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National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021--Conference

Floor Speech

Date: Dec. 10, 2020
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, I have found so much of what I have heard that I can agree with. I certainly agree that we ought to be able to pass our annual appropriations bills. I certainly agree that we should prevent Federal Government shutdowns, which waste billions upon billions upon billions of dollars' worth of taxpayers' money, plus all of the burdens they put on American families, Federal employees, and so forth. But I am afraid that my good friends on the other side of the aisle are letting rhetoric get ahead of reality.

The reality is that the majority in the Senate controls the calendar in the Senate. All of these appropriations bills could have been brought up in June or July or September. We could have voted on them, piece by piece, up and down, and had amendments. Everybody would have had plenty of time to have read every line of them, to have amendments to strike things or add things they wanted. I mention this because it can be done. The House of Representatives, under Democratic control--I don't mean that to be partisan but to show the difference--they actually passed all of their appropriations bills and its COVID bill, the so-called Heroes Act, in May.

In the Appropriations Committee, we have been working very hard. Senator Shelby's staff has, and mine has too. We have given up a lot of time with my colleagues--and for all good reasons. Many of us stayed here working on those appropriations bills, but we couldn't bring the bills up.

Now, the Republican leader, the majority leader, could have brought up any one of these bills at any time he had wanted. We could have done it, allowing a 1-hour time agreement for amendments. After all, the Republicans in the majority have nothing to fear about that. If they don't like an amendment, they can vote it down. This would give the Senator from Utah and everybody else a chance to read each one of these bills. If they don't like it, bring up an amendment to strike it. That could have been done; it was not.

One of the reasons it was not done was because we had to take up Senate time, day after day after day, to put through nominees--mostly backed by special interest groups--on the Federal bench and elsewhere. We had to vote on those. Why? We can vote on those, but also take the time to vote on these things. Bring up the appropriations bills, and vote on them one by one. Amend them if you want; vote them down if you want.

I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, You have the majority. You can vote them all down or vote them all up. But what happens when you enact an automatic CR, which I would oppose, it means you don't work out the parts of full-year appropriations bills. There would be no incentive for Members to negotiate full-year appropriations bills. We were not elected to put the government on autopilot. We were elected to make careful choices.

I would argue the reason we are here is that people were afraid to actually stand up and vote up or down on appropriations bills earlier this year when they had the chance. It is easy to say: Golly gee, let's have an automatic continuing resolution. Sounds good. What it says is that we can take all of our weekends off. We can have the government fly us home. We can pay for all of these things, but we don't do our work.

What I am saying is we should have stayed here over a few weekends. I would say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, the Republican side, allow the bills to come up one by one and vote them up or down. If you don't like parts of it, vote to take it out. Vote it up or down. Again, you have the majority, if you don't like what is in there. Full- year appropriations bills give Congress the opportunity to address the needs of today rather than continue the priorities of the past.

I have been here long enough to know that things that looked great 2 or 3 years ago are not the priorities today because things change. Certainly, under COVID, we have seen, in many ways, a 15-year change in society, education, business, industries, and more in 15 weeks.

So each year in the annual appropriations bills, Congress adjusts spending levels to deal with emerging issues facing the American people. We can eliminate funding for projects that have been completed or no longer needed. We can direct funding to higher priority programs. It is detailed, exacting work. It is nice to talk in slogans and generalities, but I invite those Senators to sit down and go through, day by day, the kind of work the Senators and the superb staff, both Republican and Democratic, do in putting together this legislation. It is detailed, exacting work, but it is what the American people expect. That is what we all thought was a smart decision about how to invest their hard-earned tax dollars.

If you operate under an automatic CR, none of these adjustments can be made. Automatic CRs lock in the status quo, and we can say: Bye-bye. We are heading home for the holidays. Oh, an emergency in COVID came up? Well, it is not in the automatic CR, so tough. We didn't have time to do anything about it. Oh, there is flooding in Florida or Nebraska or fires in the West or anything else. Well, the automatic CR didn't cover it because we didn't have money for it a year before.

No, that is not the way to do it. The Congress and the White House have a responsibility to work together to enact funding bills to keep the government open. Automatic CRs might save face and time and allow us to do other things that we might like to do back home, but in doing so, they relieve us of our obligations to the Constitution and to the American taxpayer. We shouldn't be relieved of these obligations.

I know the last time we had a government shutdown, it was over a bill where the President felt that it didn't give him enough for a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico, a wall that is being built at great expense and accomplishing very little. That is why it was stopped.

So for a month and a half, we sat there, parts of the government closed down, our States, our people, our Federal Government losing billions upon billions upon billions of dollars. You know how that finally got reopened? We started off a series of meetings on a Monday. The House was in session; the Senate was in session. It was a good time to begin. We began in Senator Shelby's office, and we continued it in my office here in the Capitol.

We had two the chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. We had two Senators: my good friend--and he is a good and close friend--Dick Shelby, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and myself as the vice chairman. And the four of us sat there for 3 or 4 hours. We talked about everything from photography to travel and then went in line by line of the bills, and we came to an agreement. And we were able to explain our agreement to the House and the Senate, and it was voted through, and the government reopened.

Incidentally, the President praised it. He said that he had gone through it, and it was so good. And I thank him for doing that because it gave him a lot less money for the wall than the bill that he vetoed had given him.

But the government reopened.

I mention this because it seems that those billions of dollars were spent more as a political stunt than something that benefits hard- earned taxpayer dollars.

So instead of rhetoric that ignores reality, let's get to the reality. Let's pledge--whoever is in the majority in the end--we will bring up each of the appropriations bills, vote them up or down or amend them. We could have done this in June or July. If we had done that, we wouldn't be where we are now. It was a missed opportunity.

If we say let's have an automatic CR no matter what happens, whether we have earthquakes, floods, fires, COVID, attacks on the United States, anything else, we can just sit back and relax, not have to do all of the weekends and holidays and late-night work that many of us in both parties do on appropriations because we have got an automatic CR.

When I came to the Senate, both the Republican and Democratic leaders told me--and I was the most junior Member of the Senate at the time-- that we should be the conscience of the Nation. It meant doing your work.

I never expected to be the dean of the Senate, but I have seen both Republicans and Democrats do that work. At times, it has been into late Friday night or early Saturday morning, but we have done it and passed it.

Where did those days go? Where did those days go?

So when Senator Shelby became chair and I became vice chair, we passed a series of appropriations bills. And I think we got 80, 90, 95, and sometimes 100 Senators to vote for those bills. We usually can't get a vote with that many to say the Sun rises in the East. The majority gave us time to bring those votes up, debate them, and vote them up or down.

I will have more comments to make. I don't question the good intentions of any Senator here, but what I am saying is, we could have done this in June; we could have done it in July; we could have done it in August; we could have done it in September; we could have done it in November. And to now complain--well, up to the last few days, we have got to change everything. Instead, let's pledge that we will follow regular order in the coming days.


Mr. LEAHY. Will the Senator yield for a question


Mr. LEAHY. Should we be able to represent our constituents? Of course. He and I agree, and he and I have agreed on a lot of different things, especially constitutional issues, in this body. And I share his concern of suddenly being handed a piece of legislation like this, and we are going to vote on it in 10 minutes or an hour or so.

Would he agree with me that if the leader said that Tuesday of next week--say this was done earlier in the year--Tuesday of next week, we will bring up this part of the appropriations bill from the committee, the committee having voted on it, Republicans and Democrats--I think it is close to a third of the U.S. Senate that is on that committee-- having voted on it, and it will be open to amendments. Then after we finish that one, we will bring up the next one.

Would that cover many of the problems that the Senator from Utah has?