Note: I recently shared my latest essay on Congress robbing the Social Security Trust Fund with the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the leadership from both parties. I specifically sought a response from the new speaker. Here it is…
December 23, 2015
Philosopher and writer
500 Lincoln Street, Apt. B105
Daphne, AL 36526
Thank you for contacting me regarding federal spending and H.R. 2029, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know your views on these important issues.
Like any family or business, the federal government must set a limit on what it can spend. Each year, Congress must pass a budget agreement to set overall spending levels and 12 individual appropriation bills t o fund the federal government. As you may know, Congress passed H.R. 1314, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which the President signed into law on November 2, 2015. This bill set the top line spending levels for the federal government for FY 2016.
With this budget agreement in place, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees worked to draft an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal government. After passing a number of short-term bills to keep the federal government funded while negotiations were nearing completion, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY 2016 was introduced on December 15, 2015. This omnibus bill combines the 12 separate appropriations bills in a single bill and provides funding for the government through September 30, 2016. This $1.1 trillion appropriations bill represents a bipartisan compromise produced within an imperfect budget framework. It is the product of a process that I have long criticized, a process that is too closed and driven by crisis and brinksmanship instead of by collaboration and big ideas. That said, as Speaker, I had a duty to take ownership of the process that I inherited and, in doing so, I worked hard with my colleagues to make the best of the situation that process created in order to produce a bill that will allow the House to return to regular order in the next year with a clean slate and put forward a bold vision for a better direction for our country. In addition to clearing the way for a more productive legislative process, this bill lays the foundation for a stronger, more prosperous, more confident America by accomplishing numerous Republican priorities in a variety of important areas that affect the lives of Americans, including reforms to energy, tax, health care, and military policies
One of the most critical achievements of this bill is the repeal of the outdated and unnecessary export ban on American crude oil. After a 40-year prohibition, the positive effects of this policy change are numerous, and the immense impact this will have on our nation’s leadership in the global economy cannot be overstated. Allowing American energy to compete in the global market will grow our economy by approximately $170 billion dollars each year and drive new investment in areas like manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. This new growth will allow working families to benefit from America’s energy revolution because it will reduce the costs of fuel and other products while creating an estimated one million good-paying jobs. By allowing American crude oil to enter the global market, our trading partners have a new reliable source of energy, which will bring immediate positive economic benefits, not only across the global economy, but right here at home as well. Equally important, this expansion of America’s economic freedom will also have profound geopolitical impact. By dramatically decreasing the energy dependence of our friends and allies on nations like Iran and Russia, we diminish the bargaining leverage of countries that are frequently at odds with our foreign policy. Lifting this export ban increases our economic influence and provides us with increased leverage as we seek to protect our economic interests and allies, and promote peace and stability in a dangerous and unstable world.
Domestically, this bill takes aim at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and maintains budget cuts necessary to ensure this agency roots out wasteful spending and redirects $290 million targeted to improve customer service, fraud detection and prevention, and cyber security. It places extensive new reporting requirements on IRS spending and use of official time, while prohibiting the IRS from hiring or paying bonuses to former employees without consideration of conduct and tax compliance. After all, if an individual is going to be in charge of collecting other people’s taxes, common sense and basic fairness demand at the very least that they should be held accountable for paying their own taxes. This bill also seeks to prevent the IRS from repeating many of the abuses the agency committed in recent years, most notably in 2012, by prohibiting the IRS from suppressing civic participation or targeting groups for their ideological beliefs, as protected by the First Amendment.
In negotiating this bill, several steps were also taken to mitigate the damage inflicted by the President’s failed health care law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as Obamacare, which cannot be repealed through the appropriations process. First, the omnibus bill protects taxpayers from the ACA’s unworkable structure by preventing a taxpayer bailout of the health care law’s existing risk corridors, a mechanism meant to shield insurers from heavy losses in the early years of the program. It also provides a one year delay of the annual excise tax imposed on health insurers by the ACA and a two year delay of the law’s so called “Cadillac tax” on high-value health care plans. This bill maintains important pro-life provisions, including the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits taxpayer funding for abortion. It also includes a new prohibition on gene editing and funding cuts of seven percent for a program involved in abortion-related activities—the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Also, as you may know, the House recently passed a budget reconciliation bill that would halt federal funds to Planned Parenthood for one year during an investigation to its potential criminal activity and redirect these funds to Federally Qualified Health Centers in order to ensure that all women receive continued access to health care. The Senate passed a similar bill, which also blocks and this funding, and the House will take this bill up in coming weeks. After the House passes that bill, it will be sent to the President for his signature or veto.
Next, the omnibus bill rolls back the Administration’s regulatory overreach by holding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at its lowest staff size since 1989, reducing EPA funding to its lowest levels since 2008, and denying any funding for new or expanded agency programs. This bill requires the Administration to report on the costs and burdens imposed on our economy by Dodd-Frank and requires that Executive Orders and certain Presidential Memorandums be accompanied by cost estimates, so that the Administration is held accountable for the cost to taxpayers. This bill also protects America’s farmers from more than one billion dollars in trade penalties by repealing costly labeling requirements that would violate international agreements. Further, it prohibits the application of the Clean Water Act in farm ponds and irrigation ditches.
In addition, this bill gives our men and women in uniform a pay raise and takes major steps toward rebuilding and modernizing our armed forces. It provides necessary funds to improve our military readiness and capacity to protect and promote our nation’s security and values around the globe. It makes strong new investments to maintain and modernize vital weapons systems and strategic assets like the Ohio-class submarine and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It provides the funding needed to fight, defeat and eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, continue security operations in Afghanistan, and combat other ongoing and emerging threats.
This bill also contains many important provisions that enhance the security of the American people and the security of our homeland. It includes the language of the Cybersecurity Information Protection Act, which aims to mitigate the damage caused by data breaches and prevent cyber attacks by incentivizing businesses to voluntarily share data with the federal government after personal data is removed to ensure privacy protection. Customs and Border Protections will receive a total of $11 billion in funding, the highest levels ever appropriated, in order to protect our borders. It also contains improvements to our Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to help prevent terrorists from entering the United States. Specifically, this bill amends current law to increase security in the VWP by prohibiting those who are from or have travelled to Iraq or Syria at any time on or after March 1, 2011, from participating in the program. It would also terminate the participation in the VWP of any country that fails to properly screen travelers against international criminal and terrorism databases. Additional improvements authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security to suspend any country deemed to be high-risk from participating in the program until any potential threat has passed.
The VWP reform provision is an important step in the effort to keep the American people safe and secure the homeland in the face of the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), but it must be part of a broader effort. That is why on November 17, 2015, Representative Michael McCaul, the Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, introduced H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015. This bill would pause the Syrian refugee program until an adequate security and refugee verification process is put in place, requiring the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Director of National Intelligence to certify – beyond any doubt – that an individual does not pose a threat to the safety of the American people before allowing them to enter our country. This bill imposes no religious test, and it does not close the door on innocent families seeking safety. It simply puts into place the safeguards required to make sure that the generosity of the American people is not taken advantage of by terrorists seeking to do us harm. On November 19, 2015, a bipartisan supermajority in the House came together and passed H.R. 4038 by a vote of 289 to 137 with my support. It is my hope the Senate will pass the bill in coming weeks so that it can be sent to the President’s desk.
There have been some concerns raised about a provision in the omnibus bill that increases the number of H-2B visas that can be issued. H-2B visas are issued to temporary, non-agricultural workers. The program does not allow for permanent immigration, nor does it give any legal status to those living here illegally. And this work-related system is a fraction of the size of other programs in our broken immigration system. To use it, American employers must show that there are not enough U.S. workers available to do the specific, non-agricultural job that they are seeking to fill and that bringing someone here won’t adversely affect the wages of similarly-employed Americans. These workers typically supplement the existing workforce during a seasonal surge in demand. And there is an annual cap of 66,000 visas that can be awarded under the program. Periodically, however, demand from American employers exceeds that limit. That is why this spending bill made a temporary change – one that has been made before – to allow a worker who was counted against the cap in the last three years to return in 2016 without being counted against the limit. Some have tried to extrapolate the numbers to suggest this will have a huge impact on the labor market, but the fact is this is simply not the case. What does the change amount to in practice? Based on historical data and economic modeling, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that this temporary reform will lead to just 8,000 additional workers filling vacancies in 2016, which hardly constitutes the surge in immigration some are suggesting. While our nation’s immigration system is badly broken and in need of common sense, step-by-step reforms to improve border security, uphold the rule of law, and increase America’s economic competitiveness, this H-2B visa policy adjustment is not in any way an effort to pursue broad immigration reform. Unfortunately, any major reforms are simply not possible while President Obama remains in office because he has shown through his repeated willingness to circumvent Congress and act unilaterally to change immigration policy that he simply cannot be trusted to act in good faith on this issue.
In order to honor our nation’s commitments to our veterans and their families, this bill provides the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) with $79.9 billion in discretionary funding for FY 2016, an increase of $7.8 billion over FY 2015. It also provides $63.3 billion in advanced funding for FY 2017 to provide veterans with greater certainty that they will receive their much-deserved health benefits. It also speeds up VA claims processing, prioritizes modernizing the VA’s electronic health care record system, and tightens oversight of construction projects. Lastly, this bill renews and continues our commitment to fund health screenings and treatments for over 30,000 brave 9/11 first responders who answered the call when our nation came under attack and continue to suffer from injuries or illnesses sustained as a result.
This bill is far from perfect. It includes a number of provisions that I oppose, and it excludes a number of reforms and policy changes I would have liked to have seen become law. While this bill provides much-needed funding increases for national defense, border security, and counterterrorism activities, a great deal of work remains to tackle the looming debt crisis and restore economic growth. For five consecutive years, House Republicans have introduced and passed budget resolutions that would do just that. The budget that was introduced for FY 2016 by Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, “A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America,” is a serious budget that addresses our needs and our overwhelming debt by achieving balance, repealing the ACA, ensuring a strong national defense, and cutting waste while improving government accountability. This budget would balance in less than 10 years, cut $5.5 trillion in federal spending, and call for a fairer, simpler tax code that would promote job creation.
On December 18, 2015, in strong bipartisan fashion, the House passed H.R. 2029 by a vote of 316 to 113 with my support—and that of 149 other Republicans and 166 Democrats. Also on December 18, 2015 and in bipartisan fashion, the Senate passed a larger legislative package containing the omnibus bill by a vote of 72 to 26. On December 18, 2015 the President signed this bill into law.
When we have divided government, as we do now, no one will get precisely what they want. However, as elected representatives, it is important for Congress to make the difficult decisions that allow our federal government to have the necessary resources to operate. Wherever possible, we must find common ground and build consensus on how to confront the fiscal issues facing our nation. For far too long, the process has been deeply flawed, and like so many Americans, I believe that we simply can’t keep doing business this way. In order to solve problems, we need to improve the way we seek solutions. I can promise that, as Speaker, I will work tirelessly to make Congress work better for the people it has the honor and duty to serve and represent. I will encourage all members of the House to take part in a governing process based on big ideas that can bring our country together. This process will not be driven by crises, but by collaboration, and it will not be about settling scores. It will be about producing results. It is time for us to wipe the slate clean, turn the page on the last few years, and get to work on a bold agenda that we can share with our fellow Americans.
Thank you again for contacting me to share your thoughts with me on this important issue. If you wish to share additional information with me, please feel free to contact me by calling, emailing, writing, or faxing me. Please be advised that mail sent to my Washington office is subject to an additional two-week delay due to increased mail security.
If I can be of further assistance to you, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am always happy to respond and be of service to you.
Paul D. Ryan
Serving Wisconsin’s 1st District