Capitol News from Senator Richard Burr

Message From Senator Burr

Greetings from Washington!  Earlier this month, our nation’s capital was filled with people from all across the country who were celebrating the 4th of July.  Throughout the year, but especially on Independence Day, we are reminded of what our Founding Fathers accomplished 232 years ago by signing their name to the Declaration of Independence.  Their bravery and commitment to freedom and independence created this great country, and they provided the foundation for the freedoms we now enjoy.  With freedom comes great responsibility, and the debates in Washington over the past few months continue to focus on issues that are very important to you.  From energy costs and health care access to providing the necessary resources for our military and our veterans, there is much going on in Washington that affects you and your family.

News Update

Lowering the Cost of Energy

As gas prices continue to skyrocket to all-time highs, I know that every North Carolinian is feeling the strain on their wallet, and families have to make tough choices in how to cope.  We need to act quickly to ease these escalating energy prices by enacting common sense reforms that expand our domestic exploration, improve efforts at conservation, increase our investments in alternative sources of energy for transportation such as electric cars and hydrogen, and ultimately eliminate our dependence on foreign oil.  We are working to address these problems, and that is why I am a cosponsor of the Gas Price Reduction Act of 2008 (S.3202) that was recently introduced in Congress.

The Gas Price Reduction Act would give States the option of opening up the Outer-Continental Shelf to deep sea exploration and could result in production of 14 billion barrels of oil and 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  This is more oil than the U.S. has imported from Persian Gulf countries over the last 15 years.  The bill puts the decision in the hands of States on whether or not to explore off their coasts.  Deep sea exploration would be required to be conducted at least 50 miles from the coasts, putting it out of sight and with stringent environmental protections. It also includes a revenue sharing program that would give 37.5% of the royalties to State Governments and another 12.5% to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Additionally, this bill would repeal the moratorium on oil shale production on federal lands, allowing exploration where it is estimated there is 3 times more recoverable oil than in Saudi Arabia.

One of the most important ways that we can become energy independent is through the development of new technologies.  The Gas Price Reduction Act calls for a concerted effort to increase research and development for plug-in hybrid electric cars and trucks, including providing incentives for better and more efficient batteries and loans for advanced battery manufacturing facilities. The bill also calls on the Federal Government to take the lead in working to bring these new technologies to the marketplace by purchasing more plug-in hybrid electric vehicles as a start with the goal of moving to an all-electric platform for the Federal Government’s vehicle fleet.

By increasing domestic production and developing new sources of energy, we can decrease our dependency on foreign oil, stabilize the markets, and lower the price of energy for all North Carolinians.

Preserving Medicare Benefits

Access to quality, affordable health care is one of the most important issues facing our nation.  In my 14 years in office, I have worked tirelessly to help patients, doctors, hospitals, and medical providers.   I have always been committed to ensuring that our doctors have the resources they need to deliver high-quality health care across the country, especially for our seniors. 

Recently, many doctors and seniors in North Carolina were told by outside groups to call my office about H.R. 6331, a Medicare bill that was before Congress intended to delay a scheduled cut in Medicare payments to physicians.  Unfortunately, doctors and seniors were not told the full story about this bill.  This bill also included cuts to Medicare benefits.    

H.R. 6331, the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act of 2008, recently became law.  While this bill delays a scheduled cut in physician payments for 18 months, it will also jeopardize the benefits of those seniors who participate in the extremely popular Medicare Advantage program and Medicare Part D, the popular prescription drug program.  Even though I supported the part of H.R. 6331 that protected physician payments, I cannot accept cuts to Medicare Advantage or increases in Part D premiums for seniors.  Unfortunately, some in Congress have always opposed Medicare Advantage and Part D and saw H.R. 6331 as an opportunity to undermine these two popular programs that have given seniors both choice and additional benefits. 

There was a better way.  I was a cosponsor of S. 3118, the Preserving Access to Medicare Act of 2008, which would have prevented the scheduled payment cuts to doctors and increased physician reimbursements for 2008 and 2009 without cutting other Medicare benefits.  Regrettably, the Senate Majority Leader used procedural tools to block a vote on this bill. While this is his right, I certainly do not believe it is the proper way to do business in the Senate.

The bill that did pass, H.R. 6331, will cut $13.8 billion from Medicare Advantage over the next five years and almost $47.5 billion over ten years.  If the intent of the leadership in Congress was to eliminate the private health care coverage chosen by more than 2 million seniors, including over 200,000 North Carolinians, then they succeeded. 

I am pleased that doctors’ reimbursements will not be cut for this year, but I am still frustrated that the leadership in Congress and special interest lobbying groups played politics with doctors and patients instead of working together to help those who depend on Medicare and those who provide valuable medical services across our state.  Please know that I will continue to work on behalf of patients and physicians to ensure that North Carolinians have access to the best quality health care available.

Completing the Mission in Iraq and Afghanistan

Although the situation in Iraq remains fragile, we have seen tremendous gains over the past 18 months.  Recent news out of Iraq has been encouraging, and our troops are continuing to serve very effectively in tough conditions.  General David Petraeus and others have reported recently that American casualties, sectarian violence, high-profile attacks, and civilian deaths have dropped dramatically.  We have seen evidence of this success, especially in the al Anbar province where control of this most unstable part of the country has been given to the Iraqis and the local population has turned against al Qaeda and has rejected its calls for extremism.  More and more Iraqis are joining the fight to protect and secure their country.

Like all Americans, I want our troops home as soon as possible, and I am pleased to see that we are closer to that point today than we have ever been.  Because of recent successes in Iraq, the Department of Defense has announced plans to continue to drawdown troop levels through the summer.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has also decided to ease the burden on our troops by scaling back their rotations from 15 months to 12 months.   As our men and women serving in uniform return from the battlefield, we should take great pride in them and remember how important our support is to them and to the success of their mission. 

In addition to Iraq, success in Afghanistan remains vital to our overall mission of defeating terrorism.  It is very important that we maintain a high level of focus there as the situation continues to improve in Iraq.  We must relentlessly pursue our enemies and give them nowhere to seek refuge.  Putting an end to the Taliban and al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan will go a long way towards returning security to the region and ensuring our victory in the War on Terror.

Providing Educational Opportunities for America's Veterans

On June 26, the Senate passed a new G.I. Bill as part of the 2008 Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R.2642). This legislation will provide a long overdue boost to education benefits for veterans, making college more affordable to those who serve. The legislation includes a provision authored by Senators McCain, Graham, and myself that will allow servicemembers to give their unused benefits to their spouse or children.  I was proud to support this landmark legislation, which was signed into law by President Bush on June 30.

Protecting Veterans' Rights

On June 26, 2008, the Veterans’ Committee approved my Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act (S.3167), which would end an arbitrary process through which the government strips veterans of their Second Amendment rights.  The measure was included in a larger piece of legislation, the Veterans' Medical Personnel Recruitment and Retention Act of 2008 (S.2969).

When the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) appoints a fiduciary to assist a veteran with managing their financial affairs, the VA also reports the veteran to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) as a “mental defective.”  Those listed in NICS may not buy a firearm in the United States.  My legislation would protect veterans’ rights by requiring a judicial body to deem a veteran, surviving spouse, or child as a danger to himself or others before being listed in NICS.  The legislation is supported by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

The larger bill can now be considered by the full Senate.  America’s brave men and women enjoy the rights they fought so hard to protect, and I hope this bill quickly moves forward.

Expanding Veterans' Access To Dental Care

I was also pleased to see that the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved legislation based on a bill I introduced to establish a dental program for veterans who rely on VA for their health care.  Veterans would have the option of accessing dental insurance coverage through the VA, which would be able to use its purchasing power to get affordable premiums.  I modeled the plan after the TRICARE’s Retiree Dental Program.  TRICARE’s program allows military retirees to purchase dental coverage under a private contract managed by the Department of Defense.   This initiative would not replace any dental services already provided by VA. 

Healthy teeth are an important part of overall health.  This program will provide veterans with access to affordable group insurance rates they could not otherwise get on their own.  I look forward to following the progress of this important program.

Ensuring Economic Development Opportunities For North Carolina

Recently, I hosted a Federal Contracts Fair in Charlotte to offer North Carolina small business owners assistance with getting federal contracts. There are thousands of federal contracts awarded every year, and it is beneficial to North Carolina for local companies and organizations to be competitive in the federal grant process.  Presenters at the Fair included the General Services Administration, the Small Business Administration, the North Carolina Procurement Technical Assistance Center, and the North Carolina Military Business Center.  This event was a huge success with over 70 businesses attending.  I look forward to hosting additional events in the future in other regions across the state to ensure that North Carolina businesses and organizations continue to have an edge in the process.

In Conclusion

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve North Carolina in the U.S. Senate.  My office is glad to help North Carolinians solve any problems with the federal government and help you set up a tour of many of the sites here in Washington, including the U.S. Capitol.  Summer is a great time to come and visit our nation’s capital.  If you are visiting, I encourage you to stop by my office in Washington, D.C. and say hello.  We’ll be glad to see you.  I also encourage you to contact my offices in Asheville, Gastonia, Rocky Mount, Wilmington or Winston-Salem if you are having difficulty with a federal government agency or having trouble locating federal government services.  We are always happy to assist you.