Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on Farm Bill Amendments

Posted on December 11, 2007

Mr. ALEXANDER. Madam President, I congratulate the Senator from New Hampshire. He is usually eloquent, and he was again today. But the subject matter is not just eloquent, it is critical in the State of Tennessee. There is a medical liability crisis, especially for women who live in rural areas. The fact is, as the Senator from New Hampshire has said, women who live in rural areas do not have access to doctors for prenatal health care. They do not have access to doctors to deliver their babies. According to data from the Health Services and Resources Administration, in 2004, in 45 of Tennessee's 95 counties, pregnant mothers had to drive for miles to get prenatal care or to deliver their babies. In 15 of those counties, pregnant mothers have no access whatsoever to any prenatal health care within their counties. The Tennessean newspaper, on July 20, 2004, reported that only 1 of 104 medical students graduating from Vanderbilt University Medical School chose OB/GYN. Dr. Frank Boehm said that: “We must not lose sight of the fact that one of the side effects of our current medical malpractice crisis in OB/GYN is the steady loss of medical students who are choosing not to practice one of our most important medical specialties. If the decline continues, patients having babies or needing high-risk care will be faced with access problems this country has not yet seen.” The same story is true at the University of Tennessee Medical School in Memphis. On any given day, there are more than 125,000 medical liability suits in progress against America's 700,000 doctors. There is a way to fix this. The State of Texas has shown us how, and it is similar to the way Senator Gregg has suggested. Put a reasonable cap on punitive damages, but let there be unlimited liability for any real damages. That was done in Texas in the year 2005, and in the following year, last year, more than 4,000 doctors applied for licenses to practice in Texas. OB/GYNs and other doctors are pouring back into Texas -- up 34 percent from the previous year -- because of a change just like the one the Senator from New Hampshire has suggested. I am happy for Texas, but I would like Tennessee and the rest of the country to experience the same thing. Senator Gregg is exactly right to point out the medical crisis that is caused when women who live in rural counties cannot have access to prenatal health care and care for their pregnancy and for their babies. Mr. ALEXANDER. Madam President, I rise to speak in support of amendments Nos. 3551 and 3553, which were previously offered on my behalf. The first amendment is No. 3551. This is an amendment which would add $74 million to the last 3 years of the farm bill for agricultural research at land grant colleges or universities. Specifically, it would provide mandatory funding for the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems as follows: $24 million in fiscal year 2010, $25 million in 2011, and $25 million in 2012. It would be fully offset by striking section 12302 of the tax title in the Harkin substitute amendment to the farm bill, which basically says that taxpayers in Georgia and in Tennessee, for example, will pay for transmission lines for ratepayers in North Dakota and South Dakota and in other States who want to build transmission lines through rural areas, primarily for wind energy. I am here today to talk primarily about farm incomes, and I am talking about America's secret weapons for farm incomes in the day in which we live, which are the land grant universities of America. Iowa State is a great land grant university. I imagine the University of Minnesota is a great land grant university in Minnesota. I know I was president of the University of Tennessee, which is our land grant university, and I confess to some bias because I think I am the only former president of a land grant university in the Senate. Why is that so important? Earlier this year, we unanimously passed, after 2 years of work, a bill we called the America COMPETES Act. What it did was recognize America's brainpower advantage is what has given us our incredibly high standard of living. In this last year, our country, the United States of America, produced about 30 percent of all the wealth in the world for about 5 percent of the people in the world -- that is, our population. How did we do that? There are a variety of reasons, but primarily, since World War II, we have taken our brainpower advantage to create new jobs that have given us that great high standard of living. This amendment is about making sure we take advantage of that in the agriculture community. It will provide more competitive grants to our land grant universities so they can create value-added agricultural products, of which I have an example depicted in this poster. Congress recognized the importance of this brainpower advantage our land grant universities have when it authorized the 1998 farm bill. It created something called the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems. In addition to farm income, this research was to be for future food production for environmental quality, for natural resource management, as well as, as I said, farm income. Here is a specific example of the value-added opportunity I am talking about. There is a weed, I guess people would call it, called the guayule weed that grows out in the Southwest. Research that was done at the University of Arizona led to the development of a non-allergenic rubber product that is made from that plant that is as useful as latex rubber, for example, for gloves that we use with which to work. But it does not cause allergic reactions, as latex does, in 10 percent of our Nation's health care workforce. That is an example of the brain power advantage. The University of New Mexico and the University of Tennessee are taking opportunities to use manure as sources of energy and as ways to create nursery crop containers. At Texas Tech University, the research that has come directly from the program I described that was started in 1998 has led to the development of a less toxic version of the castor seed created by using genetic modifications. This means we can grow more castor oil in this country instead of having to import it. Now, one might say: Well, what is the big deal about castor oil? It tastes bad. It is what you take when you are sick. Not anymore. On the Defense Department's Critical Needs List there are multiple uses of castor oil for military purposes, including lubricants, adhesives, pharmaceuticals, waxes and polishes and inks. The Senator from Georgia and from Iowa will know very well the value-added advantage to our country of all the products that have come from soybeans. Our great land grant universities have led the way to create these extra farm incomes, these new jobs for our country. There are 76 land grant universities in America. During the 2 years where this program that was passed in 1998 worked well, 2001 and 2002, this grant program I am describing awarded 183 different grants, one grant at least in every State and in the District of Columbia. So these land grant universities, created in Abraham Lincoln's administration, have been at the forefront of our agriculture in America for a long time. If we want to keep high farm income, they are a major part of our ability to do that. We have had some experience now since 1998 with this grant program I am describing, which has a long name, called the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems. First, when it was appropriated, and the Senator from Georgia mentioned this to me, the appropriators got to the money and they canceled the appropriation and then increased another account and earmarked the money for their favorite university. That practice stopped in 2001 and 2002. Basically, we went through a period where the research grants were awarded in the way they are supposed to be, the way most of our research grants are awarded. One reason our great higher education system works so well is because it is a large marketplace; students may choose their school, Government money follows them to the institution of their choice, public, private, nonprofit, and the billions of dollars we spend on research to create jobs, giving us the brain-power advantage, is competitively awarded, usually peer reviewed. So in a couple years, that worked for this program. But then, the authorizers looked at what the appropriators had done and they said, in effect: We are going to earmark some of this money to our favorite universities. That happened for a while. Then, in 2005, we got into a budget crunch, and those trying to balance the budget said: Here is a place to get some money. They took the money that was dedicated for agriculture research and used it for the 2005 budget reconciliation. So only in 2 years since 1998 has this excellent competitive grant program worked very well, 2001 and 2002. Now, in the current House version of the farm bill we are debating today, they try to put it back on track. In the first 2 years of the bill, they appropriate the money to deal with the budget deficit that was dealt with in 2005. But in the last 3 years, they authorize money for this kind of research, $200 million in each of 2010, 2011, 2012, $600 million, amounts to about two-tenths of 1 percent of the total cost of the House version of the farm bill. The Senate version, unfortunately, well, fortunately in the first 2 years, does pay the money to deal with the budget problem. The decision was made a few years ago. But in the last 3 years, during the time when the House put in 600 million, the Senate puts in zero. So my amendment would restore $74 million of the $600 million, and in conference, hopefully, the conferees could decide this is an important provision. Since both Houses had provided money, we can put the program back on track. How do we pay for it? Well, by striking section 12302 from the tax title. Now, section 12302 of the tax title provides new tax breaks for large transmission towers that transmit electricity, primarily from wind farms, in remote and rural areas. In my part of the country, Tennessee, for example, wind farms barely work at all because the wind does not blow. But where they do work a little bit is up on top of some of our most scenic mountains. So what the effect of this provision would be is to say: We are going to give people who own the land an ability not to pay income tax on the income they get from running these big transmission towers from the top of our scenic mountains all the way down to where the electric grid is. That is unnecessary in the first place because the provision, as written, is retroactive. In addition to applying to future deals that will be made with landowners, it seems to apply to current and existing deals. No. 2, it provides tens of millions of dollars, about $55 million, in my computation, of new subsidy for wind. Wind already is, in my judgment and in the judgment of many others, over-subsidized in terms of an energy source. Third, and perhaps the largest objection, is transmission towers should be paid for by the utilities that build the transmission towers. If the Tennessee Valley Authority builds a transmission tower for whatever purpose, those of us who buy our electricity from TVA ought to pay the bill. We should not send the bill to the Colorado taxpayer or to someone who lives in southern Georgia or someone who lives in Iowa or New York, and neither should they send their bills to us. So I think it is inappropriate for all those reasons, to subsidize further the ability to build transmission lines, primarily from wind farms to the grid. What it tends to do is to create such extravagant subsidies for wind that investors see an opportunity to make a lot of money, and they build wind farms in places where the wind does not blow. Now that might sound to some like a ridiculous statement. But we have one of those in the Southeastern United States. It happens to be in east Tennessee. It is a TVA experimental farm. It is up on top of Buffalo Mountain, 3,500 feet up. It ought to be a particularly good place for it. You can see the big white towers and flashing lights, instead of seeing the mountain tops, which we prefer to see. What does it do? Not much. It cost $60 million over 20 years to TVA ratepayers to pay somebody to provide this energy. But during August, when we were in a drought and we needed to turn our air-conditioning on, it was operating 10 or 15 percent of the time. So there is a much better solution to the need for new electricity in our part of the world and in many parts of America than to encourage investors through extravagant subsidies to build huge transmission lines through rural areas to connect wind farms with grids that are a long distance away. If the market supports that sort of electricity investment, let it support it. That will usually mean, if you are going to build big wind farms, you will build them fairly close to the electric grid so you will not have to spend a million dollars a mile on the transmission line. That is the first amendment. We would take the $74 million from this unnecessary expenditure that causes people to pay, in one part of the country, for what should be an electric ratepayer's bill in another part of the country; gives an unnecessary amount of money to wind developers. It, in fact, takes an example of wasteful Washington spending and uses it for higher farm incomes. Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in Record a letter to Chairman Harkin from organizations stating their support for increased funding for research at land-grant universities. Here is my second amendment. It is amendment No. 3553. I say it with all due respect to the Senator from Colorado because he and I discussed this. I am sure he will have more to say about this. But here is what this amendment is about. The question is whether every Member of this body -- I hope a lot of Senators are watching or their staffs are watching, because you do want to help your Senator if you are a staff member go home and explain, wherever you may live in America, why you took $4,000 of their tax money and gave it to their neighbor to build a 12-story tower in that neighbor's front yard with a flashing red light on top. That is the question. The farm bill tax title, as reported by the Senate Finance Committee, says it is called a small wind tax credit. Now, I would ask those who can see this picture whether they would consider this tower an example of a small wind turbine? I think you can see the large crane next to it. You can see the telephone pole by it. Imagine if that is in your neighborhood, in the front yard of your neighbor. What the proposal in the tax title as reported says, that a small wind tax credit would give you up to $4,000 toward building a turbine of up to 100 kilowatts. That is a 100-kilowatt wind turbine. Now, you might build a smaller one, and the cost would vary -- a 0.5 kilowatt turbine might cost about $1,900 and receive a $570 tax credit, which is 30% of the total cost. A 1 kilowatt turbine might cost about $4,000 and receive a $1,200 credit, which is also 30% of this turbine’s cost. A 2.5 kilowatt turbine costs about $15,000 and would receive a $4,000 credit, which is 27% of the turbine’s cost. But you could build one as big as the 100 kilowatt turbine depicted here with taxpayer funds under the provisions of this bill. I would like to ask my colleagues to think about whether they think that is an appropriate use of tax money. My view is the puny amount of electricity produced by these wind turbines is not worth ruining the character of our neighborhoods. So what my amendment would do is simply say: This is a farm bill. If the Members of this body and this Congress want to subsidize the building of 12-story white towers in rural areas for farms and businesses, then do that in the farm bill. But do not allow that to go into residential neighborhoods across America, which the bill, as presently written, does. Now, when I say a puny amount of electricity, what do I mean by that? Well, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, which has examined this provision of the proposed farm bill, it would encourage the building of 12 Megawatts of electricity. Electrical generators have something called rated capacity. The rated capacity is the power that a electrical plant generates when operating at it’s full capacity. A nuclear power plant, for example, in Tennessee on average operates at 90 to 95 percent of rated capacity. That is why so many Americans are beginning to understand that nuclear power is the way you deal with climate change, if you are serious about it, because they produce 1,100 or 1,200 megawatts of power 92% percent of the time, and that is clean power. That has no nitrogen, no sulfur, no mercury. It has no carbon. Nuclear power produces 20 percent of our electricity and 80 percent of our carbon-free electricity. The idea here is that by putting 12-story towers or up to 12-story towers in our neighbor's front yard or in our front yard, we could produce under this proposal an estimated 12 Megawatts of electricity. Probably turbines like that would operate 20, 25, 30 percent of the time. So it wouldn't be 12 megawatts of electricity, it would be 3 or 4 megawatts on average. This is equivalent to two-tenths of 1 percent of the energy from a nuclear reactor or six-tenths of 1 percent of the energy from a single coal plant. My appeal is that we respectfully use our common sense as we think about how to deal with the various challenges we have with clean air, with climate change, with our need for energy. Common sense does not say we ought to subsidize the building of 12-story towers or up to 12-story towers in our front yards. For example, we would get a much better bang for the buck --, $5 million is what is estimated to be spent -- if we simply bought energy-efficient light bulbs and gave them to our neighbors. Spending $5 million on $2 energy-efficient light bulbs would save eight times the electricity generated by these "small wind turbines." So why should we ruin the character of our neighborhoods when we could do eight times as much good with the same amount of money by changing our light bulbs? That would be common sense. I am very much aware of the concern about climate change. Ever since I have been a Member of this body, I have had legislation in the Senate -- first with Senator Carper, then with Senator Lieberman -- to establish caps on utilities which produce a third of all the carbon in the country. That legislation, which I introduced with those two Senators over the last 5 years, also would establish more aggressive standards for nitrogen, mercury, and sulfur than the administration does. In addition, last week when we were debating climate change, the Environment Committee adopted my proposal for a low-carbon fuel standard which would be one of the most effective ways, probably the most effective way, to reduce quickly the amount of carbon in the fuel we use. In the last Congress, I was the principal sponsor of the solar energy tax credit. So I, like most Americans, am looking for ways for us to continue to power our huge economy but to do it in a clean way. I make a plea for common sense while we do this. I suppose it would be possible for us to give $4,000 to a homeowner and say: Build a big bonfire in your backyard, and then we will give you more money to sequester the carbon and bury it under the ground. That would be possible. But would it make common sense? No, it wouldn't make common sense. There are better ways to use the money. Why would we destroy the environment to save the environment, which is precisely what we are doing in residential neighborhoods with this proposal. I regret not that it allows farm families and farm businesses a small subsidy to build large wind turbines. I regret that we would extend that to residential neighborhoods at the same time. Let me say something else about the number of subsidies for wind power that exist today in our country. Sometimes the need for wind has become nearly a religion. Instead of looking carefully at whether we should use more efficient light bulbs or smart meters on utilities or solar panels or efficient appliances or green buildings, a whole variety of things we can do as a country to be green -- instead of doing that, I think we have gone overboard on the idea of wind. Let me give a couple of examples of that, if I may. There are a great many subsidies already in existence for wind. The biggest, of course, is the renewable electricity production tax credit. Through that renewable production tax credit, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the United States taxpayer will spend $11.5 billion on wind energy over the next 10 years. Let me say that again. The United States taxpayer is committed, through the existing renewable electricity production tax credit, to spend $11.5 billion on wind energy over the next 10 years. That doesn't count the value of various other Federal, State, and local subsidies for wind. There are the clean renewable energy bonds to help build the wind turbines. There are Department of Energy grants and incentive programs. There are Department of Agriculture renewable energy and energy efficiency grants and loans. There are various State subsidies for wind. Texas is appropriating billions of dollars for transmission lines for wind. That is their decision. It is not as if this were a form of energy which lacked support. I am afraid the result is that the extravagant subsidies for wind are causing people to build wind farms and to use wind where they otherwise would not. In testimony before the Environmental and Public Works Committee recently, one utility manager from Oklahoma said he is tripling the amount of wind they are using. I said: Why are you doing that? Can you use it as baseload power; that is, can you use it as reliable power all day long? He said: We can only use it when the wind blows. I said: Can you use it for peaking power? He said: No, we can't use it for that because the peaking power, the busiest time of the day or year, might come when the wind is not blowing. I said: Why are you doing it then? He said: To make the legislators happy. So we are not letting the market decide. We have become obsessed with the idea that this needs to be done. How big is that obsession? I think most Senators would be surprised to learn that by fiscal year 2009, the renewable electricity production tax credit will be the single largest tax expenditure for energy: $1.9 billion of that in 2009 would go for all renewable sources, but $1.3 billion would be for wind. We hear a lot about oil and gas and the subsidies for oil and gas. One might think that would be true since we have this massive economy. We use about 25 percent of all the oil and gas in the world. But according to figures from the Joint Tax Committee -- and perhaps somebody will point out that the Joint Tax Committee is wrong, but this is what they say -- in the year 2009, the subsidies for oil and gas tax expenditures will be $2.7 billion from the taxpayers. The production tax credit for wind will be $1.3 billion. Wind, $1.3 billion; oil and gas, $2.7 billion. The reason I mention that is because of the disproportionate relationship between the value of oil and gas to an economy that uses 25 percent of all of it in the world and the amount of electricity produced by wind. In 2006, wind energy produced seven-tenths of 1 percent of the electricity we consumed in the United States, yet it is the largest single energy tax expenditure by the taxpayer. Something is wrong there. The Energy Information Administration estimates that by the year 2020, after we have spent presumably tens of billions of dollars of subsidies for large wind turbines in your front yard and backyard and side yard and our national forests, along our beaches, our most scenic mountaintops, after we have done all of that, according to the Energy Information Administration, wind is projected to produce about 1 percent of our electricity needs. I am skeptical of that figure. I think the Energy Information Administration is too conservative. It might be 2 percent. It might be 3 percent. Maybe it is 4 percent. But should the largest energy expenditure be to encourage the building of such towers, or should we be spending our money in different ways? We have other ways to produce electricity: 49 percent of our electricity is produced by coal. Would it be wise to spend money in finding a way to sequester that coal, perhaps through algae, perhaps through enzymes, so we can use to it reduce our dependence on foreign oil? I think it would. But the largest single energy tax expenditure is for wind. Twenty percent of our electricity is produced by nuclear power, 80 percent of our clean power. In my view, if we are serious about climate change in this generation, climate change is an inconvenient truth, the inconvenient solution is nuclear power and conservation. But the largest single energy tax expenditure is for large wind turbines. Hydropower is clean as well. It is only about 7 percent of the electricity in the United States. It will drop a little by 2020. But wouldn't there be ways to encourage that as well? It may be said that this is only a small matter. It is only $5 million. But it won't be a small matter in residential neighborhoods in Knoxville and Denver and Los Angeles, all across the country, when a neighbor comes in and says: I just got $4,000 of your tax money, and I am going to put up a 12-story white tower with a blinking red light on top because I want to do what I can for climate change. I think the proper answer is to say that is not the most commonsense thing we can do. There are many ways we can conserve. Efficient light bulbs would save eight times as much as this proposal would generate. Why don't we do that instead? If you think this is not going to happen in your neighborhood, I ask unanimous consent to print in the Record following my remarks a story from CNN.com about neighbors in Atlanta who are already squabbling about someone who has built a wind turbine in their front yard in a historic neighborhood. It makes no difference that the wind doesn't blow very much in Atlanta. The neighbor is just making a statement. That is the kind of thing that this will encourage. The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. SALAZAR). Without objection, it is so ordered. (See Exhibit 1.) Mr. ALEXANDER. It would be my hope that this amendment would be accepted by the Senate. The effect of it would be to leave in place up to $4,000 support for building a tower that could be as large as that one, a 100 kilowatt turbine, in rural areas or for rural business. That would still be in place under my amendment. What would not be in place is the ability to use that in residential neighborhoods. The amendment would also make clear that nothing we are doing in this legislation preempts any local decision about the kind of decisions people will make. I am for caps on utilities. I am the sponsor of the solar credit. I am for cleaner air, more aggressively than the administration has been. I am ready to use smart meters. I am ready to try geothermal, almost anything, the low-carbon fuel standard. But I hope we will use common sense. Common sense says to me, with all due respect, that we should not encourage using other people's tax money for your neighbor to build up to a 12-story white tower in his front yard as a solution to the current concern about climate change. There are other, better ways to do it, starting with energy efficiency, other ways that make much more common sense. I yield the floor.