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Unanimous-Consent Request--S. 510

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, it is my understanding that Senator Coburn actually sees, as I do, the need for us to coordinate the food safety agencies and is proposing that we ask for a study for that purpose. I wish to join him in that effort. Asking for a study is a good thing, but while a study is underway and we are waiting for the report, people will be dying from food contamination.

I hope we can engage in this study and move toward a single food safety agency. I am with him all the way. Let's save money in the process. And I think we can. We can come up with a professional, good agency in a bipartisan way. But unless and until that is done, we have to make reference to the obvious; that is, the current system is not safe enough for American families. As good as our food supply may be in America, we can do better. To stop now, after all of this work has been put into this effort, with the objection of only one Senator, strikes me as unfair--unfair to the people across America who desperately need our protection.

I yield the floor.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Oklahoma.

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, what is unfair in this country is the fact that we label bills to fix things and fix a lot of the symptoms, but we do not fix the underlying problem. We are going to spend several hundred million dollars
when the bill ultimately goes through, and much of it will be well applied, but the underlying problem will never be fixed.

The Senator mentioned we have 12 agencies--12 agencies across this government--responsible for food safety. What I would contend to my colleagues is that the same amount of money we spend now, if we spent it wisely, would give us a much safer food supply.

All through the course of this debate, I have had staff at every meeting raising the consistent objections I have raised. At every meeting, one of my staffers has been there. They were ignored. I am not stopping this bill because it was ignored; I am stopping the bill because I do not think we are fixing the true underlying problem.

Let me give you an example. Here is what Dr. Hamburg said. This is on the egg rule.

We believe that had these rules been in place at an earlier time it would have very likely enabled us to identify the problems on this farm before this kind of outbreak occurred.

How long did it take them to develop the rule? Ten years. It started with President Clinton asking that this be addressed. Robert Reich went and inspected and said it is unbelievable what has happened. And what happened is, he initiated it with the FDA, the start. Somebody ought to ask the question and hold accountable FDA taking 10 years to get a rule so we have safe eggs in this country. We did not ask that question. So the next thing that comes up after we pass a bill like this is that we are going to see another problem because we are not fixing the core problem.

Let me read to you from the oversight hearings the Senate has conducted on food safety. I think I have them here. There was a full committee hearing on October 22, 2009, ``Keeping American Families Safe, Reforming the Food System.'' There was a full committee hearing developing a comprehensive response to food safety on December 4, 2007. And there was a Senate Appropriations Committee oversight hearing on Hallmark/Westland meat recall--a special hearing. There was not one hearing that said: FDA, what are you doing, how are you doing it, and why are you doing it that way? There was not one hearing that said: USDA, why in the world can't you get your act together? We did not do the structural oversight that is necessary to fix these problems.

I am not denying that this bill will have some positive effect. But it will not solve the problem. So we will pass a bill, and then we will still have contaminated food, but we will have answered the questions of late.

We can't keep running government that way.

I appreciate sincerely Senator Durbin's efforts. We come from vastly different backgrounds. I don't question his integrity, his desire, or his goodwill to try to solve the problem. As he told me on the phone, I can't be involved in everything, so, therefore, I shouldn't participate in this. That is the implication. I am not saying the Senator said that, but the implication is, you can't be involved so, therefore, you can't know enough to be involved. Well, having run a $70 million-a-year business in the health care field, having managed hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of people, and being trained as a physician in practice for 25 years, I know a heck of a lot about food safety. What I do know is if you don't fix the problems in the underlying agencies that are responsible for food safety, it doesn't matter how many bills we bring up.

There is a prohibition in this bill. Section 403, Jurisdiction Authorities:

Nothing in this act or an amendment made by this act shall be construed to alter the jurisdiction between the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services under applicable statutes, regulations, or agreements regarding the products eligible for voluntary inspection under this agreement.

We actually are doing something wrong here--not just right. We are telling them they can't shift stuff around to solve the problem. Not only do we not do the vigorous oversight that is required to actually fix the real problems; we put up a roadblock, a silo back up and say, By the way, you can't do any of this together. That is in the bill.

What has happened? The FDA Commissioner says had we put this rule out, this probably wouldn't have happened on the egg recall, salmonella enteritis. It wouldn't have happened. Where is the answer from the FDA? Where is the oversight hearing of the FDA on why it took them 10, almost 11 years to get a rule out on egg safety? That is my core objection.

I want us to solve the problems. I don't have any problem with the issues about foreign inspection. Mandatory recall I don't have a problem with, although we have never had a food supplier in this country that has not recalled when asked to recall. So having a mandatory authority is a false claim because nobody has ever not recalled when they were asked to, because it is in their best interests to recall.

My problems are characterized by this chart, when you think about the egg recall. The USDA knew what was happening on the farms in Iowa but said nothing to the FDA. The FDA didn't look to see, and Congress didn't want to hear about it. So we have a bill before us that does a lot of good things, but it doesn't fix the real problem. That is my basic complaint. We are treating the symptoms of the disease. My colleagues have heard my analogy before, but I am going to make it again. If you come in to see me, as a practicing physician, and you have fever and chills and cough and body aches and are short of breath, and I give you something to take care of your fever and chills; I give you something to suppress your cough; I actually make you feel better, but I don't diagnosis the fact that there is a pneumonia in your lung, you are going to get better for a little while and then you are going to get really sick. Then you come back. I have treated your symptoms the first time, and then I treat your pneumonia and I get you over that. Then I don't follow up after that to see what the real cause of the pneumonia is, which was a little tumor in your lung that caused blockage which caused the pneumonia. If I continue to treat symptoms, all I do is delay the time in which we get to the final fix for your problem. My analogy is I think that is what we are doing. I believe we have not been thorough enough. The intentions are great, but I don't think we have been thorough enough. I understand foodborne illnesses. I have treated a lot of them. I have had a lot of them. When I was in Iraq for 30 days, I had it for most of the time I was there.

The other question this has raised is we can't keep doing this. We can't afford to keep doing this. We have more than enough money at the USDA and the FDA to do everything you want to do in this bill--more than enough. That is one of the things the American people are asking of us. We are going to make this point on a food safety bill, and I am fine with the heat I will take from the groups and the press on it, because I think the underlying principle is more important. It is easy to pass a bill that looks as if it does something. And even if it does something, if it passed on what we are going to spend when we don't address what we are spending wisely, we will never get out of the jam we put our kids in.

To Senator Durbin's point: Yes, it is an authorization bill. The Senator from Illinois and Senator Harkin, as well as every member of my caucus and every member of your caucus, get a letter the first of every Congress saying I would absolutely object to any bill that increases authorizations in this Congress that are not offset with a reduction in less important, less priority items. I offered to do that to the majority leader. I offered to give that to him 2 1/2 weeks ago. He hung up the phone on me; wouldn't even say goodbye. I said, I will give you a list. How about the $500 million the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays out to dead farmers in crop payments--to dead farmers who have been dead 6, 7, 8 years, still paying crop payments. We have plenty of money to pay for it. We don't want to do the hard work of getting rid of the things we should.

What America is screaming for now is they want food safety, but they want security for their kids as well. If we continue this bad habit of ignoring the actual idea that there is a limitation on how much we can spend, we will never solve any of the critical problems, whether we have clean food or not.

I do honor my two colleagues who are in the Chamber. They are men of great intent, honest intent, caring hearts, but I disagree on how we have gone about this. This isn't the first time I have heard the wonderful eloquence of Senator Durbin. He is great at what he says and how he says it. He is a very bright man. He makes his case well. But there are important things in this country that we are ignoring, and this bill is an example of it.

Why in the world won't we fix the real problem? Why won't we ask--you know, the one thing that should happen--it amazes me. There is not a hearing scheduled on why it took 10 years to have an egg safety standard. We have allowed this. We have allowed it.

The other point I wish to make is, yes, the money has to get appropriated. I agree with that. But we are going to spend this money. Senator Durbin, we are going to spend it, aren't we?

Mr. DURBIN. Not unless we appropriate it.

Mr. COBURN. Does the Senator have every intent to make sure it is appropriated?

Mr. DURBIN. If we can find the money.

Mr. COBURN. So wait a minute. If we can find the money.

Mr. DURBIN. If we can find the money.

Mr. COBURN. The earlier statements of this will solve the problem, but yet we are not going to find the money. It should be 100 percent that we are going to find the money to do this.

Mr. DURBIN. Will the Senator yield for a question?

Mr. COBURN. I want to continue my point, if you don't mind. You have always been courteous to me and I will be courteous to you, but I wish to continue for a few minutes and then I will give my colleague the chance to respond.

Mr. DURBIN. I would say to the Senator, I was going to ask him a question.

Mr. COBURN. I will allow that in a few minutes.

If this bill is that important, and the majority whip says we will fund it if we can find the money, rather than saying we are going to fund this because this is a priority--and he has the power to make sure that gets done. Don't let anybody kid you. If he wants this bill funded, he can get it funded. So the point is, either it is going to be funded and it is going to get spent and the argument about authorizations is bogus or there is going to be a real question on whether it is going to get funded. If there is a real question about whether it is going to get funded, then the importance of the issue isn't nearly as great as we have explained it to be, which goes back to an argument we have had for the 6 years I have been here.

I understand you don't agree. I am a hardheaded guy from Oklahoma who actually believes we ought to make hard choices, we ought to downsize the government rather than grow it; and when we have an issue such as food safety, what we ought to do is hold accountable the agencies--let me say it again--we ought to hold accountable the agencies, because I am not sure that we don't have enough rules now. What I think we have is not enough effectiveness of the agencies and the dollars they spend. With the exception of foreign inspections, which I fully support--I fully support--anybody who wants to sell food in this country ought to pay for the inspections and we ought to be able to certify that it is safe. I have no problem with that. There are a lot of components of this bill I agree with. But I refuse to agree to a unanimous consent request until we start looking at the real problems underlying not just the FDA and USDA but the Pentagon, Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice. The waste in this government and our refusal to look at that waste and eliminate it so we can do good things is one of the reasons--not the only reason, one of the reasons--we find ourselves $13.4 trillion in debt.

Ideally, how would we go about this? Because one of the complaints is: Coburn, you stop things in their tracks. How would I have done it differently? So I think I owe you an explanation. First of all, the tomatoes were never contaminated. They were thought to be contaminated. It was the jalapenos. So we, our agencies, identified falsely a food that wasn't contaminated. So the agency is responsible for the $350 million cost for the tomatoes. That is a very important point. The incompetency of the agency cost $350 million, which is a very different story than my colleague from Illinois talked about. It was jalapeno peppers.

So how should we go about this? Before we do one other thing on food safety, every one of those agencies ought to know we are looking over their backs all the time. That is the first thing. We should have routine oversight hearings on the appropriate committees three to four times a year. The second thing we ought to do is we ought to say, GAO, we want to know everybody who has anything to do with the quality of food in this country as far as a Federal agency and we want to know their line responsibilities, we want to know their authorities, we want to know X, Y, and Z, and their effectiveness. Because a GAO study at the Department of Agriculture, as well as the FDA, says they are incompetent at most of this stuff. I will be happy to give my colleagues the quotes. They lack the competency to carry out--how else do you explain that the FDA cost the State of Florida $350 million by falsely claiming that tomatoes weren't any good? That is incompetence. There is no excuse for it. There was no hearing held to hold them accountable. It is ignored in this bill.

So how would we go about it? We would find out everybody who has anything to do with food safety. Then we would do what Senator Durbin wants to do. We would eliminate the duplication. We would make one line authority: This agency is responsible for all the food safety in this country. That is a marvelous goal, Senator Durbin. This bill delays that happening.

He is on to the right thing.

We need to get there, I agree. But when you go to Piggly Wiggly or Homeland, as we have in Oklahoma, and you go to the freezer section and buy a pizza for Friday night when--in Oklahoma, you are going to play dominos after high school football is over. If you buy a cheese pizza, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for that. But if you buy a pepperoni pizza, it is the FDA. I may have them reversed. I do have them reversed. The FDA is responsible for cheese pizzas. How does that make sense?

It is a symptom of the disease in Washington. First of all, it is stupid. Second of all, it is inefficient. Third of all, it guarantees the two agencies are not going to be talking to each other.

The Food and Drug Administration and the USDA have--I think my number is correct; I may be wrong--187 agreements for how they work across the field. Except you know what happened with regard to the egg situation. Nobody paid attention to the agreements. We have the rules. USDA did not tell the FDA. Then, finally, we have an egg producer--the State of Iowa has done tons of stuff to say this guy's quality is poor. Did USDA do anything about it? No. Did the FDA do anything about it? No.

USDA knew there was a problem. It did not need any more inspections. They knew there was a problem. They did not communicate it to the FDA as per their protocol.

What do we have going on here? We have a mess. As well-intentioned as this bill is and as hard as the Senators have worked on it on both sides of the aisle, it does not fix the cancer in the lung that caused the pneumonia that caused the fever, cough, chills, and malaise of the patient. Until we start drilling down to get to the real problems, the real issues of food safety, we are going to spend a lot of money. We are going to create a whole lot more regulations. We are going to have another 200-plus page bill.

What we ought to say is, time out. Let's do some things. Let's have a one-page bill that can pass by UC today that says we are going to do safety inspections on foreign foods. Done. We can do it. That takes care of our foreign food.

A good portion of our seafood is imported. It is farm raised. It is important. We can do that tomorrow. We can have sanctions and penalties and criminal penalties for Federal bureaucrats who do not follow the rules of their own agencies.

Everything was in place on the egg situation. We did not execute. We did not carry the ball down the field. Here is what we know about the DeCoster Egg Farms. They are a habitual violator. They have had eight known run-
ins or citations from State and Federal regulators. They were designated by the State of Iowa as a ``habitual violator.'' Robert Reich called the state of the farms simply atrocious.

USDA inspections--I have a copy of the inspections--routinely noted unsafe and unsanitary conditions without communicating any of those concerns to the FDA.

What we had was a failure to execute. It was seen. It was known. What we had in place did not work. But this bill does not fix that. It does not fix that.

I have treated a lot of people with toxic e. coli in my life. That is what causes kidney failure. Salmonella hardly ever does that. It is not a fun disease to have. There is nothing in this bill that says we are going to prioritize pathogens. You see, e. coli, compared to all the rest of the pathogens, is much more important in terms of hospitalization, death, morbidity, and mortality. So any food safety bill ought to work on the most ravaging problem first, not treat them all the same. Yersinia pestis, shigella, and salmonella cause enteritis, that is true. Rarely will you have long-term effects from those. But from toxic e. coli, it is a whole different actor.

We ought to prioritize what we do in food safety through the food safety problems that cause the major problems. We do not do that.

I know I have disappointed my colleague from Illinois. I know he has worked hard on this bill. We have some very stark philosophical differences about how to make the government work better. I hope through the next few years to convince him more often than not to go in a different direction.

I know Senator Harkin's heart is one of the softest and best in our body. If somebody has a problem, I don't care what it is, he is interested in it. For disappointing my colleague, I sincerely apologize. For standing on my principles and what I believe, I do not. I do not see a great future for our country if we do not start changing the way we do things, whether it is drilling down and looking at what the real problems are with the agencies and doing the appropriate oversight and taking priorities and getting rid of things that do not work and making things that do work work better.

I worry about my grandkids, and I worry about all of our grandkids. With them at $43,702 today per man, woman, and child in this country, we cannot do it anymore. I am not going to do it anymore. I will be as compliant as I can be living within my principles, but I am just not going there. For that, I apologize. I apologize for disappointing my colleagues, but I sincerely regret we could not have solved some of these problems along the way.

I yield the floor and yield to the Senator for a question, if he wishes.


The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mrs. Hagan). The Senator from Illinois.

Mr. DURBIN. Madam President, I am going to yield to the Senator from Iowa in just a moment.

I would like to offer to the Senator from Oklahoma a compromise and tell him I have spent much of the time he was speaking reading S. 3832, a one-page bill, which calls for a plan within 60 days from USDA and FDA and within 1 year a joint report from Congress, a GAO report. I am going to join him on this issue.

What I would like to suggest is the following: Because I am as committed as he is to food safety, I would like to amend my request and make this a Coburn-Durbin amendment which will be offered, which I guarantee I will work night and day to get passed, so we address the overall issue. In the meantime, while we are spending 6 months or a year moving toward this goal, let's at least make the current system as safe as we can. Let's do everything we can to protect the people of this Nation.

The Senator does not have to apologize to me. I will be here tomorrow. But this poor man in ICU in Oklahoma may not be, and other people like him.

What I suggest to him is, I will join in a compromise. I will add an amendment to the bill and cosponsor his language in S. 3832 and ask my colleagues on this side of the aisle--all of them--to join us in voting for them if the Senator from Oklahoma will remove his objection so we can go forward on this important historic debate.

Mr. COBURN. Madam President, I appreciate the Senator's offer, but I cannot do that. I also want him to know that this bill is not going to solve the problem of that gentleman from Owasso, OK. This bill is not going to solve that situation because we are not fixing the real problem.

Mr. DURBIN. Madam President, I must reclaim my time and say to the Senator from Oklahoma, he cannot tell me how badly he feels for these victims and then stop the bill with which we are trying to protect them.

The Senator cannot tell me he wants reform and then reject it. The bottom line is the description he has given is about the USDA, and this bill is not about that agency. It is about the FDA.

I say to the Senator from Oklahoma, I agree with him. I want to help him. But if he will not allow us to bring to the floor a bill on which we worked for a year and a half, if he will not offer an amendment along the lines suggested, then all he is doing is saying no.

If he is saying we cannot afford safe food in America, I disagree. I think we can afford it, and I am willing to cut other spending to pay for it. That is the only way it can get through the appropriations process.

But to just say no after all the work that has gone into it because he does not happen to like it--if the Senator from Oklahoma does not like it, offer his amendment. If it is a good idea, the Senate will accept it. If he does not have an amendment, then he is like me on Monday night watching football when the Bears play the Packers deciding what Jay Cutler should be doing as quarterback. It is pretty easy from that armchair.

I want the Senator from Oklahoma to come down to the field and offer his amendment, be part of the conversation. Don't just stand there and say no. As he says no, people will suffer and some will die. I think that is fundamentally unfair.

I yield the floor.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Oklahoma.

Mr. COBURN. Madam President, again, if I truly felt this bill was going to solve those problems, I would be out here supporting it. I do not think so. We have an inherent disagreement.

The Senator from Illinois can file a cloture motion any time he wants to proceed to this bill. He can file it today, and we can have a cloture vote next week--we are not going to be doing anything next week anyway--and we can go to the bill. File the cloture motion, if that is how he feels about the bill and he thinks I am dead wrong. File the cloture motion, get the votes, and do it.

What we are hearing is we want it to pass in a short period of time so there cannot be the real debate there needs to be on the problems in this country on food safety. That is what we just heard.

We have been talking about this issue. We could have been here tomorrow debating this bill. The fact is, they did not file a cloture motion. They filed cloture motions 179 other times this Congress, more than any other Congress in the history, and the vast majority of them less than 24 hours after the bill was introduced.

If the Senator really wants to have the debate, put the bill on the floor, file cloture, and have the debate. I will debate this for 30 hours.

Washington is great about saying they are fixing things. They are great about passing bills. They are not great about fixing things because they fix the symptoms, not the real disease. That is the problem with this bill. It does not drill down and fix the real disease.

My hope is that we can fix the real disease and that we will have the legitimate, tough hearings on why and how and what is needed to be changed in the agencies, not more regulations, not more money, but holding the agencies accountable, which we have not done. That is how Washington works. If there is a problem, we do not look at what we are doing already, we just create an answer for what we think needs to be done rather than holding people accountable. That is why we have a $3.9 trillion budget. That is why our kids are bankrupt or getting ready to be because we continue to make the same mistakes.

I do not apologize for my principles on this issue. If, in fact, we will ever get to where we fix the real problems in the Congress, my colleague will find me as docile and compliant as any other Member of the body. But do not tell me to treat pneumonia with an aspirin because that is exactly what we are doing with this bill.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Iowa.

Mr. HARKIN. Madam President, first of all, to my friend from Oklahoma before he leaves the floor, I thank him for his kind words. I appreciate that very much. He is a very valuable member of our committee. We have done work together in the past.

I say to my friend from Oklahoma, I agree with a lot of what he said. This bill is not going to solve all our problems. It may not solve a majority of our problems. It will solve some of them.

The Senator is right. We read about these crazy pizza things--Agriculture has one, FDA has the others. It is a crazy quilt work of things.

I say to my friend from Oklahoma, I am about as frustrated as you are. I have been chairman of Ag and I am chairman of HELP. When I am on Ag and they want to get some stuff to have jurisdiction over, then the people at Health and Human Services step in and they say no. Now I am on HELP and we want to get more jurisdiction for FDA and Ag says no. It drives you nuts sometimes. So you have these interlocks that have been built up over the years, and, yes, we have a crazy patchwork quilt.

I would say forthrightly that what we need in this country, I believe, after having been through this for 35 years on the Ag Committee in both the House and Senate and now in the HELP Committee for 22 or 23 years there, we need a single food safety agency in America that would pull from Ag and pull from FDA and set up a food safety agency.

I would say to my friend that agriculture has a lot of things on their plate. They have exports, they have farms, they have a lot of stuff on agriculture. FDA, they have drugs and all the stuff with drugs that they have to do--new drugs and investigational new drugs and all this other stuff and then they have some foodstuff. Foodstuff always gets kind of left behind. I see the same thing in agriculture. They have so many other things on their plate that takes so much money, the foodstuff gets kind of left behind.

So I think what we ought to do, if you want to drill down, is to get rid of all that and put it in one food safety agency. I have proffered this in the past, but I don't find much support for that. The institutional biases against that are tremendous. So I say to my friend: You are right. This bill will not solve all our problems, but I think it is a good step. I think it is a good step forward. It has strong bipartisan support. It has the support of industry and consumers, and that doesn't happen too often around here.

There is that old saying: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I hear my friend from Oklahoma, and what he is saying is we ought to have a more perfect system than what we have. I agree. We ought to have a more perfect system, but I can't get that done. We can't get that done here. But we can do some good things and we can take some steps to make it better than what it is and that is what this bill does.

Mr. COBURN. Madam President, if the Senator will yield, I would just say that I think we ought to fix the real problems. By fixing the symptoms, we delay the time in which we fix the real problems, and I think that is what we are doing.

I thank the Senator.


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