Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Report from Jean Schmidt's Town Hall Meeting

Congresswoman Jean Schmidt held another in her series of Coffee and Conversation Town Hall Meetings yesterday. The Congresswoman is on her Congressional Recess/home distict working session. (She made a point of the home district working session as to innoculate herself from the charge of taking a long summer break from working in Congress.)

Here's a report on the more salient points in the order they came up during the meeting:

Prepared remarks:

Audience Participation:


Prepared remarks:

Support of pension reform, details behind the support of minimum wage legislation and Death Tax reform

Congresswoman Schmidt gave a bit of behind the scenes details on how the Pension Reform, Minimim Wage and Estate (Death) Tax bills were voted on and sent to the Senate.

She recounted the Republican Caucus meeting where Majority Leader Boehner said the Senate had "promised" to vote on the Minimum Wage/Estate Tax bill if the House also sent along the Pension Reform bill. The Senate went on to break their "promise" and took the Pension Reform bill but kept the Minimum Wage/Estate Tax bill from coming to a vote. (BTW, Ohio's Voinovich was one of the no votes.)

Congresswoman Schmidt gave the impression that she and her fellow House members had been snookered by the Senate.

Energy Policy: Support for Ethanol

Schmidt strongly supports drilling in ANWAR and Ethanol devlopment.

"What part of 'Illegal' don't you understand?"

Ms. Schmidt brought up the issue of illegal immigration (which was like lighting a tinder box) commenting on the House's vs. the Senate's approach. "What part of 'Illegal' don't you understand?" was the statement Ms. Schmidt shared to express her sentiments. The House's approach, in her mind, is to "stop the bleeding"; the Senate's approach is to provide a path to legalization.

Related: see Prediction: "What part of 'Illegal' don't you understand?" will be the "It's the economy stupid!" of the 2006 midterm elections.

Her recent trip to Columbia; learning that Hezbollah is in South America and that U.S. Currency counterfeiting is a big problem there

Congresswoman Schmidt gave a few details about her recent trip to Columbia to see how that nation is deal with their own version of home grown terrorism.

She noted that two things stuck in her mind from the trip:

1) She learned that Hezbollah is in Latin America
2) Counterfeiting of U.S. Currecy in Latin America is a big problem. (This report says that $40 million in counterfeit money was recently intradicted in Ecuador.)

"Rat" on the Intelligence Committee started sharing sensitive information on recent British terrorist plot that was foiled

Congresswoman Schmidt noted that the recently foiled British terrorism plot is justification for a strong intelligence-based approach to fight terrorism.

She shared that she was dismayed to learn that even after the recent plot had been uncovered, someone, a "Rat" - her exact words, in the Intelligence Committee was already leaking behind the scenes details to the press. She didn't say whether the leak was from the House or Senate committee. (A search of news reports hasn't confirmed this yet.)

Legislative Accomplishments

Similar legislation to that introduced by Ms. Schmidt on phone spoofing was passed by the Congress.

Audience Participation:

Immigration, Immigration, Immigration!

Many in the audience were loaded for bear to share their feelings on illegal immigration. To say that they weren't holding back would be an understatement. There was a very strong attitude of 'deport everyone that is not legally entitled to be here!' English only laws were also a hot button issue. This topic easily took up 3/4 of the audience participation section.

Congresswoman Schmidt noted that she supports local efforts like those of Sheriff Richard Jones.

Frivolous law suit reform

An audience member asked about frivolous law suit reform. Ms. Schmidt strongly supports it and recounted a story about her days as a Township Trustee and having to deal with a frivolous lawsuit involving the winter salting of a neighboring township and the liability that resulted from it.

Explaining her votes against the Flake Anti-pork Amendments

Ms. Schmidt was asked to reconcile her votes against the Flake Anit-pork Amendments (Schmidt voted agains all 19 of the amendments), her public statements against wasteful spending and her support of the Line-Item Veto.

Congresswoman Schmidt responded that one of Flake's amendments, H.AMDT.908 to eliminate all funding of aquaculture in Ohio, would directly affect farmers in the district.

This specific amendment was voted down in a voice vote and Ms. Schmidt was not happy, almost indignant, that she was called on to defend the spending. She used this as justification to vote against all the amendments offered by Congressman Flake, seemingly in retribution for his actions.

Her statement from the Congressional Record (page H3109) (read the whole thing if you like to see how the sausage is made):

...Mrs. SCHMIDT. Mr. Chairman, I rise today in opposition to this amendment. Aquaculture is becoming a burgeoning industry in my State. Ohio aquaculture has grown 17 percent in the last year alone.

Ohio State University, Ohio's land grant university, has been conducting this vital research in my district to most importantly help Ohio's tobacco farmers transition to new crops, and that is important that we find ways for Ohio's tobacco farmers to transition to new crops or otherwise those farmers will find themselves unable to continue to be farmers in Ohio.

This funding is not just important to my district. It is essential to the aquacultural research in all of Ohio through a state-wide aquacultural extension program. This funding is well spent, and it produces real dividends for Ohio farmers. A few years ago I got to witness one of the farms that actually participated in this research, a tobacco farmer that now raises shrimp and is making money off raising shrimp in Ohio.

I am a conservative and a fiscal conservative, and I do not like to spend people's money, but I do understand the importance of this kind of economic research for Ohio's farmers and Ohio's folks...

Ms. Schmidt claims that Mr. Flake offered up this amendment and did not address aquaculture spending in Arizona. This claim was also made by Congresswoman Kaptur during the discussion on the amendment:

...Ms. KAPTUR. Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman for yielding me time. I would
like to join my dear colleague from Ohio (Mrs. Schmidt) in saying that aquaculture is a growing business in Ohio. We want to keep all of our communities competitive.

I would say to the gentleman from Arizona, Ohio is really a shrimp in this. Arizona has a $4.2 million aquaculture designation in this bill. So we are really a shrimp compared to Arizona with your subsidized water and your Bureau of Land Reclamation incentives for your folks out there...

A review of the actual bills (reported to the House, before amendments were offered [H.R.5384.RH]; voted on and reported from the House, [H.R.5384.EH]) has only $990,000 in total designated for aquaculture grants. The individual grants are not delineated. [See update below]

A call has been placed to Ms. Kaptur's and Ms. Schmidt's office to reconcile this issue. An update will be posted here.

Matthew Specht, Congressman Flake's press secretary, returned a call to him and noted that Mr. Flake did not ask for any specific earmarks for his district or Arizona.

[Update: No follow-up yet from Kaptur's or Schmidt's office [Schmidt's office has since called back and referred to the information that follows]; but additional research into the House Report [House Report 109-463] associated with the actual House Bill [H.R.5384.EH] does shed some light on Ms. Kaptur's claim. The House Report is the document sent to the members that accompanies the actual bill that gets voted out of the Appropriations Committee. This is where earmarks are often added in.

Reading through this report you will find page after page of individual earmark spending items.

The House Report shows that $900,000 was the amount targeted for aquaculture in Ohio that Congresswomen Schmidt and Kaptur wanted to protect. The report also lists the following (emphasis added):

...Shrimp aquaculture.--The Committee provides $4,200,000 for shrimp aquaculture in Arizona, Hawii, Mississippi, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas. The goal of this program is to increase domestic production of marine shrimp through aquaculture...

This is the amount that Ms. Kaptur was referring to in the statement quoted from the Congressional Record above. Ms. Kaptur incorrectly attributed the full amount to Arizona, but she was using this specific spending in an attempt to make the case that Mr. Flake's efforts at offering amendments to cut specific earmarks were insincere.

Matthew Specht, Congressman Flake's press secretary, was contacted again to address the question of insincerity that Ms. Kaptur brought up on the House floor and later repeated by Congresswoman Schmidt in the Town Hall Meeting.

According to Mr. Specht, Congressman Flake's primary mission in offering up the specific amendments was to have members' votes recorded for actual individual items, as opposed to an all-or-nothing approach that has been historically practiced.

There were so many earmarks associated with this bill that he had to select a representative number of them; which even included an earmark that did affect Arizona; H.AMDT.905 eliminating spending in Arizona (emphasis added):

An amendment to prohibit any of the funds made available by the Act from being used for the Fruit and Vegetable Market Analysis, Arizona and Missouri grant.

Time permitting, Mr. Flake's goal would have been to eliminate all the earmarks from the bill including the $4.2 million for shrimp aquaculutre. This sentiment is backed up strongly with statements from the Congressional Record.

Here's Mr. Flake's statement and tussle with the Agriculture Appropriations Chairman Bonilla when offering up the amendment from the Congressional Record (page H3105) (emphasis added):

...The committee has provided $350,000 for providing analysis of the impacts of trade, environmental, monetary, and other policies on the Nation's fruit and vegetable industry to stakeholders. This research is to be carried out by Arizona State University and the University of Missouri. I should note that Arizona State University has a campus in my district.

The original goal of the research was to respond in a timely manner to requests for policy-relevant information from congressional Members and their staffs on a wide variety of topics that impact the fruit and vegetable industry and consumers. The project also develops 10-year baseline projections on production, prices, consumption and trade for the fruit and vegetable sector. The funding is through the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service's Special Research grants, which are congressionally directed and noncompetitive research earmarks awarded to universities. Again, these are noncompetitive research earmarks awarded to universities.

The agriculture appropriations for fiscal year 2007 includes more than $100 million in these earmarks, many that have persisted for years and can only be terminated by Congress.

The Fruit and Vegetable Market Analysis has been receiving Federal funds since 2002 and has received more than $1.3 million in appropriations. This earmark, again, was not included in the President's request and this project has no formal evaluation. There is no expected completion date with this analysis, and it is expected to be ongoing.

Here is another example: There are so few opportunities for oversight here. When you contact the Federal agencies, it is difficult to even determine if they know that these projects exist. Who is supposed to be providing oversight here? In Congress, we are not, certainly. I mean, a lot of these programs, some of the earmarks that we will discuss today were expected to be 2-year programs. They have gone on for over a decade. When do we say, enough is enough? Where is the oversight? If the Federal agency is not providing the oversight, if they do not even know of the program, and Congress is not providing the oversight, how do we know that we are getting our bang for the buck?

These are pork barrel projects. We should not be funding them.

Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.

Mr. BONILLA. Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to the amendment.

The Acting CHAIRMAN. The gentleman from Texas is recognized for 5 minutes.

Mr. BONILLA. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Once again, the gentleman who is proposing this amendment somehow thinks that this is going to save money in the bill.

Let me point out also, in addition to the remarks I made earlier about cutting discretionary spending and cutting this bill back this year, there have also been cuts in this bill where funding for the Member priorities are down $35 million or 8 percent from last year. So the effort to deal with fiscal conservatism is ongoing and continues from last year when we started cutting discretionary spending. We also terminate eight Federal programs for a savings of more than $4 million.

So anyone who thinks that we are not concerned about fiscal conservatism can look at the facts and figures before them. And we understand that the media likes to talk about Member priorities, but I would suggest that anyone who is truly serious and is not looking for recognition would work on entitlement reform, which is where the vast majority of our government funds go to, and that would really make a big mark on cutting back on spending, not amendments such as this one that do not cut one penny out of this bill. And I hope our colleagues and the constituents that are watching this are not somehow fooled into thinking that this amendment cuts one penny out of this bill.

Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.

Mr. FLAKE. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself 2 minutes.

It strikes me as odd that the Appropriations Committee claims that this is money that is going to be spent anyway. We have no control. This is money, if we knock it out of here, it will just be spent elsewhere.

What are we here for? Are we potted plants, just here to watch money go out the door?

We are here to prioritize. We are here to say, this ought to be funded, that should not be funded.

Last Friday, we had a great discussion about the Military Quality of Life bill, where there was funding in there that was put in emergency category. Surely the Appropriations Committee or the House as a whole can say this $500 million that we are doing in earmarks here in the agriculture bill perhaps could go to Military Quality of Life. Why can we not do that?

This notion that we have no control and we cannot move money from one account to another is simply absurd. We can. We are Members of Congress. That is what we are here to do, to prioritize. So I completely reject the notion that we cannot do this.

Also, on the subject of earmarks versus entitlements, I think my colleague in the Senate said it well: Earmarks are the gateway drug to spending addiction. Once you get earmarks, then it is much easier to get other spending as well. A lot of the entitlement programs that we have expanded, the prescription drug benefit, for example, was made possible because of so many earmarks on other bills.

Earmarks are a problem. It does add up to real money. I believe the transportation bill last year was some $27 billion in earmarks. That is not chump change. And I think that Americans all over are concerned about this and rightly so.

Also, when you have a process here where there are no names attached to the earmarks, we do not know how to find out about these programs.

We simply don't know. We contact the Federal agencies. Half the time they don't know about the programs. Where are we to provide oversight? That is one of our responsibilities, and we are not doing it here.

Mr. BONILLA. Mr. Chairman, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Mr. Chairman, Members come to the floor and offer amendments that have either substantive increases or decreases to appropriations bills. I use as an example a sincere Member from the State of Colorado, comes here every year with an amendment to cut spending that has a true impact on the bill. Whether he succeeds or not, there are votes held on that and honest debate is held.

But, again, when amendments are presented in this form, there is no savings. Anyone who suggests that there is a savings in writing amendments like this is a fool, because they are not cutting a single penny from the appropriations bill.

The net of it all is that Ms. Kaptur (in her House floor statement) and Ms. Schmidt (in her Town Hall Meeting justification for her vote) attempted to point out to their constituents that their pork-barrel/earmark spending (An earmark is a line-item that is inserted into a bill to direct funds to a specific project or recipient without any public hearing or review) was in part justified because Congressman Flake was not addressing earmarks/pork-barrel in his state: "You're being irresponsible, so can I". The record, moreover the logic of such a claim, does not support Congresswomen Schmidt and Kaptur.

Past reports:

  • Report from Jean Schmidt's Town Hall Meeting (2/9/2006)

  • Report: Coffee and Conversation with Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (12/5/2005)

  • Report from Jean Schmidt's Town Hall Meeting (11/5/2005)

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      Blogger BizzyBlog said...

      Good job. I think the illegals incident in Warren County at the home site (one guy fired, comes back with 9 others, guns, and baseball bats) that I blogged on woke a lot of people up. That incident occurred about 5 miles from where the last night's meeting was.

      I'd be interested in the results of the aquaculture inquiry.

      August 15, 2006 at 7:16 PM  
      Blogger Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

      Way to go. I wish I could attend some of the meetings for Pat Tiberi and ask him why he voted for only 6 of the 19.

      August 17, 2006 at 9:34 AM  

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