Keeping Government on a Short Leash

by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley

The health of the U.S. economy typically serves as a good yardstick to gauge the public's approval or disapproval towards Washington. This year, the public's distaste for Washington's appetite to tax, spend and borrow our way back to prosperity exposes a major disconnect between the political leadership and the grassroots.

Inch by inch, Washington's cure for fixing health care, the economy, the environment, higher education, housing, Wall Street and Detroit has involved unprecedented taxpayer bailouts and unrealistic promises.

Many Iowans share how fed up they are with this Washington-knows-best approach to governance. From mandating individuals to buy health insurance to phasing out conventional light bulbs and shutting local lenders out of the school loan market, Washington is taking American consumers out of the decision-making process.

A Washington-knows-best philosophy undermines personal responsibility and weakens genuine accountability and effective transparency that are fundamental to upholding our government "of, by and for the people."

I work to keep Washington on a short leash.  It's not always popular, but I relish my job as a watchdog in Washington. It demands long haul oversight work that I have pursued as a representative for Iowa in the U.S. Senate. Holding the federal bureaucracy accountable, protecting the integrity of hard-earned tax dollars and keeping the people's business open to the public are non-negotiable principles.

Recently, I've focused my oversight work on several federal agencies to give voice to the concerns of Iowa farmers, retirees, taxpayers and investors, including:

·         The EPA's proposed federal rule that would dictate how much dust could reach beyond the ditch to the roadside when farmers harvest their crops;

·         Inadequate scrutiny of health care contractors by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Fraudulent claims and improper payments paid by Medicare siphons scarce tax dollars and further weakens the long-term solvency of this important health insurance program for retirees and disabled individuals. Consider one example in which a durable medical equipment supplier in Florida was ordered by a federal court in February to repay $445 million to the U.S. government. I want to know why CMS failed to detect suspicious billing activity (the investigation was launched by the FBI) and have serious concerns regarding how many cases of fraud go undetected.

·         The internal auditors at the Department of Defense are failing to follow the "money trail" and conduct full-scale contract audits. Unless the Inspector General commits to returning to the core mission of connecting the dots between a contract and a payment, the taxpaying public and military readiness risk losing even more to waste, fraud and abuse.

I also use legislative tools to establish accountability and transparency in government.

·         More than a decade ago, I secured passage of the landmark "Congressional Accountability Act" which holds the legislative branch of the federal government to the same civil rights, workplace safety and employment laws as the rest of the country.

·         My bipartisan effort to end the practice of so-called "secret holds" would end the ability of a single lawmaker to anonymously hold the people's business hostage by preventing a nomination or bill from coming to a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

·         My Witness Sunshine Resolution would require individuals who testify before Senate committees to disclose outside affiliations and financial interests in organizations which have ties to the issue under consideration. The public deserves to know about special interests witnesses might have that could influence the outcome of public policy.

·         The president signed into law my bipartisan legislation to repeal blanket exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Considering the SEC's failure to investigate the ponzi scheme cooked up by Bernard Madoff, it's obvious the American public deserves more disclosure, not less.

It's pretty clear that Washington sticks to the adage "if you give an inch, it'll take a mile."  Considering the $13 trillion national debt and fragile economic recovery, it's more important than ever to make sure the federal government measures up to the highest standards of service, integrity and accountability.

 

Friday, October 15, 2010

WASHINGTON - Senator Chuck Grassley today asked the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Inspector General who oversees the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to address evidence from statements made by immigration officers that senior U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services leaders are putting pressure on employees to approve more visa applications, even if the applications might be fraudulent or the applicant is ineligible.  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security.

Grassley first brought attention to this issue in a letter to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas in September.  Since then, additional agency insiders have provided new information suggesting that the director is responsible for fostering an environment in the California Service Center that encourages the approval of as many applications as possible, regardless of eligibility or potential fraud.  According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees, a "visibly agitated" Mayorkas asked employees, "Why would you be focusing on [fraud] instead of approvals?" and, on a separate occasion, at a conference in Landsdowne, Virginia, said that there are some "managers with black spots on their hearts" in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services because they would not approve more visa applications.

"The American people need to know that the rule of law isn't being undermined by political leaders," Grassley said.  "The safety of America's citizens is the Department of Homeland Security's primary duty, and I expect Secretary Napolitano and Inspector General Skinner to address this situation quickly and thoroughly."

Grassley first raised concerns over U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services visa policy after whistleblower accusations that supervisors directed staff at the California Service Center to "find a way" to approve visa applications and expressed a desire to "instruct generosity" when processing immigration benefits.  Since then, additional agency staff has come forward with allegations of retaliation and pressure asserted by leadership.

Grassley's September 10, 2010 letter to Director Mayorkas is available here.

Director Mayorkas's September 24, 2010 response is available here.

Grassley's October 14, 2010 letter to Secretary Napolitano is available here.

Grassley's October 14, 2010 letter to Inspector General Skinner is available here.

 

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WASHINGTON - Senator Chuck Grassley said the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has issued new information for Iowans affected by the June 1 to Aug. 31, 2010 severe storms, flooding and tornados.  The deadline for Iowans to register for federal disaster assistance has been extended to November 12, 2010.

 

The deadline applies to registration only.  It is not the deadline for all related paperwork.  Homeowners, renters, and business owners who suffered losses in the June 1 to Aug. 31, 2010 severe storms, flooding and tornados who live in one of the 35 declared counties may be eligible for disaster assistance.  Counties included in the declaration are Appanoose, Black Hawk, Cherokee, Clayton, Decatur, Delaware, Dubuque, Fayette, Franklin, Hamilton, Howard, Humboldt, Ida, Jackson, Jasper, Jones, Kossuth, Lee, Lucas, Lyon, Mahaska, Marion, Monroe, O'Brien, Osceola, Polk, Ringgold, Sioux, Story, Taylor, Union, Wapello, Warren, Webster and Wright.

 

Registration should be completed with FEMA online at www.disasterassistance.gov; or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) or 1-800-462-7585 for the hearing- or speech-impaired. The numbers are available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily, until further notice.  For Disaster Recovery Center information, Iowans should visit www.fema.gov/assistance/opendrcs.shtm.  

It's important for anyone impacted by the storms to register even if no decision has yet been made to submit additional paperwork.  Registration ensures that the person impacted may ask for federal assistance in the future.

 

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Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa today made the following comment on an announcement from H&R Block that it is working to acquire a company in Cedar Rapids that has developed tax software that H&R Block hopes to use in its tax filing operations.

"Iowa has a lot of high-tech expertise, through its employers and universities and community colleges, so I'm not surprised that an Iowa firm developed a product that's attractive to one of the world's largest tax services providers.   If all the necessary approvals go through, I hope this will lead to job creation in Cedar Rapids.   Iowa has an outstanding workforce, and new jobs would be a shot in the arm to the Cedar Rapids community, where people have worked so hard to recover from the floods that caused so much damage in 2008."

Iowans who lost work as a result of the summer floods now have until the first week of November to file for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA), state/federal officials announced today.

DUA was made available as part of the Presidential Disaster Declaration resulting from the severe storms, flooding, and tornadoes of June 1 through Aug. 31, 2010.  DUA provides weekly benefit payments to those out of work due to the disaster, including self-employed persons, farm and ranch owners, and others not covered by typical unemployment insurance programs.

The filing deadline is Nov. 1, 2010, for residents who live or work in one of the following counties: Appanoose, Black Hawk, Cherokee, Clayton, Decatur, Delaware, Dubuque, Fayette, Franklin, Hamilton, Howard, Humboldt, Ida, Jackson, Jasper, Jones, Kossuth, Lee, Lucas, Lyon, Mahaska, Marion, O'Brien, Osceola, Polk, Ringgold, Sioux, Story, Taylor, Union, Wapello, Warren, Webster, and Wright.

The filing deadline is Nov. 4, 2010, for residents of Monroe County, which was added to the declared counties in late September.

"This is not regular unemployment compensation, but a program to help people who lost their jobs or cannot work because of the disaster," said the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Tom Hall, the federal coordinating officer for the Iowa recovery.

DUA claims can be filed at any Iowa Workforce Development Center. Individuals applying for DUA need to provide proof of past earnings, such as business records or bank statements and their most recent income tax form, at the time they file their claim.

In addition to assistance filing a DUA claim, Iowa Workforce Development Centers offer reemployment services, including testing, counseling and placement. Job search and career information also is available through Iowa Workforce Development's Web site at www.iowaworkforce.org.

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October 7, 2010

WASHINGTON - Senator Chuck Grassley recently sent a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Donald Berwick reiterating his concerns that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, is not properly overseeing its contractors.

Grassley said the lack of oversight of contractors is alarming, and he points to agency oversight of contractors responsible for adjudicating and processing Medicare claims; locating and addressing waste, fraud or abuse; and improving the quality of health care provided to Medicare beneficiaries.

"The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is not holding contractors accountable when those contractors fail to carry out their responsibilities or fulfill contract terms," Grassley said.  "The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services needs to do what it takes to make sure these contractors don't waste taxpayer dollars."

Previously, Grassley raised concerns about Program Safety Contractors, who are tasked with locating and addressing waste, fraud or abuse, failing to adequately open new investigations or refer cases to law enforcement when appropriate.  Grassley also expressed concerns about the apparent lack of accountability by Medicare Quality Improvement Organizations, which are tasked with improving the quality of health care provided to Medicare beneficiaries.

Grassley's most recent letter to Secretary Sebelius is available here.

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WASHINGTON - Senator Chuck Grassley said new information about taxpayers having to pay $8,000 for a 160-mile trip by a senior government official underscores the need to limit unnecessary government travel expenses.

"Chartered aircraft may be necessary for emergencies, but there's no need for taxpayers to spend $8,000 for a 160-mile flight, as the Health and Human Services Secretary did when traveling from Topeka, Kansas to Omaha, Nebraska.  That would have been less than a three-hour drive," Grassley said.  "Government officials always should avoid extravagant and unnecessary expenses at taxpayer expense."

A Department of Health and Human Services memo, obtained by Grassley earlier this year, showed that in fiscal 2008 there was a six-percent increase in the number of federal employees traveling internationally and a nearly 14-percent increase in the cost of that travel.  More than 95 percent of the international travel was by employees of agencies that fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services.  In response to questions from Grassley about this travel, a former Health and Human Services official informed Grassley that an Assistant Secretary for the Department had severely reduced oversight of personnel travel expenses.

In addition to conducting oversight to hold federal agencies accountable and bring about reduced travel costs, Grassley voted this year to eliminate non-essential government travel.

Grassley's February 17, 2010 letter to Secretary Sebelius about this issue is available here.

Grassley's May 5, 2010 letter to Secretary Sebelius about this issue is available here.

Grassley's October 4, 2010 letter to Secretary Sebelius about this issue is available here.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

WASHINGTON - Senator Chuck Grassley is pressing for consideration of two key amendments to ensure American workers are filling job vacancies in the United States when companies seek to use temporary visa programs to fill those jobs.  The amendments were filed to the so-called offshoring bill that is currently being debated in the Senate.

"If this debate is truly about protecting American jobs, these common-sense amendments will go a long way to preventing work from being shipped overseas and ensuring that qualified American workers are first in line for the job openings.  Instead of blocking these amendments, the Majority Leader should bring them up for a vote," Grassley said.  "In tough economic times like we're seeing, it's even more important that we do everything possible to see that Americans are given every consideration when applying for jobs.

"If there aren't qualified Americans, then companies can legitimately use the visa system.  But, today, too many Americans remain unemployed, and we still allow companies to import thousands of foreign workers with little or no strings attached.  It doesn't seem unreasonable to ask businesses to first determine if there are qualified Americans to fill the vacant positions, and be held accountable for displacing Americans to hire cheaper, foreign labor," Grassley added.

One of the Grassley amendments mirrors legislation Grassley coauthored with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.  The amendment would prevent any company engaged in a mass lay-off of American workers from importing cheaper labor from abroad through temporary guest worker programs.  Companies truly facing labor shortages could continue to obtain employer sponsored visas.

The other amendment is similar to legislation he and Senator Dick Durbin have introduced that would root out fraud and abuse of the H-1B and L Visa programs while making sure Americans have the first chance at high-skilled jobs in the United States.  The H-1B visa has been labeled the "outsourcing visa" by India's former Commerce and Industry Minister.

Grassley said the H-1B program is well-known for encouraging companies to take their work offshore.   The New York Times reported in 2007 that the H-1B Visa is "a critical tool for Indian outsourcing vendors to gain expertise and win contracts from western companies to transfer critical operations like Bangalore.  As Indian outsourcing companies have become the leading consumers of the visa, they have used it to further their primary mission, which is to gain the expertise necessary to take on critical tasks performed by Western companies, and perform them in India at a fraction of the costs."

The H-1B and L Visa amendment would require employers to try and recruit U.S. workers before hiring H-1B visa holders; require employers to pay a better wage to visa holders who take these jobs; expand the powers of the federal government to go after abusers; create new rules regarding the outsourcing and outplacement of H-1B and L-1 workers by their employers to secondary employers in the United States; and establish a new database that employers can use to advertise positions for which they intend to hire an H-1B worker.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2010

WASHINGTON - Senator Chuck Grassley today said that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Center for Substance Abuse Treatment has awarded a $3,352,000 grant to the Iowa State Department of Public Health.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Iowa State Department of Public Health will use the money to fund the project entitled, "Access to Recovery."

Each year, thousands of local Iowa organizations, colleges and universities, individuals and state agencies apply for competitive grants from the federal government.  The funding is then awarded based on each local organization or individual's ability to meet criteria set by the federal entity administering the funds.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Grassley:  Independent assessment needed to verify savings for hospitals and others under existing system for group purchasing

WASHINGTON - Senator Chuck Grassley said today that more needs to be done to determine if Group Purchasing Organizations are helping to achieve significant savings for hospitals and others buying medical products, much of which is ultimately taxpayer funded.

"Whether Group Purchasing Organizations are able to help save money on medical supply costs, or not, impacts federal health care spending," Grassley said.  "There's no data with which to independently verify the effect, one way or another, and that's a shortcoming in the current system."

Grassley's comments came along with the release of a new review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a report of his own staff about Group Purchasing Organizations.  Grassley requested the GAO report in January 2009, to update its earlier study on the business practices of Group Purchasing Organizations.

Grassley said the report of his staff of the Senate Committee on Finance summarizes the information he received directly from Group Purchasing Organizations, about their activities and operations, in response to the requests he made in 2009.  He said there is not empirical data available to support claims of savings by Group Purchasing Organizations.

Group Purchasing Organizations act as purchasing intermediaries that negotiate contracts between health care providers and vendors of medical products.  The GAO said that a 2009 study found that Group Purchasing Organization contracts account for an average of 73 percent of non-labor purchases that hospitals make.  Others estimate that about 98 percent of hospitals use Group Purchasing Organizations to purchase products.

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