CONCURRENT RESOLUTION ON THE BUDGET FOR FISCAL YEAR 2008--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - May 17, 2007)
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Mr. ENZI. Madam President, as the Senate debates the fiscal year 2008 budget resolution conference agreement, I want to first acknowledge the hard work of Chairman Conrad and Senator Gregg throughout this fiscal year 2008 budget cycle. While I do not always agree with the chairman of the Budget Committee, I do appreciate the hard work it takes to get a budget through Congress.
I also want to acknowledge the importance of writing and passing a budget resolution. This document is a vital part of the operation of Congress. It sets a fiscal blueprint that Congress will follow for the year and establishes procedural hurdles when these guidelines are not adhered to. Because this is such an important document, I am even more disappointed with the fact that this was not a bipartisan process.
Not being included in the crafting of this budget is far less important than the fact that this budget does little to help our economy. From the day we marked up this budget in committee, this document has been a tax-and-spend, big-government budget. It also fails to make meaningful reductions in mandatory spending--even though our Nation's mandatory health programs are growing each year by more than 6 percent, an unsustainable level.
It is not right to overspend now--and pass the bill on to our children and grandchildren to pay later. It is regrettable that during this budget debate, the Senate was unable to work across party lines and do more to shore up our economic future.
As my colleagues may know, this conference report contains a reconciliation instruction for the HELP Committee, where I serve as the senior Republican senator. This reconciliation instruction directs the HELP Committee to produce $750 million in deficit reduction over 6 years. The Senate-passed resolution did not contain any reconciliation instructions. However, the House-passed budget did contain such an instruction that called for $75 million in savings. Reconciliation became a ``conferencable'' item because the differences between the two Chambers needed to be resolved.
Recall that during Senate consideration of the budget resolution this year, we never debated reconciliation. Chairman Conrad chose not to include it in his budget. That was his choice. He held hearings earlier this year relating to our Nation's long-term fiscal challenges, and I commend him for that. Health and Human Services Secretary Leavitt testified before the Budget Committee in March that the demand on Federal general revenues for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security exceeds $50 trillion--that is trillion with a ``t''--over the next 75 years based on current law and program operations. But the Senate-passed budget, which I voted against, failed to address these challenges.
Now today we are debating a conference agreement that directs the HELP Committee to reduce the deficit by just $750 million over 6 years. Mr. President, I said million, with an ``m.'' I would like to explain to my colleagues what is really going on in this budget.
In his fiscal year 2008 budget request, the President proposed nearly $18 billion in savings related to higher education. Most of these savings are achieved by cutting subsidies the banks are currently receiving. Democratic leadership is also looking at reducing many of these same subsidies in the $20 billion range and possibly even larger.
This conference agreement allows for these mandatory higher education proposals to be advanced through the reconciliation process. That means limited debate, strict germaneness requirements on amendments, and a simple majority vote to pass the bill. But with just a $750 million savings requirement, the process will be used to fast-track massive new entitlement spending. A more honest reconciliation and deficit reduction debate would be to limit the new spending in a reconciliation bill to 30 or even 40 percent of the total savings. But right now this budget is teed up to allow $20 billion or more in new spending, with the deficit reduction component amounting to merely a rounding error in a gigantic spending proposal.
I wrote a reconciliation bill in 2005 when I had the privilege of chairing the HELP Committee. The title that I authored reduced the deficit by $15.5 billion over 5 years. In addition to the deficit reduction, the bill created new mandatory grant aid proposals, academic competitiveness and SMART grants. It also increased loan limits so students could better finance their education. That reconciliation bill spent roughly $9 billion on brand-new student benefits, all fully paid for. About 40 percent of my total savings was spent on new programs, and the remaining funds paid down the deficit.
But this budget we are debating today says if the majority party can find $20 billion or even $30 or more billion in savings, they can fast-track and spend 95 percent of those savings. This is an offensive use of the reconciliation process. This year, if just one-half of the Senate authorizing committees could equal the level of deficit reduction that the HELP Committee achieved in 2005, the deficit would be reduced by an additional $100 billion.
During the Budget Committee and floor consideration of the resolution, I also spent a great deal of time on health-related issues. I am greatly disappointed that this conference agreement contains a deficit neutral reserve fund that encourages repealing the ``non-interference'' clause from the Medicare law. This is an issue that came before the Senate a few weeks ago and failed. It failed because it is bad policy. The ``non-interference'' language in the Medicare law prevents the Federal Government from fixing prices on Medicare drugs or placing nationwide limits on the drugs that will be available to seniors and the disabled. I support this language 100 percent, but this conference agreement supports striking this language that protects patients. Decisions on what drugs should be available should be made by seniors and their doctors, not by politicians.
I am happy to see, however, that this conference agreement retains the reserve fund for health information technology legislation that I worked to get into the Senate budget resolution. The HELP Committee is currently working on a bill to increase the widespread adoption of health IT. What does that mean? That means we are working on a bill that will eventually do away with clipboards in doctors' offices. Every time I go to the doctor, someone hands me a clipboard to fill out everything I can remember about myself. This is no easy task, and as I get older, this task gets even harder. Wouldn't it be great if, instead, doctors had electronic medical records that could keep track of this information for me, if my doctor's computer in Wyoming could talk to my doctor's computer in Washington? Well, the bill I am about to introduce is the first step in making that happen. And if that does happen and most of the doctors and hospitals in this country start using health IT, the RAND Corporation estimates we could save between $80 and $162 billion a year. That is amazing savings, and I am happy to see that this language was included in this conference agreement.
I am also pleased to see that the conference agreement includes a deficit-neutral reserve fund for improvements in health insurance coverage. This spring, I have been talking to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle about writing legislation that reduces the number of uninsured, improves health care quality and access, and reduces the growth in the cost of private health insurance by facilitating market-based pooling across State lines. My hope is that a commonsense proposal similar to this would meet the criteria established in this reserve fund.
As we move forward and complete this resolution and start working on the fiscal year 2008 appropriations bills, I wanted to mention a few programs that are important to Wyoming.
As our Nation's most abundant energy source, coal must play a central role in electrical generation for years to come. In order for that to happen, we need to continue finding ways to make coal generation cleaner. Programs like the Clean Coal Power Initiative will play a major role in making that happen, and so I support increased funding of this program.
We also need to see proper funding of the Federal loan guarantee program. Federal loan guarantees can play an important role in developing new energy projects. It is my hope that we can provide enough funding to get some of these projects off the drawing board, and most specifically, I hope that we provide funding to the Department of Energy to move forward with loan guarantees for coal-to-liquids projects. Coal-to-liquids technology has the potential to help reduce our Nation's dependence on foreign energy barons and should be explored.
In addition, funding for rural air service and maintenance is essential for States such as Wyoming. Without Federal support through essential air service and airport improvement programs, many rural communities would have no commercial air service and extremely limited general aviation. I hope this issue will be part of the debate on the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration this year. I encourage my colleagues to recognize the importance of this funding, not only as a matter of dependability but also as a public safety issue.
I want to mention two additional issues of great importance to Wyoming and other rural States: housing and homelessness. The McKinney Vento Homelessness Assistance Act is the primary law through which Congress funds homelessness programs in the United States. Unfortunately, rural States have historically received very little of this money. Yet rural States must confront homelessness too, and the geographic size of our States further complicates our efforts. In response to this, Congress authorized the Rural Homelessness Grant Program in 1992 under the McKinney-Vento Act. This program provides funding for transitional housing and education services in rural States, as well as rental or downpayment assistance. The intent of this program is to level the playing field between rural and urban States. Unfortunately, this program has never been appropriated funds since its creation, so the purpose of this program has never been fulfilled and rural States continue to suffer. This can be a valuable program for rural States like Wyoming.
I would like to briefly call attention to the Small Business Administration. I serve on the Small Business Committee and enjoy using my small business experience to help make a difference in the lives of many people in Wyoming and throughout the country. We are working in Wyoming to stabilize and steadily grow our small businesses through the utilization of the Small Business Innovation Research, SBIR, Program. The risk and expense of conducting serious research and development efforts are often beyond the means of many small businesses, especially rural small businesses. By reserving a specific percentage of Federal R&D funds for small business, SBIR enables small businesses to compete on the same level as larger businesses and stimulate high-tech innovation in their rural States.
The FAST and Rural Outreach programs are congressionally authorized
programs that provide technical assistance that helps Wyoming's small businesses utilize the SBIR Program.
Finally, the Agriculture Committee has a big task in reauthorizing the farm bill this year. Writing a tight budget that will help us reach our long-term fiscal goals is a priority for me. Though you cannot tell by the name, the farm bill affects the lives of many unsuspecting Americans. Policies and projects for distance learning, conservation, food assistance, renewable fuels, and our forests are provided for in the farm bill, in addition to the well-known commodity programs.
So in closing, I want to inform my colleagues that this is not a courageous budget. It fails to make the tough choices and it passes the debts we carry today on to our children and grandchildren. I urge my colleagues to oppose this budget and vote no on the conference agreement.