Washington, D.C. – Thank you for inviting me to speak to you this week. Even though I continue to work on all the agricultural issues in the Senate, I’m distressed sometimes that my committee chairmanship keeps me from being with my friends. I’m amazed at how many health issues I have to handle, let alone all the education, job training and pension challenges.
However, being committee chairman is a great new experience. It has given me new clout with my fellow chairmen and more opportunities to work with them on issues in their committees. In the HELP Committee, I get to pick which issues in my jurisdiction will be addressed. I get to set the hearings and select all but one of the witnesses. I get to draft the legislation, set the floor strategy, lead the debate, chair the conference committee if the House doesn't agree, and then stand by the President as he signs the bill. Of the President’s top ten priorities for the 109th Congress, I have 21 - he lumped lots of health care issues together.
My committee is moving forward quickly. So far this year, over objections from the White House, I passed the Perkins Vocational and Technical Education bill out of committee one day and debated and passed it on the Senate floor the next day - 98 to nothing. The Vo-Tech bill requires state agencies to work together to identify the needs of the workforce and design job and skills training programs to match those needs. I'm also working on a job training bill that will keep more of our Wyoming kids working in Wyoming.
I’ve heard from many of you and other livestock producers about the need for reforms in health care. I'm working to make health care more affordable and accessible while reducing the cost, increasing the safety and improving the quality - with an emphasis on the difference in rural areas. I spend a lot of time teaching the East about the West. I'm working on bills to reduce health insurance rates; to reduce prescription drug prices by setting up safe re-importation; to set up a special medical court so people who have been injured can get fair compensation faster with less effort by a lawyer and therefore keep more of the compensation; and bills to make your own medical records belong to you. Your records would be accessible on a card you can carry that will fill out forms at the doctors office for you, eliminate duplicate tests, and ensure that any doctor treating you has access to your entire medical history.
I want to mention Senator Thomas and his complimentary important committee assignments. Senator Thomas’ activity on the Finance, Energy and Agriculture Committees makes an awesome package for Wyoming and he knows how to use it. Under his leadership, our delegation meets regularly. As far as I know we’re the only delegation that does that and it allows us to get more work done. Amazingly, Representative Cubin gets the work done on the House side by herself.
The entire delegation is in Washington DC sharing the concerns of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Since Senator Thomas and I have not taken a public stand on CAFTA, we are getting to visit with lots of folks in the Administration. Secretary Johanns called me this week to visit about CAFTA. I explained the heartburn in Wyoming about CAFTA and pushed him to get busy on COOL to help. He assured me that they would meet the deadline on COOL - that the USDA would follow through if that was what Congress left in place. I sensed a lack of enthusiasm on his part even though he repeated he would meet all deadlines prescribed in the law. When I suggested he could do better, he implied that the law could be changed. When he asked me where I was on CAFTA, I let him know that his lack of enthusiasm for COOL is a reflection of my lack of enthusiasm for CAFTA. I’ve already told the President basically the same thing when I met with him personally at the White House last month. I also discussed the sugar beet growers’ concerns directly with the President.
The CAFTA debate is about to grow more intense which is why I’ve been hearing from the Administration. The legislation that would implement the agreement has not been introduced yet, but it’s being discussed. The Senate Finance Committee has held a hearing on CAFTA and other panels, such as the Senate Ag Committee, are also holding hearings to discuss the potential effects of the agreement. Once the bill is introduced that starts the clock ticking. The House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees have 45 legislative days to report the bill once it is introduced. If they don't act within 45 days, the bill is automatically discharged. Once the committee votes the bill out or it is automatically discharged, then each chamber has 15 legislative days to vote, up or down, on the bill. Proponents are hoping to have the bill introduced and passed before the July 4 congressional work period, but Senator Thomas can probably speak more to the likely Senate schedule.
I know that you are all aware that the House Agricultural Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2006 includes a one-year delay on implementation of mandatory COOL for meats, so a delay that would last until September 2007. I am strongly opposed to the provision and will work to keep delays out of the Senate version of the Agricultural Appropriations bill and to remove the provision in the final conference report. COOL for seafood has already been implemented and shown that the program works. The rest of the products in the law should have the benefit of the program too.
These are not the only issues that have been keeping me busy on your behalf. I know that the appointment of William Myers to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a high priority for your industry. On May 24th, Senator Thomas and I joined a group of Western Senators to encourage the rest of the Senate to support the Myers nomination. The Ninth Circuit currently has four vacancies and a large backlog of cases. The Ninth Circuit has a key Western jurisdiction and Bill Myers’ public lands and natural resources expertise is a perfect fit for this court. Though Democrats may still filibuster Bill Myers’ nomination, I will continue to push for an up or down vote on the Senate floor on his nomination as soon as possible.
I'm also working on updating and modernizing the Endangered Species Act. For over 30 years, the ESA has been an ineffective tool for recovering species, and while the goals of the ESA remain noble, there are a number of ways it can be made better. In addition to making the ESA a better tool for recovering species, I am working with my colleagues in the Senate to make the ESA work better for the landowners who are most affected when a species is listed and for the states who inevitably are forced to pay for management of this federal priority.
I've been pleased with the cooperation that has taken place over the past year or so between a majority of those with a stake in the listing and delisting of animals. That cooperation helped to stave off a listing of the Sage Grouse and must continue if we are to avoid listings in the future.
Whenever we talk about the ESA in Wyoming, we must mention the wolf. I understand the burden that the wolf is having on your lives, and I understand the financial costs associated with managing for the wolves. Efforts to get the federal government to take more responsibility have not worked, and so I am searching for a way to force the feds to do proper wolf management. You can be assured that I will do everything I can to improve the situation.
Thank you again for inviting me to speak at your summer convention. I look forward to the future as I see you all in my travels around the state and as we make progress on the issues that are important to both of us.