may not be a good thing--I can't think of many earmarks that probably aren't good things--but because the earmarks aren't necessarily a priority for the Nation as a whole. That is the difference in being and enhancing statesmanship versus politics. It is OK for Oklahoma to lose for a period of time if our country gets better. I have explained that to my State.

I have refused to do earmarks for my State. The reason is we are in a big pot of trouble right now as a nation--a large pot of trouble. If you watch the dollar index in the markets, what you see happening in the last 2 weeks is the value of your savings going down because the value of the dollar is declining rapidly. Everybody knows that the money we are borrowing today will only be able to be paid back through highly inflated dollars. So what you have worked for your entire life, what you have dreamed for your kids, we are undermining here a little bit in this very bill. It is just a little bit, but a whole bunch of little bits becomes a lot.

So here we go. We don't make the priorities, we don't make the hard choices, and we increase the spending a ridiculous amount for the time we find ourselves in, knowing a good portion of the spending is going to be borrowed from our kids. We watch the dollar flounder, knowing that the amount you have put aside for your children in the future isn't going to be worth anything. It is a pretty sick, neurotic system we are operating under because it doesn't have enough sunshine on it, and that was the purpose for Senator McCain's amendment. That is the purpose for this amendment, to have some transparency. Let's have some common sense.

Let's not force State transportation departments that need critical dollars for bridge repair and road repair to spend it on a bicycle path nobody is going to ride or a sound barrier that truly doesn't cut the sound. Let's spend it on roads and bridges. Let's not force them to make choices that are stupid. Let's trust people to do what is right.

There is another observation I would make, and then I will close. I was born in 1948, and I have seen a shift in our country in that 60-plus years. Our nature and our history used to be that we trusted American citizens. I am talking of the Federal Government. We assumed you would do the right thing. Unfortunately, today, so much of the assumption of the Federal Government--especially as it relates to the States--is on the basis that we know you are going to do the wrong thing, and we are here to catch you; that we know better, and we are going to tell you how to do it, when to do it, and where to do it.

That has come about as we have had Supreme Court rulings taking away the constraints our Founders said were necessary. It is called the enumerated powers of the Constitution. It is article I, section 8, if you want to look it up. If you read what Madison and Jefferson had to say about that, we have been totally violating the intent of what they said, what they meant, and what they knew we would say about what they meant for the last 30 years in this country. So we find ourselves in a position where we dominate with the power of dollars and taxation to the detriment of our freedom, to the detriment of common sense, and to the detriment of good will.

I am not sure how the chairman and ranking member will respond to this amendment, but for this time and this situation we find ourselves in, we ought to eliminate this mandatory 10 percent and let Oklahoma and Kansas and Texas and Kentucky and New York build bridges and highways, not build aesthetics with the money which we took from them and are now sending it back but sending it with all these restrictions on it.

With that, I yield the floor.


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