Idaho Examiner - Sen. Larry Craig News Releases

Friday, July 21, 2006

“Stem-ulating” Debate

by Senator Larry Craig

When I think of a boundary, the first thing that comes to mind is an old, barbed-wire fence, like the ones I had to help my dad fix on our family ranch when I was a boy. But the more I think about that fence, the more I realize how slippery the concept of a boundary can be. If only every border could be as easily seen and touched as that old fence, life would be a lot easier. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Boundaries can take on as many forms as the imagination can conjure. Whether they are physical or philosophical, boundaries challenge the mind. Ethical boundaries are no less difficult. Recently in the Senate, we were asked to reexamine an important ethical line regarding stem cells and medical research. Like many issues that come before us, reaching a decision on whether to support or oppose the President’s restrictions on stem cell research was not easy and took a great deal of consideration.

Research on stem cells holds a great deal of potential, and without question, this potential is very exciting. Stem cells are a unique kind of cells that can – with their ability to reproduce and form into many different kinds of cells – direct tissue growth to meet the body’s needs. They are found in varying forms throughout our lifecycle: in embryos, umbilical cords, bone marrow, and elsewhere.

Scientists have already found ways to harness the regenerative power of stem cells taken from adults. For example, stem cells found in the bone marrow of a healthy adult are commonly transplanted into a cancer patient with lifesaving results.

In recent years, researchers uncovered a method for extracting stem cells from days-old human embryos. These stem cells are pluripotent—different from adult stem cells, since they can reproduce nearly any cell found in the body. Scientists hope that pluripotent cells may one day allow us to regrow nerve and other tissue that adult stem cells cannot. We could then apply this knowledge to reverse the damage of spinal cord or brain injuries, and combat diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. At least, that’s the theory. At this point, embryonic stem cell research has a long way to go before it yields any cures to diseases or injuries.

What is troubling is that stem cells extracted from embryos with current techniques result in the destruction of an embryo—a potential human life. However, recent advances in creating pluripotent

stem cells avoid the destruction of embryos. Therefore, I strongly supported S.2754, a bill authored by Senators Santorum and Specter, that will provide funding and research for these alternative methods. Should they prove successful, we could reap all the benefits of stem cell research without crossing the ethical boundary of destroying a developing human life.

I could not support H.R. 810, which would have overturned the President’s policy that prevents taxpayer dollars from paying for stem cell research requiring the continuing destruction of human embryos. Given the current state of embryonic stem cell science, and the emergence of alternative, and equally promising sources of stem cells, it is a line that I think we ought not cross if we can avoid it.

Just like that fence on the old ranch, we have reached an important barrier in the stem cell debate. The grass indeed looks green on the other side, as stem cell research could yield great benefits to the human race, greatly easing the suffering of many. It is my hope and belief, however, that science can help us reach that promised land without crossing solemn moral and ethical lines.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Don’t Be Fooled

by Senator Larry Craig

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This old saying makes a lot of sense, especially when I look at the people and communities of Idaho.

Don’t be fooled. Although our state has grown a lot over the last 20 years, Idaho’s rural communities are still a very important part of our state’s culture and values. While the state’s bigger cities may get most of the attention in the papers or on the evening newscast, Idahoans’ character and past can easily be traced to a small town. Having grown up in a small Idaho community, I am determined to make sure that rural Idaho does not fade into memory, but remains vibrant, and that rural Idahoans have every tool they need to be successful.

One of the most important tools to success is a high-quality education. Too often, Idaho’s schools suffer from a lack of financial resources, because the economic base of many counties in which these schools are located is severely limited. Limited by what? By a high percentage of federally owned lands. Some counties, like Custer County and several others, are more than 90 percent federally-owned.

This might be nice for recreationists, but Idaho’s schools are largely funded by property taxes, and the federal government is exempted from paying those. So in counties like these, the limited supply of private land means economic activity is limited too, and therefore, so are the property tax revenues available to these counties and their school districts.

Recognizing this problem, Congress, in the early part of the 20th Century, reached a solution. The federal government would send 25 percent of the annual federal timber receipts harvested in that county to the coffers of the county government. For generations, this arrangement worked fairly well, until timber harvests began to dwindle on public lands in the 1980s and 1990s. As a consequence, the timber dollars coming into county coffers did too.

So in 2001, I teamed up with Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, and a number of other colleagues on both sides of the aisle, to craft a temporary fix. What became known as the “Craig-Wyden” bill (the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act) set a floor on the amount of federal funds rural counties would receive. The program was intended to help begin an economic transition for counties who were heavily dependent on timber to a broader-based economy, and it has helped do that in many places. And while it always was intended to be a temporary program, the time has not yet come to end it.

The difficult question that faces us today is how to pay for the Craig-Wyden program. The Bush Administration suggested selling off parcels of public land to raise the necessary funds, which was soundly rejected by most Westerners, myself included. Others have suggested expanding federal income tax withholdings on private contractors, which I also cannot accept.

At the same time, Congress and President Bush are working hard to eliminate wasteful spending and reduce the federal budget deficit. It pleases me to report that the Office of Management and Budget estimates that by 2008, we will have cut the deficit in half – one year earlier than President Bush’s target date of 2009. But the question remains: How do we raise more than half a billion dollars at a time when Congress and the President are aggressively squeezing the budget (an action I strongly endorse)?

We may have to pass a one-year extension of the program to buy a little more time to find a longer-term solution.

I admit, we have not found an answer yet, but let me assure you, we are looking for one. This is turning out to be a tough nut to crack, but I didn’t come to the Senate to only solve the easy problems. Don’t be fooled – we’re not done with this one just yet.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Healthcare Choice for Veterans: the American Way

By Senator Larry Craig
Chairman, U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Much stir has been created about the new Superman movie. In case you missed it, the critics are abuzz with the fact that the new film uses the phrase, “Truth, justice and all that stuff,” instead of the traditional Superman phrase: “Truth, justice and the American way.”

I am disappointed that “the American way” was dropped by producers of the film, and I thought about their actions as our nation celebrated its 230th Independence Day on this most recent Fourth of July.

What is “the American way” anyway?

The first two words in Superman’s motto lay it out quickly: Americans believe in truth and justice. The later words, “the American way,” encompass a broader thought. It is my belief that “the American way” includes freedom from government oppression and fairness for all in our laws.

It is freedom and fairness (in addition to truth and justice) that in large measure drive my own political efforts, and the reason I will soon introduce legislation to allow military veterans to establish Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).

HSAs are a new trend in health care. They were enacted as part of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 and already three million Americans have opened health savings accounts. With an HSA, individuals or companies can contribute to an account on a pre-tax basis. Those funds can then be withdrawn by individuals to pay for qualified health care expenses. When coupled with a high deductible, low premium health insurance policy, HSAs allow people to provide for their own health care needs and do so tax free.

HSAs are so new that some of the current laws on the books when applied to these new accounts make no sense. For example, one current interpretation prohibits veterans who use the VA health care system from obtaining an HSA at all. That’s crazy. And it is why I will soon introduce legislation to correct the situation.

Let me explain. Like any employer, the government must meet its obligations to provide medical treatment for on-the-job injuries for its employees. When it comes to our service men and women, we provide the medical care through the VA health care system, a system that is now among the top-rated in the country.

So what’s wrong with that you might ask? Current HSA rules prohibit a person with medical coverage from contributing tax free to an HSA. That means a service-connected veteran, using the system the government established to care for his or her injuries now, must surrender a tax advantage. That’s not right.

But, if that wasn’t enough, under current law rulings, private workers’ compensation insurance is exempt from the rule I just noted above pertaining to veterans. That means a person who is receiving worker’s compensation for an on-the-job injury incurred in the private sector can also open an HSA. But that’s not so for veterans receiving treatment from VA for their on-the-job injuries.

In addition to that unfairness, as many people know, with limited exception, VA is not a family health care provider. That could mean that a veteran who uses the VA health care system may be cheating himself out of contributions to an HSA that could cover his entire family for care that VA will not provide to them. Again, what is the purpose of such a rule? I believe there is no purpose. Veterans are just being treated differently under the law, and cannot enjoy a tax break others enjoy. Superman fans might call that discrimination "un-American." So, my bill will provide all veterans, who use VA, with the freedom to establish HSAs.

My hope with this legislation is that by allowing more veterans and their families to join the growing community of HSA fans, we can: reduce the ranks of the uninsured; bring some consumer awareness and behavior to the health care system; and ultimately help drive down the costs for everyone who wishes to provide for their own health needs.

That’s the American way.