It’s hard to believe that my fourth year serving you in the Senate has come to a close. It is truly an honor to represent our great state in Washington. This past year has been filled with many important policy debates, legislative accomplishments, and exciting new developments for Nebraska. In what has become an end-of-year tradition, I want to take a moment to highlight some of these events and reflect upon the year.
Jobs and the Economy
By far the most pressing issue facing our nation is our economy. Nebraska has been somewhat of a bright spot, but nationally unemployment is still painstakingly high. We must continue to find ways to help our businesses grow and expand so they can create jobs and push our economy out of this current rut. I was pleased when the Senate passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act this spring with bipartisan support and without adding to our debt. The JOBS Act was eventually signed into law by the President and frees up much-needed capital for small businesses and cuts some of the bureaucratic red tape they face. Small businesses create more than 60 percent of new jobs in the U.S. and it’s important that we do everything we can to help them succeed.
We cannot address our economic challenges without addressing the nation’s runaway debt. Our current $16 trillion debt has ballooned to such a serious situation where each taxpayer would owe $142,000 just to get us back to even. Worse yet, this mountain of debt is projected to grow by another trillion dollars each and every year. Our country is borrowing 42 cents of every dollar spent and cannot continue. I spent months working, with a bipartisan group of Senators toward a solution. Ultimately, we paused our efforts in deference to the talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). It is still my hope Congress and the Administration will find a solution to these important issues. What I continue to hear from Nebraskans is that no matter how difficult the task, politicians in Washington need to come together and find common sense solutions to our country’s problems. I couldn’t agree more and I stand ready to work with anyone who is willing to roll up their sleeves to find those solutions.
Drought and wildfires have plagued our state this year, yet farmers and ranchers have remained resilient. In all, nearly 400,000 acres burned across Nebraska, displacing many and causing damage to bridges, roads, houses and valuable pasture and farmland. I was pleased with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s swift response to my calls for action, including releasing emergency Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands for grazing and haying and promptly fulfilling Gov. Heineman’s request to declare Secretarial Disasters in affected areas to allow access to assistance.
But more than anything I was proud of those Nebraskans who donated countless hours and supplies to help combat the fires. From the hundreds of volunteer firefighters from across the state who worked around the clock, to the individuals and organizations who donated food and supplies to those affected, the generous nature of Nebraskans shone through it all.
I continue to monitor the situation as 2013 could bring about similar weather conditions. I will work to ensure appropriate relief is provided to those struggling because of the drought.
The drought added pressure to renew farm policy and I was proud of the bipartisan work that was done in the Senate to pass a fiscally responsible farm bill. As a member of the Senate Ag committee, I worked with my colleagues through many committee hearings and markups to ensure the bill brought to the Senate floor strengthened our ag community and preserved important tools such as crop insurance.
As you know, the House of Representatives has not passed their version of the farm bill, but work is still being done to ensure a new farm bill is signed into law before next year’s harvests. Short-term measures are being designed to fill the gap created by some of the expiring programs.
Our farmers and ranchers are tasked with the enormous challenge of feeding the world, and creating good farm policy is an important part of meeting those demands.
Sometimes federal policies are proposed that would have the opposite effect. A Department of Labor proposed rule threatened to severely restrict the ability of teenagers to work on farms. Since the rule was introduced last year, I worked hard to show the Administration just how illogical it was, and was pleased when Labor withdrew the rule in April of this year. Preventing young people from working on a farm or ranch deprives them of the opportunity to learn valuable skills that are necessary to ensure future generations of farmers and ranchers are successful.
Trade is particularly important for Nebraska agricultural producers and manufacturers. This year we have implemented trade agreements with Columbia, Korea, and Panama, and granted Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status. These efforts reduce or eliminate tariffs on U.S. goods entering these countries, vastly expand America’s markets, and level the playing field for our state’s exporters. I will continue to press for market opportunities for Nebraska-produced goods and services.
We owe our nation’s service members a tremendous debt of gratitude for their work protecting our safety and freedom. It’s crucial to ensure they continue to receive proper care, and I was pleased when legislation I introduced was included in the defense authorization bill that passed the Senate earlier this month. One measure was the HIRE at Home Act, introduced with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), which streamlines job certification for soldiers returning home from war. Too often, it is difficult for our military personnel to receive state certifications to do the exact same job in the private sector that they did while overseas. The HIRE at Home Act helps alleviate this problem.
As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I’m committed to honoring our nation’s heroes. I was pleased that the Omaha VA Medical Center has been put on the VA’s priority list for new construction. I will continue to press for progress on this facility so that our veterans receive the comprehensive and compassionate care they deserve. The VA also announced the purchase of land for a new national cemetery in Sarpy County. This cemetery, which will serve veterans in eastern Nebraska, western Iowa and northwest Missouri, has been a priority of mine and I am happy to see it moving forward. We must never forget their service and unyielding patriotism, which is why I teamed up with the Library of Congress to help preserve their stories through the Veterans History Project. Their heroic acts are now etched forever in history for future generations.
Offutt Air Force Base
This was a big year for Offutt Air Force Base. In August, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced a construction contract to begin the first phase of construction for a new command and control facility for STRATCOM. The 915,876 square-foot facility will house state-of-the-art computer and information systems that will enhance STRATCOM’s ability to respond to new and complex threats around the globe. I encouraged my colleagues to move the contract forward and I will continue to closely monitor progress on the new headquarters.
There was more good news in October with the announcement that STRATCOM and the DOD would be partnering with the University of Nebraska (NU) in a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC). As technology evolves, assuring our military is equipped with cutting-edge research is vital to our defense and security. The $17 million initial contract will allow NU to play a large role in that critical work.
The Senate also adopted two resolutions I introduced with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). One commemorated the dedication of a memorial honoring Strategic Air Command (SAC), and the other celebrated the 20th anniversary of Strategic Command (STRATCOM), headquartered at Offutt.
I was disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision this summer to uphold a majority of the President’s health care law. The Supreme Court ruling defined this mandate as a tax, thus permissible under the Constitution. I introduced a bill with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah to repeal the individual mandate. I also sponsored a bill to eliminate a job-killing tax on medical devices set to begin on January 1, 2013, which the Administration’s own experts conclude could lead to higher health costs for consumers.
As the adverse consequences of the health care law continue to rise I remain committed to blunting the law’s harmful impact. I continue to believe our country would be better off if this law was repealed, but I recognize that repeal would not be signed into law for at least the next four years, even if it were to pass in the Senate.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the most intrusive federal agency of this Administration. I’ve had the opportunity to serve on the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee this Congress and was able to exercise much-needed oversight of the EPA. I was troubled by a recent EPW report disclosing a number of EPA policies waiting to be implemented in the President’s second term. Many of these could have detrimental consequences for Americans. It also indicates the agency has no plans to slow down its heavy handed regulatory agenda.
I worked hard this year to keep two EPA regulations, the Utility Maximum Available Control Technology rule and the Cross State Air Pollution rule, from being implemented. These two sweeping regulations would impose unprecedented compliance costs on our energy providers under a compressed and unrealistic timeline. These costs would drive historic electricity rate increases, particularly in Nebraska. I was happy to see the DC courts agreed that the Cross-State Air Pollution rule was an overreach by the Obama Administration. Unfortunately efforts to stop these costly regulations did not succeed in the Senate, but I will continue to press the Administration to reevaluate costly regulations that will cause your month electricity bill to skyrocket.
Earlier this year, it was uncovered that the agency was conducting aerial surveillance flyovers of farms and ranches without notifying landowners. Soon after, I wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson seeking answers about the program, and I introduced an amendment banning the use of aerial surveillance for agricultural operations while we wait for a full account of this program. Although the amendment didn’t receive the 60 votes needed to pass, it earned the support of 56 Senators, including 10 Democrats, and sent a strong message to the EPA that the Senate believes the American people deserve answers about this program.
We all want clean air and a healthier environment, but any discussion of overarching, intrusive regulations that EPA is imposing must account for the associated costs to the American people, which these policies fail to do.
My job extends beyond the Senate chamber and halls of Congress. A lesser-known, but equally important, service is assisting Nebraskans dealing with federal agencies. I’m pleased to have helped Nebraskans get answers to questions about topics ranging from tax returns to student loans, and visas to crop insurance. This year alone, I’ve been able to help more than a thousand Nebraskans overcome various roadblocks when dealing with the federal government.
Earlier this year, a pilot who works with an agricultural aviation business in Nebraska was experiencing difficulties renewing his license with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). By contacting my office, we were able to expedite his renewal request and ensure the company did not lose business because of unnecessary FAA delays.
Another example includes a high school student being denied a car loan and college financial aid opportunities because a credit report showed he was legally dead. After learning the error was due to a faulty social security claim, my office was able to help the Harvard, Neb. native navigate the federal process and rectify this mistake. Eventually, the student was able to not only purchase a car but receive the help he needed to attend college this fall.
Hearing from You
One of the highlights of my time in the Senate continues to be the extended time I get to spend at home hearing from many Nebraskans. Every time I attend an event or speak with a citizen – whether it is at a community coffee or an ag policy roundtable, a meeting in my office or while touring a drought stricken farm – I am reminded of a common bond that our residents share. The message I have heard from many has been clear: Washington needs to adopt policies that help Americans get back to work, reduce our government’s out-of-control spending, and provide farmers and ranchers with the certainty they deserve. Nebraskans understand today’s challenges and we have practical ideas on how to fix them. It is what we do in Nebraska. We work together and find solutions to the problems we face. We have a great message to share – one that I will continue to share with my colleagues in Washington.
I encourage all Nebraskans to continue sharing your concerns and ideas with me. Please feel free to call or write. Modern technology has also made it easy for us to stay connected. Follow me on Twitter @Mike_Johanns or visit my website, which lists my office locations, contact information and other helpful links.
I’d also like to thank those who participated in my Facebook photo contest. The hundreds of photo submissions my office received of inspirational photographs from across the state is a true testament to the splendor of Nebraska and the pride we take in her beauty.
Thank you again for allowing me to serve you in the United States Senate. It’s an honor I take very seriously. Stephanie and I wish you a very happy New Year and hope to see you soon. God Bless.
Very Truly Yours,