Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Election Assistance Commission

Posted on June 29, 2011

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I congratulate the Senator from Oklahoma on his remarks and participation in this debate. 

Before long, we should have -- whenever the majority leader decides -- a vote on the Coburn amendment. We are in a position on this resolution that relevant amendments are in order. At the moment, we don't have any others. If we don't have others, then we will proceed to the final bill later this afternoon when the majority leader decides we should do that. We passed the bill this morning with 79 votes. I will have more to say about this resolution in a moment. 

I wish to say something that is directly relevant to what the Senator from Oklahoma talked about. We keep talking about duplication, which is an important part of our oversight responsibilities. Sometimes that leads to the elimination of government bureaucracies, which is a rare event.

Ronald Reagan once said a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life that we will ever see on this Earth. I had an example of that this morning, I said to the Senator from Oklahoma, in a Rules Committee hearing. The purpose of the hearing was to review the qualifications of three excellent men and women who were nominated by the President to serve on the Election Assistance Commission.

But what I said at the hearing and what I would like to say on the floor -- with all due respect to those excellent nominees -- instead of considering the nominees, we should be abolishing the Commission because it doesn't have anything to do. It has finished its work and it ought to be abolished.

The Election Assistance Commission was commissioned in 2003. Since then, the Rules Committee didn't have one single oversight hearing on the Commission. My predecessor asked for an oversight hearing, but we didn't have one. I asked for one earlier this spring, and we didn't have one. At a time when we are borrowing 40 cents out of every $1 that Washington spends, we should not have been there this morning considering new appointments to a commission that is out of work. We should have been there considering recommending to this body that the Commission cease to exist.

This is why. It was created by the Help America Vote Act in 2002. It was authorized for 3 years and given certain tasks. The primary task was to distribute Federal payments to the States to help them upgrade their voting systems. We appropriated $3.2 billion for these payments.

That has been distributed. Given our current financial situation, it is very unlikely that any more Federal payments will be forthcoming.

We don't have any more money for that purpose. President Obama seems to agree with this, since in his last two budgets he has requested no funds for this purpose.

The Commission was also directed to develop voluntary voting system guidelines and a testing and certification program for voting machines. The actual work involved in this process is performed by another agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which develops the guidelines, and the independent laboratories that conduct that testing. So in the spirit of Senator Coburn's comments, we don't need two agencies assigned the same responsibility.

Finally, the Commission was to act as a clearinghouse to collect and distribute information on best practices in election administration.

Yet the intended beneficiaries of this service don't seem to have much use for it. The National Association of Secretaries of State -- every State has one -- a bipartisan organization made up of our country's chief State elections officials, has twice voted in favor of a resolution calling for abolition of this agency, the Election Assistance Commission.

So here we have a classic example of: I am the government. I am here to give you help you don't want. As a former State official myself -- I was Governor of Tennessee -- I have a little bit of a bias. I don't see the need for a Federal clearinghouse of best practices for secretaries of state. I don't know why the secretaries of state themselves can't do that. When I was a Governor, I didn't need a Federal agency telling me the best practices of the Governor of Oklahoma so I could use them in Tennessee. We had regular Governors'

conferences, and we got to know each other pretty well. If Governor Graham of Florida had a good idea about education, I borrowed that. If I had a good idea on education, Governor Clinton borrowed that, and it worked pretty well. We didn't have to fly to Washington to have a clearinghouse.

So the tasks of this Commission have either been completed or can be performed by more appropriate entities. This is in the spirit of Senator Coburn's amendment. The Commission did its job. We should thank the Commission and their staff for their service.

But if the completion of their appointed task isn't enough of a reason to close it down, the Commission also appears to have a serious management problem or two. Though its mission has dwindled, its staff has grown. It has less to do but has more people doing it. The Commission had a staff of 20 in 2004. Last year, it had three times that many. It had 64 people -- more staff needed for less work.

I am sure there are some very good people there. There must be, because the average salary -- according to Congressman Gregg Harper of the House of Representatives -- for all the members of the Election Assistance Commission is over $100,000 a year.

This year's budget submission from the Commission proposes spending $5.4 million to manage $3.4 million worth of programs. Does that make any sense, when the cost of overhead and staff salaries exceeds the programs they have to administer? Clearly, something is wrong.

That is precisely the kind of small thing in the big picture we are dealing with that adds up and up and up and creates an environment in which we seem to be content in spending more and more and borrowing 40 cents of every $1 we spend.

Finally, the Commission has an unfortunate history of hiring discrimination. The Office of Special Counsel found they engaged in illegal discrimination when, during the search for a general counsel, an employment offer was made and then withdrawn when the Democratic Commissioners discovered the applicant was a Republican. This resorted in a substantial financial settlement being awarded to the applicant; thereby, forcing taxpayers to bear the cost of the illegal acts of Commissioners. Amazingly, it has been reported that in a subsequent interview with another applicant for the same position, one of these Commissioners again tainted the hiring process by asking the applicant what the Department of Labor has termed "inappropriate questions about his military service."

Apparently, the Commissioner didn't want Republicans or members of the military working at the Commission. The Department of Labor has reportedly found the applicant's claim of discrimination to be meritorious and, if not resolved, this case may be referred to the Office of Special Counsel.

I said this morning that the three men and women whom President Obama nominated seem to have exceptional backgrounds, and they are not to blame for any of these incidents. But what I also said was, since they seem to be exceptionally good nominees, maybe we should find a commission where there is something for them to do, instead of a commission that has finished its job and where we are just perpetuating it with employees who, on average, make $100,000 a year in salary, according to Congressman Harper.

Even if we were to assume these nominees before us could right the ship and correct the problems, the question remains: Where would the ship sail, and why would they make the trip? Do we need the Commission, with its main job completed? Couldn't any remaining duties be better performed somewhere else? Can a government program ever be terminated?

As I said at the beginning of these remarks, Ronald Reagan once said: A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life that we will ever see. Shouldn't we try to use this opportunity to prove that Ronald Reagan was, in that case, wrong?

I congratulate the Senator from Oklahoma for his work on duplication.

This isn't the first time. This is one of the many times he has spoken and acted on the subject. I offer this example of the Election Assistance Commission as one small step we could take in the right direction by, in the appropriate way, canceling the Commission instead of confirming three new nominees to it.

I thank the Chair and I yield the floor.