Senator Johanns e-Update
Communicating with Nebraskans is one of my most important responsibilities as your United States Senator. In doing so, I learn what’s on your mind so I can bring your thoughts and concerns to Washington, and I am able to let you know about some of the good things that often go unnoticed in the regular news cycle.
As part of that effort, I started the tradition of doing an annual Year in Review. This year, however, also marks the end of my term in the Senate. I am grateful for the enormous trust you have placed in me and have worked hard to earn that trust. Serving Nebraskans has always been a great privilege. Below is a look back on the efforts we have undertaken together during my term in office.
I’ve had the distinct honor to serve on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and accomplish some important goals. Our men and women in uniform have sacrificed so much for our freedoms that we owe them the care they were promised when their service is complete.
The shameful revelation of secret wait lists at VA facilities across the country made national news this year. Congress acted quickly by passing the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. I served on the Conference Committee tasked with writing the final version of this legislation to improve transparency and accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The law also authorizes a lease for a new VA outpatient clinic in Lincoln, Neb., and includes a provision I advocated for giving veterans greater flexibility when seeking medical treatment, including access to private care if they face long appointment wait times or long commutes to a VA facility.
Although the recent focus has been on the waitlist scandal, I have spent much of my time addressing mental health challenges facing our veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hearing the compelling stories of Nebraska Veterans who experienced PTSD provided inspiration to champion the Post-Deployment Health Assessment Act, which was signed into law to require the Department of Defense to increase mental health screenings for military personnel deployed to combat. This screening has been a critical tool in helping our veterans address mental health issues.
The challenges our service men and women face don’t end on the battlefield. When our veterans return from their service, I heard from far too many of you about your difficulty finding civilian employment. That’s why I led a bipartisan effort to help troops trained in military jobs gain credentials or licenses in the civilian equivalent. It was signed into law in 2013.
The VA isn’t the only area of our government I’ve worked to keep accountable. After allegations and evidence of fraud, corruption, and employee wrongdoing were raised against the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), I fought for an amendment during the appropriations process to block tens of millions of taxpayer dollars from going to this tarnished group. That amendment was adopted along bipartisan lines: a big victory for American taxpayers.
One constant during my tenure in the Senate has been a flurry of overregulation from this Administration. In nearly every townhall meeting and business roundtable I hosted, I heard about the damaging effects of overregulation, which made it an area of intense focus for me. I’m pleased that together, we had an impact. I started the year by completing unfinished business to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) off family farms. This, after OSHA inspectors slapped more than $100,000 in fines on a Holt County farm, despite a law banning them from doing so. The omnibus appropriations package passed by Congress included my language reinforcing an almost four-decades-old law that small farms are exempt from OSHA regulation. The new law also requires OSHA to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before attempting to redefine or regulate family farms. It took a few months, but OSHA officials finally came back in line with the law and in July, the agency formally clarified that it will abide by the law and stay off small farms in Nebraska and nationwide.
Frustration among Nebraskans is often focused on one of the chief over-regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), so I have successfully pressed the agency to use a good dose of common sense when it came to issuing rules. In 2011, I led the effort to ensure dairy producers are permanently exempted from regulations intended to address oil spills. I wrote to the EPA Administrator and demanded answers from her at a Senate Environment and Public Works hearing. Finally EPA permanently exempted milk storage containers from Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) regulations. I also introduced legislation and led the fight to prohibit EPA from regulating farm dust. When it became clear my legislation had overwhelming support, EPA was forced to back-off revisions to its regulations on coarse particulate matter, which meant it would not be regulating farm dust.
These were major victories for our state’s ag-driven economy.
Our farmers, ranchers and ag producers all too often find themselves on the receiving end of onerous regulations. Some of the regulations are often well-meaning, but far too broad in scope - while others show just how disconnected policymakers can be.
That was the case with the Department of Labor’s proposal to ban teenagers under the age of 16 from working on a farm or ranch not owned by their parents. No one is arguing against child safety laws, but working on farms, doing necessary jobs, is practically a rite of passage for many Nebraska teenagers. Corn detassling, for example, is about as integral to growing up in our state as wearing red while cheering on the Huskers. That’s why I wrote the Secretary of Labor showing how illogical the proposal would be and urging her to abandon it. The Department withdrew this proposal in 2012.
Promoting trade is just as important for our state’s economy and ag-sector as stopping illogical regulations.
As Secretary of Agriculture, I saw first-hand the web of bureaucracy involved in our nation’s layered – and often redundant – trade policy. I set out to address it during reauthorization of the farm bill, consolidating these various trade oversight responsibilities within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) into one position – as opposed to the up to five under secretaries with a role in trade policy. This Under Secretary of Trade, when in place, will coordinate trade efforts at the agency and ensure the ag sector gets a fair shake when the Unites States Trade Representative negotiates trade agreements.
The President’s health care law – known as Obamacare – seems to have dominated the news since I was elected. From the start, I urged my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to recognize the damage it would do. But, it worked its way through the Democrat-controlled Congress. Nebraskans and Americans nationwide are now paying the price for the rushed, short-sighted policies. As premiums increase for many and options decrease, it is painfully clear that change is needed.
The very first provision of the health care law to be repealed was the culmination of a yearlong battle I fought, armed with real stories from across Nebraska about its harmful impact. Although I introduced legislation seven times before getting it across the finish line, it eventually won broad bipartisan support. I’m speaking of the mindless 1099 tax reporting requirement.
This provision required every business in America to file a form with anyone whom they did more than $600 worth of business with during the year. Could you imagine how much needless paper work a farmer would have to fill out in a year to cover fertilizer, fuel, seed or feed costs all in the name of funding Obamacare? That’s why I worked so hard to repeal this provision, garnering support from 3,000 businesses. After six votes, Congress finally agreed with me and voted 87-12 to repeal the 1099 reporting requirement, making it the first portion of Obamacare to fall.
These are just a few of the things I was able to accomplish with your help during my term in the Senate. I worked on countless other issues, such as deficit reduction, strengthening the solvency of programs like Medicare and Social Security and securing our border.
Of all the accomplishments during the last six years, I’m especially proud of the assistance I provided to Nebraskans. My office received – and responded to – one million constituent contacts. We helped to ensure medals were awarded to veterans who had earned them but not received them due to paperwork snafus; we helped a doctor sort through work authorization paperwork to ensure access to medical care in one of our rural communities; and we helped to expedite the connection of 15 children in Haiti to their adoptive parents in Nebraska following the earthquake. The casework we have performed involving virtually every aspect of federal programs, has been a source of inspiration and satisfaction.
Congress is now in what we refer to as a lame duck session. This is where a lot of issues that didn’t get done during the year are typically handled. With just a few weeks left as your Senator, my most important message is one of gratitude. As I look back not only on my six years in the Senate, but also my 32 years of public service, I have no regrets. Thank you for the incredible honor of serving you.