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I also wish to mention I was disappointed that we were not able to use this last train that will reach the finish line before we recess to extend unemployment insurance. Some 1.3 million workers are in danger of losing benefits come January 1. In 2014, as many as 4.7 million workers will not be getting the extended benefit, 83,000 of whom are located in my State of Maryland.
Let my point out, I know the unemployment rates are getting lower. We are all working to make sure to get them as low as we can. But they are still substantially higher than they were when we first recognized that we needed to have extended Federal unemployment benefits because of the softness in our economy. Particularly for those who are long-term unemployed, it is extremely difficult to find a job. If you are unemployed and you are looking for work, it is tough out there.
So the right thing for us to do is to continue these benefits for people who are actively looking for work and cannot find jobs. This is an insurance program. The moneys have been collected during good times so that we pay during these times. The money is there. We need to make sure those benefits are continued. I was disappointed it was not included in the legislation. It will help our economy grow.
There are more and more economic studies that show every dollar we make available in unemployment compensation returns much more to our economy in job growth. So this is hurting ourselves by not extending it, plus we are hurting millions of Americans who are going to be more vulnerable in trying to keep their families together during these very challenging times.
Let me conclude by saying that as I said in the beginning, this is an important budget agreement to get approved. I strongly support it. I applaud the leadership of Senator Murray and Congressman Ryan in bringing us to this moment. My constituents believe this is a very important step forward, showing that we can compromise and work together and get our work done.
In a few days we will bring the first session of the 113th Congress to a close and leave Washington to spend the holidays with our families and friends. I hope each one of us will use that time to reflect on the extraordinary privilege of being a Member of Congress. I hope each one of us will reflect on the extraordinary challenges our Nation faces. I hope each one of us will come to the conclusion that we can do extraordinary things if we work together. The American people demand and deserve no less.
I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Wyoming.
Mr. ENZI. Mr. President, I rise to express my disappointment that the budget deal we will soon be voting on reflects just that, a deal–not legislation, a deal. It raises spending above the cap. That is the spending limit we put in place just 2 years ago.
It raises revenue from hard-working Americans to pay for this new spending and promises to cut some spending in the future. We have seen before how that story ends. We have already read that book. We will spend more now, we will grow the government more now, and ultimately the spending cuts will never materialize.
I have a favorite retired truckdriver in Pinedale, WY, who has suggested that we need to quit putting people in the wagon and get more people pulling the wagon. What he, of course, is referring to is the way we are growing government. Every time we grow government we put some more people in this wagon that the private sector has to pull. Yes, everybody in government pays taxes. But not one person in the government pays as much in taxes as they earn, so they become a part of the burden in the wagon.
Yes, even Senators are part of that burden in the wagon. But we are getting less and less people pulling the wagon. They are getting a little tired of pulling the wagon. I am going to show some things that are happening in this budget that are making it even tougher for them to pull the wagon.
So this is not the right path forward. My constituents back home in Wyoming and Americans across this country deserve better. We talk about how we have reduced the deficit. Reduced the deficit? Yes, that means we used to be overspending $1 trillion a year, and now we are only overspending $500 billion, which is one-half trillion. That is still overspending.
Families across America know you cannot keep spending more than you take in. Is there any indication that this causes a problem? We have been experiencing some of the lowest interest rates in the history of the country, which means the Federal Government has been able to borrow its money for less than it ever has before.
A few months ago I went to one of these bond sales. It was $40 billion worth of bond sales, sold in 30 minutes. People in other countries had so much confidence in the United States that they were willing to pay us to take their money. They put in bids of negative interest rates. They paid us to take their money, to keep it, to make sure it was secure. They believed it would be secure. So they paid us a negative interest rate.
At that particular bond sale, the interest rate was .86 percent to borrow $40 billion. That is what it averaged out at. Last week we did bond sales. Last week we sold $30 billion worth of bonds. I do not know how many minutes it took to do that, but it was a relatively short period of time, probably less than 30 minutes as well.
Do you know what the interest rate was? It was 3.90 percent. In just a few months it has gone from .86 to 3.90. Is that factored into this budget? I bet you it is not. If that interest rate keeps going up, if it hits 5 percent, we are not going to be able to do nearly as much as we are now. We have to pay our interest first, otherwise we have bankrupted the United States and proven it.
When we talk about raising the debt ceiling, it is a minor issue compared to being able to pay the interest on the debt. If it keeps going up significantly, we and our kids and our grandkids are not going to be able to pay the debt. That is what I hear across Wyoming. That is what I hear across America. So what are we trying to do? We are trying to come up with a reasonable amount of spending for the United States. This budget does not do it.
Because Members are going to be voting on a deal rather than a bill that had the opportunity to be improved through the committee process with feedback from other Members, we will not have the opportunity to discuss the potential unintended consequences and address them before they become law. I just heard 15 minutes of that discussion from the Senator from Maryland who knows a whole bunch of items that are in this bill that he is upset with, and I, quite frankly, think he ought to be upset with.
But I am on that conference committee. When the deal was made, we read about it in the papers just like everybody else. We did not get any special notice that there had been a deal made. On conference committees, I have seen the deals made before. I have never seen one made by so few people before. In this one there was a Democrat from the Senate and a Republican from the House. The two of them came up with a conclusion that this is what we should have.
That is not too bad, provided it goes through a normal process, which means we get to make some amendments. When we make amendments, some pass, some fail. But at least we get to bring up the unintended consequences that we see. That is why we have so many people in Congress: 100 here and 435 on the other side. That is why we have a whole lot of backgrounds looking at everything that happens around here from a whole lot of perspectives so maybe we can stop the unintended consequences.
But that is only if it goes through a normal process. So far the tree is filled on this bill. What does that mean? That means no amendments allowed. Take it or leave it. No matter what you think of it, forget it. We are going to have some unintended consequences that are going to come out of this and they are going to become law.
For example, I applaud the proposal that would limit access to Social Security’s Death Master File to prevent identity theft, and individuals from fraudulently claiming government benefits and tax refunds associated with those who have passed away. That is a good idea. However, I am concerned that certain organizations that use that same Death Master File for legitimate business purposes that benefit consumers may have their access restricted.
If we discussed these issues in committee, we might have been able to address them, perhaps with a sensible solution, perhaps in a way that would
MAKING CONTINUING APPROPRIATIONS FOR FISCAL YEAR 2014–Resumed — (Senate – December 17, 2013)
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have protected the identity and still protected the benefits to the consumer.
The budget deal makes a permanent provision that would require States to pay a 2-percent administrative fee to the Federal Government for the collection of mineral royalties. This only affects a few States, particularly Wyoming. The negotiators and the administration see this as an easy pot of money. We saw the same situation play out last year when the Federal Government saw a pot of money associated with the abandoned mine lands, that primarily go to Wyoming, and spent it on an unrelated highway bill.
When the Federal Government first started to withhold the mineral royalty money owed to States, I introduced legislation with Senator Barrasso and Representative Lummis and a bipartisan group of legislators from affected States to stop it. Each of those States is fully capable of collecting its own share of the mineral revenues without help from the Federal Government. We should not have to pay for that. We will continue to reverse this unjust practice.
Another fascinating little item was when we did the sequester, the money that comes in from Federal mineral royalties to the Federal Government was considered to be revenue. The money that went out, which is by law to the States, was considered to be revenue to the States that passed through the Federal Government. The Federal Government took 5.3 percent out of it until, of course, we started having a lot of success at reversing both this 2 percent that I just talked about and the stealing of the Federal mineral royalties. Suddenly the Federal Government said: Oh, that was a mistake. You are going to get your full half of the Federal mineral royalties less, of course, the 2 percent.
Another little problem is the deal raises premiums private companies pay the Federal Government to guarantee their pension benefits. That is something we have also insisted on. We have said companies need to pay a fee so if they go out of business, the people they promised a pension to will get at least 60 percent of what they were promised. That is supposed to be a trust fund, a trust fund to be able to pay those people if the company goes out of business.
We have addressed that a number of times. We have held that sacrosanct until a couple of years ago. This raises the premium. That is gentle for a new tax. A premium is a tax. If every company has to pay another $200 per employee who receives a pension, that is a tax.
If it goes into the trust fund, maybe it is a fee. But here is the real kicker: This money we raise does not go to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, so it is a tax increase. It does not shore up this trust fund. It will be spent on discretionary programs, and it will be spent this year.
But it will be collected for 10 years. How many people in America get to take 10 years of revenue, spend it this year, and then not worry about it? Nobody that I know of.
Employers are still in the process of implementing and paying for a $9 billion tax increase called for in the highway bill last year. That, again, is a 10-year tax to build highways for 2 years. When that highway bill comes up, where are we going to steal the money next time?
There is always the Social Security trust fund and a whole bunch of other trust funds. I can hear the yelling about that, and I will join the yelling about that if it is even considered. If we can tap it in the private sector, undoubtedly we can tap it in the government sector as well.
A $9 billion increase, that was for the highway bill. We have another $200 per employee, so we have another $900 billion increase that is put on the backs of private industry, the ones pulling the wagon that I talked about. To put it simply, over 2 years the flat-rate premium will have increased 40 percent, and over 3 years the variable-rate premium–which is a tax if it doesn’t go where it is supposed to–will have increased over 100 percent. That is a huge tax.
I guarantee that will end the willingness of some companies to continue pensions. Pensions are voluntary.
If the cost to continue them goes up, the companies will reevaluate.
In fact, I can state that they are reevaluating right now. When we are looking at $200 per year per employee, we have to take a look at how that affects this. Pensions will change drastically because of this agreement.
A few of the concerns I have just raised could be addressed, if not in committee, then on the Senate floor. Once again, the majority leader has decided that no amendments will be allowed. They won’t be allowed to be offered, and they won’t be allowed to be voted on.
I filed two amendments to the budget deal that are relevant to this discussion. One was with Senator Murphy regarding the need to follow congressional intent and to clarify that the funding of the accounting standards-setting bodies is not subject to sequestration.
We have a system where there are rules set up to have generally accepted accounting principles, and we have a body that is supposed to be very independent that is supposed to come up with those rules.
We do force the companies that are in the accounting business to pay for that body, to standardize the accounting process. It comes directly from the accountants, and it is supposed to go directly to this accounting board. We have decided that sequestration should take a little chunk out of that. That should not happen. That is stealing money again. That is one of the amendments.
Another one was to strike the language making it permanent for the Federal Government to withhold 2 percent of mineral royalty owed to the States for administrative expenses. We should have the opportunity to discuss, debate, and vote on them on the Senate floor.
There are a lot of others, but those are the two primary ones. We have to stop dealmaking and we have to start legislating.
Our constituents sent us here to legislate. They deserve better than a deal agreed to behind closed doors without input and improvements from the rest of the legislators, not even the committee to which it was assigned. Even though I am disappointed in the process that has led to this point today, I am even more disappointed in the product that resulted from the dealmaking.
This budget deal breaks the promise we made to our constituents in 2011–as part of the Budget Control Act–that we would reduce spending. It has worked. It hasn’t worked the way a lot of people would like for it to work because it has been across-the-board. But for the first time since the Korean War, it has reduced spending 2 consecutive years.
We were close. After 2014, overall discretionary spending would have increased even with the sequester. Yes, we were almost at the end of the part of taking down the spending, but we couldn’t find the will to prioritize spending this year under the current spending levels and, instead, decided to ask Americans to send in more of their hard-earned money to Washington so the Federal Government could spend it the same way we always have–promise the cuts in the end and take more money in the beginning.
I think my constituents in Wyoming know best how to spend their money. Of course, this penalizes them for their principled budgeting which they have been doing and makes it look as if they have money. Every State could have money if they were as careful as Wyoming has been.
Washington, DC, has a spending problem. We don’t have a revenue problem. We can think of all kinds of things we would like to spend money on, things that we think would be a good deal and probably that would buy some votes out there. That is wrong. We need to get things under control before that 3.9 percent interest rate goes to 5 percent, 10 percent–or it has been as high as, I think, 18 percent before.
The budget deal increases spending and shows the one thing that some Democrats and Republicans can agree on, and that is putting off our decisions. This plan spends more than the current law. It charges people and States for more and uses the money to increase spending in nonrelated areas.
Spending cuts are scheduled for outlying years, and so the so-called savings are used right away. Yes, just shift that money from out there and put it into the current spending. That isn’t real. Nobody else gets to do it. It is only a government trick.
We cannot spend our way to prosperity. We need to prioritize spending
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politicians to leave our children and grandchildren worse off, we will be the first generation of American politicians who returned to the sanity of fiscal soundness, biennial budgeting, and accountability in the way we do our business.
I vote for that, and I will vote for the Ryan-Murray budget tomorrow when it comes to the floor of the Senate.
I yield back the remainder of my time and defer to the Senator from Washington.
Mrs. MURRAY. I suggest the absence of a quorum.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.
The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.
Mr. NELSON. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
Mr. NELSON. Mr. President, I am here to speak on the budget, but until our other colleague from Pennsylvania gets here, I ask unanimous consent to speak as in morning business.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
DISAPPEARANCE OF BOB LEVINSON
Mr. NELSON. Mr. President, over the course of Friday and through the weekend there has been the publication, first by the Associated Press, of a missing American, a missing Floridian, Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent and that publication has spurred other entities, primarily the New York Times, which had been holding the story for a number of years–well before the Associated Press ever got the story–to then print a story of additional information about the disappearance, 7 years ago, of Bob Levinson on Kish Island, a resort island in the Persian Gulf right off the coast of mainland Iran.
Of course, we have been searching for any shred of evidence about Bob. He has here in the U.S., in Florida, a wife and seven children. The length of time he has been missing, unfortunately, seems to have met or exceeded the amount of time of almost any American.
The family, of course, desperately seeks any shred of evidence. They were heartened 3 years ago when Christine Levinson, his wife, received a secretive email with a video that showed that Bob was alive. In it he made statements that he had served the government of the U.S. for 30 years and: Please help.
About a year later, she received, also by another circuitous email, a photograph of him, obviously later because his hair is long and there is a full beard. His hair is silver, his beard is silver. In both the video and the last item, the photograph, he appears quite gaunt. Of course, we know he has health problems, high blood pressure, and so forth, and, of course, we fear.
We also know that just this morning, on “CBS This Morning,” a fellow who he was seeing–an American who lives in Iran, a fellow who he was seeing on Kish Island–saw him taken by Iranian authorities.
It is no secret that all levels of the government, including their Florida Senator, have reached out to the Iranian Government over the years, including the President of the United States when he spoke to the newly elected President of Iran when that United Nations meeting occurred in September.
I have spoken within the last couple of days to the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations and reiterated the plea of those of us on a humanitarian basis for this family to be reunited with their loved one and have offered to the Ambassador, if it would in any way help, that I am willing to go to Iran if in any way it would secure his release. If the Iranian authorities took him, somebody in the Government of Iran knows of his whereabouts.
I will conclude by saying that for the first time we have what appears to be successful talks going on between the two governments with regard to the Iranian nuclear program, and those are at a critical stage to, hopefully, bear fruit within about 5 months from now.
What better time for the Government of Iran to show their good will than to step forth and produce Bob Levinson so he can return home to his family.
Mr. President, that concludes my remarks on Bob Levinson for the moment. I will continue to speak on this matter.
Now I would like to turn to the matter at hand with regard to the budget, since my colleague from Pennsylvania and, of course, our chair, the Senator from Washington, are here.
I would like to take a moment to acknowledge a small but significant provision in this budget compromise. It is section 203 of the Budget Act of 2013, and it limits access to what is known as Social Security’s Death Master File, which is important because criminals utilize fraudulently the Death Master File to steal people’s identities.
When someone dies, the Social Security Administration puts their information into the Death Master File and releases it to the public through the Commerce Department. It lists their name, their Social Security number, and other personal identification information.
The public release shortly after death of the Death Master File came about as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit back in the 1980s. Over time, Federal agencies and industries came to rely on the information from the Death Master File. Life insurers use it to know when to pay out benefits. Banks and credit card companies use information from the file to prevent fraud. A whole host of Federal and State agencies, as well as other industries, depend on the information for legitimate purposes, including pension funds, unclaimed property auditors, and identity theft protection companies.
But there is somebody else who is using the Death Master File too. It is the criminals who are stealing identities, including especially the Social Security number. When that is posted online, they are using it fraudulently. What are they doing? They are filing an income tax return. They are utilizing somebody else’s identity–in this case easily accessible, the Death Master File–creating a false return and getting a tax refund.
You may find this hard to believe, but this actually happened in Tampa, FL. Street crime–hijackings, stickups, burglaries, dope dealing–actually dropped because the criminals found a new way of being able to steal people’s money. They did it with a laptop instead of with a crowbar or a gun. Street crime actually reduced because the criminals have found a new way.
They would steal people’s identities in many different ways. They would go to senior citizens’ mailboxes, and they would get their ID, they would get their Social Security number. They would go through hospital records, and they would get Social Security numbers. They would do it a number of ways. But one of the easiest ways was this Death Master File.
I want to tell you about the story of Alexis Agin, the daughter of two courageous parents John and Neely, who have joined us today. Tragically, Alexis died from cancer 2 weeks shy of her 5th birthday. Obviously, no parent should have to go through the pain of seeing their child go through this kind of ordeal and then losing the child.
So you can imagine how they felt when months later they learned that someone had used Alexis’ identity, obtained from the Death Master File, to file a fraudulent tax return, claiming a refund, and the IRS–when they tried to correct this–asked them to prove that Alexis was their daughter and was not the one responsible for the fraudulent tax return.
Because I have heard so many stories of innocent Americans whose identities have been stolen, this Senator filed this legislation that would restrict access to the Death Master File by establishing a certification program run by the Commerce Department while still allowing access to the Death Master File for legitimate purposes.
This brings us to the budget agreement. I am very pleased that the Senator from Washington has included within this budget that we are going to pass–it would be nice if it were today, but it looks as if it is going to be tomorrow–what some of us have been calling on for years: restricting access to this master file, making it harder for criminals to steal identities and therefore making it harder to steal taxpayer money.
That is where this actually has a revenue effect because we are going to actually save the U.S. Government money by doing this. We are going to save the U.S. Government money that otherwise would be stolen. So I thank
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the courageous chairman of the Budget Committee for including this idea in the act and for crafting what used to be S. 676, the Identity Theft and Tax Fraud Prevention Act.
It was never the intent of this Senator or the cosponsors to deny access to the master file by the people who need it for legitimate purposes. The language in this budget deal would include the file in the Freedom of Information Act exemptions so that it will not be available to just anyone off the street. However, the Social Security Administration and Commerce would still be able to release the information in the file for those who need it.
So I want to ask the distinguished chair of the committee whether is it true that as Commerce sets up a certification program, the Social Security Administration and Commerce will still be able to release the Death Master File to folks who need to use it for legitimate purposes?
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Washington.
Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, I would ask unanimous consent to engage in a colloquy with the Senator from Florida and the Senator from Pennsylvania so I may respond.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
Mrs. MURRAY. The Senator from Florida is correct. That is absolutely our intention. There is nothing in law that prevents the continued public release of the Death Master File while the Commerce Department sets up the certification program. This act simply exempts the Social Security Administration’s death records from freedom of information requests under section 552 of title 5 of the United States Code, subsection (b).
Mr. CASEY. Mr. President, echoing the comments of my colleague from Florida, I am pleased that the budget includes language to address the fraud that is perpetrated with information from the Death Master File. Tax fraud is a large and growing problem. We know that. In 2012, for example, the IRS reported that they identified over 1.2 million identity theft returns. As of June 2013, they identified 1.6 million for this year. Thousands of these cases involve the identities of deceased taxpayers. A recent audit of the 2011 tax year identified 19,000 fraudulent returns from recently deceased taxpayers. Under current practice, for $10, criminals can purchase the full name, Social Security number, date of birth, and date of death of a deceased citizen or legal resident.
As a member of the Finance Committee, I have worked with my colleagues to address this issue. I am pleased to see the language limiting access to the Death Master File in the budget deal.
As Commerce begins its rulemaking, it is essential to strike the correct balance. The reality is that the Death Master File is used by companies across Pennsylvania and the Nation to prevent fraud and provide other essential consumer protections. Banks, investment companies, insurers, and numerous other businesses run this file to ensure the identity of those accessing their services. Striking the correct balance in the regulatory process is critical to ensuring the continued legitimate use of this information.
Businesses and those who contract for assistance with fraud prevention and other businesses must maintain access to the file. Furthermore, access must remain available as those regulations are promulgated.
In short, as a certification program is set up, it is important that we get it right. The Death Master File is critical to fraud prevention and must remain available to legitimate users. To that point, I ask the Senator from Washington, the distinguished chairwoman, is it the intention of the Bipartisan Budget Act for the Commerce Department to seek input from stakeholders as it creates the certification program to ensure legitimate users maintain access to the file?
Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, the Senator from Pennsylvania is correct. We intended for Commerce to follow notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures in the establishment of the certification program.
Mr. NELSON. Mr. President, I want to close by again thanking the distinguished chairwoman of the committee. She has been a quiet hero, and the proof is in the pudding of all of her labors. She deserves the praise of the country that we have a budget, No. 1, but I also thank her for making it a lot more difficult for criminals to steal the identities of those who have passed on.
Mr. HATCH. Mr. President, I have decided to support the budget agreement, though it is by no means the budget solution that I would have written and it contains some imperfections.
Following up on earlier remarks today in a colloquy on the Senate floor by my colleagues from Florida, Pennsylvania, and the Senate Budget Committee Chair, Senator Murray, I wish to provide some instructive remarks about the Death Master File provision of the budget agreement. The Death Master File is a data set compiled by the Social Security Administration, and made available to various researchers and business interests through the Commerce Department. Many researchers, genealogists, and businesses use the data for bona fide reasons including fraud prevention, ancestry research, identifying remains of deceased individuals, retirement plan administration and prevention of improper payments. As long as they can show the Commerce Department that they have rigorous privacy protections and protocols put in place, they should be able to become certified by Commerce to have access to the Death Master File data.
I concur with what much of what my colleagues have said in their recent colloquy about the Death Master File provision of the budget agreement. Specifically, I wish to reiterate the need for balance in the regulatory process and in the rulemaking procedures that the Commerce Department is called upon in the budget legislation to undertake. We need a robust rulemaking process, where all interested parties are afforded the time and opportunity to adequately express their interests. And, importantly, we need to ensure that during that process, there will be access to Death Master File data for bona fide purposes, including fraud prevention, identifying remains of deceased individuals, forensic and other genealogical research, prevention of improper payments, and assurance of proper payments.
As the budget agreement is currently written, there appears to be some confusion and ambiguity concerning implementation of the regulatory process and rulemaking procedures that the Commerce Department is to undertake and whether access to data in the interim, when rules are being promulgated and aired, will be assured. I must say that a more robust and inclusive process for arriving at the Death Master File provision of the budget agreement could have eliminated the confusion and ambiguity that has arisen. The Finance Committee, of which I am the Ranking Member, has jurisdiction over the manner in which the Social Security Administration governs Death Master File data, and the Finance Committee has expertise that could have been called upon. Unfortunately, that was not the case, as the Death Master File provision of the budget agreement was not processed through regular order with adequate Finance Committee input.
Mr. President, it is becoming far too common for important legislation to bypass committees of jurisdiction and for it to be written by legislators who do not necessarily have the depth of knowledge and expertise necessary to avoid writing laws that either do not work or contain glitches, ambiguities, and confusing language. In my opinion, we need to return to regular order where committees of jurisdiction are the places where issues in their jurisdiction are debated, processed, and agreed upon in a bipartisan fashion. Certainly, committees of jurisdiction must be consulted when others decide to write legislation that involves issues that lie squarely within their jurisdictions. That will be the surest route to preventing a reoccurrence of the ambiguity and confusion that has, unfortunately, arisen from the Death Master File provision of the budget agreement.
I yield the floor.