Saturday, August 24, 2013 12:00 AM
BY U.S. SENATOR
Big scandals start off as small stories. The controversy engulfing the Internal Revenue Service seems to grow bigger every day. What began as what the Obama administration said was a handful of “rogue agents” in a local Cincinnati office has turned into a scandal that runs all the way to the highest levels of the IRS and maybe beyond. The question every American should be asking is this: Just how far does this story go, and when is President Barack Obama going to do something about it?
In the run-up to the last election, I started receiving troubling reports from conservative groups in Ohio about alleged mistreatment by the IRS. In response, in March 2012, I spearheaded a Senate letter to the IRS demanding answers. Six weeks later IRS officials assured us that only legitimate criteria were used to evaluate tax-exempt groups. That assurance proved false, and instead of correcting the record when they say they learned the truth a week later, the IRS remained silent. The truth was uncovered only when the press began to report on the agency’s ideological targeting.
But the cover-up didn’t end when IRS misconduct became public. Initially, the IRS sought to explain away its political targeting as a “shortcut” to deal with a “surge” in tax-exempt applications. But the record soon revealed that tax-exempt applications actually declined the year the targeting began. Then the IRS claimed that any misconduct could be attributed to a handful of “rogue” employees from a regional office, rather than at the direction of senior officials in Washington, D.C. But investigators soon found letters targeting Tea Party groups signed by Lois Lerner, the Washington-based IRS official who led the division that carried out the targeting policy. Ms. Lerner refused to answer questions from a congressional committee investigating this issue, choosing instead to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Now an IRS whistle-blower has confirmed what many had suspected but could not prove — the misconduct involved not only Ms. Lerner and the Washington office generally, but specifically included the IRS chief counsel, one of only two Obama political appointees in the entire agency. Several news outlets have now reported that the chief counsel may have met with the president at the White House on April 23, 2012, just two days before the IRS issued a revised set of “be on the lookout” instructions to IRS agents reviewing tax-exempt applications that appear to target Tea Party groups for more stringent review. Perhaps most troubling, the White House’s timeline of events — who knew what and when — has changed repeatedly since news of improper targeting first became public.
And the scope of the scandal is growing. Just a few days ago, congressional investigators released emails suggesting that staff at the Federal Election Commission were engaged in conservative targeting of their own, perhaps with improper help from Ms. Lerner and the IRS. Now evidence is mounting that one of the most powerful agencies of the federal government — the Securities and Exchange Commission — has also engaged in political targeting. In a letter to the chairwoman of the SEC, congressional leaders revealed that documents produced for the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform “indicate that the SEC has been under immense pressure from elected officials and special interest groups as part of a government-wide effort to stifle political speech.”
With each new revelation we discover more incompetence, and more examples of politicized enforcement of the law — all enemies of good governance. And while the Obama administration has voiced outrage about government misconduct, it has failed to provide the American people and congressional investigators with critical information and promised transparency. Outrage has not led to action.
Instead, the president and his administration have ignored requests for more information — including multiple specific requests from me. They also have not fully answered a bipartisan investigation by the Senate Finance Committee of which I am a member. In total opposition to the words and assurances of the White House, the IRS, which answers to the president, has simply failed to comply with many of the committee’s requests.
Based on its conduct, the position of the Obama administration seems to be that if they ignore these scandals long enough, they will simply go away. The White House has gone so far as to refer to the outrage surrounding revelations about the IRS as a “phony scandal.” That’s a shame. This pattern of misconduct represents everything that is wrong with Washington, and it is behavior like this that has shattered the trust of the American people in their government.
If the Administration does not come clean soon, the stain from this scandal will not just be on the IRS, but on the Administration as a whole.
Saturday, August 10, 2013 12:32 AM
BY ROB PORTMAN
Earlier this year, a senior Democrat in the U.S. Senate said he was concerned Obamacare was headed for “a huge train wreck.” Every day it seems that we are getting a better idea of just what that train wreck looks like—fewer full-time jobs, more difficulties for small businesses, higher insurance premiums, and fewer healthcare choices. Just yesterday, the Ohio Insurance Department announced that health insurance premiums in the individual market are expected to increase an average of 41 percent in our state next year. That’s money that could be going toward Ohioans’ retirement, groceries, and their children’s higher education; instead it’s going to cover President Obama’s costly mandates. And higher costs are only the beginning of Obamacare’s impact.
Recently, the Obama administration surprised everyone by announcing that it was delaying by a year a core pillar of Obamacare—a provision requiring employers with more than 50 “full-time” employees to offer “affordable health insurance” or face a fine. That requirement has had a number of negative—and entirely predictable—unintended consequences.
First, more and more small businesses are becoming “49ers” and “29ers.” Some employers have felt they have no choice but to freeze growth and hiring at 49 employees rather than coming under the onerous requirements of Obamacare when they cross the 50 employee threshold. Other employers have reduced the hours their employees can work from 40 to the less than 30 hours a week required by Obamacare to keep them from counting as full-time for the purposes of the legislation. It’s no surprise that the “underemployment” figure—those working part-time but wanting to work full time—has been on the rise, spiking by a dramatic 300,000 in June’s jobs report.
President Obama decided to postpone the employer mandate that causes these and other problems until the beginning of 2015. Some have said this was just an effort to avoid the political fall-out until after the 2014 midterm election. The decision may make good political sense for the President and his party, but for the millions of Americans who are either without a job or underemployed, it merely prolongs the economic pain. Employers know the mandate is coming, and it will continue to encourage them to downsize and reduce hours.
More Americans will either lose their jobs or find it harder to get one, and, as happened last month, more of the jobs that will be available are likely to be part-time jobs that make it harder if not impossible to make ends meet.
To make matters worse, the parts of Obamacare that were supposed to alleviate some of these problems are failing. Earlier this summer, Health and Human Services announced that key components of the Small Business Health Options Program—or SHOP Exchange—will also be delayed until 2015. These provisions were supposed to allow employers to provide workers with a set amount of money to purchase insurance in an online marketplace. HHS pointed to “operational challenges” in their decision to delay the program. They have given no indication of how they intend to meet these challenges and get the SHOP exchange up and running.
The individual insurance exchanges represent yet another coming challenge. These exchanges are supposed to come online in October. But not unlike the SHOP Exchange, there is no indication that the technology is in place to make that happen. To make matters worse, state-run exchanges that are in place—currently in sixteen states and the District of Columbia—are not able to verify employer insurance or income eligibility for substantial federal subsidies during the first year of operation. This means that there is no way to verify that someone who claims a government subsidy actually qualifies, opening the program to unintended risks of fraud and waste of taxpayer dollars.
President Obama sold his healthcare reform law by promising it would spur job growth, allow all of us to keep the healthcare we have, and reduce the costs of healthcare insurance. Unfortunately, every one of those promises has proven false. The legislation is instead becoming the train wreck many of us feared.
I believe our healthcare system as a whole needs reform, but it needs reform that works. It needs patient-centered reform that actually reduces the escalating cost of health care coverage and focuses on rewarding quality. The recent actions by the Administration only confirm the problems with Obamacare, and pushing the problems off for another year isn’t going to make it better. Obamacare should be repealed and replaced with bipartisan solutions that address the high cost and uneven quality of healthcare. That’s the way to avoid the train wreck and get our healthcare system on track.
Saturday, July 27, 2013 12:00 AM
BY US SENTOR
Last year, I met with members of the Shefton family of Cleveland. They lived near a former lead smelter site, but had to move when one of their sons was diagnosed with high-lead levels in his blood. No Ohio family or business should be forced to relocate because of hazardous materials or contaminated properties in its neighborhood. But unfortunately, this happens all too often in our state.
In Ohio, parcels of land known as brownfields are left behind after a commercial building or factory has been demolished or abandoned. These brownfields can be found in big cities and small towns in all parts of the state. In fact, by some estimates, Ohio has thousands of potential brownfield sites.
These brownfields don’t belong in neighborhoods where children walk to school, and they don’t belong in communities looking to attract new businesses.
We need to redevelop these sites to make way for new investments. That’s why I’m co-sponsoring legislation to clean-up, re-invest in and re-develop these properties. The Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development (BUILD) Act would overhaul the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) existing Brownfields Program.
We know that by providing targeted funding and allowing increased flexibility, we increase the likelihood that more sites are cleaned up. That’s why the BUILD Act would increase clean-up grants and more than double the funding ceiling for remediation grants. The legislation would also allow the EPA to award multi-purpose grants, which means federal resources could be used for multiple elements of a project, including site inventory and planning and remediation for one or more brownfields.
In order to increase flexibility further, the bill also lets more nonprofits qualify for site-assessment grants. Right now, nonprofits can only apply for site clean-up grants, but we know that local organizations and community development groups have the capacity to do so much more, especially in smaller communities.
Finally, the BUILD Act maintains current funding levels through Fiscal Year 2016. Simply put, this means it would not be subject to partisan fights during the next presidential election.
The BUILD Act is a perfect example of a public-private partnership. By cleaning up previously used sites for redevelopment opportunities, we can attract private capital back to our cities. If we can incentivize developers and businesses to locate in our towns, we can increase local tax revenue and protect our green spaces from continued development.
The BUILD Act and the Brownfields program play an integral role in revitalizing vacant or abandoned properties to meet environmental and public health challenges while spurring economic development in Ohio.
We must do everything we can to ensure the brownfields around our state are cleaned up and are no longer eyesores in their communities.
Saturday, July 20, 2013 12:02 AM
BY US SENATOR
Last week, I heard from Daniel Brewer, a Navy veteran from Cincinnati who could not find a good paying job after returning from Afghanistan. Though Daniel had substantial training in the Navy, moving home to Ohio, he had trouble translating his skills into the civilian workforce.
Daniel’s experience is all too common. Time and time again I’ve heard similar stories throughout Ohio: biotech firms, high-tech manufacturers, and small businesses are hiring for open positions, but can’t find the workers with the right skills to fill these job openings. With too many Ohioans still unable to find work, we should be doing all that we can to ensure that our workers are qualified to fill Ohio jobs.
Since 2007, I’ve convened more than 215 roundtables across Ohio’s 88 counties, listening to community and business leaders, workers, and entrepreneurs on ways to strengthen our economy. A theme that developed early on was that despite high unemployment, employers are having a hard time finding workers with the skills necessary to fill the available jobs. As a result, job openings in high-growth industries, like healthcare, clean energy, and biosciences, and even the manufacturing sector, are going unfilled.
According to Forbes, Ohio ranks 10th per capita in the nation among states expecting the biggest looming skilled labor shortage – due, in part, to an aging population and limited workforce training resources.
The skills gap exists – especially for careers in high-tech fields. This gap denies workers new opportunities they deserve and undermines our nation’s economic competitiveness. It also limits our state’s ability to attract new jobs and businesses.
In response to the stories I heard during my early roundtables throughout Ohio about the need to close the skills gap, I first introduced the Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success (SECTORS) in 2008. Last week, I reintroduced it with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME).
The SECTORS Act creates partnerships between educators, industry, and workforce training boards to ensure that workers have the right skills to get hired in high-tech, emerging industries with good-paying jobs. If we’re going to attract new employers, we need to ensure that local workforce development efforts support the needs of local industries. That’s what this bill does.
It means community colleges, whether it’s Cincinnati State, Tri-C, Zane State, and Sinclair State or Rhodes State, and workforce investment boards, industry, and labor, working together to serve local needs.
We know economic development and workforce skills training go hand-in-hand. We’ve seen this in Youngstown with NAMII. When the skilled workers are there, more investments follow. It’s not only good for businesses; this legislation is also important for Ohio families.
America has a unique opportunity to address the skills gap that prevents hardworking Americans—like Daniel Brewer—from finding good jobs and prohibits eager-to-grow companies from hiring the skilled workers needed to expand. We close the skills gap by going directly to the source of Ohio’s economic might: our skilled workers and innovative businesses.