U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today highlighted the numerous accomplishments the Republican-led Senate has achieved since Republicans took the majority in January. Many of those accomplishments will directly benefit South Dakota families and businesses.
Remarks (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, from voting to repeal Obamacare to passing the first long-term transportation bill in a decade and the first joint balanced budget in 14 years, Senate Republicans have worked hard this year to fulfill our promise to get Washington working again for American families.
“And while some of our efforts have been blocked by Senate Democrats or the president, we’ve still managed to get a lot done.
“I’m particularly proud of some of the legislation we’ve passed this year that will benefit South Dakota families and businesses, as well as families and businesses across the country.
“One bill that I’ve been working on for a long time – a bill that will mean a lot to South Dakota farmers and ranchers – is the legislation the House passed last week, the Surface Transportation Board reauthorization bill.
“The Surface Transportation Board is responsible for helping to ensure the efficiency of our rail system by addressing problems and adjudicating disputes between railroads and shippers.
“Unfortunately, it’s been clear for several years now that the Surface Transportation Board needs to work better.
“This became particularly apparent in 2013 and 2014, when a sharp increase in shipping demand and harsh winter weather conditions combined to create massive backlogs in the availability of rail cars for grain shipping, which in turn caused storage issues for farmers across the Midwest.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the rail backlog lowered the price of corn, wheat, and soybeans in the Upper Midwest and forced shippers to pay record-high railroad car premiums – 28 percent to 150 percent above the average previous levels – for roughly 65 consecutive weeks.
“The Surface Transportation Board legislation Congress sent to the president last week will help prevent another situation like this in the future.
“The bill, which I spearheaded, makes a number of significant reforms to the board.
“For starters, it expands the number of board members and establishes a more collaborative process that will allow members to work together to identify and solve problems as they emerge.
“The bill also provides the board with the investigative authority to address rail service issues even if an official complaint has not been made.
“This will allow and encourage the board to be more proactive when it comes to addressing problems in our nation’s rail system.
“The bill also increases transparency by requiring the Surface Transportation Board to establish a database of complaints and provide quarterly reports with key information to facilitate the effective monitoring of service issues.
“Finally, the bill improves the current process for resolving disputes between railroads and shippers.
“Right now, disputes can take multiple years and millions of dollars to resolve, which puts a tremendous burden on shippers and on railroads as well.
“The legislation we developed improves this process by setting timelines for rate reviews, expanding voluntary arbitration procedures, and requiring the Surface Transportation Board to study alternative rate review methodologies to streamline and expedite cases.
“It requires that the Surface Transportation Board maintain at least one simplified, expedited rate review methodology.
“These changes will increase efficiency throughout the rate review process.
“Mr. President, South Dakota farmers and ranchers depend on our nation’s railroads to bring their goods to market, and they also depend on our nation’s highways.
“This year I was proud to work with my colleagues in the Senate on the first long-term transportation bill in a decade.
“Over the past several years, Congress made a habit of passing numerous short-term funding extensions for federal transportation programs.
“That was an incredibly inefficient way to manage our nation’s infrastructure needs, and it wasted an incredible amount of money.
“It also put a lot of transportation jobs in jeopardy.
“When Congress fails to make it clear how transportation funding will be allocated, states and local governments are left without the certainty they need to authorize projects or make long-term plans for addressing various transportation infrastructure needs.
“And that means that essential construction projects get deferred, necessary repairs may not get made, and the jobs that depend on these projects and repairs are put at risk.
“The transportation bill we passed this month changes all that.
“It reauthorizes transportation programs for the long term and provides five years of guaranteed funding.
“That means states and local governments will have the certainty they need to invest in big transportation projects and the jobs they create.
“And that in turn means a stronger economy and a more reliable, safe, and effective transportation system.
“As chairman of the Commerce Committee, I spent a lot of time working with committee members on both sides of the aisle to develop the transportation bill’s safety provisions.
“Our portion of the bill includes a host of important safety improvements, including enhancements to the notification process to ensure that consumers are informed of auto-related recalls and important reforms at the government agency responsible for overseeing safety in our nation’s cars and trucks.
“Mr. President, another important success for South Dakota this year was the final approval of the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex – the military training airspace over South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.
“The expanded air space approved by the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration will allow our airmen and women to carry out critical training in conditions that more closely resemble combat missions.
“After working with the Air Force on this project for nearly nine years, I was proud to see this expansion finally completed and even more delighted to see the first large-force training exercise take place at the expanded Powder River Training Complex this month.
“Forty-one aircraft took part in the exercise, including the B-1 bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
“The expanded training complex will save Ellsworth $23 million per year in training costs by reducing the need for the B-1 bombers to commute to other states like Nevada and Utah for training.
“Mr. President, supporting our men and women in uniform – like our airmen at Ellsworth – is one of our most important jobs as members of Congress, and this year I’m proud to report that the Senate passed a national defense authorization bill that incorporates a number of critical reforms that will expand the resources available to our service members and strengthen our national security.
“The National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 tackles waste and inefficiency at the Department of Defense and focuses funding on our warfighters, rather than the Pentagon bureaucracy.
“The bill also overhauls our military retirement system.
“Before this bill, the system limited retirement benefits to service members who had served for 20 years or more, which means huge numbers of military personnel, including many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, retired after years of service without having accrued any retirement benefits.
“The National Defense Authorization Act replaces this system with a new retirement system that will ensure that the majority of our nation’s service members receive retirement benefits for their years of service to our country, even if they have not reached the 20-year mark.
“Mr. President, the bills I’ve discussed today are just a few of the accomplishments of the Republican-led Senate.
“Over the course of this year, we’ve passed a number of significant pieces of legislation that will benefit Americans for years to come.
“We’ve worked hard to help our nation’s veterans by expanding access to mental health resources, reducing wait times for medical care, and increasing the number of providers who can serve veterans.
“We voted to repeal Obamacare and start the process of moving toward the real health care reform Americans are looking for: an affordable, accountable, patient-focused system that puts individuals in control of their health care decisions.
“We’ve passed legislation to contain the out-of-control bureaucracy at the EPA and legislation to begin the process of safeguarding Medicare and Social Security by putting them on a more sustainable financial footing going forward.
“And we’ve passed cybersecurity legislation to protect Americans’ privacy and a major education reform bill that puts states, parents and teachers, and local school boards – not Washington bureaucrats – in charge of children’s education.
“But while we may have accomplished a lot this year, we know there’s still a lot that needs to be done.
“Americans are still suffering in the Obama economy, and our nation continues to face terrorist threats at home and abroad.
“Whether enacting pro-growth policies at home or ensuring our military has the resources it needs to protect us from threats abroad, Republicans will redouble our efforts to make sure Washington is meeting the needs of American families and addressing the American people’s priorities.
“We plan to spend the second year of the 114th Congress the way we’ve spent the first: fighting to make our economy stronger, our government more efficient and more accountable, and our nation and our world safer and more secure.”