The Leahy Letter -- October 2011
October 31, 2011
“I was pleased to hear President Obama announce that our troops will finally come home, by the end of this year. Our two countries need to finally and fully turn the page on this costly and unnecessary war.
“The plan to finally end this misbegotten war is bittersweet news. From the beginning, this war was a matter of choice – a poor choice – and not necessity. Our troops and their families have shouldered the heaviest burdens of this war, and our small state has endured more than its share of sorrow and loss and separation. We owe these brave men and women a debt of gratitude that we can never fully repay, but honoring our veterans and tending to their needs is a start.
“The Iraq war’s enormous costs also have sowed a lost decade of neglect here at home, draining away investments that we need in our own country. It is way past time to return our attention to rebuilding America.”
The Aftermath Of Irene
The Senate spent much of last week debating the annual budget bill for the federal transportation program. With emergency highway repair funds at stake, the Transportation Appropriations Bill this year takes on far greater significance to Vermont than usual. The Senate now has teed up a final vote on the bill for Tuesday, Nov. 1.
Senator Leahy worked to add $1.9 billion to the depleted Federal Highway Administration emergency fund, upon which Vermont will depend for help in repairing and rebuilding roads washed away or damaged by Irene-related flooding. The emergency highway account today is almost empty. Also vital to Vermont are several cost-waiver provisions that Senator Leahy added to the bill, which would save Vermont hundreds of millions of state tax dollars by allowing Vermont to:
- Be reimbursed for more than the current $100 million per-state limit on federal emergency highway repair funds;
- Receive 100 percent reimbursement for permanent repairs if total damage is more than double the state’s annual federal highway funding;
- Be reimbursed 100 percent for emergency repairs beyond the current limit of 180 days.
Governor Shumlin has called the Leahy waivers a top priority for Vermont among many disaster-relief steps that are now pending before Congress.
The transportation budget bill also includes another high priority for Vermont: Senator Leahy’s legislation to permanently move heavy trucks off Vermont’s secondary roads and onto the state’s Interstate highways. His measure will help Vermont businesses and communities that are struggling all the more with the large number of state and local roads heavily damaged during the flooding disaster. The Leahy provision for Vermont is paired with a similar change for Maine, authored by Senator Susan Collins.
Concerned about what seems to be a slow and low approval rate for U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) emergency loans to Vermont businesses slammed by Tropical Storm Irene, Senator Patrick Leahy has asked the agency to promptly review its process and report back the findings.
The recent exchange between Senator Leahy and an SBA official took place in a rare multi-agency hearing by the Senate Appropriations Committee, called to assess rapidly evolving local needs and rapidly diminishing federal capabilities for dealing with the costly aftermath of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene and other recent natural disasters. Leahy is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and of its Homeland Security Subcommittee, which held the hearing. To view the exchange, please click here.
Leahy told SBA Associate Administrator James Rivera that initial reporting shows that SBA has received requests for nearly 1700 business-disaster applications from Vermonters, has received back more than 140 completed applications, and yet has approved only 24 business loans, totaling just $3 million. “That seems like a very low success rate to me,” Leahy told Rivera.
To put that in perspective, Leahy noted that the Vermont Economic Development Authority – the state’s lending agency – created a disaster loan program within 48 hours of Irene, made its first loan five days later, and has since obligated nearly $10 million in loans to more than 150 businesses, including some businesses subsequently denied loans from the SBA.
“I understand that SBA needs reasonable assurances that a business can repay a loan,” Leahy said. “But following a disaster – when offices, facilities, computers, and equipment are destroyed – no business appears credit worthy. That is why we have the disaster loan program and why there should be an appropriate standard for these applications.”
Leahy continued, “I appreciate that SBA finally opened a recovery center in Brattleboro yesterday, but loan decisions ultimately seem to be made out of a centralized loan processing center in Texas. I worry that this does not enable a loan officer to take an adequate look into the history and importance of a business severely impacted by the disaster.”
Since last year, Senator Leahy has been raising concerns about the Keystone XL pipeline proposal by the energy company TransCanada. The 1,700 mile long pipeline would transport tar sands oil from western Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, with large sections running over the Ogalla Aquifer, a freshwater source for over 2 million Americans.
The development of the pipeline has been the topic of significant debate and controversy. Supporters of the project claim that it represents an opportunity to increase the country’s energy security and that it will have significant economic benefits. Opponents have serious reservations about the environmental impact of the pipeline and the permitting and regulatory process involved in the necessary federal approval of this proposal. Because the pipeline would connect the United States and Canada, the project requires the approval of the State Department.
On October 14, 2011, Senator Sanders, Senator Ron Wyden, and Senator Leahy wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about an apparent conflict of interest in conducting an Environmental Impact Study and about concerns about the overall project. According to press reports, the contractor used by the State Department had financial ties to TransCanada. Senator Leahy has called for a new, objective, and comprehensive environmental review.
To view this letter and previous letters sent by Senator Leahy on this issue please click here.
In the past year alone, the Vermont National Guard — with one of the highest Guard per capita participation rates of any state in the country — deployed hundreds to fight in Afghanistan and then answered the call again to help Vermonters after the destruction of Tropical Storm Irene. Today’s Guard takes on more responsibilities than ever, and Senator Leahy wants the Guard to have a voice in the Pentagon that matches the scale of its missions here and overseas.
Now The National Guard Empowerment and State-National Defense Integration Act of 2011, a bill to elevate the National Guard’s role in decision making at the Pentagon, has passed the critical 60-vote threshold of support in the Senate. The measure was drafted and introduced by Senator Leahy, in partnership with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Leahy is the longtime Democratic chair of the Senate National Guard Caucus, and Senator Graham is the caucus’ new Republican co-chair. The bill will update the Guard’s operational lines of authority and make the Chief of the National Guard Bureau a permanent member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among other needed reforms.
Senator Leahy is deeply proud of the performance of the Guard in Afghanistan and at home in Vermont where Guard men and women worked bravely and tirelessly at great sacrifice to themselves and their families. To read more about the bill that Senator Leahy hopes to pass during this Congress, please click here.
The Vermont congressional delegation joined with Governor Shumlin in early October to announce an infusion of over $200,000 in economic development funds from the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC) to projects in both Lyndon and Brighton.
The funding, which comes in the form of grants, will be targeted toward professional development and educational opportunities at Lyndon State College and the Northeast Vermont Development Association as well as downtown improvements in Brighton.
At Lyndon State College, the funding will bolster professional resources, bring manufacturing employers in the Northeast Kingdom together, and increase educational and training programs involving area high schools and the College. Brighton plans to use the $78,190 to build a new 2,100-foot walking path to connect Island Pond Lake to downtown.
The Northern Border Regional Commission works to identify opportunities for job creation in economically challenged regions of northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York and infuses specific localities, programs and projects with direct investments of federal funding. In Vermont, eligible counties include Essex, Franklin, Lamoille, Orleans, Caledonia and Grand Isle.
At Senator Leahy’s invitation, Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October about the important role of judges under the Constitution. Supreme Court Justices rarely appear before the Judiciary Committee following their confirmation hearings. The testimony from Justice Scalia and Justice Breyer was a rare, public appearance before Congress, and offered a broad discussion on a range of issues, from the impact of judicial vacancies on the nation’s courts, to the manner in which the Supreme Court conducts its business. The hearing was attended by high school, undergraduate, and law students.
Video of the hearing is available on Senator Leahy’s website along with further information on this historic event.
Vermonters take great pride in the natural products that the state produces, and few products are as well-known as Vermont’s maple syrup. But there are those who would seek to profit by selling an inferior product, misleading consumers into thinking it is the real thing. Recently, Vermont’s U.S. Attorney, Tris Coffin, sought an indictment against a Rhode Island man who was selling “maple” syrup that in fact included no maple at all.
Senator Leahy values the quality of products that Vermonters produce. Joining together with the senators from Maine and New York, he introduced the Maple Agriculture Protection and Law Enforcement (MAPLE) Act. The legislation would make selling fraudulent maple syrup a felony offense.
To read more about the MAPLE Act, please click here.
State and local law enforcement agencies across Vermont have been awarded grants to help with the purchasing of bulletproof vests to protect police officers on the streets. The grants are funded through a program authored by Senator Leahy to promote a partnership between the federal government and local law enforcement agencies to help provide officers with the protection they need to keep our streets and communities safe. Twenty-seven towns and counties across Vermont received more than $66,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice to help purchase more than 320 bulletproof vests for Vermont law enforcement officers.
Since the program began in 1998, nearly one million vests have been purchased for law enforcement officers nationwide, including more than 3,000 vests in Vermont. Senator Leahy has worked to reauthorize the bulletproof vests grant program since its enactment, most recently in 2008. The program is currently authorized through 2012.
Farming is a way of life in Vermont that extends back for generations; Senator Leahy is working to ensure that this integral part of Vermont’s economic and cultural fabric remains intact for generations to come. Joining with Senator Sanders and Congressman Welch in late September, Senator Leahy was pleased to announce a $659,784 grant for the Vermont New Farmer Network from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
The Vermont New Farmer Network works to provide support to farmers and ranchers just starting out to help them establish successful and sustainable farms. The Network is comprised of regional agricultural organizations and serves to bring agricultural professionals and experts together in support of the next generation.
The USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program will continue to accept applications for additional grants until November 22, 2011. For more information on funding opportunities, please click here.
In October, Senator Leahy introduced legislation to improve and strengthen a federal program that provides benefits to certain survivors of public safety officers who die or are disabled in the line of duty. Senator Leahy’s proposal will amend the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act (PSOB) of to include additional classes of safety officers and trainees, such as volunteer paramedics and emergency medical technicians who work for nonprofit ambulance services. It also includes a provision to ensure that cadet officers killed during a dangerous training exercise would be eligible for benefits under the PSOB program. Additional provisions will make much needed improvements to the administration of the program and streamline the appeals process for claimants.
Senator Leahy has in the past proposed legislation to extend these benefits to such volunteers. He first introduced the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act in June 2009. The proposal, named in honor of the Bennington emergency medical technician who was tragically killed in an ambulance accident, would qualify an estimated 1200 Vermont EMS personnel for the PSOB program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Vermont is slated to receive a $363,768 grant from the Small Business Administration (SBA) to help the state’s small businesses expand into global markets. Senator Leahy, along with Senator Sanders and Congressman Welch, announced the award in late September.
The funding, which comes from the SBA’s State Trade and Export Promotion Program (STEP) will be administered by the Vermont Global Trade Partnership in cooperation with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. The funding will be used to provide financial support to Vermont businesses looking to participate in international trade shows, trade missions and business matchmaking services. Additionally, portions of the grant will be allocated to specific sub grants to assist local businesses with international marketing efforts, website foreign language translation fees, and trade finance training workshops.
The congressional delegation jointly commented on the grant saying, “This grant will provide businesses with targeted international trade services, increasing exports, increasing the number of tourists from abroad visiting Vermont, and most importantly, growing good-paying jobs here in the state.”
To learn more about the STEP grant, please click here.
Earlier this month, the Senate Judiciary committee approved Senator Leahy’s legislation to strengthen the tools and resources available for law enforcement to combat human trafficking in the United States and abroad. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) will authorize related programs until 2015 and will improve coordination between federal agencies that provide victim services.
Senator Leahy carefully negotiated a bipartisan compromise in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which voted to send the bill to the full Senate for consideration. The legislation contains important oversight and reporting requirements. As Congress looks for ways to reduce spending, the legislation also consolidates and improves a number of programs under TVPRA, and reduces funding levels of past authorizations by one-third. Senator Leahy’s legislation has received strong support from a number of religious, human rights, and civil right organizations.
Twenty-five years ago Senator Leahy authored the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a law that bolstered protections for Americans’ digital privacy. Now, as the law celebrates its silver anniversary, Senator Leahy is working to make important updates to ECPA to reflect the advances of the Digital Age. Senator Leahy has introduced legislation to make critical reforms to the law, including bolstering protections for consumers’ electronic communications.
The smartphones and other new mobile technologies of today could not have been contemplated when ECPA was first enacted in 1986. Working together with Departments of Justice, Commerce, and State, with law enforcement, and with members of the technology and privacy communities, Senator Leahy has proposed new legislation to bring ECPA into the Digital Age. The Senate Judiciary Committee will debate the bill before the end of the year.
To learn more about the proposed updates to ECPA, please click here.
Following the first-ever congressional hearing on proposals to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) chaired by Leahy in July, Senator Leahy announced that he intends to address the Respect for Marriage Act at the November 3 Executive Business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The legislation would repeal DOMA, a discriminatory law that excludes thousands of American families from protection by laws that help other American families. The Respect for Marriage Act has received broad support from both individuals affected by DOMA and outside organizations. In addition, the Obama administration has announced the President’s support for the legislation and the repeal of DOMA.
Senator Leahy is the lead cosponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act. The action by the Senate Judiciary Committee will mark the first occasion in which a proposal to repeal DOMA has received a Committee vote in the Senate.
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