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Nomination of Roy K.J. Williams to be Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. FLAKE. Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the unfortunate allegations of mismanagement and neglect that have been leveled against the Phoenix VA health care system.

By now we have all seen the headlines highlighting unsettling allegations that veterans may be dying while awaiting care in Phoenix. These revelations have come to light after whistleblowers in Arizona have suggested that Phoenix VA officials were manipulating appointment requests and waiting lists.

Recent reports suggest that some veterans may have been placed on an unofficial waiting list outside of the VA's official electronic waiting list, which exists to calculate how long a veteran has to wait for care.

The alleged reason for the existence of this secret--or unofficial--list was to keep officially reported wait times down and to disguise longer actual waiting times. This apparently would help the Phoenix VA save face and reflect more positively on the VA's system as a whole. As a result, as many as 1,400 veterans' actual wait times may have been significantly longer than what was reported by Phoenix VA officials.

Now the VA's inspector general's office has launched an investigation, and senior officials with the Phoenix VA have been placed on administrative leave.

At a recent hearing in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, after cautioning that there should be no ``rush to judgment,'' a senior VA official indicated that after a preliminary review they found no evidence of a ``secret list.''

Nothing would make me happier than to believe the allegations that were leveled were just as a result of sour grapes from some unhappy current or former employees. But, sadly, similar allegations surrounding delayed care have also surfaced elsewhere in the country.

Just this week, CNN has reported that two VA officials in North Carolina have been placed on administrative leave because of ``inappropriate scheduling.'' CNN also reports that a scheduler at a VA facility in San Antonio suggested there had been some ``cooking [of] the books'' there to hide lengthy wait times.

Will it be any surprise if more VA health care facilities share these issues? We have all heard about the backlog of more than 300,000 claims made by veterans to the Department of Veterans Affairs. This backlog has resulted in a wait time for compensation for disability claims that reportedly averages a dismal 5 months.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in greater numbers of veterans seeking treatment in VA facilities. As more and more servicemembers leave the Armed Forces, these numbers are sure to increase.

Clearly, the VA is having a hard time providing adequate and timely care to veterans. This is and should be a nationwide concern.

While backlogs are one thing, efforts to obscure or hide them is something else entirely, and a disturbing pattern of allegations to that end are coming into focus.

What is alleged to have gone on just in the Phoenix VA system demands an honest, independent, and timely investigation. If these allegations are confirmed, anyone behind an effort to cover up these wait times or interfere with the truth coming out needs to be held accountable. Heads should roll. Veterans and families impacted by any sort of neglect and mismanagement in the Phoenix VA system deserve nothing less.

In addition, an apparent pattern of similar problems around the country would suggest that Congress needs to ensure that its own role in substantive, rigorous, and effective oversight has not been blatantly ignored.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will be testifying before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs later this week to answer questions about the ``state of veterans health care.'' Given what appear to be pervasive failures at a growing number of VA health care facilities, he will have more than a few questions to answer. I look forward to the results from that hearing.

This situation cannot go on. In Phoenix and around Arizona people are concerned. We are receiving a record number of calls to our office from veterans who are concerned who want to tell their story of the care they are receiving or not receiving on a timely basis. This is something we cannot countenance in our oversight responsibilities here in Congress.

I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.


Mr. FLAKE. We come to the floor today to call attention to the tax extender bill currently being debated before the Senate. Included in this legislation is a provision extending the wind production tax credit, known as the PTC, for 2 additional years. This would be the ninth extension of a supposedly temporary tax credit.

The PTC was first enacted in 1992 to jump-start the nascent wind industry. It was meant to expire in 1999, 15 years ago. But this one-time stimulus has turned into a never-ending tax subsidy that has been extended eight times, and the prospect for a ninth extension seems likely.

The PTC spends precious tax dollars subsidizing a very mature industry and distorting our energy markets.

My friend from Tennessee, Senator Alexander, and I have been vocal opponents of this Federal subsidy for years. Unfortunately, this credit has survived under the canard that wind power is an infant industry in need of Federal support.

With the PTC's expiration on January 1 of this year, wind producers are once again igniting the rallying cry to continue their taxpayer-funded handout.

I ask my friend from Tennessee, for those taxpayers who may not be familiar with this use of their hard-earned dollars, what is the PTC and why is it so valuable?

Mr. ALEXANDER. I thank the Senator from Arizona for his leadership over the years and for pointing out the flaws in this proposal. It wastes money, it undercuts reliable electricity--like coal and nuclear electricity--and, in my view, it destroys rather than saving the environment.

But let's say exactly what we are talking about. This was a tax credit that was first passed in 1992, as the Senator from Arizona said, to help an infant industry. It has been renewed eight times. If you are a wind developer, it pays you 2.3 cents for every kilowatt hour of wind that you produce--which in some markets is about the cost of the wholesale value of each kilowatt hour of electricity.

In fact, the subsidy is so great, sometimes in some markets, wind producers can actually give away their electricity and still make a profit. At other times--in the middle of the night in Chicago--they can actually pay utilities to take their wind power and still make a profit. That is what the wind production tax credit is.

As the Senator says, this is a mature industry. I support jump-starting certain types of energy for a limited period of time.

But Steven Chu, President Obama's Nobel Prize-winning U.S. Energy Secretary, in 2011 in response to my question--Is it a mature technology?--said: Yes, it is a mature technology.

I would ask the Senator from Arizona, what is the justification for spending over the next 2 years $13 billion of taxpayer money? It is the most wasteful, conspicuous, taxpayer subsidy that I know of in Washington, DC. It proves Ronald Reagan's statement that the only thing in life that is eternal is a government program.

Mr. FLAKE. I thank the Senator. I don't think there is justification.

The justification that often is given is that we have to give some kind of surety moving ahead, and people won't invest in this industry if they don't know that the subsidy is there.

Again, this has been around since 1992. It was meant to expire in 1999.

But it has been extended eight times. If anything is unsure, we are creating that unsurety--or insecurity--when Congress simply goes again and again and renews it.

The Senator from Tennessee had a great column in the Wall Street Journal talking about part of the problem we have when we subsidize this kind of industry and what that does to baseload power--nuclear and coal--in the interim. Does the Senator wish to talk about that?

Mr. ALEXANDER. Yes, and I thank the Senator from Arizona.

The United States uses almost 20 percent of all the electricity in the world, and we need electricity that we can rely on. We don't want to flip the switch and have the lights not come on. We don't want to go to work and have the generators not working. So we use a lot of electricity, and that comes from baseload power. That is typically, in our country, coal, nuclear, and now natural gas.

Wind is intermittent. It usually blows at night. Usually it blows only about a third of the time, and you either use it or lose it. So relying on wind power to run a country that uses 20 percent of all the electricity in the world is the energy equivalent of going to war in sailboats when nuclear ships are available.

Baseload power is undercut by this intermittent wind power because of this subsidy. This subsidy is so large that wind developers can, in some cases, give away their electricity and still make a profit. And in some cases they pay the utilities to take their wind power, making the baseload power that we need to rely on for the long term less economical. This leads to the closing of nuclear plants and coal plants.

Mr. FLAKE. In that same column, the Senator also talked about the environmental impact. It is often thought that these renewables are all the same in terms of their impact on the environment. But the Senator points out where these need to be built generally, and they are not your typical picturesque windmill somewhere in Holland but something quite different.

He also mentioned what it would take to generate the same amount of power that perhaps eight nuclear powerplants generate, what it would take in terms of these wind units. Does the Senator want to talk a bit about that?

Mr. ALEXANDER. Well, the Senator from Arizona is from the West and I, of course, am from the East. In the Eastern United States, the wind turbines really only work well on ridgetops. I live near ridgetops around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If we ran wind turbines from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail, we would only produce about the same amount of electricity that eight nuclear power plants would produce. And we would still need the nuclear power plants or the coal plants or natural gas plants to produce electricity when the wind isn't blowing. We don't want to see those 20-story towers on top of our ridgetops. You can see the blinking lights from 20 miles away. I think they destroy the environment in the name of saving the environment.

There are appropriate places for wind power, and it has an appropriate place in the market. I would ask the Senator from Arizona, isn't it time for wind to stand on its own in our marketplace and compete with other forms of electricity?

Mr. FLAKE. Yes. And I want to point out as well that neither of us is saying there is no place for wind energy.

Mr. ALEXANDER. Correct.

Mr. FLAKE. It is an increasing part of our energy load. In fact, the most new capacity actually went to wind as a percentage of the current output. There is an important place for it. It can and is being done in environmentally sensitive ways around the country. But it is time for the Federal subsidy to end.

The problem is, when we distort the market the way we do--when at times you can actually pay a utility to take your power because that is the only time the wind is blowing, at night, and still make a profit from the Federal subsidy--there is a distortion in the markets we just shouldn't have, and we ought to let capital flow where it is most needed.

So neither of us is saying there is no place for wind energy, but there is no place now or no reason to continue for the ninth time an extension of this Federal subsidy for wind.

Mr. ALEXANDER. I would say to the Senator from Arizona, just to be specific about this--negative pricing, as we call it--the opportunity for a wind developer at, say, 3 o'clock in the morning in Chicago to literally pay the utility to take the wind power, thereby causing the nuclear plant or the coal plant to be less useful, is contributing--it is not the whole reason, but it is contributing to the closing of nuclear plants.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies said that because of the low price of natural gas and this subsidy for wind, we might lose as many as 25 percent of our nuclear plants in the next 10 years. Nuclear power produces 60 percent of the carbon-free, sulfur-free, nitrogen-free electricity--air pollution-free electricity. A number of environmental groups have begun to point out their concern for what would happen to our air, if we lost this important source of clean generation of electricity.

This is just one more reason we should let wind take its natural place in the marketplace. Wind is now 4 percent of all the electricity that we produce. It was, as the Senator said, the fastest growing form of generation, so let it compete. Let it go where it should go. Offshore is another place it could go. But it is time to end the subsidy and let wind stand on its own.

Mr. FLAKE. I thank the Senator.

Senator Alexander and I are introducing an amendment to the tax extenders bill currently on the floor. This amendment would simply strike that extension, do away with it completely.

We also have another amendment as to when producers of wind energy claim the subsidy right now, they can claim it now but not have the clock start until they start producing. So if they do not start producing for another 10 years, the end point of that subsidy is a full 20 years from now and taxpayers are on the hook much longer than was anticipated. So this would simply say that the point at which the subsidy begins has to be immediately so we won't go too far in the future.

Those amendments will be introduced tomorrow, and we hope to be able to debate those on the floor with this bill.

Mr. ALEXANDER. I thank the Senator for his leadership. And when we talk about a 1-year or 2-year extension, it is important to note that we are talking about the next 10 years. Let's say I qualify for the production tax credit--I am a wind developer this year, which means I get that credit for the next 10 years. That is why the 2-year extension of the wind production tax credit really spends tax dollars over the next 11 years when you count both those years. It totals $13 billion. We throw dollars around so much here, it is hard to get a sense of how much $13 billion is. In 2012 we spent $10 billion government-wide on all of energy research. It would be much better to use these dollars to reduce the debt or to use some of it for clean energy research. We need low-cost, clean, cheap energy. In my view, energy research is a much better use of taxpayer dollars, when they are available, than long-term subsidies. After nearly twenty-two years and eight renewals, the wind PTC has been around for far too long.

Ronald Reagan was right. I hope to prove him wrong on this one--that the wind PTC finally comes to an end.

Mr. FLAKE. I thank the Senator.

I have just one other point. The second amendment, as I mentioned--and the Senator mentioned that this 2-year extension leads to another 10 years in subsidies. Depending on when they actually start production, it could be another 20 years. So it really distorts our budget process, our appropriations and authorizations and everything else, for a longer period of time than it should.

I thank the Senator for his work and look forward to hopefully seeing these amendments debated.

I yield the floor, unless the Senator has any closing remarks.


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