The Leahy Letter -- August 2012

Senate Judiciary Committee Evaluates Citizens United Remedies

The aftershocks of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case continue to ripple throughout the American electoral system.  As a champion of open government and accountability, Senator Leahy – on the Senate Judiciary Committee that he chairs, as well as on the Senate Rules Committee, of which he is a member -- continues to seek ways to repair the decision’s damage and rectify the flawed outcome.  Most recently, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to examine proposed constitutional amendments to restore the nation’s campaign finance rules. Several proposed constitutional amendments have been introduced in Congress, and the hearing by the Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee is the first to consider these pending proposals.

Leahy said, “Like most Vermonters I strongly believe that this was a harmful decision that needs to be fixed.  I have pressed to make fixing it a high priority of this Congress, and I will continue to work for remedies.  I have sought legislative remedies, and the harm of this decision is so threatening to our system that I also believe constitutional remedies should be evaluated.”

Senator Leahy is also a leading sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would shed light on secret spending in elections and strengthen campaign finance laws.  In mid-July, Senate Democrats twice sought to bring the DISCLOSE Act to a debate and vote but were thwarted by filibusters.

International AIDS Week –
A Signpost, And A Time For Re-Dedication To Conquering AIDS

The International AIDS Conference was held in Washington during July and Senator Leahy took part in several Conference events in his capacity as chairman of the Senate’s budget panel on the State Department and Foreign Operations and as a longtime leader on international issues. The Conference, which has not been held in the United States in more than two decades, focused on the progress that has been made to fight the AIDS epidemic and the work that still lies ahead.

On July 24, Senator Leahy addressed participants at the UNAIDS and Elton John Foundation Congressional Breakfast on Capitol Hill.  In his remarks he said:  “Today we can realistically talk about the beginning of the end of AIDS and, by 2015, a generation in which virtually no children are born with the virus. When they become teenagers and adults, they will be at far lower risk of infection than they would be today. This disease has wrought immense suffering around the globe, but it also triggered remarkable scientific discoveries and public health advances.  The march against this disease shows we CAN make a difference, and we have proved it.  It shows that commitment counts, and we must RENEW it. Together, we have saved millions of lives and strengthened families and communities.  Together we can usher in an AIDS free generation, and, some day, end AIDS altogether.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Advocates
Civics Education At Hearing Before Leahy-Led Panel

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy has made it a priority to hear from sitting and former Supreme Court Justices to discuss issues related to the form and function of the U.S. judicial system.  In the recent past, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Antonin Scalia have appeared before the committee to speak about the vital role judges play in American democracy.  In 2007 Justice Anthony Kennedy testified about judicial security and independence.  Most recently, in July, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor came before the committee to discuss the importance of civics education in ensuring judicial independence.

Senator Leahy, who has participated in the confirmation of all sitting Supreme Court Justices, including Justice O’Connor’s, said the discussion on the role of the judiciary helps to inform the public  by illuminating an often under-appreciated pillar of America’s democratic system.  

He said, “I believe that discussions like this serve our democracy. As public officials, we owe it to all Americans to be transparent about what we do in our official capacities. We justify their trust by demonstrating how our government works to uphold our common values, how we are guided by the Constitution, and how that Constitution has served over the years to make our great nation more inclusive in our continuing effort to become that ‘more perfect union.’

“This is a teachable moment,” he continued.  “And who better than Justice O’Connor to seize that moment.  Justice O’Connor has dedicated her life to public service.  She has been elected to state government and served on both the state bench and on the highest court in the land.  She has traveled the world to teach emerging democracies about the importance of the rule of law.  And most recently, she has directed her considerable talents to reminding us of the importance of civics education so that our own democracy will continue to thrive and be protected.”

Middle Class Tax Relief

The latest Senate showdown over competing tax cut plans gained a bit of ground for eventual middle-income tax relief and for tax fairness. The Senate on July 25 voted on competing Democratic and Republican plans to extend tax cuts set to expire in January. The two bills are in sharp contrast to each other, with the Democratic bill continuing tax cuts through 2013 for approximately 98 percent of the population -- everyone but individuals earning more than $200,000 annually and couples making more than $250,000.  The Republican bill would extend still more tax breaks to the highest earners and raise taxes on 25 million middle-income households, while adding nearly $1 trillion more to the national debt.

The Senate defeated the Republican bill and approved the Democratic plan, the Middle Class Tax Relief Bill, in a vote of 51 to 48.  The vote marked a significant milestone for Vermont and its senior U.S. Senator: his 14,000th vote in the U.S. Senate.  In casting this vote, Senator Leahy became one of only 7 senators in history to surpass the 14,000 mark.

Senator Leahy said, “While hardworking Vermont families and small businesses struggle to make ends meet in a difficult economy, fairness in our tax code has continued to erode, benefitting the wealthiest one percent at the expense of the rest of the country.  Over the past decade, multi-millionaires have benefited the most from the Bush-era tax cuts that I opposed.  Today a large proportion of millionaires pay a smaller percentage of their income than do a large share of America’s working families.  Even more troubling, the Bush economic policies did not trickle down to help those most in need – especially during the recent downturn in our economy.  Unfortunately this Republican plan offered nothing but more of the same.  That is why I supported the Democratic bill that ensures the typical middle-income family of four will not see their taxes raised by $2200 next year.  We need fairness, balance and practicality in our tax code.”

Lake Champlain’s Latest Invasive Species Threat:  The Spiny Water Flea

Senator Leahy spoke on the Burlington waterfront on July 30 about the threat of the spiny water flea, an invasive species that has been identified in the Champlain Canal, as it advances toward Lake Champlain.  The flea is a zooplankton and is native to northeastern Europe.  If the flea enters the lake, its presence will have a significant ecological and economic impact on the region.

Several days after his appearance at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain to address this issue came the announcement that the organism has been discovered in New York’s Lake George.

Senator Leahy said, "News that the spiny water flea has reached Lake George is disturbing and tells us that timely action is crucial in making every possible effort to stop the spread of invasive species to Lake Champlain.  I have previously directed funds to Lake George to combat invasive species and I will do everything that I can to help New York address this latest challenge.”

He continued, “With the water flea now in Lake George, the practicality of intercepting its spread through the Champlain Canal may have changed.  I will look to the experts to answer that question.  But this troubling news also reinforces the urgency of establishing an invasive species barrier within the canal with all due speed.  There has been too much wheel spinning and apathy by the Canal Authority, and for far too long.  There can be no excuses if action is punted once again while the next intruder arrives at the gate to Lake Champlain, as we know it will. 

“Assertions that New York cannot close the canal at any time for any reason simply do not stand up.  A simple check of the Canal Corporation website reveals that emergency canal closures are standard operating procedure – in fact a portion of the Erie Canal is closed today.”

News You Can Use:
U.S. Senate Youth Program Now Accepting Applications

The United States Senate Youth Program’s 2012 session, which gets underway next March, is now accepting applications.  The program offers high school students from across the country an in-depth look at the workings of the federal government.  Each of the 104 delegates selected will receive a $5000 college scholarship toward their undergraduate education and will have the opportunity to visit Capitol Hill, the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the Supreme Court. 

Two outstanding high school students will be selected from Vermont.  The selection deadline is October 12, 2012.

For more information on the United States Senate Youth Program, please click here.

News You Can Use:
First Health Insurance Rebates Under New Health Reform Law

The new health care law requires most insurers, beginning this year, to have distributed annual rebates by August 1 to policyholders if less than 80 percent of the premium dollars they collect go toward actual medical care.  The threshold is 85 percent for insurers covering large employers – corporations with more than 50 workers.  That is the category that includes all of the Vermont rebates.

The Vermont average rebate is greater than for any other state.  In all, 4,636 Vermont policy holders – all covered by CIGNA – are due more than $2.3 million in rebates under the Affordable Care Act, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In Vermont, CIGNA is the only health insurer that has fallen short of the law’s thresholds and owes rebates, according to federal records.  No rebates were owed by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont -- the state’s largest health insurer -- or by other Vermont health insurers. 

Nationwide, insurers must give back $1.1 billion to $12.8 million Americans this year. The average rebate is $151 per household.

Most people get health insurance through their employers, so most of the rebates are being sent to companies.  They may distribute the money to workers or use the funds to keep down future premium costs.