Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

June 25, 2014 - June 25, 2014

For the next several hours we will be moving to a bill that the senator from Washington, Mrs. Murray, and the senator from Georgia, Mr. Isakson, have had the principal role in fashioning.  They will have a chance to talk about that.  In just a few minutes the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Senator Harkin, will proceed with the bill.  But before that happens, I wish to take 3 or 4 minutes to talk about the importance of what is happening here. 

In 1998, Congress passed a sort of “GI bill” for workers.  The idea was to do what is at the top of every governor's agenda in every state right now:  How can we help more Americans get the job skills to fit the jobs? 

When I was home in Granger County last weekend, the concern of Tennesseans was that it is too hard to find a job; it is too hard to keep a house; what can I do to get a job? 

This legislation we are dealing with today, for the first time since 2003, reauthorizes $9.5 billion in funds that will be spent through local workforce boards, through community colleges, and through State governments to help individuals in North Dakota, in Washington, in Tennessee, in Georgia get the job skills to find a job.  This bill will make it easier for them for them to achieve that goal.  It has the great advantage of not mandating how they do it from Washington but creating an environment where people can do this for themselves.

Our former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen said to me that when he first became governor and went to find out about the $145 million of federal workforce development funding that comes to Tennessee, he just threw up his hands.  He said: It is too complicated.  I cannot do anything with it.  So he told his cabinet members: Do the best you can. 

Well, working together with the House of Representatives, Senator Murray and Senator Isakson and a group of us here have taken this law that was passed 16 years ago and made some dramatic changes to it.  They will tell you more about that. 

They will be talking about how we have taken many of the 47 work-training programs that exist in the federal government and simplified them, eliminating 15 programs that were ineffective or duplicative, eliminating 21 federal mandates, streamlining multiple plans into a single state plan that reduces time spent on paperwork, streamlining reporting requirements, giving governors more flexibility, giving local workforce boards more flexibility, and most importantly, giving the individuals who need jobs more opportunity to say, “This is what I would like to do, and this is what I choose to do.” 

This has been no easy task.  Senator Murray and Senator Isakson deserve a lot of credit from all of us because many Congresses have tried to reauthorize this law before.  I am going to come back after about an hour and deliver a little more extensive discussion on this, but the 108th Congress, the 109th Congress, and the 112th Congress all tried to do this but could not get a consensus about how to move forward.  Finally, Congresswoman Virginia Foxx produced the SKILLS Act in the House of Representatives.  The House passed this bill in March of 2013.  It came over here to the Senate.  The Senate HELP Committee passed its bill last July.  Led by Senator Murray and Senator Isakson, the Senate began working with the House, came up with an agreement, and, working with a number of senators, we have reduced the number of amendments that actually have to be voted on today to two.  So we will have two amendments to be voted on and then will vote on final passage.  Then we will send the bill back to the House.  Hopefully the President will have a chance to sign it. 

I would like to say that I hope that in the midst of what is too much dysfunction in the Senate, this will be an example of what can happen when we put our minds to it.

The members of the HELP Committee, on which I am the ranking Republican, and Senator Harkin, the ranking Democrat, have some pretty big philosophical differences.  Ideologically, we are not the same.  But we have passed 19 bills out of the HELP Committee.  Thirteen have become law this year.  That is a record of accomplishment we are proud of.  It shows that senators with different opinions can come to a consensus and come to a resolve. 

So let me step aside now and let those who have really done the most work on the bill speak – the senator from Washington and the senator from Georgia.  I will be back in about an hour, and then we will be voting a little later this afternoon.  This is good news for the workers of America, for the Governors who felt hamstrung by Washington, for the workforce boards who have been limited in their ability to meet the needs of local employers and workers, and for Senator Coburn, who has been a real leader in pointing out how many duplicative work programs we have.  We have gone a long way in the direction he wanted us to go.  I congratulate all of those senators for the result.    


While the senator from Iowa is still on the floor, I wish to compliment him.  The committee which he chairs, of which I am the ranking member, has produced 19 bills this year for this Congress, 13 of which have become law.  No other committee has produced as much –  this will add one to that – and that is not because we agree on everything.  

The truth is we disagree on a lot of things, but we have found a way to come together when there is a chance to get a result.  

Senator Harkin has helped to create an environment in which Senator Isakson and Senator Murray, and a group of other senators, have finally brought this Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to a conclusion. Many other senators have tried, and it has taken a long time to do it.  Our focus today should be on the workers of America who need jobs.

I think it is important to point out that when the Senate tries to pass legislation this way and allow everybody to have a chance to have a say, we can get a pretty good result.  This is a $9.5 billion bill, and for Tennessee it is $145 million for helping to address the single biggest issue for people in our State: How do I get a better job?  It is not a matter of Washington telling you how to do that.  This is a bill that empowers states and local workforce boards to enable people to get the skills they need so they can get a better job.  

I thank the Chairman for the way he has worked on this, and I wanted to say that while he was on the floor.  

I urge my colleagues to support this act today.  It is a jobs bill.  I was home in Grainger County in East Tennessee this past weekend working with the Clinch-Powell Cooperative.  It is a great organization which helps people with home foreclosures and helps them to find a job.

The worry they have is that it is too hard to find a job.  The worry of the National Federation of Independent Business Leaders, whom I talked with in Knoxville, is that it is too hard to create a job.  We all have our reasons for that.  On our side of the aisle, we think there are too many taxes, rules, regulations, and mandates from Washington that make it harder for a person who wants to create a job to do that.  

I had one small business man in Tennessee tell me he was looking at new employees as a liability more than an asset.  He said, “I hate that.  I want to think of every one of my employees as an asset.  When I hire them, I have to think about this health care cost or this tax cost or this regulatory cost, and all these extra costs, and they become, in my eyes, a liability and that discourages me from hiring anyone.”  That is one reason why so many Americans are having a hard time finding a job.  Another reason is – and the reason we are working together today on this bill – because the skills many workers have don't fit the job that needs to be filled.

We have a very good governor in Tennessee whose name is Bill Haslam.  I think his priority is the same as every other governor whom I know in the country, which is he is trying to grow and attract jobs.  What he hears from every employer is, “We have the jobs, but the employees don't have the skills.”  

Our governor is working hard, for example, to create a program with Bridgestone Corporation – the big tire maker headquartered in Tennessee – at the community college and technical institute level, where the institute would train people with the exact skills that Bridgestone needs.  So many of the new jobs today require more skills than they used to.  

I was governor when the Nissan plant came to Tennessee, and it was a surprise to a lot of people.  Automobile plants used to have 20,000 or 30,000 people, but the Nissan plant only had 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 people there.  Now it has a few more, but it is the largest and most efficient automobile plant in North America – and the most efficient.  I imagine it is as profitable as any automobile plant, but the jobs at the Nissan plant demand a lot higher standards and a lot higher skills for the employees.  

It is the same today as it was 30 years ago – the biggest challenge they have is finding Tennesseans, or other people, who have the right skills for the right jobs.  What can we in Washington do to help with that?  

Well, we could sit here and in our wisdom write a lot of rules and prescriptions about just how to do that.  In fact, that is what has been happening with the Workforce Investment Act.  It started out in 1998 as sort of a GI bill for workers.  The idea was we would make it easier for people to find jobs.  We would create local workforce boards in the States, give Governors flexibility, allow them to make arrangements with community colleges, such as the one I just described with Bridgestone.  But then the old Washington disease set in, “I have a good idea, so let's make everybody do it.” Pretty soon we had 47 workforce programs, and according to a Government Accountability Office report, 44 of them were duplicative.  

Well, Senator Coburn from Oklahoma, who is retiring this year – which I regret very much – has led the charge.  He asked for that report, and he pointed out to us that we are wasting money and not helping people with the $9.5 spent on just a few of those programs through the Workforce Investment Act, in such a complicated way.  

I mentioned on the floor of the Senate a while ago what Tennessee’s former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen said.  He was a very good governor and businessman.  He likes to get results.  He took a look at the Workforce Investment Act programs that were coming to Tennessee from the federal government through a dozen or more workforce boards, and he just threw up his hands.  

He said, “I told the commissioner of employment security to just do what you can with it.”  There were too many well-intentioned rules and regulations from Washington that caused these programs to be such a maze that governors and workforce boards could not deal with them.  The workforce boards were massive.  There were 50 or 60 people who required someone up here saying, “This is who you have to have.”  There were duplicative programs.  Instead of allowing people who wanted a job to say, I would like to have this kind of job with these kinds of skills, we were telling them what kind of skills they needed to have.  This was not working.  

The House of Representatives passed something called the SKILLS Act last year, which suited most of us on the Republican side of the Senate better because it eliminated more programs, eliminated more mandates, gave more discretion to governors and local areas, and decentralized the program.  

The Senate passed a bill through the HELP committee that we didn't like nearly as much as the House bill because it still had too many Washington rules and mandates in it.  

Senator Isakson, who is on the floor, and Senator Murray from Washington, led a group of senators who worked with the House – led by Congressman John Kline and Congresswoman Virginia Foxx and others – and we resolved our differences.  Basically, what we have done is we moved the Senate bill a lot closer to where the House of Representatives bill was.  I will be specific about what the bill does that I think makes a difference.  

It eliminates 15 programs that were identified as ineffective or duplicative.  It eliminates 21 federal mandates on state and local workforce board compensation.  In other words, we are saying to Tennessee, which I think has 13 workforce boards, “OK, we don't think we got a lot smarter flying to Washington this morning.  You can decide more about who is on your workforce board because we assume you know more about what is going on.”

It replaces multiple state plans for multiple federal programs that have to be submitted to Washington with a streamlined single-state plan that will reduce time spent on paperwork.

If we are going to spend $9.5 billion of the taxpayers' money, we ought to have some accountability, and we ought to know what is happening, but we don't need everybody spending more time filling out forms than they are helping people find jobs.  

This bill also streamlines reporting requirements, and it focuses on real outcomes, such as job placement, retention, earnings, credentials, and employer satisfaction.  

The second broad thing the bill does is support local and state decision-making and flexibility.  In that sense it is like a block grant.  It reinstates the authority of governors to reserve up to 15 percent of formula funds for innovative state and local programs.  I like that.  

I used to be a governor.  I used to think, and still do think, that the governor of our state knows more about how to make job training work in Tennessee than anybody up here because he is there, not here, so let him or her be in charge of a large part of that.  It gives local workforce boards the freedom to transfer up to 100 percent of funds between the two largest formula programs serving adults and dislocated workers.  

In other words, if the money we have allocated doesn't really fit Hohenwald, TN, as well as it does New York City or Madison, WI, or Atlanta, GA, then the local workforce board can transfer money from this program to that program.  That just makes common sense.  It gives states the ability to incentivize and award performance.

It allows people who want a better job, people who want job training, people who are out of a job to choose the career and training service that best meets their needs, and it empowers governors to recognize or consolidate local areas that are low-performing in order to better meet regional needs.

Finally, it tackles the accountability issue which we all care about.  It authorizes consistent measures of quality, including a five percent reduction in funding for poor-performing programs. It requires the U.S. Department of Labor to conduct independent evaluations of programs at least once every four years.

This is a good piece of work on the number one subject in this country.  Whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, jobs is the issue.  It is too hard to find a job.  It is too hard to create jobs.  We have some differences of opinion about what to do about it, but I think we agree that matching the job skills to the job is a solution for millions of Americans.

I believe and I suspect most of us believe that in the Internet age especially, what we should be doing, rather than mandating so many answers from here, is empowering governors and empowering local leaders on workforce boards to enable people who want a better job or a job at all to choose what they want to do and to do it.  So in Tennessee Governor Haslam will now have much more freedom and $145 million a year to spend on helping Tennesseans get a better job at Bridgestone or at the Nissan plant or start their own work because we are enabling, we are empowering.  We are not mandating.  We are doing less telling. And from the taxpayers' point of view, we are avoiding the waste of a lot of money by avoiding duplication.

I wish to thank senators on both sides of the aisle for working together so well on this, particularly on our side of the aisle.  I know Senator Harkin and Senator Murray worked well with the Democratic Members.  We appreciate their patience as we worked through this. 

We had a number of Republican senators whom Senator Isakson and I worked with, and I would like to acknowledge their role, starting with Senator Isakson.  He was the majority leader of the Georgia – well, I guess he was the minority leader of the Georgia Senate.  He was the Republican leader.  At that time, they didn't have a majority; they just had a few senators.  But he learned the skills of negotiation and compromise in order to get a result, while still sticking to his conservative principles, and I like to see that skill.  So, on our side of the aisle, he gets most of the credit for the result we are getting.

Right up there with him is Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, who worked on this, Senator Enzi says, for nearly 10 years. Now, that may seem hard to do, but this bill was supposed to be reauthorized after 2003, and this is 2014.  So Senator Enzi brought it a long way, and we are grateful to him.

In addition, Senator Collins and Senator Murkowski are cosponsors of the bills. 

Senator Scott from South Carolina played a great role by picking up the SKILLS Act from the House and bringing it over to the Senate and reminding us that we needed to get rid of this maze of regulatory problems and go as far in that direction as we could possibly go.  So in his first year in the Senate, Senator Scott has played a major role in the passage of a very important piece of legislation.

I have mentioned Senator Coburn before.  We all acknowledge there is no one on either side of the aisle who is more relentless in looking for waste, fraud, and duplication than Senator Coburn.  Through his work and his staff's work, he put the spotlight on the fact that 44 of our 47 workforce programs were duplicative and wasteful.  That is not him saying that; that is the General Accountability Office saying that.

Senators Lee and Flake worked with us, and they will be offering amendments today.  Senator Portman made significant contributions to the legislation, and we thank him for that. Senator Hatch and Senator McConnell made important contributions, and Senator Toomey and Senator Coats did as well.

There are a number of other senators who did something we would like to see more of around here; that is, they didn't insist on every right they had.  We are a body that operates by unanimous consent, so if we all insist on all the rights we have, we don't do anything, which is where we find ourselves sometimes.  But there were a number of senators who had good ideas, who had proposals they would like to see adopted.  Many of those we were able to incorporate in the manager's amendment, but then some we just couldn't.  So they stepped aside and they thought it was more important that we go ahead and come to a consensus and get a result.

In conclusion, let me say this:  The other night the Senator from Georgia and I were at the home of the Australian Ambassador to the United States.  He was talking about this body.  The Australians love the United States – especially Kim Beazley, the Ambassador.  He is a Labor Party member.  In our country, that would be called a Democrat.  But he is a big pro-American former Minister in Australia. 

He said, “You know, we envy the U.S. Senate.  It is the greatest tribunal in the world.  We all wish we had it.” It made us all stop and think.  Are we really living up to the respect for this body that people around the world have for the U.S. Senate when it is operating the way it should? 

Well, today it is operating the way it should, but a lot of the time it does not. 

How should it operate?  The Senate is different because it is the single legislative body in the world that is designed for extended discussion of an important issue until it comes to a consensus, and then we cut off debate and then we get a result, if it is possible. That is how we get a civil rights bill. That is how we get Social Security.  That is how we get a workforce investment act. We have extended discussion and debate and amendment and vote on an important issue until we come to a consensus. 

Why is a consensus needed, which means 60 votes instead of 51 much of the time?  Because we govern a complex country by consensus.  We don't do it by order or edict or any partisan way.

This is a very complicated bill.  It brought here today by unanimous consent, but that is only because we have debated it for an extended period of time here in the Senate and we have come to a consensus about it.  We have given up on a lot of ideas we had.  If we had our way, we would pass the SKILLS Act in a minute – almost every single Republican would – but that is not what the Democrats would do.  So we have come to an agreement in the Senate, and we have come to an agreement with the House.  That is the consensus.  As a result of that, governors, such as the Bipartisan Policy Center's Governors' Council, have praised this result.  I believe our governor in Tennessee, Governor Haslam, will be delighted with it.  I think our former governor, Governor Bredesen, who threw up his hands when he saw the maze he had to work with a couple of years ago, will welcome what we have done.

I thank the senators on both sides of the aisle who have done this.  My hope is that this is a disease that is infectious and that we see a little bit more of this kind of legislating in the Senate.

I would like to extend my deep thanks and sincere appreciation to the dedicated staff that worked on this bill to reauthorize the 16 year old Workforce Investment Act for the past several years. Without their hard work and tireless effort we wouldn't have been able to reach the successful conclusion on the passage of this important bipartisan bill.

I would like to thank Scott Cheney on Senator Murray’s staff, who has been working on this reauthorization effort for many years, as well as Evan Schatz.

Senator Isakson’s staff worked hard with Senator Murray and our Republican offices throughout the Committee process and in coming to this final agreement, including Tommy Nguyen and Brett Layson.

I would also like to thank some former staff who put a lot of time into this reauthorization effort in the 112th Congress, including Glee Smith who worked for Senator Isakson, as well as Beth Buehlmann and Kelly Hastings who worked for Senator Enzi on the HELP Committee.

The Chairman of this committee has an outstanding staff that are very capable and dedicated, particularly Crystal Bridgeman, Michael Gamel-McCormick, Lee Perselay, Mildred Otero, and Derek Miller.

Our partners in the House of Representative deserve great thanks for their willingness to come to the table and negotiate a pre-conferenced agreement, including Rosemary Lahasky, Brad Thomas, James Bergeron, Amy Jones, Leticia Mederos, Michele Varnhagen, and Jacque Chevalier on the majority and minority staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Many of our Senate Republican offices deserve thanks for their work with the HELP Committee on amendments and other technical fixes to the bill, including Denzel McGuire and Katelyn Conner on Senator McConnell’s staff, Christopher Toppings and Natasha Hickman on Senator Burr’s staff, Leila Kimbrell and Kate Williams on Senator Murkowski’s staff, Laura Pence on Senator Coburn’s staff, Kristin Chapman on Senator Enzi’s staff, Nick Butterfield and Pam Thiessen on Senator Portman’s staff, Christy Knese and Wendy Baig on Senator Lee’s staff, Chandler Morse on Senator Flake’s staff, Diane Browning and Katie Neal on Senator Hatch’s staff, Dimple Gupta on Senator Toomey’s staff, Casey Murphy on Senator Coats’ staff, and Lizzy Simmons on Senator Scott’s staff.

We know these bills don’t just suddenly appear. The Senate Legislative Counsel staff work long hours on the bill and then on the amendments, so I would like to especially thank Liz King, Amy Gaynor, Chelsea Koester, and Kristin Romero.

And we always rely on the experts at the Congressional Research Service to give us good information in a timely manner, so I extend our thanks to David Bradley and Benjamin Collins.

Finally, I would like to thank my staff. They have put a lot of time and effort in to make this a process that the Senate and American people can be proud of and I appreciate their efforts and late nights on this bill. So, my thanks go out to Patrick Murray, Bill Knudsen, Peter Oppenheim, David Cleary, Diane Tran, Jim Jeffries, Margaret Atkinson, and Liz Wolgemuth.