Thank you, Steven, and thank you, Hinsdale Rotarians, for inviting me to lunch with you today. You know, it is not easy being the last person standing between an audience and the start of a three-day weekend. So I'll try to keep my comments brief. As Elizabeth Taylor said to her eighth husband, "I won't keep you long."
Seriously, I am delighted to be home in Hinsdale today, the last day of our District Work period. They used to call this recess, until they figured out people thought we might be having fun, so they changed it to district work period.
We have had a terrific week, filled with issues ranging from oil refinery security to first responders, veterans, young Grammy-winning musicians and Red Cross Local Heroes. I can think of no better way to cap it all off than by seeing so many familiar faces here at the Rotary Club.
Steven asked me to give you a quick update on what's happening in Washington, so I thought I would begin with what's NOT happening in Washington. Usually what's not happening in Washington is a good thing, for it means we're not doing any harm. But in some cases, lack of action can be even more harmful, and I thought I would start right there.
Let me just say that as a Member of the House of Representatives, I have it a lot easier than those who serve in the upper chamber or House of Lords as we sometimes refer to the Senate. They have a much more difficult time accomplishing anything because their rules allow for something that our rules do not -- the filibuster.
You've all seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or read the stories about the late Strom Thurmond during the Civil Rights legislation. Just one senator can speak for as long as he wishes—or as long as he physically can, depending on which comes first. In order to shut off a filibuster or debate, the Senate must invoke cloture. And to invoke cloture, you need a two-thirds majority or 60 votes.
Well, you do the math. There are 49 Democrats in the Senate, 50 Republicans, one Independent who usually votes with the Democrats, and one Republican Vice President who votes with the Republicans, but he can only vote if there is a tie. There are also a number of Senators who can't be counted on by either party, and you never know where they're going to go.
So that means that if just one Senator doesn't like a bill or a judicial nominee, or just one Senator got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, the Senate will never get a chance to vote on the bill or the nominee. It's pretty much that simple.
With that background, let me start our update with what is perhaps the most important thing that we have not completed this year -- the budget.
Let me just ask, did anyone pay income taxes last month on April 15th? Did anyone get a little more back or pay a little less than you did the year before? I hope so.
You may know that during our budget deliberations, there were many in Congress who wanted to reverse course and raise taxes. I was not among those members. In my view, the very last thing you want to do during an economic recovery is to raise taxes. The economy is picking up, jobs are coming on line, and markets are recovering. Raising taxes would only arrest the economic recovery and give Congress more reasons to spend your money.
At the same time, we are in the midst of a war on terrorism and that costs money. So the budget that the President submitted to Congress set the highest priorities on homeland and national security, and limited the increase in non-security discretionary spending to just half a percent.
The House leadership proposed cutting that number down to zero growth, while I joined 114 conservative colleagues in going one step further and cutting one percent in spending among all the non-defense, non-Homeland Security agencies.
You cannot tell me that any business or organization in America cannot find one percent to cut in its budget when it has to tighten its belt.
Unfortunately, only 115 of us felt that way, so the budget approved by the House showed zero growth in spending, rather than a one-percent cut.
By keeping tax cuts in place, and not raising them up again, workers will have more money to spend, save, and invest. This is critical if we want to keep our economy growing. The House has passed the conference report on the budget, and the Senate is expected to take it up when we return.
The other major bill we've been working on this year is the transportation bill, called Tea Lu. Once every five years, Congress reauthorizes the Highway Trust Fund—the money that you pay in federal gas taxes every time you fill up at the pump. This is your money, and it's meant to go toward improving your roads and infrastructure.
I missed the last transportation bill, which passed when Harris Fawell was still in office. So this is my first opportunity to offer up the priority projects that are needed in this area, and I am thankful to the mayors and other local officials for helping us put together our lists.
What's the status of this legislation? Well, the House passed a bill that costs $34 billion less than the Senate version. The White House isn't fond of the price tag on either bill, so conferees must iron out the differences, and they must do so soon.
Time is of the essence. We need these road improvements and these jobs now. Our economy—and our sanity -- depend on it.
Speaking of roads and gas taxes, for the first time ever, the national average price of a gallon of gasoline rose above $2 a gallon.
Is the answer to rising gas prices found in begging the Saudis to increase output or draw down the Strategic Petroleum Reserve? No, the only long-term answer is that we must reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources. What we need is a long-term strategy; we need a comprehensive energy policy.
Last year, the House passed a conference report on comprehensive energy legislation. The Senate, however, did not.
And so as this summer begins, we confront not only high and volatile gasoline prices, but rising natural gas prices, and an electric grid not much improved since that catastrophic failure just last August.
Some have suggested that we peel the most important, least controversial portions from the bill and pass them as stand-alone measures. But that does not make for a comprehensive policy that expands and diversifies our domestic sources of energy, nor does it enhance our energy independence. That kind of piecemeal policy-making has failed us in the past.
While Congress won't be passing pieces of the comprehensive energy bill anytime soon, some expiring tax provisions—such as the wind energy production tax credit—will be extended, but only for a year to keep pressure on Congress to approve a comprehensive policy.
Granted, passing a comprehensive energy bill last year is unlikely to have prevented some of the energy problems we're facing today. But at least we would have a clear and comprehensive approach to dealing with those problems, and would have created some certainty in energy markets to encourage investment.
Last but not least, I'd like to make a pitch for a bill that we've been trying to pass for three years now, and that is the bill to end medical malpractice lawsuit abuse. Every day you read in the paper about another practice closing down and moving to Wisconsin or Indiana. Thanks to nuisance suits and our state tort system, physician insurance premiums are going through the roof. Illinois is considered a crisis state.
I must remind people that when I served in the Illinois House, we passed tort reform that would have avoided this crisis—except for the fact that the partisan Illinois Supreme Court overturned it.
I don't raise this because I am worried about the physician's bottom line. I raise it because I don't want to see pregnant women driving to another state because they can't find an Ob-Gyn in the area. I don't want to see injured children transported miles away from their homes because there are no pediatric neurosurgeons left to treat head injuries. And I don't want to see health insurance premiums climb so high that employers can no longer afford to provide benefits to workers.
The House has passed this bill, the HEALTH bill, HR 5, on three occasions, and the President has said he will sign it. Please contact your senators to register your support for medical liability reform. One of them is for it, and one of them is against it. You guess which one you should contact.
Before we leave the issue of health care, let me just say that we continue to try to get the Senate to pass legislation to allow small businesses to band together to offer their employees affordable health insurance. It's called Associated Health Plans or AHPs, and my predecessor, Harris Fawell, first introduced the idea years ago. As with medical malpractice reform, the House keeps passing this legislation, the President is prepared to sign it, but we cannot get out of the Senate.
By the way, next Tuesday, June 1, is the first day that seniors can use the new discount drug cards that we passed into law last November. These cards are the first step in the new Medicare Prescription Drug and Modernization Act, which will fully kick-in in 2006. If you have any questions about the program, just call 1-800-Medicare.
On that happy note, let me just conclude by asking, did anyone see the President's speech on Monday? No, yes? Well, I did, and I was pleased that he plans another four speeches regarding Iraq in the weeks to come.
If the President is to be faulted for anything, it is that he did not communicate on a more regular basis with the American people about what's happening in Iraq. I do think people want to know the other side of the story—the story the media will not play because for the most part, they follow the "if it bleeds, it leads" rule. It sometimes seems that if the story is not negative, they won't run it.
For those of you who didn't see it, the President expanded on his 5-point plan to restore democracy in Iraq.
First, he reiterated that on June 30, full sovereignty will be transferred to the Iraqi Interim Government, which will run the day-to-day operations of the government and ministries, increase security, and prepare the country for national elections. The US will continue to provide technical experts to help Iraq's ministries, but these ministries will report to the new Prime Minister.
Second, our forces will continue to work with the Iraqis to defeat the same enemies—terrorists, illegal militia, Saddam loyalists and others -- who want to prevent the Iraqi people from having their own democracy and rule of law. Our goal is to help train a force of 260,000 Iraqi soldiers, police, and other security personnel.
Third, we will continue to help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. We've helped to refurbish 2,200 schools, 240 hospitals, and 1,200 health clinics, repair bridges, upgrade the electrical grid, and modernize the communications system. They're pumping 2 million barrels of oil a day, and the Governing Council has opened Iraq to foreign investment for the first time.
Fourth, we're working to build international support, and just last week the US and Great Britain introduced a UN Security Council resolution that would endorse the Iraqi's timetable for elections.
And Fifth, we're working for free, national elections by January 2005. A UN team is in Iraq now, helping to form an independent Election Commission to oversee an orderly and accurate national election.
Now, there is no doubt that completing these steps will not be easy. But George Bush has stayed the course, reminding people that this will not happen overnight. I like to remind people, too, that restoring democracy and completing reconstruction in Germany after World War II took nearly seven years (Aug 1945 to April 1952), and yet we haven't been in Iraq seventeen months. (only 14 months, since March 2003.)
So, with that, I'll end my filibuster, and take any questions or comments.