On Senate Floor, Portman Highlights 2018 Accomplishments, 2019 Priorities
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor highlighting some of the legislative achievements Congress had last year, like his bipartisan STOP Act and other priorities to combat the opioid epidemic that were signed into law in October, his bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) that was signed into law in April, historic tax reform legislation that was implemented in 2018, and more.
Portman also discussed the need for Congress to work in a bipartisan manner to deliver meaningful legislative results in 2019. He highlighted his bipartisan Protecting Taxpayers Act to restructure and reform the IRS, his bipartisan Retirement Security & Savings Act to strengthen retirement security, his bipartisan CARA 2.0 to direct more resources to overcome the opioid epidemic, his bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act to address the long-overdue maintenance backlog at our national parks, and more as opportunities for bipartisan achievements moving forward.
He also addressed the ongoing partial government shutdown and the need to end shutdowns for good. He will be reintroducing legislation soon that will help do just that.
Transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“Today is like opening day here in the U.S. Senate. We’ve seen some of our colleagues, incumbents who were already elected walk down this aisle to be sworn in after winning a six-year term. We’ve also seen some new members come in from all around the country, from both parties. Just like every opening day, there’s a certain sense of optimism in the air. I just went to a number of receptions, Democrat and Republican alike. People were talking about the need for us to work together. We also are facing a new reality. That is, we have divided government now. Before we had a Republican House and Senate, Republican president. Now we have a Democrat-led House to go along with the Republican Senate and a Republican in the White House. We haven’t had divided government for a little while. And yet our jobs don’t change at all. Because our job is to figure out how to work together to get things done. And frankly, here in the United States Senate, we need 60 votes for almost anything, which requires a supermajority, meaning that it’s always been the case, really, that there’s only one way to accomplish things around here on behalf of the people we represent. And that’s to figure out how to find that common ground. It’s time to get back to doing that on some of these big issues.
“I would suggest to you that maybe issues like health care and immigration, you know, we’ve had gridlock where we just can’t seem to figure out even how to get started. I will say that in 2018, the year that just passed, we did make progress in some areas. And it’s worth reflecting on that and talking about how that happened because that would be the model for the future. We made progress on combating the opioid epidemic that has gripped this country, the worst public health crisis we have in our country now.
“In October, President Trump signed opioid legislation into law that contains a number of different ways to push back against this issue. In my home state of Ohio, it’s the number one cause of death now. Nationally, it’s the number one cause of death for those under age 50. We’ve had more than 70,000 people die in this country last year alone from opioid overdoses. So the president has signed legislation into law that will help. One is called the STOP Act, something we worked on for three years. In fact, it came out of some work we did in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The presiding officer here today and I are on the committee, where we’re able to work together, Republican and Democrat alike, and do investigations, deep investigations into issues that then result in good legislation. In this case, we found out that this fentanyl, which is the most deadly of all the drugs now, more people are dying of fentanyl overdoses, synthetic opioids, than any other drug. We found out it comes in through the U.S. mail system primarily. And from China. And we are really doing virtually nothing to provide the screening to try to keep some of this poison out of our communities. So that is now in place. And I’ve met with the Postmaster General and also with the head of Customs and Border Protection, the two individuals most responsible for implementation just a couple of weeks ago to talk about how we can more quickly implement that legislation to save lives.
“But that bill also includes some other legislation we worked on for years. One is to remove an arbitrary cap on the ability for people to get treatment. Some treatment centers cap at 16 beds just because they take Medicaid funding. That made no sense. There’s some good treatment centers out there that were turning people away. These are people who are addicted. If they don’t get into treatment, they’re going to continue to have their addiction, continue to cause crimes, continue to break up families and cause all kinds of problems for our criminal justice system. So it’s a positive part of what’s happened here. We also passed legislation in that package to help care for pregnant and postpartum women who are addicted and for their children and for babies who are born with this neonatal abstinence syndrome, dependent on drugs and how to get them through life.
“Also, last year we passed important legislation that’s already having an enormous impact to push back on another issue that we studied in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that I talked about earlier. That’s legislation dealing with trafficking of women and children. So much of that has moved online. Our research indicated that most of it was happening actually on one website called Backpage. We wrote legislation that enabled the victims to go after some of these websites if they had been exploited but also to allow prosecutors, including the prosecutors in your state, in your city, in your county, to go after some of these groups online that were knowingly, knowingly trafficking women and children. And as a result of that, we’ve made huge progress. It took three years of investigation and legislating to get there but that legislation now having become law, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has resulted in substantial decreases in online sex trafficking of women and children. Lives have been saved. Those who were not able to pursue God’s purpose for them in life are now able to because no longer are they being trafficked. In addition, our report from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations helped the Department of Justice indict the worst actor in this trafficking area online, Backpage, and also their executives. We were able to shut down the website altogether because of that. We’ve made progress.
“2018 was also the first year of the new tax code that has made American workers and American companies far more competitive and is responsible more than any other thing for the fact that we not only have more jobs in this country and historically low unemployment numbers now, but also we have higher wages. Over the past few months we’ve seen this where we’ve had, for the first time really in a decade and a half, rising wages relative to inflation. So people working hard, playing by the rules can feel like they’re getting ahead again. A couple of months ago was a three percent increase from the previous year. That’s something you want to see happen continually and this tax reform, because it encourages investment in jobs and expansion, is having that impact.
“2018 was also the year we provided more funding for our brave men and women in uniform who are out there protecting us every day, our military was not able to do its job because we didn’t have adequate resources. We were able to do that in 2018 on a bipartisan basis. So there have been some examples of bipartisanship that have made a big difference. And again, we should look at those and determine what happened there. Why were we stuck on one issue and yet others we were able to make progress?
“I would suggest to you there are four or five other issues that are at the point where they have enough bipartisan support that we should be able to get them done this year. I know people say well, we’re getting into the 2020 election. Folks, it’s only 2019. We’re only a couple of days into it. Let’s not talk about the 2020 election. Let’s not focus on what happens on the talk shows and what happens on the op-ed pages and what happens in terms of the red meat speeches being thrown out from both sides. Let’s instead focus on what can we do this year, 2019. There’s no election this year to actually make progress on some of these issues. Some of them are ones that affect all of our constituents in very fundamental ways. Others perhaps are not as significant.
“Right now, we have an opportunity to break this gridlock and to stop the partial government shutdown and also to make some reforms in the immigration system as we do it. The appropriations process for funding our federal government is stuck right now. There are seven bills out of 12 that have not been passed. By the way, of those seven, six of them have been agreed to by this body and the other body, Republicans and Democrats alike, have voted for them, so we should get those done. We should also be sure that as we try to figure out a way forward, we do two things. One, stop the government partial shutdown, which makes no sense, particularly for taxpayers, which I will explain in a second, but also strengthen our border. Of course we should strengthen the border. There is a lot of bad things happening on the border. One, of course, is people being able to come across illegally. That’s something none of us should want to see. We should want to see a legal process. I think that’s true that pretty much everybody in this chamber understands you have to have a secure border, and there is not a secure border now. Some of it requires new fencing. Some of it requires other kinds of barriers. Some of it requires more technology and more people to be able to respond when somebody breaches a fence or a wall. We all know that. We know there has to be more funding provided there. We should be able to do that. We also, though, should at the same time realize that with regard to government shutdowns, as I said earlier, they really don’t accomplish much because we always go back and repay the workers who have not been working on behalf of all of us. Taxpayers always end up in these shutdowns having to pay more, not less, because of the shutdown. I don’t think it’s political leverage in particular because I do think that with regard to the shutdown right now, some of those who are more partisan on the other side of the aisle are happy to have it continue, thinking it’s good for them politically. Let’s take the politics out of it. Let’s stop shutdowns altogether.
“There is legislation that has been introduced called End Government Shutdowns Act. Actually, the presiding officer when he was in the House of Representatives was one of the leaders on that and still supports this idea. The notion is if you don’t finish an appropriation bill or a continuing resolution expires, which is short-term temporary funding instead of an appropriation bill, but if that happens, instead of having a shutdown, what you do is continue spending from the previous year and slowly over time, one percent after 120 days, another one percent after 90 days and so on, you reduce that funding to give the appropriations committees around here and our leadership some incentive to come to the table and to resolve the issues. I just don’t think shutdowns work. I have never quite understood it. Again, from a taxpayer perspective, I don’t think it makes much sense. We’re going to reintroduce the End Government Shutdowns bill again next week. It’s been bipartisan in the past. I hope it will be bipartisan next week when we introduce it. So let’s get that done.
“At the same time, again, let’s figure out ways to have more security at our border. Everybody agrees with that. I hope we can find a way to get to some common ground here. Along with Senators Thune and Moran, I introduced legislation last year when we got into this issue that would provide $25 billion over a five-year period to support this plan for a more secure border, including a plan from the Trump administration, while at the same time providing legal certainty to those young people who came to the United States as children illegally through no fault of their own. Some have called these children, who are now young people, part of the DACA program, so you’ve heard that word, DACA. These are the people who came here as kids without going through the proper channels, but they shouldn’t be punished for that, and so let’s codify the administrative action that’s been taken and let’s combine that with the funding. That seems to me to be one where Republicans and Democrats could each find some opportunity for a victory. The win-win would then allow us to reopen government and to move ahead with broader immigration reform, having had a little bit of success on at least one small part of the immigration issues that we face. I think this is an example where both sides can give a little. We don’t have a shutdown anymore and we can move ahead on some other important legislation.
“I want to talk about some of the other priorities that we could address this year easily because they are bipartisan, they have already been worked on for years in some cases, months in others, and frankly just before we broke for the holidays, we came close to passing some of these. One is for us to reform the tax collection agency, the IRS. Everybody should want to do this because the IRS once again is not serving taxpayers as they should. I say once again because about 20 years ago, Congress took on this task, formed a commission. I was co-chair of it actually with Senator Bob Kerrey. We passed legislation to improve the customer service of the IRS, but also to give them more money for technology so they could do a better job with regard to enforcing the tax laws. At that time, the IRS was in really tough shape. They weren’t answering the phone. When they did, they weren’t providing the right information. The agency suffered from wasteful spending, from low workforce morale, from a lack of leadership and strategic direction.
“Guess what? That’s happening again, all of those things. So now we have a new commissioner who has just been confirmed. I’m very hopeful that he will make a difference there, but he needs our help legislatively. We need to give him some tools to be able to use. This new commissioner along with his new team is eager to have those reforms. They think it’s a prime opportunity to update what happens with the IRS and be sure it’s serving taxpayers better. So my hope is that calls will begin to be answered again, that we will have correct answers when we call to find out what the answer is to a tax law question. We have now simplified the tax law in certain ways. We have also made it more complicated in other ways with this new tax reform legislation. So there are lots of questions out there. Our legislation would be very helpful. 20 years ago, by the way, we decided to include an independent appeal of an IRS decision. Very important. To me, it is sort of a fundamental right that if the IRS is saying you’re wrong about something, you should have the ability to appeal it and have an independent forum. Over the last 10 years or so, the IRS has kind of moved away from that. The appeals have declined because the IRS has chosen to settle a lot more cases in tax court, costing taxpayers a lot more money. So our legislation that again has been bipartisan, will help to create a new, independent appeals process. Again, the commissioner supports that, it’s a way to ensure we have, frankly, more faith and competence in the IRS by having that independent appeal.
“We also give more structure to what’s called the IRS Oversight Board. This was established 20 years ago. It worked for a while, it hasn’t worked for the past 10 years. It’s basically not in existence anymore. We say let’s establish this very simply so it focuses on long-term strategic goals for the agency but doesn’t again fall back into the situation it’s in now with bad technology, bad customer service, and so on, and sets this oversight board up in the right way. Senator Ben Cardin and I have introduced legislation called the Protecting Taxpayers Act. Again, we almost got it done at the end of the year last year just a few weeks ago. My hope is that we can get this legislation up and get it passed very, very quickly. We have already had hearings on it in the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Taxation and IRS Oversight, which I chair. My hope is that we can get that to a final vote very soon.
“Another opportunity we have is to expand retirement savings—something very important to a lot of my constituents who are finding themselves with the situation where they thought they had saved but they haven’t saved enough. People are living longer, healthier lives. Unfortunately, the amount they have saved in their IRA or 401(k) or have their pension plan is not enough for them to have a secure retirement. So we’ve done this in the past. Again, we have worked together in a bipartisan way over the years to try to increase what people can save for their own retirement. In fact, Senator Cardin and I, again, Senator Cardin from Maryland, a Democrat, and I have worked together in a bipartisan way going back a couple of decades, putting out—in that situation—we had three different bills that expanded how much you could put away in a 401(k) or an IRA, say, and having catchup contributions if you were over 50 and changing the rules to make it easier for small businesses to provide plans. Unfortunately, it’s time to do that again so that people can be able to set more aside for their golden years, to be able to have more peace of mind in retirement. The numbers are pretty interesting. After our three pieces of legislation back in 1997, 2001, and 2006, we did see more savings. In fact, the nationwide growth of 401(k)s and other defined contribution plan savings, IRA savings expanded pretty dramatically. 107 percent increase in 401(k)s in the last 20 years—in the last, actually, about 17, 18 years. And a 254 percent increase in IRAs. So we have shown that by passing legislation to provide more opportunities for people to save for their own retirement, that more money is being put in.
“However, having had those successes moving retirement savings from about $11 trillion in 2001 to $28 trillion today, there is still a lot more to be done. My generation, the baby boom generation, just aren’t saving enough for their retirement, but the same with succeeding generations. Young people aren’t putting enough aside. And we need to give them that incentive to do more because, frankly, that’s a much more effective way for us to both improve their chances of having a secure retirement, not depending solely on social security, but also to help our economy because more savings is a good thing for our private sector economy. Even today, only just over half of employees who work in private companies have a company health care plan. I think they should all have one. We should make it so easy that every company says you know what? You come work for me and I am going to provide you a 401(k). Maybe it’s a simple plan, which is something we want to work on to create a new simple plan for small businesses because a lot of small businesses don’t have the professionals, the HR people, the human resources people, to do it. So that’s part of what we have in our legislation. We need to do more to help part-time workers in particular. We need to do more to ensure that the smallest businesses have an opportunity to have savings plans.
“So before the end of the year, we introduced this legislation just a couple of weeks ago. It’s called Portman-Cardin 2.0, the Retirement Security and Savings Act. It has more than 50 provisions. Again, it’s a culmination of many years of work with various stakeholders to come up with stuff that makes sense. Among other things, it establishes new automatic enrollment safe harbors. It does raise the catch-up contribution limits. It allows individuals to make additional catch-up contributions after age 60. It would also expand the savers’ credit for low-income families and make that refundable and to ensure Americans don’t outlive their savings, the bill exempts any savers with less than $100,000 in aggregate savings from the currently Required Minimum Distributions from your 401(k) or your IRA Right now at age 70 1/2, you have to start taking it out. For many people who are working in their 70s, this makes no sense at all. So you have worked your whole life, you are still working in your 70s, as my dad was, and you’re told you have to start taking out your money from your retirement account or we’re going to penalize you. So we say if you have less than $100,000 in savings, you shouldn’t be subject to the minimum requirements at all. And for others, we raise it from 70 1/2 up to 75 years old over time to ensure, again, that those who are in their 70s don’t start depleting their retirement accounts when they may well need them, living, again, longer and longer lives.
“So let’s continue our work to focus on helping people save for their own retirement, and that’s something we can do on a bipartisan basis. We also have a little issue that is growing dramatically with regard to defined retirement plans, defined benefit plans, not defined contribution plans like 401(k), and specifically what are called multi-employer plans. You may have heard about this, but if you haven’t, you probably will if we don’t do something, because it looks like by the year 2025, the federal insurance program called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, will go insolvent because of these plans not being properly funded. Some of these plans are very big. They are about 60,000 at risk people in the state of Ohio who are in one of the plans, the Central States Plan that if it goes belly-up will result in the PBGC going belly-up. Then that insolvency causes problems for all plans, including single-employer plans, not just these multi-employer plans we’re talking about. We need a bipartisan solution for that. We came close to it last year. We had a joint select committee formed to look at it. That should be bipartisan, really nonpartisan. If we don’t solve this problem, it’s going to have a big impact on our economy, as not only does the federal guaranty program go bankrupt, but a lot of businesses that rely on that are going to go bankrupt as well.
“Finally, to continue our progress in combating the opioid epidemic we talked about earlier, we need to take the next step. There is new legislation called Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act 2.0, referring to the same legislation, Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, CARA, that was passed here in this body two and a half years ago. That legislation is to do more in terms of treatment, recovery, and specifically prevention. It also deals with this issue that we don’t have effective drug monitoring programs back in our states so that somebody doesn’t know if someone gets a prescription for opioids whether they have already had that prescription often. They also don’t know if someone crossed the state lines in my state of Ohio, people might cross over to Michigan or Indiana or Kentucky or West Virginia or Pennsylvania as they do, all states of which have opioid problems as well, get a prescription filled there, and we don’t know in Ohio that it’s a doubling up of prescriptions when they go to a pharmacy in Ohio. So we need to work better on being sure that we have an interstate system. That’s in this legislation.
“We also have a limitation on prescriptions for acute pain. This is based on the Center for Disease Control, the CDC, guidelines that tell you that after three days of taking opioids for acute pain, it is far more likely that you are going to become addicted to pain medication. This obviously is a huge issue that we want to stop. So much of this opioid addiction, even the fentanyl addiction we have now, the synthetic opioids coming in, started with prescription drugs. Often started from somebody who is legally prescribed a prescription drug. Again, this has for those who are prescribed after a surgery, let’s say, for acute pain, not chronic pain, not cancer, but acute pain, there should be a three-day limit. Again, based on the CDC research that’s been done. Also based on the research being done by the FDA about how the pain medication works. There they say the opioid medication may be helpful for somebody that has a serious pain issue after an operation, let’s say, for acute pain, but after the first couple of days, it’s much more likely to be handled through something less dangerous. Like an ibuprofen. There’s not a need to have a continual use of these opioids. That alone, getting this three-day national limit in place, would have an huge impact on overdoses going forward because it starts with an addiction. It leads to the overdose. And again, for over 70,000 Americans last year, this led to not just an overdose but overdose deaths. The number one cause of death among people under 50 in our country today.
“It also requires hospitals and doctors to not just use these prescription drug monitoring programs but to share that data, to prevent people from again cheating the system and getting prescription drugs they shouldn’t be getting. Right around the holidays, "The New York Times" did a really interesting three-part study on the issue of addiction. And I found it very helpful. And I recommend it to you. It was about the science of addiction and it was about some simple information about how these drugs hijack your brain essentially. This is a two-page foldout that was in The New York Times just before Christmas. It goes through the various stages from the gateway to opioids we talked about earlier. Often from prescription drugs. Tolerance to withdrawal symptoms, addiction treatment, relapse, and recovery. If you haven’t seen it, you can find it online. I would recommend it. It’s in very simple language talking to addicts, talking to experts, and giving people a simple sense of what happens here and what we can do, therefore, to address it. And what we can do is much better on the prevention side. Again, more information out there, understanding how dangerous these drugs are. But second, getting people who are already addicted into treatment. This is in everyone’s interest, including our law enforcement officials who are tired of arresting the same people again and again for the same crimes, usually property crimes associated with paying for their habit, the number one cause of crime in my state of Ohio are these crimes. It’s also incredibly important for our families that are being broken apart for so many of our systems, health care systems, emergency rooms, our neonatal units in our hospitals which are overwhelmed with these babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome, the huge cost and impact to that on the individuals and families and on taxpayers. It’s something that is affecting employers in big ways now.
“When I look at the numbers out there in terms of what’s happening in our economy, the biggest issue in terms of workforce is really people who are not in the workforce at all anymore. That’s at historically high levels. They aren’t even applying for jobs. Among men it’s probably at historic levels, among men and women combined you would have to go back to the 1970s to see such low levels of participation in the workforce. That’s when we had, by the way, late 1970s, double-digit unemployment, double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation. We don’t want that again. When you look at it as to why these people aren’t working, it is dramatic how many of these people are addicted, that opioids are really driving these numbers at a time when there should be so many more people unengaging in the workforce because these jobs are there. The jobs are open not being filled. Often people can’t pass the drug test if they are looking because of their opioid addiction. So it’s affecting us in every way, including our economy and our workforce.
“To address these issues again, this CARA 2.0 legislation will help just as will the legislation we passed last year with regard to synthetic opioids, with regard to providing more treatment for people. I think if we keep up these efforts, continue to pass legislation that addresses the specific problems that are out there I think this year, 2019 we will see the tide turning. We will see fewer addictions. We will see fewer deaths from overdoses. We will see more families that are not broken apart but coming back together. We will see our communities begin to heal because we’re beginning to make progress. It’s not showing up in all the numbers yet but I see it back home with regard to individual regions and cities, with regard to communities that are doing an awesome job as volunteers coming together, using some of the tools we’ve been giving them to be able to again have a more effective prevention campaign but also getting people into treatment and where that’s working, they’re making a huge difference. So I’m hopeful in 2019 if we can keep this up on a bipartisan basis, we’ll be able to see this progress be manifested in our communities.
“There’s plenty more that can be done this year. I joined a bipartisan group of colleagues on the Senate floor just before the holidays calling on the Senate to pass Restore Our Parks Act, which is to deal with the $12 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks. Things are falling apart, roads, bridges, water systems. It’s a shame because it’s really a debt that’s owed. We aren’t keeping up because our annual budget doesn’t provide money for the so-called capital expenses. And yet if we don’t deal with them, it becomes far more expensive. If the roof isn’t fixed because it’s too expensive, what happens? You have the entire building then, as it’s happening at one of our great parks in Ohio have to be rebuilt at a huge cost to the taxpayer. So there’s an opportunity here again in a bipartisan way to deal with this long overdue maintenance at our national parks. The administration supports it. Our committee, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has voted it out of committee with a strong bipartisan vote. The House of Representatives supported it on a bipartisan basis. Let’s get it done.
“There’s also been talk of a major infrastructure compromise. We need that. Our roads and bridges are crumbling generally not just in our parks. We do need to have an infrastructure bill. Maybe the parks bill will be the start of that. We’ll see if that can be something where we can find some compromise. We also of course have to make progress on health care. The cost of health care are out of control. I know Senator Alexander talked about this earlier on the floor today. There are so many opportunities here for us to improve the health care system and the cost and the quality of that system. And this is something that has been very difficult, very partisan. It’s been difficult for us to make any progress on it. But I think we kind of have to put our partisan blinders away and say how can we come up with sensible solutions. Some were talked about today on the floor. Senator Collins who was here earlier today as presiding officer has specific legislation to have these high-risk pools in states—it’s worked in her state of Maine. It can work nationally to be able to be sure we’re reducing the cost for everybody, for their premiums, deductibles and copays.
“I think the American people are looking for wins right now. I think it would help our country to have some of these wins. I think there are great examples I presented today of some pretty easy wins, some low-hanging fruit. Whether it’s dealing with these issues that were left here with the government shutdown and immigration, making some small steps forward on immigration reform right away, or whether it’s low-hanging fruit like the reform of the Internal Revenue Service, retirement savings expansion so people can save for their retirement, this idea we can turn the tide on the opioid epidemic that’s gripped our country. It doesn’t have to be a year of gridlock. It can be a year of progress. And my hope is on this opening day as members are walking down the aisle and here with their families and celebrating and the optimism of that opening day thinking, you know, hope springs eternal, this can be a good season. This can be a good year. This can be a year where we focus on what’s best for the people we represent. Focus on what’s best for our country. If we do that, I think we will make a difference and I think we will look back and realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.”