By Rep. Frank D. Lucas
The countdown to the new year has begun.
With it will come new resolutions, fresh hope and another year in which each can make a difference in improving the world in which we live. But before we start anew, the last few weeks of 1999 serve as the perfect time to reflect on this year's personal memories and accomplishments. I would like to add to your personal accomplishments by taking a look back with you at what we in the 106th U.S. Congress have accomplished in the first legislative session (1999).
Rural and farming America have seen some very positive changes with this session. Included in the recent consolidated appropriations bill is the Satellite Home Viewer Act, which will allow satellite companies to carry local television networks. Also in that spending package was an extremely important bill for Oklahoma, the Medicare Refinement Act-a bill I co-sponsored-which puts over $12 billion back into Medicare. This means hospitals, home healthcare agencies, nursing homes and other healthcare providers will witness an increase in Medicare reimbursement rates over the next five years. This was a critical step in moving the U.S. Congress toward further reforming access to health care. I was extremely pleased with passage of these provisions. I am looking to do more in the year 2000 to ensure that our healthcare providers in Oklahoma keep their doors open to those of us in rural and urban Oklahoma.
On the farming and ranching front, in addition to passing legislation to increase overall appropriations funds for U.S. agriculture programs, we also passed two emergency spending bills to address the fire circumstances we have witnessed in the agriculture community, in the last few years. The most recent aid legislation was passed in October, with the lion's share of the dollars being distributed in the form of market loss payments. Of the $135 million going into Oklahoma, producers in the Sixth District received $89 million in market loss payments. We also passed legislation to hamper the President's ability to declare trade sanctions on our ag commodities, as well as a long awaited $6 billion crop insurance reform bill.
I and many of my colleagues continue to worry about the readiness of our national defense after years of severe cuts. We are not only working to build up our equipment, our personnel numbers and general readiness, but also are improving the quality of life offered to our active military and our veterans. Those who have served, are serving and one day will serve, deserve the best we have to offer. We gave active military a 4.8% pay raise and a 2.4% cost of living adjustment to veterans and retired military. Recognizing the shortfall in funding for veterans' health care, we gave the largest increase in years to the Veterans Administration to address healthcare needs, including several measures to streamline the VA system. We passed the National Missile Defense Act, which makes it a policy of the U.S. to deploy a missile defense system to defend the country as soon as one is technologically feasible. Many people do not realize that we do not have a system in place to defend against other nation's missiles.
We also sent through several legislative measures in 1999 to better America's schools and education system by placing decision-making power where it belongs, at the state and local levels. We passed the Teacher Empowerment Act, Straight A's Act, Dollars to the Classroom Resolutions and Education Flexibility Act. Each of these bills stay true to the premise of sending federal dollars directly back to the state and local levels and easing federal restrictions on how schools can choose to use those funds for everything from curriculum planning and building projects, to test administration and teacher training.
The list does not end there. We passed monumental financial service legislation that will save consumers in the area of $15 billion annually through competition between banks, insurance companies and securities firms. Small businesses will benefit from numerous pieces of legislation designed to give women, low-income entrepreneurs and every small business owner better access to capital and to address the needs of a 21st century business. And Americans will benefit from the tax relief package we passed and the President signed into law Dec. 17, giving back $16 billion over five years to overtaxed citizens.
We have done a lot, and we did it all while securing the Social Security Trust fund for another year and paying down the national debt by $88 billion. We paid down $51 billion in fiscal year 1998. It has been a good legislative year. I expect the same in the second session of Congress. I hope you, too, have positive expectations for the year 2000. Happy holidays!