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Sen. Patrick Leahy’s remarks on Judiciary Committee’s Agenda for 112th Congress

January 11, 2011

An Agenda For The Senate Judiciary Committee In The 112th Congress

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee

The Newseum

Washington

January 11, 2011

As Prepared

Thank you, Dean Treanor, for that gracious introduction and thank you, Chairman Overby — and your superb staff – for hosting this discussion here at the Newseum and the Freedom Forum.

The tragic events of this past weekend call us to pause and reflect on the promise of democracy and our responsibilities as its beneficiaries and stewards.

As we entered this beautiful building today, many of us passed by these concise, magnificent words – the First Amendment — carved in marble on the Newseum’s Pennsylvania Avenue facade, 74 feet high:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The day before she was felled in the attack in Tucson, Congresswoman Giffords was the member of the House of Representatives whose role it had been to recite those words on the House Floor.

In a free society – the society we always want America to be – government should not and must not restrain free expression.  But with freedom come responsibilities.  The full flowering of democracy and freedom relies on the self restraint of each citizen, organization and group of citizens.  The printed page, the radio microphone, the televised image, the TV ad, the blog posting and the Twitter feed all have the power to inspire, to motivate and to inform.  They also have the power to inflame and incite.

The seething rhetoric has gone too far.  The demonizing of opponents, of government and of public service has gone too far.  Our politics have become incendiary and we all share the responsibility for lowering the temperature.  That is the responsibility we all have to keep our democracy strong and thriving.

The 535 members of the House and Senate have been elected to represent more than 300 million Americans.  We have responsibilities within our borders, as well as responsibilities outside our borders, as our nation charts its way in a complex and often dangerous world.  It is time to stop the polarizing symbolism and instead to work together on the substance of the many challenges we face as a nation.  Otherwise, our country – a blessed, beautiful and expansive nation that survived a revolutionary war, a civil war, and two world wars — faces decline.  I cannot accept that, and neither should any of us.

The Pima County Sheriff was an Everyman of this tragic moment when he movingly called for soul-searching by each of us.  We need to work together for the good of the country and the American people.  After Oklahoma City and the attacks of 9/11, we came together.  And so, now, do we again need to come together.

This tragedy should summon us to meet the challenges we face not with emphasis on the issues that divide us, but on common ground that can unite us.  It is easy to appeal to resentment, distrust, selfishness and hate.  Leaders should appeal instead to our better angels.  And when common ground remains elusive, we must respect the rights of others to hold and express their own views and beliefs.

One more thing:  We must not allow any assault on representative democracy to succeed in thwarting or muting citizens’ access to their elected representatives.

In that spirit, I am committed to working with the new Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, as well as the President and Attorney General, as we face the problems confronting our nation.  I look forward to working with our new Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.  We have served together since he came to the Senate in 1981, 30 years ago.   We know the value of bipartisanship and civility.  I began meeting with Senator Grassley last month to ensure that our Committee priorities include matters important to both of us.

Protecting Taxpayers by Fighting Fraud

Among the areas in which Senator Grassley and I have taken a keen interest is fighting fraud.  The first major bill the Senate Judiciary Committee considered last Congress, and one of the first bills to be signed into law by President Obama, was the Leahy-Grassley Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act.  Working together, we also strengthened the False Claims Act, and we made sure that taxpayers would be protected from fraud in both the historic Affordable Care Act and the Wall Street Reform Act.  In the new Congress, we need to build on that progress to counter fraud.

I intend to do that by focusing the first Senate Judiciary Committee hearing of this Congress on fighting fraud.  At our January 26th hearing, we plan to learn more about the recovery of more than $3 billion of taxpayers’ dollars in fraud actions by the Department of Justice in this past fiscal year alone.  The Obama administration is a real partner in our fraud-fighting efforts, and we want to make sure the newly enacted provisions are having the intended effect, as well as ensuring that adequate resources are devoted to our anti-fraud enforcement efforts.  These investments in enforcement pay for themselves many times over with the recovery of looted tax dollars.

Americans are worried about their budgets at home.  We need to protect their investment in their government.  Fighting fraud and protecting taxpayer dollars are issues Democrats and Republicans have worked together to address in the past, and in these difficult economic times, we need to continue in that spirit of bipartisanship – for every American taxpayer.

Promoting Innovation and Creating Jobs

While we continue our work to protect the taxpayers’ dollars, we must also focus on protecting American jobs.  Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously supported bipartisan efforts to stop online criminals from stealing our Nation’s intellectual property.  Online infringement costs our national economy billions of dollars every year.  Our intellectual property-based businesses are among the most productive in our economy and among its best employers.  We cannot stand by and see them ravaged, and American consumers subjected to counterfeits.  We will renew our effort this year.

Among our top priorities is the Patent Reform Act.  This bipartisan initiative to modernize our patent system has received considerable attention in the last several Congresses.  Updating our antiquated patent system will keep America at the forefront of innovation and invention.  It will help bolster our economy and protect jobs.  And it will do so without adding a penny to the Nation’s deficit.  I am encouraged that Chairman Lamar Smith of the House Judiciary Committee agrees that patent reform is sorely needed.  In the interest of protecting American jobs and economic leadership, Democrats and Republicans need to complete this important legislative effort.

Another area in which Senator Grassley and I have worked together over the years has been in confronting anti-competitive business conduct, especially in agriculture.  In the last two years, the Justice Department has become more aggressive in protecting competition.  The competition workshops held across the country jointly by the Justice and Agriculture Departments were a start, and the steps taken by the Antitrust Division have been good.  Now we hope to build on that as we confront overconcentration in agricultural businesses.

I also hope Congress will finally repeal the health insurance industry’s exemption from our antitrust laws.  There was bipartisan support for this repeal in the last Congress.  There is no place in our health insurance market for anticompetitive abuses, and repealing this exemption is an important step toward bringing competition to the health insurance market.

There are many other ways in which the Judiciary Committee can contribute to our economic recovery and the expansion of American jobs.  We can strengthen programs like the EB-5 Regional Center Investment Program, which encourages foreign investment and spurs job creation in our state and local economies.  Senator Grassley and I are both acutely aware of the unique challenges facing the agriculture industry, and I believe the Judiciary Committee should take a close look at how we can move forward with important immigration proposals like AgJOBS, and ways to improve visa programs like the H-2A program so that important agricultural industries such as the dairy industry have access to a lawful workforce.

There are encouraging economic signs, but our national economy is still recovering with too many people still out of work.  In the interest of American workers, Democrats and Republicans need to work together on these measures that buttress key pillars of the American economy.

Protecting National Security and Constitutional Rights in the Digital Age

The last decade has encroached on Americans’ privacy as has no other decade in our history.  The imperative of security, the proliferation of data bases and the spawning of interactive social media have combined to flatten Americans’ earlier expectations about having the choice to be left alone.

In the Digital Age and in a time darkened by the threat of terrorism, we face the difficult challenge of protecting the Nation’s networks from growing threats, while encouraging American innovation and respecting privacy rights.  The Judiciary Committee will continue the work we started last year to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, so that security agencies have the tools needed to keep us safe from cyber threats, and our Federal privacy laws keep pace with advancing technology.  The Committee will also examine several emerging privacy issues that are of growing concern to me and many Americans, including the invasive full body screening at our airports and the tracking of Americans’ activities online.

I also hope to work with the Obama administration, and with Senators on both sides of the aisle, to revisit the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, which bridges law enforcement needs with citizens’ privacy rights.  When I wrote that law in the early ‘90s, no one could have contemplated the technological leaps and bounds that have burst onto the scene in the two decades since then.  Updating this law will require careful consideration of Americans’ privacy rights, as well as the legitimate needs of the law enforcement community to gather valuable, court-ordered surveillance information to keep the Nation safe.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we worked to pass the USA PATRIOT Act. I was pleased that Attorney General Holder recently agreed to implement the civil liberties, oversight and reporting improvements that I had suggested in the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization bill last Congress.  That is a good, solid step forward.  This year we need to take the next step and extend certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act that are otherwise slated to expire next month.

In his annual report on the Federal Judiciary, Chief Justice Roberts recently wrote of the urgent need to fill the Federal judicial vacancies.  These vacancies have reached historically high levels and resulted in overburdened courts that now face crippling caseloads.  I will try to work with Senator Grassley and our Senate leadership in both parties to fill these vacancies without unnecessary delay.  This is another instance where partisanship has been a destructive influence.  We need good and capable men and women to be willing to serve as judges to protect the rights of all Americans and uphold the rule of law.

We cannot ask people to take on public service as a judge, and then subject them to needless, unexplained, humiliating partisan delays in the confirmation process.

We can protect our national security and our constitutional liberties.  What that takes is care and foresight.  At a time when we continue to face the threat of terrorism and violence, the American people expect and deserve no less.

Accountability to the American People

A government of the people, by the people and for the people must be accountable to the people.  I know that Senator Grassley shares my commitment to vigorous oversight and government transparency.  He has been a partner on constructive efforts to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, our Nation’s premier open government law, as has Senator John Cornyn.  I know that Senators Grassley and Cornyn both share my view that open government is neither a Democratic issue, nor a Republican issue; it is an American value.  I look forward to continuing our productive partnership on FOIA issues when I reintroduce the Faster FOIA Act, a bill that will establish a bipartisan commission to study and improve FOIA implementation, later this year.

As part of my commitment to a more open government, I pledge that the proceedings of the Senate Judiciary Committee will continue to be webcast and thereby available to all Americans, in real time.  The live Internet access the Judiciary Committee offers includes hearings and business meetings.

It is a special honor this year to be here at the Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is sometimes called America’s Main Street.  I am the son of Vermont printers and newspaper publishers, and my parents would have loved both the idea and the reality of this great museum.  They would heartily embrace the indispensible work of the Freedom Forum in defense of free speech and a free press.  The Freedom Forum’s commitment to open government, particularly through the Freedom of Information Act, is one that I wholly share.  I also thank Virginia Sloan and the Constitution Project for their interest in these topics.

A New Congress

Previewing the Judiciary Committee’s priorities in each new Congress is becoming a tradition.  I like traditions, especially when I have been able to partner in this with the Georgetown Law Center — my alma mater.

It was just last week that Members of the 112th Congress were sworn in pledging to uphold the Constitution.  I thank Vermonters for including me in that ceremony.  With each new term comes the responsibility of governing, and as John F. Kennedy said, “To govern is to choose.”

I have served in the majority and the minority, with three Democratic Presidents and four Republican Presidents, with Democratic and Republican House majorities.  I know that we can be productive.  I worked with a Republican House chairman to enact the first Justice Department authorization in 25 years.  I worked with a Republican Senate majority and Republican President to extend the Voting Rights Act, and to enact the Innocence Protection Act, which provides post-conviction DNA testing for those wrongfully convicted.  I look forward to furthering this bipartisan progress so that the 112th Congress makes government work for all Americans.

This is a new year, and a new Congress.  The Judiciary Committee has a challenging agenda; we also have the talents of some of the Senate’s most capable members.  I will do my part to advance these priorities, as together we pursue the goal of making ours a more perfect Union.

Thank you.

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