Your Washington Desk:
From Senator Johnny Isakson:
This week, I had the opportunity to question the Obama administration official who played a key role in March in refusing to allow Georgia’s number one economic development project — the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project — to move forward.
Sylvia Burwell is the director of the Office of Management and Budget who made the decision to ignore explicit guidance from Congress to request the necessary funding for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, known informally as SHEP, and to allow construction to begin.
Burwell has now been nominated by President Obama to replace Kathleen Sebelius assecretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Before the Senate can vote on whether to confirm her nomination to the position, two Senate committees have the opportunity to question her, and one of those committees will vote on her confirmation. On Thursday, as a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I had my first opportunity to question her role in refusing to give the green light in March to the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.
I told Burwell that there is no challenge for me as a U.S. senator more important than getting the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project done in my state. The Port of Savannah is not a parochial Georgia issue. It is an issue for the entire trade and economy of the United States of America and is a net positive export port.
Burwell responded to me by calling SHEP “a terrific project with a very high return on investment” and added that, “I think there are ways this project can go forward.”
Burwell indicated that final passage by Congress of the Water Resources Development Act, known informally as the WRDA bill, will be a key factor in determining whether the administration will allow SHEP to proceed. The Senate and House have each passed their version of the WRDA bill, and leaders of both chambers are working to reconcile the differences in the two bills. A final version of the bill will have to be voted on by the House and Senate before it can become law.
The president previously included SHEP in his 2012 “We Can’t Wait” initiative, in which he specifically pledged to expedite SHEP and four other port projects. Just seven months ago, Vice President Joe Biden visited the port in Savannah and said the project would be expedited and built “come hell or high water.”
Burwell also must appear before the Senate Finance Committee as part of her confirmation process, and I will have the opportunity to question her again on that panel. A date for that hearing has not yet been set. The Finance Committee will be responsible for holding a vote on Burwell’s nomination before it goes to the full Senate for a vote, and I look forward to that opportunity to hear from her again.
Allegations of Misdeeds at Veteran Hospitals and Clinics
As a senator and member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I am very concerned about the most recent scandal involving the Veterans Affairs administration.
I have taken an active role in oversight of the Veterans Affairs administration. I have held several VA hearings across Georgia, including in Atlanta with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in August 2013 regarding reported problems at VA hospitals and clinics, the need for additional facilities, and the need to employ “best practices.”
The Inspector General has announced an investigation into the most recent allegations that waiting lists for admittance were being manipulated by Phoenix VA personnel to improve wait time numbers and that veterans died in the process of waiting for care. Secretary Shinseki has vowed to conduct a face-to-face audit of all VA clinics, and I eagerly anticipate the results of a thorough and expeditious investigation. If these allegations are proven to be true, heads should roll and all officials from top to bottom linked to this malpractice should be held accountable and should be terminated for their actions.
Veterans fought to protect our freedoms and ensure our way of life and one of my top priorities is to make sure America takes care of the veterans who have dedicated their lives to serving our country.
IRS Bonuses to Employees Who Have Violated Tax Laws
Last week, I shared with you the news of a recent report on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration that indicated the IRS has awarded bonuses to personnel who have violated tax laws or who have committed serious infractions of employee policy.
The Inspector General has said that close to $3 million was awarded to IRS employees with violations on their records, and about half of that amount went to people who violated the tax laws they are supposed to enforce. Additionally, other personnel at the IRS received cash bonuses or other awards despite being cited for drug use, making violent threats, fraudulently claiming unemployment benefits, and misusing government credit cards.
In fact, the report indicates that close to 70 percent of IRS personnel receive some sort of performance reward.
This week, I joined all of my fellow Republican senators on the Senate Committee on Finance in a letter to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen calling for a full accounting of the agency’s practice of issuing employee performance awards and bonuses to employees who have willfully violated tax law.
In the letter, we asked for specific timelines for addressing these problems, in addition to an explanation on how the IRS can account for such improper practices and prevent such occurrences in the future. We also requested a reply by June 1, 2014.
Of course, last week I joined other Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee in introducing the No Bonuses for Delinquent IRS Employees Act. While disappointing that it is even necessary, this legislation would prohibit the IRS from providing performance awards to employees who are delinquent in paying their own taxes or who have violated U.S. tax law.
We must hold the IRS accountable for its actions to ensure we put an end to the unacceptable behavior exhibited by this agency.
Each semester, I am pleased to offer qualified students the educational opportunity to intern in my Atlanta, Ga., and Washington, D.C. offices. The number of interns serving at any one time is governed by space and office needs. Internships are competitive and preference is given to Georgia residents and upper-level college students. I encourage you to submit your application as soon as possible.
If you or someone you know is interested in applying for an internship for Fall 2014, the application deadline is June 13, 2014. For this Fall session, internships are scheduled to begin on August 4 in Atlanta, Ga., and on September 8, 2014, in Washington, D.C. They will both end on December 12, 2014. Please click here for more information and to download an official application.
What’s on Tap?
Tonight, I look forward to delivering the commencement address to the Class of 2014 at the University of Georgia, my alma mater. You can watch the live broadcast online and follow along on Twitter using my handle @SenatorIsakson.
I also want to send my sincere thanks to all of the wonderful mothers as we celebrate them on Sunday. I look forward to a special day with my wife, Dianne, the incredible mother of our three children and grandmother to our nine outstanding grandkids. I am also very proud of my daughter, Julie, and my daughters-in-law, Susan and Katherine; thank you for being such wonderful mothers.
Next week, the Senate is scheduled to proceed to a bill, S.2260, that would renew for two years a series of expired tax breaks, including credits for research and exploration, mortgage interest and debt relief, and public transit and parking.