12.12.14

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),President Pro Tempore, On The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
President Pro Tempore,
On The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act
December 12, 2014

After late night theatrics in the House yesterday, I hope the Senate will soon vote on the fiscal year 2015 Omnibus appropriations bill, and certainly well before tomorrow’s midnight deadline.  I support this comprehensive spending package.  It has been too long since Congress passed successive appropriations bills that didn’t simply kick the can further down the road, or leave government spending on autopilot.  The legislation before us is the product of months of negotiations in the Senate and with our House counterparts.  Chairwoman Mikulski has done an outstanding job and should be congratulated for her perseverance in bringing us to this point.

I spoke yesterday about the funds included in this bill for the State Department and foreign operations.  Important funding for the environment, for AIDS prevention and treatment, United Nations peacekeeping, and emergency funding for Ebola.  This bill will protect U.S. security, humanitarian, and economic interests around the world.  But it also funds many of the domestic priorities that have faced budget cuts and that the people of our states depend on, from law enforcement to transportation, health care, and protecting our national parks. 

The Omnibus includes critical investments in our rivers and lakes, including an increase in funding for Lake Champlain through the EPA’s Geographic Program. I want to thank Senator Jack Reed, the chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, for his assistance in protecting the funding for all of the Geographic Programs receiving funding in this bill.   Lake Champlain and its tributaries are a celebrated part of Vermont’s natural landscape.  We have worked hard over many years to address many challenges, but serious threats to the Lake remain.  This federal support will help preserve one of Vermont’s greatest natural resources for generations to come. 

The bill includes critical investments to address the heroin crisis that has a devastating impact on communities in small rural states like Vermont. With Senator Mikulski’s support, I was pleased to include funding for Anti-Heroin Task Forces to provide federal assistance to law enforcement efforts to investigate and combat the distribution of heroin. Ensuring our local agencies have the tools they need is just one portion of our effort to deal with this crisis. 

Additionally, funds are included in this bill to provide first responders in rural communities with the training and access to Naloxone and life saving devices that can be used to rapidly reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. It also is unacceptable that Americans face a waiting lists when seeking help to recover from their addiction and this legislation also provides crucial funding to expand treatment services for those with heroin dependence. 

The Omnibus makes important investments in our students by providing funding to increase access to a college education through the Pell Grant program, and by increasing funding for the TRIO program which helps low income, first-generation students get a college education. 

This bill provides an investment in health care infrastructure and lifesaving research, including a $1.4 billion increase for our Community Health Centers, $30.3 billion for the National Institutes of Health, and funding for the development of a vaccine against Ebola. 

This Omnibus includes increased funding for programs authorized by the Violence Against Women Act, including grants for transitional housing, sexual assault services, legal assistance for victims, and support for Native American victims.  It also raises the cap on the Crime Victims Fund to an historic $2.3 billion.  That means more money for victims’ assistance grants at the state and local levels.  

This compromise package invests in housing for veterans and seniors.  It supports grants to help schools purchase critical equipment for their school lunch programs.  It provides funding for a new Food Safety Outreach Program, helping the Food and Drug Administration to work with famers and small businesses to understand complex new food safety laws.  The bill protects our nation’s forests through a strong investment in the Forest Legacy Program.  It includes funding to protect our trees and woods from pests like the Asian-long horned beetle and emerald ash borer.  The list goes on. 

While I intend to support this appropriations bill, I am very disappointed that last minute negotiations have forced the inclusion of several controversial riders that have nothing to do with funding the operations of the Federal Government.  These provisions force us into a choice between shutting down the government or enacting bad policy without the benefit of offering amendments and debating these far reaching changes to current law.

There is no doubt that Congress must do something to address vulnerable pension plans that took a hit during the Wall Street meltdown in 2008.  But slipping into this spending bill at the eleventh hour a provision to reduce hard-earned benefits for retirees is shameful.  For decades, these retirees have worked hard, contributed to pension plans, and understood that those benefits would be there when they needed them the most.  Now, we are changing the game.  I wonder how Republicans in the House who are responsible for this provision would react if it affected their own pensions.  

Meanwhile, this legislation includes a particularly offensive rider that rolls back an important provision of the Dodd-Frank Act that protects taxpayers from another Wall Street bailout.  As we all know, elections have consequences, and I worry that this is the start of a pattern we can expect to see over the next two years of protecting the rich on Wall Street at the expense of the hardworking Americans on Main Street. 

I am also dismayed that this spending package – a bill to keep the government running on behalf of over 300 million Americans – includes another body blow to what little remains of campaign finance law.  By increasing the amount of money wealthy donors can contribute to political parties -- for, among other things, conventions, building projects, and legal proceedings -- by 500 percent over what is allowed under current law, we further roll back long held campaign finance limitations that have protected the voice of every voter at the ballot box, not just those who can pay their way to influence elections.  It is very unfortunate that pressure groups and special interests prevailed in having this provision included, behind closed doors, at the last minute.

Finally, while I am pleased that this Omnibus bill will fund most of the government through fiscal year 2015, I am disappointed that programs and agencies funded through the Department of Homeland Security appropriations process will only operate under a continuing resolution through February 2015.  Republicans in Congress have made no secret that this action is in response to the President’s executive action related to immigration policy.  Yet for months – for nearly 18 months – House Republican leaders refused to bring to a vote the bipartisan, Senate-passed immigration reform bill.  It is political hypocrisy at its worst.  I think that bill would have passed, and we would not be where we are today.

No bill is perfect, especially one of this size.   I have far preferred a return to regular order, where we deliberatively consider individual appropriations bills, with the chance to debate germane amendments.  But this bill moves us away from governing-by-autopilot, and takes off the table the threat in one, two, or three months of yet another government shutdown.  Any resolution that punts these difficult appropriations decisions puts at greater risk important funding that will help Vermont.  And any Senator opposing this bill because of the riders it includes should remember that a continuing resolution or Omnibus spending bill passed next year will contain many more, and some far worse.

Chairwoman Mikulski has done a heroic job of getting us to this point.  I hope we will build on this progress next year.  I know Senator Cochran, my friend from Mississippi, the incoming Appropriations Committee chairman, agrees that we should return to the regular order of debating and passing individual appropriations bills.  

But for now, the American people are tired of the politics and drama – and real consequences – of shutting down the government.  I will support passage of the omnibus appropriations bill.

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