12.12.16

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), On the FY17 Continuing Resolution

Today, the Senate will vote to put the government on autopilot for the next four and a half months.  Coupled with the continuing resolution we are currently under, that’s seven months of Fiscal Year 2017 priorities funded – or not – under the terms of the Fiscal Year 2016 omnibus bill.  Freezing in place an earlier year’s priorities – ignoring the many hearings, and the committee work, and the debates, and the oversight that the Appropriations Committees have invested in genuine, full-year funding bills for next year – by definition means this stop-gap bill is chock-full of great mis-matches between our current priorities, and those set long ago for an earlier fiscal year.  By definition it means wasted diversion of funds to past priorities, and giving short-shrift to changing circumstances, needs and priorities.

What does that mean to Vermonters?  It means cuts to food assistance needs.  It means halted homeland security preparedness grants.  It means uncertainty for affordable housing developers and transportation planners.  It means we here in Congress didn’t get our job done.

What makes the vote on this continuing resolution all the more frustrating is the fact that we didn’t need to be in this predicament today.  The Senate Appropriations Committee carefully considered 12 individual appropriations bills.  All but one were reported with broad if not unanimous support.  Through September, October, and into November we negotiated in good faith and in a productive way with our counterparts in the House of Representatives.  That is, UNTIL the order came to stand down.  The word was that the President-elect didn’t want us to pass a responsible, full-year budget.  The word was that he wanted Congress once again to kick the can further down the road.  Then, Democrats in both the Senate and House were shut out of the process.  No consultation, and no negotiations.

In the absence of what could have been an achievable omnibus appropriations bill, this continuing resolution does fulfill a few key priorities.  It avoids a government shutdown, just before the holiday season.  It provides the millions of dollars authorized earlier this week in the 21st Century Cures Act to fight opioid abuse and cancer.  It rejects the National Defense Authorization Act’s proposal to increase base defense spending through an increase in Overseas Contingency Operations funds.  It provides billions of dollars in emergency disaster assistance for recent natural disasters.  It supports additional funds to care for unaccompanied children from Central American and Mexico.  And at long last, it provides overdue funds – fully offset through the Water Resources Development Act authorization – to address the shameful lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan.  The people of Flint have waited far too long, while Congress has dragged its feet, to finally have access to the needed resources for the children and families suffering there.

These are, surely, all reasons to support this continuing resolution.  But, as with most things, there is another side to this story. 

The continuing resolution extends, without desperately needed reforms, the EB-5 immigrant visa program.  I opposed the current continuing resolution for this same extension.  As I have said numerous times, the EB-5 program has become mired in fraud and abuse.  Almost everyone agrees it is broken. It is time we fix it. If EB-5 cannot be reformed due to a paralysis of leadership, the time has come for it to end, not be extended, without debate, in a continuing resolution.

This continuing resolution – again, negotiated behind closed doors by Senate and House Republicans – does nothing to resolve the questions about how to sustain health care for miners and miners’ widows.  The Senate Finance Committee approved legislation in September to address this crisis in a bipartisan vote of 18 to 8.  The Republican leadership has chosen – chosen – to not bring that legislation forward.  Instead, now mine workers will be forced to spend the last dollars in their multiemployer health plan to cover this four month extension.  What promises do we have that there will be a real commitment to provide for these men and women come next May?  None.  These mineworkers cannot afford thousands of dollars in monthly healthcare bills on the small pension payments they receive.

Further, the continuing resolution includes a troubling, precedent-setting provision to expedite consideration of waiver legislation for the President-elect’s announced nominee to serve as Secretary of Defense.  The Framers of the Constitution provided that the Senate should provide advice and consent in the appointment of such Cabinet nominees.  Congress subsequently sought to implement limitations on who could serve as Secretary of Defense, thereby ensuring that America’s military would remain under civilian control.  Circumventing these limitations requires an act of Congress.  It’s been done just once before, and not with any deal of levity.  This continuing resolution, however, seeks to truncate the Senate’s debate over granting, for only the second time in history, such a waiver.  My opposition to the inclusion of this language stands apart from the nominee himself, as well as the legislation granting such a waiver, each of which should be debated fully.  I oppose limiting the Senate’s debate over the granting of such a waiver. That’s what this language does.  The Senate is the most deliberative body in the world.  With this provision, we cede that designation, at least a bit, and pave the way for further erosions.

Nonetheless, we face what is ironically both a complicated and straightforward decision: allow for a government shutdown, two weeks before the winter holidays, or approve this continuing resolution that casts aside Congress’s responsibility to enact meaningful appropriations bills for the fiscal year.  As the incoming Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I don’t take this decision lightly.  I want the record to be clear.  To Senate Republican Leaders, and Republican leaders in the House; to the President-elect, and the Vice President-elect:  Democrats will not rubberstamp a partisan agenda in the 115th Congress.  We will not tolerate being shut out of negotiations about how our taxpayers’ dollars are spent.  And we will not allow Congress to continue to buck its constitutional duties to quite simply do its job.

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