Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): Taxpayer Subsidy for Wind Power and the Fiscal Cliff
Madam President, I have two items I would like to briefly mention. The Nation is consumed by the fiscal cliff. From all I can tell, the Presidential limousine is moving very rapidly toward the fiscal cliff with the President's foot on the accelerator. I am still hopeful we will get a budget agreement that will help us get the economy moving again, but at a time like this, of course, what we all need to be doing is thinking about saving every possible penny to fix the debt.
This government in Washington, DC, is borrowing 42 cents out of every dollar we spend. That is why I come to the floor to point out a proposal that has been made to fleece the taxpayers out of an additional $50 billion over the next 6 years. This is a proposal that is as brazen as a mid-day bank robbery on Main Street. It is a proposal by the wind developers of America to say to the taxpayers: Please give us $50 billion or so more dollars over the next 6 years to phase out the Federal taxpayer subsidy for wind power.
Why is this a brazen fleecing of the taxpayers? First, this taxpayer subsidy began in 1992, 20 years ago, as a temporary subsidy for a new form of energy. Of course, windmills are not really new. We have had them for hundreds of years. But the idea was to give them a little boost so they could get bigger and perhaps help us supply electricity.
It was intended in 1992 that this would only be a temporary tax credit. But as President Reagan used to say: There is nothing that comes as close to eternal life as a government program. So this temporary taxpayer credit has been renewed time after time after time. It is 20 years old. Now, after billions of dollars and 20 years, wind power is, according to President Obama's Energy Secretary, a mature technology.
The Congress has decided that Federal taxpayer subsidies for wind power should end at the end of this year. Everyone knows that. This is no surprise. It has been out there for a while, so businesses can plan on this. In other words, it is time for wind power, the Congress has said, to take its place in our free market system and compete with natural gas, compete with nuclear power, compete with hydropower, compete with solar power---compete with other forms of power producing electricity. After all, we produce and use about 20 to 25 percent of all the electricity in the world, and we want to make sure we have plenty of it and that it is a reliable supply at a low price.
Yet along came the wind developers who have benefited from this giveaway for 20 years -- I say giveaway because, according to the Joint Tax Committee and the United States Treasury, from 2009 through 2013 it has cost the taxpayers $16 billion to subsidize windmills in America. Put that in a little perspective. The federal government spends only $6 billion a year on all energy research. We could be spending it there. We could be reducing the debt. Instead, we are continuing to subsidize this mature technology.
But the brazenness of those who have been receiving this giveaway money -- it is hard to imagine how it could be exceeded by a so-called phase-out proposal. They announced: Phase us out over the next 6 years, through 2018. In 2013 the credit would be 100 percent. We would have the credit for next year at the same level it is this year. That's estimated to cost about $12 billion. That is twice the amount of money we spend each year on energy research in America. Then, in 2014, they want 90 percent of the previous full tax credit, and then 80 and 70 and 60 and nothing after 2018.
I have not had a chance for the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate how much this phase-out would cost, but it is tens of billions of dollars. One estimate is $50 billion new taxpayer dollars at a time when we are borrowing 42 cents out of every dollar to keep doing something that is already phasing out on its own terms. We cannot afford that. We simply can't afford that. We cannot afford 1 year more of the wind tax credit -- that is $12 billion -- on top of the $16 billion for grants and the production tax credit from 2009 through 2013.
Second, it is interfering with the marketplace. The subsidy to wind developers is so great they are actually paying distributors of electricity, in some cases, to take their wind power, which undercuts other forms of electricity on which we rely. Why is that so important? We cannot rely on wind power, because it only works when the wind blows. It often blows at night when we really do not need it. We have a wind farm in Tennessee. It is the only one in the Southeastern United States. Why? Because the wind doesn't blow much in the Southeastern United States.
In Tennessee, somebody has a big contract with extra subsidies by the government to put these gigantic towers on top of our scenic mountains. And how much electricity does it produce? Not very much. Of course, these turbines only generate electricity about 19 percent of the time, and it produces even less electricity when we actually need it. You can fly over it or drive by these giant windmills at 4 p.m. in the afternoon in the summer when everybody has their air conditioning on and they need electricity, and not a single windmill is turning. You might go at night and it is turning, but they don't need the extra electricity at 7 or 8 or 9 o'clock at night.
That is the problem around the country. It is a puny amount of unreliable, expensive electricity.
The idea that the United States of America, using 20 to 25 percent of all the electricity in the world, would produce the largest amount of clean and reliable electricity by windmills is the energy equivalent of going to war in sail boats when nuclear submarines are available.
Let's let wind power, after 20 years, find its place in our market. There are clearly places where it should be fine. But there is no need to subsidize it from the Federal Government; to cause the ratepayers of Tennessee, for example, to pay more to import electricity produced by wind from South Dakota when we should be using those dollars either to lower our rates, to pay for air pollution control equipment, and to build nuclear power plants--of which we have several in the Tennessee Valley. They are clean--they emit no sulfur, no nitrogen, no mercury, and no carbon. That is the cleanest form of reliable energy we have in the United States.
There may be some places where windmills work, but not along the tops of the Tennessee mountains or even in the valleys of Tennessee. The idea of continuing to waste $50 billion of taxpayer money over the next several years to subsidize a mature technology at a time when the government is going broke is as brazen as a bank robbery in the middle of the day on Main Street. I hope we put a spotlight on this $50 billion giveaway. I hope it becomes the poster child for what is wrong with spending in Washington, DC. I hope the Congress will come to its senses this month and next month and say no to those who come forward with their hand out for this $50 billion giveaway.
Madam President, on Tuesday I spoke about the filibuster. I inadvertently made a mistake I would like to correct. When I was looking at the history of filling the tree, which is the gag rule that the majority leader uses to stop Republicans from offering amendments -- we just saw it again today. We had a banking bill. There was a budget point of order that killed the bill. We had a couple of amendments on the Republican side that would fix the budget point of order, and then we could have passed the bill. But the majority leader imposed the gag rule, he filled the tree, and here we are.
I was talking about that, and I said that Senator Robert Dole was the first leader to fill the tree, and I was wrong about that. I was reading some information that the Congressional Research Service had given me, and I did not read it right. When the CRS went back and looked at its information, it would appear that in 1980, Senator Robert Byrd used this filling the tree on the Tonnage Measurement Simplification Act, H.R. 1197.
That reminds me of a story Senator Baker used to tell me when he was suddenly elected majority leader in 1981, and Senator Byrd became the minority leader unexpectedly. Senator Baker went to Senator Byrd and said: Senator Byrd, I will never know the rules as well as you do. I'll make a deal with you. I won't surprise you if you won't surprise me.
Senator Byrd said to Senator Baker: Let me think about it.
He thought about it overnight and said: It's a deal. And they worked that way for 4 years. Senator Byrd knew the years.
In 1980, apparently, at least so far as the research shows, he was the first one to use this arcane procedure of filling the tree. Filling the tree sounds very strange, but it is very simple. It means the majority leader can use it to cut off debate over here.
If you bring up a banking bill, and it has a budget problem, and one of us says we can fix that problem, that we have an amendment, if he has filled the tree, we cannot offer amendments. If some Senator -- let's not pick on the majority leader -- brings up a bill, and, let's say, it is an appropriations bill and it does not include money to rebuild the Center Hill Dam or the Wolf Creek Dam -- which is not safe at the moment -- and I want to stand up and say, Madam President, my constituents would like to see some money to make this dam safe because if it fails it will flood Nashville -- if the tree is filled, I cannot do my job.
On our side of the aisle we do not like filling the tree. We are in the minority, and we believe the majority has the right to set the agenda and that we in the minority have the right to offer amendments. The good news is a number of us on both sides of the aisle are working, with the knowledge of the majority leader and the Republican leader, to see if we can make some suggestions privately to Senator Reid and Senator McConnell that they can consider and, hopefully, agree that they are good suggestions, and as we begin the new year we will be able to move bills to the floor.
I know the majority leader would like to be able to do that more easily, and maybe some of the fault for that is on our side. We on our side, then, would have a right to do what the minority especially wants to be able to do, which is to offer amendments, because this body is established for the purpose of protecting the rights of the minority.
The Congressional Research Service is looking further into the record, but we do have a record of how majority leaders have used this procedure from 1985 to the present. This data supports my larger point which is -- what was used rarely is now used too frequently.
According to CRS, these are the numbers. Since 1985, Senator Bob Dole filled the tree, used the gag rule, seven times; Senator Byrd used it three times; Senator Mitchell used it three times; Senator Lott, when he was majority leader, used the gag rule 11 times -- that is, cut off amendments -- Senator Daschle only one time; Senator Frist 15 times. Those are the majority leaders. So since 1985 all of those majority leaders used it a combined 40 times.
Our current majority leader, Senator Reid, has used it, as of yesterday, 69 times since he became leader in 2007. This trend, this gagging the minority, is the primary cause of the Senate's dysfunction.
I wanted to correct the record. I made a mistake, and I am glad to come and correct it. I don't want Senator Dole to get the credit for that when it appears Senator Byrd actually figured it out. I want to conclude with an optimistic point. I think most of us -- and I would include the distinguished Senator from New Hampshire in the chair because we have been together in discussions, bipartisan discussions where we have talked about this -- most of us believe we are fortunate to be here. We know we are basically political accidents. Since we are here we want to do our jobs. We would like to advocate the things that people sent us here to do.
So if we have a bill, and we are in the majority, we would like to get the bill on the floor. If we have something to say, an amendment, if we are in the minority, we would like to have a chance to offer that amendment. So what a number of us are doing, we have been talking about how we can do two simple things: How can we make it easier for the majority leader to get bills to the floor? And how can we make it easier for the minority especially to be able to offer amendments?
If we can do those two things at the beginning of the year, I think the Senate will begin to function much more effectively. It will be a better place to work. We will get our job done in a better way. There will be less finger-pointing, and there will be more results. There will be a change in behavior, which is what we need instead of a change in rules, and it will inspire the confidence of the people of the United States about the kind of job we are doing.