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Sheldon W.
Democrat RI

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  • Continuing Appropriations

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

    Posted on 2013-10-08

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    WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, I am glad to join this debate, which throughout the afternoon has been peppered with the assertion that either Majority Leader Reid or the President or Democrats in general will not negotiate--that we will not negotiate. I remember when I was younger there was a radio commentator, a man named Paul Harvey, and his little motto in his radio bits was to surprise you with ``the rest of the story.'' On ``will not negotiate,'' we don't even have to go to the rest of the story. Go to the rest of the sentence. The rest of the sentence is that the President and the majority leader will not negotiate--while the other side is holding hostages, while the tea party is holding hostages.

    Here is what our former colleague, my former ranking member on the Budget Committee, Senator Judd Gregg, has said about this: A small group of Republican legislators led by the junior Senator from Texas, decided to take as hostages government operations and the raising of the debt ceiling.

    Those are exactly the hostages, Federal employees who cannot work, people and businesses that want or need Federal services, those families we have heard so much about today who lost loved ones on the field of battle and cannot get their death benefits.

    There is an even bigger hostage out there, which is the threat of a catastrophic default which would be the result of a failure to lift the debt limit. Our country has been through a lot, through Civil Wars and world wars, through depressions and calamities of various kinds. Through all of that we have never defaulted on our debt. But there is a group in Congress so desperate that they are willing to use that, that threat as a hostage for leverage in negotiations.

    When colleagues on the other side invite us in the old phrase, ``Come, let us reason together,'' let us negotiate, they do not mean come let us reason together, let us negotiate; they mean let us negotiate, but we want a blackjack in our pocket. If the negotiations don't go just the way we want, we want to keep hundreds of thousands of Americans out of their jobs and we want to threaten the economic security of this country.

    There is a difference that every American understands between negotiating and negotiating while threatening the hostages. I will say that sanctimoniously offering to release a hostage here or a hostage there when a program becomes too popular or there is too much scrutiny on the damage that one thing is doing, to say, oh, we will give up that hostage, we will let us vote on that hostage, doesn't change the principle. There is a difference between negotiating in good faith, negotiating on the merits, and negotiating with threats to hostages. That is no road to go down. That is a very dangerous threat.

    As President Reagan warned us: Congress must realize that by failing to act they are entering very dangerous territory if we don't raise the debt limit. Never before in our history has the Federal Government failed to honor its financial obligations. Too fail to do so now would be an outrage.

    Ronald Reagan: The Congress must understand this and bear full responsibility.

    We have to address these problems in the traditional order of government with real negotiations because if we don't, if we yield to hostage-taking as the new way of governance in this country, where does it end? The continuing resolution that we proposed that the Speaker has refused to have a vote on--in all this time he has never had a vote on the continuing resolution that we passed that would open the government--it would only extend the operations of government for 6 weeks. We would be back at it again. What would the price be next time? After we defunded ObamaCare, would they want to privatize Social Security? They tried that before. Over and over, the popular will has to rule. That we do through our American procedures. The vaunted procedures of our American system of government would be lost in a devil's game of threats and hostage-taking on both sides because two can play at this game if those are the new rules. We don't want to go there.

    America is a great country and in part we are a great country because our democracy is an example to the world. We are no example to anyone when we legislate by threats of default, disaster, and confusion, to use the felicitous phrase of our colleague from Alabama.

    There is a condition that sometimes befalls pilots called target fixation. It happens when a pilot diving on a target becomes so fixated on hitting that target that they become disoriented with their surroundings. The worst thing that befalls somebody who has target fixation is that they crash the plane.

    Right now we have Republican target fixation on repeal ObamaCare. Imagine passing it 40-some times in the House, which they have done. If that is not a sign of target fixation, I don't know what is. Not seeing the damage that is being done by closing down the government, not seeing the damage to families, not seeing the damage to employees, not seeing the damage to people who depend on government services and licenses and safety checks seems to me to be a sign of target fixation.

    If they have target fixation this badly, they may not even see President Ronald Reagan's warnings of how dire and dangerous it is to play around with our debt limit. On the House side, they are already talking about playing around with our debt limit. They want to go into the danger zone, and who knows how close to the flame they are willing to fly. When they have target fixation, their judgment is not very good.

    They are certainly not seeing the damage to American values and American procedure that an insistence on [[Page S7302]] legislating by holding hostages and threatening them does. It does damage to our values, and it does damage to our procedures.

    A great observer of the American system of government once described procedure as its bone structure. We can throw it all out, the Constitution, the bicameralism, and we can go back to the basic animal state that whoever can make the worst threat wins the argument. That is not the American way. The American way isn't to win the argument by seeing how many people you can put at risk and how badly you can threaten them, but that is the stage we are in right now.

    Let's negotiate, indeed, but let's negotiate as Americans. Let's negotiate under our proper procedures. Let's open the government. There is no reason for it to be closed other than bargaining leverage and hostage-taking. There is no other reason. That is exactly why the tea party has shut down the government, just for that purpose. They say it. They use nicer words. I think the word that was used earlier in debate today was to create adequate incentive. When somebody else is holding hostages, we have incentive, but it is not an appropriate incentive.

    So open the government and stop threatening the debt limit. That is wildly irresponsible. If they don't believe us, believe Ronald Reagan, believe the Secretary of the Treasury, believe the National Association of Manufacturers, believe the CEO of AT&T, believe virtually every responsible, knowledgeable adult who has observed what the dangers are of blowing the debt limit and default.

    Open the government, stop threatening the debt limit and, by all means, let's negotiate. We could set a date tomorrow. I am sure the President would have a meeting at the White House the next day. Anything people wanted could be on the table, but they would have to come in and negotiate like Americans. They would have to negotiate on the merits fairly and not with a blackjack in their back pocket, with threats that if they don't get what they want, they are going to start wrecking things such as our economy and our government. That is not the right way to proceed. If we go down that road, who knows what evil lurks at the end.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Oklahoma.

    Mr. COBURN. Madam President, I have listened very carefully to the two previous speakers on the floor, and I understand a lot of their frustration. We are where we are.

    I think we have two big problems. Actually, we have two major problems. One is our country is bankrupt. People don't like to hear that, but let me give the facts. The total unfunded liability of the United States of America is $126 trillion. If we add all the net worth of everybody in the country and all the assets of the Federal Government and all the assets of the States and combine them, we have $94 trillion worth of assets. We are already in the hole $30 trillion. That doesn't include the $17 trillion in debt we have.

    So I would like to correct a couple of things. One, the Senator from Michigan mentioned that we were downgraded because of the impasse in Congress. No, we were downgraded because Congress has failed to address the real problems of our debt and deficits. Go read their statements. It had nothing to do with action here. It had to do with the fact that we will not address the biggest problems in front of us.

    I ask unanimous consent to have some scissors on the floor because I wish to make a point in a minute.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there objection? Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. COBURN. We have a credit card. I want you to think about your own personal life that if, in fact, you have a limit on your credit card and your financial situation worsens, you are still paying the payments, but you are not bringing down the principal on your credit cards and you are not earning significantly more money and you go to Citibank or American Express or Chase and say: I want you to raise my limit. The first thing they are going to ask you is: What have you done to improve your financial situation so we might consider raising your credit limit? That is what happens to every other American.

    We have this big talk about a debt limit. There is no debt limit in this country. We have increased it every time it has come up. There is no limit right now in this country on the debt we have.

    We hear all of these speeches about the risk. You know what the real risk is? The risk is continuing to do nothing to address the underlying problems of our country. The risk is continuing to add entitlement programs that have no way to pay for themselves and no reform of the entitlements we have today. That is the risk.

    How does that play out? We have heard all of these dire warnings of what will happen. What is going to happen to your children and grandchildren is what has happened over the last 15 years in this country. Do you realize that the average median income in real dollars now is at the same level it was in 1989? We are going backward right now. We are not addressing the real problems.

    Since I am a doctor, I will put it in medical terms. If, in fact, you treat symptoms of disease by raising the debt limit rather than treating the real disease, which is reforming the problems, reforming our spending, quit having 100 percent involvement by the Federal Government in everything Americans do, if you continue to borrow the money and treat that as the symptom, when there is a lack of oversight by Congress and lack of real work by the Members of this body to actually eliminate waste, which is over $250 billion a year as outlined by the Government Accountability Office, we ignore that for the political arena we have seen over the last couple of weeks in Washington.

    The real disease is not fixing the real problem. All of the politicians--Republicans and Democrats alike--want to give you a soft answer. Here is the answer: If you are $30 trillion in debt that you cannot pay for, what you have to do is have everybody have some pain, but we refuse to do that. There is no leadership in Congress to address the real disease we are facing. This is a government that has totally ignored the enumerated powers, totally ignored the 10th Amendment. We have a Justice Department that ignores the rule of law in terms of how they decide what they will enforce and what they will not enforce on a political basis rather than on what the law says. Those are the real problems in front of us.

    We have heard all the dire warnings about how we cannot raise the debt limit. What does default mean? They always say we can't raise the debt limit, but they will not talk about what default means. Default in the international financial community means you will not pay the interest and you will not pay back the principal on your bonds. That will never happen to us. It would require less than 6 percent of the cash we are taking in now to manage the debt we have right now--less than 6 percent.

    So only somebody who wants to hurt us further would play the political game if we ever got there. I am not saying we should get there, but if we got there, it would only be to play the political game to not pay Social Security or not to pay Medicare. We have more than enough money to do that. But what we have is a bloated, oversized, inefficient, ineffective Federal Government that nobody wants to hold accountable except the American people.

    So the question is, Who gets to decide? Congress obviously is not deciding very well. The President has not shown any leadership. Maybe it is time for the American people to decide. Maybe it is time to take some of the power away from Washington and restore it to where our Founders thought it should reside: by respecting the enumerated powers very specifically listed by our Founders with great commentary so it would not be distorted, but we have distorted it anyway. We need to reembrace the 10th Amendment which says: Everything that is not specifically enumerated in these powers is left to the power of the people and the States.

    We find ourselves with a credit card. This happens to be our debt. The number I chose to put on here was our debt this morning: $16,747,458,528.90. We need to cut this up just like we would do for an adolescent or young adult kid when you are responsible for their credit [[Page S7303]] card. If they are not responsible, you cut up the credit card. You fix the real problem. You don't continue to ask for an increase in their propagate spending.

    Members of Congress who will not do oversight and get rid of $250 trillion of fraud, waste, and abuse every year should not be rewarded, but that is what we will end up doing because we don't have the courage, nor the leadership, to address the real problem in front of our country. The real problem is cowardice. The real problem is to not recognize where we are and not act on making decisive decisions.

    We heard how bad it will be if we don't raise the debt limit. I agree, it will be tough. There will be ramifications. How bad will it be if we do? What happens to your children? What happens to the declining family income in this country if we continue to let the Federal Government run uncontrolled and out of control? What happens if we continue to not hold Congress accountable for forcing efficiencies on the Federal Government.

    I know what could be done. There was an agreement called the Budget Control Act, and what it did is it forced sequester. Sequester is a stupid way to cut funding in the Federal Government, but it is far better than not cutting it at all.

    What has the sequester done? The sequester has forced agencies-- because Congress will not force them because we are afraid we might offend somebody--to start making choices. They are still making tons of bad choices. For instance, on the last day of the State Department's budget, they spent all the remaining money. They just spent $5 million for new crystalware for all of our embassies. Do we have $5 million? What is wrong with the crystalware we have now? They had to spend the money because they couldn't come back to Congress and say we saved $5 million.

    We are addressing the wrong problems. We are not holding people accountable. Consequently, maybe it is time for the States and the people to exert some common sense on us. I dare say there is not one Member of this body who would let their adolescent child run up a bill and then not eventually try to intercede on a credit card but just let them continue to run it up.

    Congress and the U.S. Government is that adolescent child. We are the adolescents and the people and the States are the grownups. We are at an impasse, and it does kind of sound like a kid. I am not going to talk to you. I don't like the way you did that.

    We had the majority leader the other day claim that the House was out of bounds because they got to pick and choose what we pay for. It just so happens that in the Constitution, that is what it says. The House of Representatives gets to pick and choose. All spending bills start in the House. They have to start in the House. They get to pick and choose. We don't have to accept it, but they get to pick and choose. So there is a lack of understanding on the basic concepts our Founders set up.

    We know the history and they know the history of republics. Republics always die. There isn't one that has survived as long as we have. They decline and die over the same thing: They get in trouble financially.

    We are in trouble financially. We are $30 trillion in the hole, plus another $17 trillion in debt. Wouldn't it be smart if we started addressing that problem before we blankly allow an increase in the level of the credit card? Actually, what we should do is cut this credit card up, which is what I am going to do because that is the way I vote. I think it is time we quit borrowing money--actually, I think I better tear it up--it is time we quit borrowing money for the future of our kids. It is time we quit mortgaging their future. It is time we start taking responsibility for the actions of the Federal Government rather than giving excuses on why we can't get together and address the real problems of this country. Congress fails to do the oversight.

    We just had a hearing yesterday where we showed one of the problems inside the Social Security and disability system. It was a bipartisan hearing, with lots of work done. There are real problems. The trust fund for those people who are truly disabled in this country will run out of money within 18 to 24 months. The Finance Committee hasn't offered any bill to fix it. The House Committee on Ways and Means hasn't offered any programs to fix it. Yet it is going to be bankrupt. What does that mean for somebody who is truly disabled? It means their check is going to get cut. Now tell me whether we would rather spend $5 million on new glassware for our embassies--crystal--or $5 million for someone who is truly disabled. That is where the real decisions need to be made, but we won't make them.

    If we talk about our national debt--when I came to the Senate in 2005 every American owed $24,000 on the national debt. It is now almost $53,000--in a little over 8\1/2\ years. So we now owe 2\1/2\ times what we used to owe. How did we get there? Why did we let that happen? Why don't we learn to live within our means? Is there always a political reason? Is there always a reason where we can game somebody and say they don't care if they don't want to do this? They certainly couldn't care about Americans if they want to spend money we don't have on things we don't need.

    If we look at the $125.8 trillion, that works out to $1.1 million per family. Think about that. That is our unfunded liabilities, and that is going to come due over the next 50 years. If a person has children or grandchildren, as I do, I really don't want their opportunities to be totally limited by this debt load we have.

    So we have all of this politicking and posturing and political expediency going on in both bodies, and nobody is talking about what the real problem is. The real problem is we are spending a lot of money we don't have, and we are borrowing from other countries for things we don't absolutely need.

    The second part of the problem is we have programs that are designed to benefit people which are riddled with waste and fraud--$100 million in Medicaid and Medicare. Nobody really questions that number. It has been authenticated by four separate studies outside of the government, and inside the government we say it is $80 million. Why would we continue to let a system run that has that kind of fraud in it? We are getting ready to crank up the Affordable Care Act--we are cranking it up--and we have now said we are not going to authenticate somebody's reliability as to their income? What do we think the fraud rate on that is going to be? We know what the fraud rate is with the child tax credit. It is well over 20 percent. In the earned-income tax credit, we know it is well over 20 percent. So $1 out of every $5 we pay out is to people who don't deserve it. We are going to see the same thing with this. Why would we do that when we have this kind of problem in front of us? In the last 2 years our debt limit has increased twice what our economy has grown. For every dollar of new debt we take in, we are getting about 2 or 3 cents of economic growth out of that new debt. It used to be that when America borrowed a dollar, it would get 35 or 40 cents of growth out of that debt. So in the last 2 years we have increased the debt limit $2.405 trillion and the economy has grown less than $1.2 trillion over the last 2 years.

    We are adding $26,000 to our national debt every second--every second. There is no question that our economy is growing some--some-- far less than marginal. Why isn't it growing? It isn't growing because the American people don't have confidence in the future. How do we restore confidence in the future? We restore confidence by modeling a behavior that says we are going to act responsibly with our future, which means we are going to make the hard choices, even if it costs us our political career, to solve the problems in Washington so the generations that follow us will not suffer a lower standard of living but also so we can instill confidence in the American economy.

    There is $3 trillion in cash sitting in this country right now--not Federal Government money, private money--$3 trillion. Why is it sitting there and why is it not being invested? That $3 trillion would create 700,000 or 800,000 new jobs a year--that $3 trillion. Why is it not being used? Because people don't have confidence in the future.

    I want to tell a story about Virgil Jurgensmeyer. Virgil grows mushrooms and other vegetables in a business. This past August he told me he was thinking about expanding his business, a $5 million expansion, adding a [[Page S7304]] couple hundred jobs in a very small town in northeastern Oklahoma. He was afraid to do that. He has plenty of business. He is buying $50,000 to $100,000 of product from his competitor every month because he can't produce it. He says: I don't think it is worth the risk right now given where our country is. That is happening all across this country. There is no confidence.

    It brings me to another point I wish to speak about. We are not just bankrupt as a nation. Our leadership is bankrupt. Leadership is about creating a vision and bringing people together, not creating controversy and dividing people. It is not about pointing out the worst flaws of somebody. It is about reinforcing the best flaws. It is about selling the confidence that we can do this together.

    Do my colleagues realize we can do this together as a nation? There isn't a problem in front of us that we can't solve if we choose to solve it. Do my colleagues remember the debt commission? I was a member of that committee. We voted on some big plans that would have solved a lot of the problems we are facing this very week in this body. I didn't like every bit of it, but it was a chance to try to solve--bring together both sides and solve it. Not once was it taken up on the floor by the majority leader. The President never embraced it--his own commission, his own fiscal commission--never embraced it. It was the greatest failure of leadership I have ever seen. We had conservatives and liberals agreeing that here is a plan we can work out. Yet it was thrown away.

    With the politics we see in Washington today, the only time we are going to solve these big problems is when both political parties take the pain evenly. Nobody wants to do that. Everybody wants to win. It is all short-term political expediency.

    In the words of my friend Erskine Bowles, where we are today is the most easily predictable problem we ever would have seen. All we have to do is look at the path of the numbers. It is true that our deficits are down a little bit, that we raised $70 billion in taxes last year, and the economy is growing. It just shows what potential there is if we would put the economy on steam, where we had confidence. We could have had $500 billion, $600 billion a year in revenues to the Federal Government. But we won't do that.

    Today we find ourselves in worse condition than we were in 2011, and in 2011 we were told we can't do big things. We have to wait.

    So we had a debt limit increase. So tell me how we have gotten better since then. We have unfunded liabilities that are growing faster every year. Our true debt-to-GDP ratio is now over 100 percent, counting all debt, internal and external. We have not done it.

    Hundreds of thousands of Federal workers right now are furloughed because Congress--not Republicans, Congress--has failed to do its job, has failed to compromise, has failed to reach a meaningful agreement that gives both groups something they can claim they actually worked on the real disease.

    Madam President, how much time have I consumed? The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator has consumed 23 minutes.

    Mr. COBURN. I will finish. Would the Chair let me know in about 28 minutes? The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. COBURN. Let me describe also what is going to happen in about 20 years, maybe 10. If we don't address these problems, it won't matter what the debt rating agencies say; we will have developed a pattern that says we think we can continue to borrow and continue to raise the debt limit and not make the structural changes that put us on a path to solvency. So what does that look like? What that looks like is borrowing costs going up.

    My friends all say--and the President said today--maybe our borrowing costs will go up if we don't, in fact, raise the debt limit. Guess what. Our borrowing costs are going up every day we don't address these problems whether we address the debt limit or not because eventually the rest of the world is going to say: We don't think they are willing to cut up the credit card. They are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to put their country on a path of prosperity.

    We have all the capabilities in the world to address our problems. We do not have the leadership that will get us there. I am not just directing that at the President; I am directing that at my own party.

    So what is the solution? I am going to spend the next couple days outlining waste in the Federal Government, fraud in the Federal Government, duplication in the Federal Government. But the solution is called sacrificial leadership. It means modeling the behavior that says you are willing to give up something--maybe the prestige of being in office--to actually fix the long-term problems of our country. It is leadership that calls out the best in us instead of pointing out the worst in us. You do not see that very often here. You did when I first came. You certainly do not now, and that is a function of leadership in the Senate.

    Majority Leader Reid and I do not agree on much. That is obvious. But in a previous discussion on the Senate floor, Leader Reid said: ``Meaningful deficit reduction requires shared sacrifice.'' We are never going to get there unless everybody shares in it.

    The other point I would make is that we are living off the next generation right now. We are going to borrow $2,000 against the future of every man, woman, and child in this country this year alone. They are going to have to pay it back. Another way of putting it is that 1 out of every 4 hours you work, the Federal Government right now is confiscating--of everybody in our economy. It is soon going to be 2 out of every 4 hours you work.

    Our country was founded on the idea of liberty and freedom. When the confiscatory rates that will have to be there to pay back our debt or to at least borrow more money come, half of your work is going to be for the Federal Government--not your State or local governments; it is going to be to pay the bills of the Federal Government. So money that is going to go for interest is money that is not going to be invested. It is money that is not going to improve education. It is not going to invent the new technology.

    So I believe we can solve our problems, but I think it requires an informed public. Do you realize the Federal Government is twice the size it was in 1999? It is twice that size. It is two times as big as it was in 1999. Think about that for a minute. If you extrapolate that, that means in another 12, 13 years, it is going to be four times as big as it was in 1999. The question comes: Are you getting value? Is it efficient? It is productive? Is it what we want to do? I think we can cheat history as a republic. As a constitutional republic, I think we can cheat history. I do not think we have to go down the path every other republic has gone down, but it is going to require real leadership and shared sacrifice on the part of everybody in this country. It is going to require that we take the spending out of the Tax Code for the well-heeled who have placed special benefits in the Tax Code for themselves. It is going to require that we reform Medicare.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator has consumed 28 minutes.

    Mr. COBURN. I thank the Presiding Officer.

    It is going to require that we reform Medicare, that we fix Medicaid, that we control how the Federal Government buys and uses things. It is going to require us to eliminate multitudes of duplicative programs that have no real benefit other than to benefit the politicians. It is going to require shared sacrifice.

    So we can go down that path, unite our country, bring us together with a vision that through this, together we can all accomplish what is needed for our children and grandchildren or we can continue this petty little kindergarten game that is going on in Washington right now where everybody's nose gets bent out of shape, saying they are right or they are right, and playing off the American people.

    None of us in Washington are right. The Founders were right. The enumerated powers were right. The 10th Amendment was right. We are dead wrong. It is time we grow up and start understanding the vision of our Founders that secures our liberty and preserves our future.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Colorado.

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