Continuing Appropriationsby Senator Jeff Flake
Posted on 2013-10-04
FLAKE. Madam President, I know this is not a town that has ever
been known for having a long memory. In fact, the recent warning bells
rung about our deficits and our debt have predictably faded into the
background with all of the attention on the rocky start to this fiscal
Last month, the Congressional Budget Office released its long-term budget outlook. Headlines and news stories associated with that release use words such as grim and gloomy and raised alarm about our ``long- term fiscal crisis.'' The very first line in that report reminds us that between 2009 and 2012, the U.S. Government recorded the largest budget deficits--when compared to the size of the economy--in over half a century.
Reflecting on the current state of play, CBO noted that the Federal debt currently stands at roughly three-quarters of our gross domestic product. More alarming, they predict our Federal debt will match the size of our economy or be equal to 100 percent of GDP by the year 2038.
I understand the temptation to roll our eyes and politely suggest that those facts and figures are of more interest to green-eyeshaded bean counters or to simply wave them off as last month's news. Frankly, this is made much easier when the administration says things such as ``we don't have an urgent debt crisis'' and when appropriations bills come to the floor at levels that make little sense given our current fiscal realities.
Unfortunately, these facts and figures only tell part of the story. The CBO provides us insight into the impact these facts and figures will have on the economy and the Federal budget deficit. If the growth in our Federal debt is left unchecked, we could eventually see a further drop in private investment, an increase in interest payments, a decrease in Congress's flexibility, and, obviously, a risk of fiscal crisis.
CBO notes that ``the unsustainable nature of the federal government's current tax and spending policies presents lawmakers and the public with difficult choices . . . To put the federal budget on a sustainable path for the long term, lawmakers would have to make significant changes to tax and spending policies.'' We all know that given the current environment, it is difficult to do that. It is difficult when we have a problem just bringing routine spending measures to the President's desk. So this is not an easy conclusion to hear.
But within our dim current fiscal landscape and even dimmer outlook, there has been at least one bright spot. In 2011, Congress agreed to and the President signed into law the Budget Control Act--the BCA. This included statutory discretionary spending caps as well as automatic, across-the-board spending cuts for our failure to enact additional deficit reduction measures.
Certainly trimming Federal spending via across-the-board sequestration cuts is an inelegant means, at best, of addressing our spending problem. It is often referred to as a ``blunt instrument.'' At a minimum, it is a lazy way to legislate. I believe I join a number of my colleagues when I say I am open to providing additional flexibility while staying within the budget caps with respect to the sequester. But we simply can't deny that locking in discretionary spending caps and enforcing them with automatic sequestration has yielded some of the most significant spending cuts we have seen in Congress in years.
As my colleague from Tennessee, who recently came to the floor, said, 2 years ago, discretionary spending stood at nearly $1.5 trillion. Last year, under the BCA spending caps, that number dropped to just under $1 trillion. This year, if no changes occur to the sequester enforcement cap, we will be at $976 billion. That is a significant drop. That is significant. And that is a good thing.
A recent Wall Street Journal story entitled ``The GAO's Unheralded Victory on Spending'' quoted the head of Americans for Tax Reform as concluding that we had ``made a fundamental shift in the size of the government equation.'' While runaway spending on mandatory programs represents an ever- present issue we have to get our arms around, the BCA spending caps and sequester have put real and meaningful downward pressure on discretionary spending that represents about a third of our Federal budget.
My colleague from Kentucky, the minority leader, recently pointed out that the BCA which passed 2 years ago ``actually reduced government spending for 2 years in a row for the first time since the Korean War.'' I agree with him when he urges that we not walk away from the spending reductions we have already promised taxpayers.
I have made no secret of the fact that I do not favor the strategy of tying the funding of ObamaCare to the current continuing resolution. As the resulting shutdown drags on and there are more stories about the fights over funding next year, and then the coming debate over the debt ceiling, I find myself favoring this strategy even less. It is entirely likely that the sequester opponents will use the larger debate to push to undo the gains we have made of [[Page S7195]] meaningful spending cuts by abolishing the sequester by replacing it with meaningless savings, budget gimmicks, or even new taxes.
Far from a conspiracy theory, in recent months there have already been calls for a 2-year sequester hiatus. I agree with Taxpayers for Common Sense when they say that ``this may be the convenient answer, but it is no way to get our fiscal house in order.'' It is my hope we can find a way through this shutdown sooner rather than later. It is also my hope that we can at some point have a real conversation about the long-term drivers of our crushing debt that underlie our need to regularly hike the debt ceiling. In the meantime, and as this debate unfolds, I urge my colleagues to resist any effort to undermine the sequester-enforced Budget Control Act spending caps.
I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Michigan.
Mr. LEVIN. Madam President, House Speaker Boehner is sending the Senate a series of bills to put one Band-Aid at a time on the House Republicans' government shutdown. It is an obvious attempt to fool the American people into thinking House Republicans are acting to end the shutdown. But their transparent tactic is not fooling many people, and here is why: The people of this country know the harm of the government shutdown isn't about the handful of programs that House Republicans will dangle in front of us. The House Republican gambit will not put food inspectors back to work. It will not put Centers for Disease Control experts back to work tracking outbreaks of infectious diseases. It is not going to reopen Head Start classrooms for kids. Their piecemeal approach won't restart lending to small businesses or bring back the FAA inspectors who make sure commercial aircraft are safe, and it won't restore hundreds of other vital services and functions.
No matter how many rifleshot bills the House Republicans try, all they do is leave our government full of holes. We could spend months legislating in bits and pieces while House Republicans ignore the obvious solution: The House should vote on the clean continuing resolution the Senate has sent to them, because that vote will end the shutdown.
The Republican bits-and-pieces strategy is like smashing a piece of crockery with a hammer, gluing two or three bits back together today, a couple more tomorrow, and two or three more the day after that. House Republicans should stop before they do any more damage, put down the hammer, pick up the Senate's continuing resolution, and at least put it to a vote.
I heard one Republican on the Senate floor yesterday argue that we should adopt the piecemeal approach because, after all, he said, under regular order, we pass separate appropriations bills for different parts of the government one at a time. While that is true, it is irrelevant. We have a mechanism for keeping the government open while we go through the regular order process. It is called a continuing resolution, and it keeps the full government open while we adopt appropriations bills one at a time.
Five days ago, the Senate passed, for the third time, a continuing resolution to keep the government open and sent it to the House. It is well past time for Speaker Boehner to bring it to a vote.
Republicans want to negotiate changes in the Affordable Care Act. Of course we will talk about that once the government is functioning, but we should not and will not allow the U.S. Government to be held hostage by the Republicans while we are talking about the Affordable Care Act or any other subject which they or we wish to talk about.
I am keenly aware, as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that one of the most devastating effects of this Republican shutdown is its damage to our national security. Already our men and women in uniform have been asked to operate under the damaging effects of sequestration. Those cuts have done serious harm to our military readiness and military families, and the shutdown is making things far worse.
Because of the House Republican shutdown, workers at the Defense Department maintenance depots around the country who should be repairing and preparing vehicles, ships, and aircraft for combat, are instead furloughed, along with hundreds of thousands of other Department of Defense civilians.
Training exercises have largely come to a halt. Anyone who thinks that is no big deal has never spent any time with our men and women in uniform. The key factor in our military's effectiveness isn't our sophisticated weapons systems, as important as they are; it is the highly trained men and women who employ those weapons. Every day of this shutdown wears away the sharp edge of their readiness to respond to crises around the world.
Some troops and their families won't get tuition assistance. Most travel is suspended, including many permanent changes of station. That means military families scheduled to move to a new location who may have already sold a home at their old duty location or committed to a lease or a mortgage at their new location, and spouses who need to start a job search, face financial loss and disruption and uncertainty in their lives. Our troops and their families can't even go to their on-post commissaries because they are closed.
The bill we passed last week to ensure our troops would receive paychecks is all well and good, but that did not address the many shortfalls our troops and their families face during this shutdown.
Another truly outrageous example is that the families of the brave men and women who were killed while defending this Nation will see a delay in the payment of death benefits because of this shutdown.
Some may say, You are right, these problems for our national security are intolerable. Let's pass a bill to fix them.
We have. The Senate passed a continuing resolution three times, the last one 5 days ago, which would keep the government functioning. Speaker Boehner refuses to allow the House to vote on the Senate-passed continuing resolution. No matter how many piecemeal bills the Speaker sends to us here in the Senate, he will be leaving out millions of Americans who will continue to suffer from the shutdown that he and tea party-dominated Republicans have created. Every day they spend obsessing over ObamaCare is one more day of unfairness and uncertainty for our troops and their families. Every day of the House Republicans' destructive submission to the tea party is another day food is not inspected, it is another day FBI agents are working without pay, it is another day the SBA is not approving loans for small businesses, it is another day scientists are barred from their labs and on and on.
Speaker Boehner can bring this chaos to a halt by bringing the Senate's continuing resolution to the floor of the House for a vote. The Senate has voted three times on House versions of continuing resolutions. Speaker Boehner refuses to vote even once on the Senate bill. Why? This is the question, by the way, the media has not yet asked Speaker Boehner. Why? Why has he not brought to the floor of the House the Senate-passed continuing resolution? Here is to the answer, and it is a stunning answer: Because it might pass. You heard me right. The reason Speaker Boehner is not bringing the continuing resolution passed in the Senate to the floor of the House for a vote is because it is going to pass.
That is anathema. It would be anathema--anathema--to the Speaker of the House for a continuing resolution to pass if it depended upon Democratic votes. It is his policy not to depend on any Democratic votes to pass legislation in the House. The policy of the Speaker is truly the epitome of rank partisanship. In fact, I do not know of a clearer example of extreme partisan policy than Speaker Boehner's refusal to hold a vote on bills that would rely on some Democratic votes to pass.
One of Speaker Boehner's Republican colleagues, Congressman Dent from Pennsylvania, has verified this sad fact. Here is what Congressman Dent said last night on PBS's NewsHour.
I ask unanimous consent that I be allowed to proceed for 4 additional minutes.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there objection? Without objection, it is so ordered.
Mr. LEVIN. Here is what Congressman Dent said: [[Page S7196]] I do believe it's imperative that we do have a clean funding bill to fund the government.
Then he continued: That was the intent of the Republican leadership all along, but obviously there were a few dozen folks in the House Republican Conference who weren't prepared to vote for a clean bill-- Here is his conclusion. This is now a Republican Congressman speaking last night, saying: . . . a few dozen folks in the House Republican Conference who weren't prepared to vote for a clean bill, and that's why we're in the situation we're in right now.
That is an astonishing report of abdication of leadership in the House of Representatives. What an incredible statement about the stranglehold that a few dozen ideological zealots now have on the Republican Party in the House of Representatives. It is an extraordinary moment in history when a Speaker of the House allows a few dozen Members of Congress to bring the government of this Nation to a standstill.
When we cut through all the claims and all the counterclaims, all the press conferences, all the photo-ops, there is one unassailable, indisputable fact that remains: The Senate has passed a continuing resolution to keep the government open, and Speaker Boehner refuses to bring it to a vote in the House of Representatives.
It need not be this way. All that is required to break the stranglehold that the tea party has on House Republicans is for Speaker Boehner to bring the Senate-passed continuing resolution that would reopen the government to the floor of the House for a vote. I urgently hope he will do so, and I hope that every hour until he does, he is asked to defend his refusal to do so.
I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Alabama.