Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: "Amendments to the Labor, Health and Human Services Bill"

Posted on June 12, 2014

I am on the Senate floor, but I should have had the opportunity today to be at an Appropriations Committee meeting.

We were scheduled this morning to mark up--that means to consider and vote on--the labor, health and human services bill for the next fiscal year. The labor, health and human services bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation we have.

It is the bill that spells out the priorities of the American people as worked out by their elected officials on everything from National Institutes of Health to Pell Grants for college students.

Passing an appropriations bill is an appropriate and important check on executive spending. It is one of our most important constitutional responsibilities. It is one we haven't been exercising very well over the last 4 years. Even though the Appropriations Committee has approved most of the bills to go to the floor, the majority leader has not brought most of the bills to the floor for our consideration.

In 2 of the last 4 years we considered zero appropriations bills on the floor. One of those years we considered one and another year we considered five.

I wasn't at the committee meeting this morning because our markup was indefinitely postponed. I asked why, and I couldn't get a clear answer, but apparently it was because some senators don't want to vote on difficult or tough amendments.


I have repeated a certain line a lot in the past couple of years. I am from Tennessee, so I have said that being in the Senate and not being allowed to vote on amendments is like being asked to join the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing. That is what we do. I mean, this body, described as the one authentic piece of genius in the constitutional system of the United States, was created to have 100 men and women who come to the Senate and who have the opportunity to have extended debate on important issues until we come to a consensus. Sometimes we do that in a terrific way.

Even recently we have done that in important ways; for example, on the student loan agreement that we reached last year which cut nearly in half interest rates on all undergraduate loans, which are 85 percent of student loans. That was the result of an extended debate, working with the Republican House and a Democratic president. The government worked the way it was supposed to.

Coming to the Senate floor and having a say, offering a bill, offering amendments, and having a vote is the job of senators. It is not so important that it is my say or my vote, it is the fact that this is what I was hired to do by my constituents, each one of us was. So we have a right to have our say on the issues--whether it is Iran, student loans, Ukraine, or health care. It is what we are expected to do.

So I have objected to the fact that we have fallen into a pattern in this body of not having amendments. Senator Barrasso of Wyoming has actually counted the number of roll call votes on amendments since last July. He has discovered that Republicans offered only nine amendments that actually had a roll call vote in that entire period of time. Then he counted what the Democrats have offered. Our friends on the other side of the aisle have offered more than 600 amendments, and they have only had 7 roll call votes.

But today we have reached a new level of obstruction because it seems that our friends in the Democratic majority are moving the gag rule--which has existed on the floor of the Senate--from the Senate floor to the committee room. They have said we are going to indefinitely postpone a markup of a bill from one of the most important subcommittees in the Senate to decide how to spend more than a hundred billion dollars, apparently, because some senators don't want to vote on tough amendments.

These aren't extraneous amendments. These aren't political exercises. These are relevant amendments critical to the process of setting spending priorities, and well within the scope of the bill.

So I have no alternative but to bring my tough amendments--the amendments that I planned to offer this morning at the markup--to the Senate floor, at least to talk about them in the hope that soon I will have a chance to offer them in the committee.

I am going to talk about four amendments I had planned to offer this morning--important, relevant amendments, part of what we are supposed to do. Senators shouldn't be afraid to vote on them. If so, we shouldn't be here, because that is what we do.

Amendment No. 1. My first amendment would reverse the trend toward a national school board for elementary and secondary education by protecting a state's control over its academic standards and tests.

My amendment does this by prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education--where I used to be the secretary--from exercising any influence over the academic standards states use to define what students should know and be able to do, as well as the test states use to determine whether students have met those standards.

It also prohibits the department from requiring or incentivizing states to adopt common standards and tests as a condition of an award of a federal grant or a contract, or by providing additional points or a preference in a competitive grant program, or as a condition of approval for waivers of requirements under No Child Left Behind or any federal law.

In other words, this amendment directs the federal government to keep its sticky fingers off state standards and not to interfere with the hard work states are doing to raise expectations for our students.

This is not a new issue. In 1992, 22 years ago, I was the U.S. secretary of education for President George H.W. Bush--who celebrated his 90th birthday today by jumping out of an airplane once again--a remarkable event. Happy birthday, President Bush. Democrats in Congress wrote an education bill in 1992 that would have set federal standards not only for academic content but also for how that content should be delivered to students.

As education secretary, I wrote a memo to the president. I advised him to veto the bill if it came to his desk, because, I said then, it:

“... creates at least the beginnings of a national school board that could make day-to-day school decisions on curriculum, discipline, teacher training, textbooks, and classroom materials. ... A federal recipe dictating how to operate a local school board does not make schools better.”

I wrote this to President Bush in 1992. The president told the Congress he would veto the bill if it reached his desk. Fortunately, it never did.

The amendment that I would like to have offered this morning should not be necessary because federal law already includes a number of specific limitations on the federal government's involvement in education standards and curriculum.

For example, section 9527 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act prohibits any employee of the federal government from mandating, directing or controlling a state, local school district or school’s curriculum, program of instruction or allocation of state and local resources.

The Department of Education is prohibited from using any funding, says the law, to endorse, approve or sanction any curriculum of instruction used in the elementary or secondary school. That is the law today.

Furthermore, the law today prohibits requiring any state to have academic content or student academic achievement standards approved by the federal government in order to receive funding under the law, with the exception of the requirement that states must demonstrate that they have adopted challenging standards in their Title I plan.

By including these prohibitions Congress has made it clear that it does not want a national school board --that primary responsibility for decisions relating to educating students rest with states and local communities, teachers, and parents.


But this administration has used the combination of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and waivers from No Child Left Behind to in effect convert itself into a national school board, making decisions that states and local communities ought to make for themselves--particularly decisions about standards and tests.

Under Race to the Top, the department gave additional points to states which participated in the development of and adopted the Common Core standards, using the prospect of receiving federal funds to coerce states into joining the Common Core.

Now, the department might say it didn't write the words ``Common Core'' into their grant application, but Common Core then was the only game in town that could meet the requirements for those points.

More recently, the administration has used its waiver authority under No Child Left Behind to impose on States new requirements about standards that are not contemplated in and, I believe, prohibited by federal law. So this amendment would strictly prohibit that overreach.

My second amendment would avoid the creation of a taxpayer-funded popularity contest by preventing the Department of Education from developing a rating system for our nation's 6,000 colleges and universities.

So my first amendment would prevent the Secretary from becoming chairman of a national school board, and my second amendment would prevent the secretary from claiming the role of national czar of higher education. It is a simple amendment to end what I see as a misguided errand initiated by the President and underway at the Department of Education. That is the rating of our colleges and universities by the federal government.

This amendment would prohibit the Department of Education from using any federal funding to develop, refine, publish or implement a college rating system. In August of 2013, President Obama directed the Department of Education to rate each of our nation's more than 6,000 colleges and universities based on their affordability and outcomes such as graduation rates and earnings. I am all for ensuring that parents and students have the information they need to make good college choices, but picking winners and losers with a rating system is not an appropriate role for the federal government in Washington, DC. Here is what an expert in education policy at the Brookings Institution--not exactly a hotbed of rightwing propaganda--had to say:

There is a clear case to be made for the federal government using its authority to gather data like these for postsecondary institutions that receive taxpayer funding, but little precedent for the government producing ratings.

The Brookings scholar goes on to say:

The Securities and Exchange Commission regulates stocks and bonds, but leaves it to private organizations to rate them. The Department of Transportation sets standards for the calculation of cars' gas mileage, but it doesn't opine on whether a Ford is better than a Toyota. The Food and Drug Administration decides which pharmaceuticals can be sold in the U.S., but it does not say whether Advil is better for a headache than Tylenol.

In other words, this is not the job of the federal government.

We don't need the federal government making these judgments for 22 million college students. What we need is the information so Americans can make these judgments for ourselves.

I also have serious practical concerns about the department's ability even to begin this effort. I believe it will fall on its face when they try to write it. We already know the department is struggling. They have had to delay the release of the draft ratings system from the spring to sometime in the fall. If they ever do move forward, I have little confidence in their ability to get it right.

The federal government simply can't develop ratings that account for the diversity of our higher education system. We have 6,000 institutions of higher education of all kinds Nashville's auto diesel college, Notre Dame, Randolph-Macon, Yeshiva, Berea College, Dyersburg Community College, Harvard. All of these are different. We need information. We don't need the government issuing ratings.

My third amendment would rein in the Obama administration's out-of-control National Labor Relations Board by stopping it from requiring employers to give labor unions their employees' personal email addresses and cell phone numbers and from forcing employers to let employees use employer-owned and operated email systems to campaign for a union.

Since 1966 the NLRB has required employers to provide a union with a list of names and home addresses of employees eligible to vote in a union representation election. This is called an Excelsior List.

In February of this year, the NLRB re-proposed expanding the Excelsior List in its ambush elections proposed rule. Now, ambush elections are another Obama administration initiative which would shorten the time from the union's request to call an election to when the election is held to as little as 10 days.

But here is the NLRB's Excelsior List proposal: It would require employers to include voter-eligible employees' personal telephone numbers, email addresses, work locations, shift times, and job classifications on the Excelsior List. They rejected a suggestion I made that at least an employee ought to be able to opt out of sharing this information.

We have had many examples of unions violating people's privacy and even harassing them.

For example, in 2010, agents of Communications Workers of America Local 1103 in Connecticut used personal information they obtained about one woman who did not support the union to sign her up for hundreds of unsolicited and unwanted magazines and consumer products.

This NLRB-proposed rule has a lot of opposition. Senator Graham was intending this morning to offer in our markup a similar amendment that would prevent funds from going to implement any of the so-called ambush election rule which this is a part of.

As I have said before, the NLRB has become far too politicized under recent administrations. It didn't start with the Obama administration, but it has gotten worse with this administration, as it has moved toward the side of union advocacy with such things as ambush elections and micro-unions and undermining State right-to-work laws.

The National Labor Relations Board should be an umpire rather than an advocate.

The fourth amendment I would have offered this morning--had our subcommittee markup proceeded as it had been scheduled, and had it not been postponed apparently because some senators didn't want to take ``tough votes''--would simply require the Obama administration to be straightforward with the public about the Affordable Care Act by reporting basic facts on the federally run insurance exchange, which is running the exchange for 36 states--facts such as the number of people signed up and making premium payments.

I introduced similar legislation last year. The House of Representatives passed that legislation in January by a bipartisan vote of 259 to 154. A total of 33 House Democrats voted for it. It is very simple, noncontroversial, and shouldn't be considered tough.

It would simply require the Obama administration to provide weekly reports during open enrollment--which now runs from November to February--reports to Congress, to states, and to the public about the federal exchange, including such easily tracked data as the number of individuals who have visited the site, the number who have successfully enrolled, their zip codes, the level of coverage they have obtained, and also at least monthly a list of the navigators and the brokers operating in each state. This is important especially to serve disadvantaged Americans.

This isn't complicated. This is the Internet age. Even before the Internet age, McDonald's could tell us how many hamburgers it made each day, and RCA could tell us how many Elvis Presley albums it had left on their shelves.

In May Politico reported the administration stopped releasing the barebones reports it had been providing the public every month. This is troubling.

Many Americans can continue to sign up for coverage through special enrollment periods, but we won't know how many Americans have continued paying their premiums after the first month of coverage. We will have no way of knowing the final number of confirmed enrollments.

So these are the four amendments I had expected I would be offering and debating today in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Instead, I am here late in the afternoon on the Senate floor because some Senators must be more worried about their reelection campaigns than about the process of governing and setting priorities.

If we are not willing to do what we are elected to do--no one is making any of us be here.

I hope the markup we had planned today will be rescheduled. I plan to offer these amendments then. I hope they will be voted on by the committee, and I hope I will have the opportunity to represent the people of Tennessee who have sent me here to represent their views.