Something unusual is happening in Congress. Democrats and Republicans appear headed toward the same goal.
The problem is, that goal is just more of the same – more business as usual in Washington. They want to pass yet another continuing resolution instead of a real budget solution.
I can almost hear the good people of West Virginia and all over this country saying – there they go again!
Now, I can argue this both ways. A continuing resolution will let the government limp along. That way, we can go home now, then come back after the election to fix the budget.
But I haven’t had anybody in West Virginia tell me we should hurry home to campaign. I have had plenty of them tell me we need to stay here and do the job they hired us to do.
And that means fixing the budget, because our debt is piling up every day and it’s choking our economy.
These continuing resolutions are supposed to be temporary, but it looks to me like they’ve become a permanent way of doing business here in Congress.
And let me tell you, it’s a really bad way of doing business. It ignores the dire circumstances of a record $16 trillion dollars national debt that will increase close to $1 trillion a year if we don’t balance our annual budget.
It makes me think of the goofy kid on the cover of MAD Magazine, Alfred E. Neuman: “What? Me worry?”
I came to the Senate not quite two years ago, and in the time I’ve been here, there have been 12 of these continuing resolutions. TWELVE. There were three in December of 2010. In 2011, there were two in March, two in April, two in September, one in November, and three in December.
And now, we’re being asked to pass yet another measure to keep things going another six months so we can all go home for the election and worry later about this country’s growing debt.
Well, a “baker’s dozen” is just one too many for me. Enough is enough. I can’t vote for this measure to simply kick the can further down the road another six months. This can’t go on.
The people of West Virginia did not send me here to go along just to get along. They sent me here to help fix our budget problems with bipartisan commonsense solutions, the way we did when I was their governor. We didn’t pull these kinds of stunts in West Virginia. We wouldn’t leave if it was all through the night, or another week. We stayed on the job until the work was done. We came together and made decisions that moved our state forward.
It’s time we do the same thing in Washington and stop putting off what we need to do to get our fiscal house in order. It’s time we cancel our flights home, roll up our sleeves and get down to the people’s business, because we’ve reached a dangerous point in our history – a point at which our debt is threatening not just our economic standing in the world, but also our national security.
I know everybody expects we’ll come back after the election in a lame-duck session and rush to fix all our fiscal problems at the last minute. But if Congress’s past performance is any indication of what to expect after the election, I wouldn’t expect too much.
A lame-duck session of Congress is cutting it pretty close because we’ve gotten ourselves in a real bind. It’s the “fiscal cliff” – more than $5 trillion of an economic hit by the end of the year.
One part of that is the sequestration, and it starts January 2nd. It’s kind of like a penalty we put on ourselves more than a year ago if we didn’t act by the end of 2012. But what it really means is that everyone will have to take a painful cut if Congress can’t get its act together.
But some of the very Congressional leaders who put together the sequester in order to force us to act are now complaining the loudest. When you think about what would happen to the confidence of the people of this country if we don’t keep our word, that’s no way to do business.
Sequestration is certainly not a smart way to cut the defense budget. We need to make sure that we have the strongest, toughest, best-equipped military in the world. But we’ve ended one war and we’re winding down another one. Those wars doubled our defense budget in the last decade. Surely we can use some of that money to start rebuilding America. Because even if the automatic cuts go into effect January 2, our national security budget will still total over $600 billion dollars in 2013, more than it did in 2006, at the height of the Iraq war.
In fact, even after the automatic cuts, the United States will still account for 40 percent of all military spending in the world.
I promise you - we’re going to make sure that America keeps the strongest defense in the world. But as the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has said, the biggest threat to our national security is our out-of-control debt and deficit.
That was perhaps the most sobering moment for me since coming to the Senate – the highest-ranking officer in the world’s powerful military force saying our lack of discipline in spending is a greater threat to our country than terrorists or nuclear weapons.
That alone should give everyone in Congress a sense of urgency in doing something about our out-of-whack spending.
If anybody is betting we can fix our finances in a lame-duck session of Congress, I’ll remind them that some people made that same bet on the Super Committee last year. And they lost.
In fact, we’re about to leave town with a lot of unfinished work – and not just our finances. The 112thCongress – I’m ashamed to say – is one of the least productive Congresses in the history of this country, in terms of passing new laws. This Congress had passed 173 public laws as of last month – well below the 906 passed by the 80th Congress, which Harry Truman called the “Do-Nothing Congress.”
So it’s clear to me that betting on Congress getting religion after an election is also a risky gamble – a gamble with America’s future, a gamble with the next generation.
We tried that with the Super Committee last year, but they failed. And that’s the reason we are here today facing the fiscal cliff – the sunsetting of the Bush tax cuts, tax extenders, the end of emergency unemployment benefits and sequestration.
The Congressional Budget Office says the fiscal cliff could cut GDP by four percentage points next year and send the economy back right back into a recession.
Look at the time we’ve wasted – the Super Committee fell apart almost a year ago. And yet here we are – instead of voting on a real and permanent solution to our financial problems, we’re getting ready to vote on yet another temporary measure that will allow us to leave before we’ve addressed a single one of these most critical issues.
And what’s happened since the Super Committee shut down with no agreement? Well one thing that’s happened is our long-term national debt topped $16 trillion dollars a couple of weeks ago. That’s a figure that’s almost impossible to wrap your mind around. But it works out to a debt of $50,700 for every man, woman and child in the United States.
$16 trillion dollars is roughly the same as our country’s entire economic output this year. The last time our debt was 100 percent of GDP was right after World War II – when we were fighting to save our way of life. Economists tell us that we can’t grow when our debt exceeds the size of our economy.
We just can’t keep going this way.
We have reached what the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform called “the moment of truth” in the report it prepared for the President almost two years ago. In fact, that was the title of its report, “The Moment of Truth.”
And while the Commission faced the moment of truth with a comprehensive bipartisan plan for reducing our debt, Congress has yet to do so. Now’s the time.
We know how to fix things. Congress has done it before. In the early 1990s, our economy was faltering because deficits and debt were freezing capital. But Congress sent a signal to the market that it was capable of being fiscally responsible. And the result was the longest economic expansion in history, the creation of over 22 million jobs and unprecedented wealth in America, with every income bracket rising.
The budget framework put together by Congress and the White House led to the first balanced budgets in a generation and put our country on track to be debt free by 2012 for the first time since Andrew Jackson’s administration.
Let me repeat that - by 2012 – this year – we could have been debt free.
We got totally off track, with tax cuts, two wars and the expansion of prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients – none of which were paid for. And the 10-year $5.6 trillion dollars surplus forecast in 2001 has become a debt of more than $16 trillion dollars. That’s a swing of almost $22 trillion dollars in one decade. It’s simply mind-boggling.
But we can get back on track if we follow a simple formula, roughly the same one that the Bowles-Simpson Debt Commission recommended: curtailing spending, creating a more fair tax system and cutting the fat.
Add to that an overhaul of our tax system so that it is not only more equitable for everyone but also encourages the kind of entrepreneurship that makes our country the bedrock of the global economy.
In America, we need a tax system where everybody pays their fair share and where American businesses are freed to do what they do best, out-produce and out-innovate competitors all around the world.
And to keep a bright future, we have to reform our entitlement programs so that we can preserve benefits. There’s serious trouble ahead if we don’t act. In 2016, Security’s disability program will run out of cash. In 2024, Medicare will become insolvent. And in 2033, the Social Security retirement program will have only enough money to deliver 75 cents on the dollar. So we’ve got no choice – we’ve got to do something.
The American people are hungry for plain talk on our debt. That’s why hundreds of West Virginians showed up for a fiscal summit I hosted last week in Charleston, with the co-chairs of the Debt Commission, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.
Just give the American people the facts and show them the options – the way we did at our fiscal summit – and they will do their part to get this country back on the right path. They always have. That’s what makes this country great. So don’t sell them short just because this is an election year. They can tell when you’re dealing straight with them – or when you’re playing politics. And right now is not the time to play politics.
In fact, I got a letter just yesterday from a West Virginian, James from Clarksburg, about the summit. James wrote – and I quote – “It is time for responsible members of the Senate like you to take the floor of the Senate and tell your fellow Senators, ‘it is past time for us to take responsible action to address the fiscal crisis which is our responsibility to the people who sent us here – because it is just that!’ There is no excuse for delaying action until after the election.”
James got it exactly right.
Look, I’m not naïve. I understand that some of the choices we face are going to be hard for some of us to make. I know Republicans don’t want to talk about new revenue. I know Democrats don’t want to talk about entitlement reform.
But we need to start thinking more about the next generation than the next election, or the next news cycle, or the next flight out of Washington.
Millions of Americans are struggling in this tough economy, working overtime to pay the bills, find a job, and find a way forward for their families. They’re looking to us for leadership. They’re looking to us for solutions. They’re looking to us to come together and do what’s best for the country, in a balanced and practical way.
They’re simply looking to us to do our job. And I intend to do that to the best of my abilities.
Winston Churchill once said you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else. Well, I think we’ve tried everything else, including kicking the can down the road 12 times. Now it’s time for us to do the right thing.
This temporary step is the wrong thing at the wrong time. We have work left to do, and we need to stay and do it. The people of America expect us to do better, to stand up for them and to put politics aside. The people of West Virginia can be assured: I will always stand up and continue to try to do the right thing for them and for this country.
Thank you, and I yield the floor.