Concurrent Resolution on the Budget, Fiscal Year 2016—Conference Report—Continuedby Senator Jeff Merkley
Posted on 2015-05-05
MERKLEY. Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the budget that
is before the Senate, this combined House-Senate Republican budget. In
evaluating this budget proposal, my core question has been this: Is
this a budget that works for working America? Or is this a budget
designed for powerful special interests and for those best off in our
society? A budget is not just about the numbers; it is about the vision
that it has for America.
Over 70 years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an economic bill of rights, proclaiming: In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident: the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; and the right to a good education. He closed with these words: ``All of these rights spell security.'' Enacting a budget that advances these economic rights for all Americans is my top priority. That means the budget must create good- paying jobs, improve access to quality, affordable education, ensure retirement security for our seniors, and lower the tax burden on working families. The American people share these priorities. They want a plan, a budget, a vision for our Nation that builds a foundation for middle-class families to thrive.
Two months ago, I stood on the Senate floor to review the budget proposed as the Senate Republican budget. In category after category, that budget earned a failing grade. Unfortunately, I am here today to say that the plan that has come out of the conference committee from the House and Senate Republicans is even worse. It constitutes an egregious assault on working Americans. It slashes investments in infrastructure and education, failing to close tax loopholes and attacking financial reform. It is fundamentally misaligned with the values of working Americans. It is poised to move our Nation in exactly the wrong direction--more tax breaks and corporate welfare for millionaires, billionaires, and large corporations that are already doing phenomenally well and more pain and suffering for the middle class, working families, and the most vulnerable.
With this budget, the GOP is continuing to play games with Americans' health care coverage, claiming we can grow our economy by cutting health care for seniors and children and the poorest in our society. The Senate GOP budget wiped out coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and this budget continues to wreak havoc. It will immediately eliminate health insurance coverage for 16.4 million Americans and swell the ranks of the uninsured by 23 million individuals within a single year. It will deny millions of young adults the right to stay on their parents' health insurance plan until the age of 26. It will deprive 130 million Americans with preexisting conditions the right to purchase affordable health insurance if they lose their jobs or otherwise lose their health insurance. These numbers are appalling.
It puts our seniors back at risk of bankruptcy from unaffordable prescriptions because it wipes out the ACA's effort to fill in the Medicare Part D doughnut hole. In 2014 alone, seniors saved $4.8 billion on prescription drugs, and 39 million seniors will be forced to pay more for preventative services under this budget. The GOP budget takes seniors back to the bad old days where the doughnut hole would force more than 9.4 million seniors and persons with disabilities to pay billions more out of pocket for prescription drugs.
At a time when senior poverty is on the rise, shouldn't we be focused on helping our seniors retire with security and dignity? Instead, the new plan cuts Medicare deeply--$430 billion over 10 years. It cuts Medicaid by at least $400 billion, jeopardizing nursing home care for the most vulnerable senior Americans. It calls for ending Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher plan. Finally, it paves the way for a fast-track consideration of a way to repeal the Affordable Care Act through reconciliation.
When you total up these factors, look at the assault on seniors. There is more for prescription drugs and less for nursing home care and Medicaid. Medicare will be cut by $430 billion, and it will be voucherized. Annual wellness checks and preventive services, such as mammograms and prostate cancer screening, will be wiped out. What this budget does is turn security into insecurity. What this budget does is turn dignity into indignity. This is an unacceptable assault on our seniors.
It is also an assault on our children and on education. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that we want a chance for our children to get ahead and to pursue their dreams. Shouldn't the budget tell our children that education is a priority? The Republican plan makes new cuts to Head Start that would kick 400,000 children off the program over a 10-year period--400,000 empty Head Start chairs across America.
This picture is from an event that I held at Oregon's Whitaker School. The cuts in the Senate Republican plan to Head Start would mean 15 empty chairs just at this one location. But now we are talking about a budget that wipes out an opportunity for 400,000 children from struggling families to get a head start through Head Start.
The conference report doesn't just hit early childhood education; it also fails our children with regard to opening the doors of opportunity for higher education. College costs are soaring, so it makes sense to strengthen Pell grant funding. But this Republican budget slashes Pell grant funding by about one-third. Picture one out of every three of our children who use a Pell grant to get through the doors of college, the doors of opportunity, unfortunately having that opportunity taken away. This budget cuts the program by $90 billion over 10 years and will make college out of reach for so many when we should be going in the other direction.
That is not all. It also increases student loan debt by an average of $4,000 for an estimated 30 million students, [[Page S2634]] making the children from struggling families pay more for basic need- based student loans.
I believe in opportunity. I believe in the American dream. I believe that higher education is one of the best pathways to the middle class. We cannot and must not adopt a budget designed to slam the doors of opportunity shut on millions of our children.
There is more to be concerned about. One of the keys to prosperity is infrastructure. My colleague from Minnesota was just illuminating many of the problems in that area. Why shouldn't a budget prioritize improving our Nation's crumbling roads, bridges, dams, water systems, airports, and rail systems? We have a huge infrastructure deficit. Our highway trust fund is running out of money. Right now Europe is investing 5 percent of its GDP in infrastructure and the United States is investing less than 2 percent. We are vastly underinvesting, and this budget continues and aggravates that underinvestment, hurting the creation of good-paying jobs now and doing enormous damage to the economy of the future.
Our parents did far better for us by putting a massive infusion of funds for infrastructure that strengthened the system and strengthened our economy today. Shouldn't we do the same for the next generation? And then we can turn to food security.
Our country has 40 million hungry Americans. In the wealthiest Nation on Earth, shouldn't our budget make sure families can put food on the table? This Republican budget says no. It supports making massive cuts to programs that provide critical assistance to low-income families. This plan eliminates nutrition assistance for 1.2 million women, infants, and children who rely on the WIC Program through $10 billion in cuts to programs over the next decade. This budget would cut $660 billion over 10 years for programs that support low-income individuals and families, including massive unspecified cuts to food stamps. With this budget, my Republican colleagues are telling the parents of children and financially challenged families: Let them go hungry. And that is just wrong.
Since this budget cuts food, Pell grants, infrastructure, and health care, and since it does so much damage to working families, shouldn't it ask for some small sacrifice from those who are best off? Apparently not. This Republican budget takes from the most vulnerable and gives it to the wealthiest families in America. This Republican budget provides a quarter of a trillion--and, yes, that is trillion with a T--dollar tax break for the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans while increasing taxes on 13 million working families with 25 million children by diminishing the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, affecting families who earn just a modest amount with an average household income of just $22,000.
I cannot conceive of any economic or moral argument that justifies taking money out of the pockets of struggling families--from Pell grants to Head Start to food on the table--and giving it away to the already wealthiest Americans. Perhaps one of my colleagues who is voting for this budget would like to explain why taking from the poor to give more to the wealthiest families in America is justified, because it is not justified.
Despite the fact that our richest families already pay less in their marginal tax than working families pay, this Republican budget wants to give more away to them from the American Treasury and do it by taking food and education opportunities out of the reach of our struggling families.
This budget removes two amendments that were originally adopted in the Senate budget. Senator Murray's amendment would have allowed Americans to earn paid sick leave. It was supported by 61 Senators, including 15 Republicans, but it was eviscerated in this budget. The second amendment was introduced by Senator Schatz. It would have ensured that all legally married same-sex spouses have equal access to Social Security and veterans' benefits they have earned. It was broadly supported but wiped out in this joint House-Senate Republican budget.
This budget takes away from hard-working, middle-class Americans, from struggling Americans who are often working two to three minimum- wage jobs, and it gives away to the wealthy and well-connected, not asking them for one slim dime--not one egregious tax loophole closed-- and gives them preferred tax cuts, returning millions of dollars to the wealthiest families.
Is this a budget that works for working Americans or is it a budget for the best off? I think it is clear from the topics I have covered that this is a budget for the best off at the expense of everyone else in America in every possible way that provides a foundation.
If we return to the vision laid out by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 of the self-evident economic truths, of a right to a good job, to earn enough for adequate food, to a decent home, to adequate medical care, and to protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, this budget fails every test and should be defeated.