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Chris C.
Democrat DE

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  • Sequestration

    by Senator Christopher A. Coons

    Posted on 2013-02-28

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    COONS. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. COONS. Mr. President, what has become painfully clear to me this week is that folks in the Congress, folks in the Senate aren't listening to each other anymore. As we lurch toward our latest fiscal crisis--the looming sequester that takes effect tomorrow--I rise to speak directly to the folks I work for--my constituents, my fellow Delawareans.

    I wish to continue a conversation I have been having with my neighbors at the train station, in the Acme, outside church, on the sidelines of my kids' sporting events, consistently since coming here to serve you as Delaware's junior Senator.

    I am focused a bit by a Facebook message I got from Sandi, a neighbor, this morning. It is fairly poignant. She writes: In 2011, when we spoke, you assured me the sequester was so Draconian it would never happen. I feel betrayed by Congress, the Senate, and all of Washington.

    She writes further: I trusted you to hold up our end of this deal and now we are going to sequestration. Disappointed is an understatement for how I feel. Why can't you get anything done down there? To Sandi, to the nonprofits in Delaware whose funding is about to get cut, to the civilian workers at Dover Air Force Base who are facing furlough, to the educators throughout the State who may be laid off and the students who may well be crammed into more crowded classrooms, to the parents whose children will not receive the vaccines they need, and to all my neighbors who will be abruptly impacted by what Washington has failed to do this week to deal with the sequester, on behalf of the Senate, I am frustrated. I am at my wit's end. I am embarrassed by our dysfunction. I am sorry. This is simply not how your government is supposed to work.

    Our country, as we all know, has a real long-term problem--a national debt now approaching $17 trillion, annual deficits for years of $1 trillion, literally adding to the problem each day we don't act together. While the solution to this problem is not easy, it is relatively obvious.

    I wish to say this at the outset: Including interest savings, we have already saved a little less than $2.5 trillion since 2010. But it is easy to miss since we have done it piecemeal, through reductions in continuing resolutions, through the Budget Control Act, through the recent fiscal cliff deal. I know the general impression all of us get at home is we lurch from crisis to crisis and it is unclear that we have made any progress at all. But we have already locked in nearly $2.5 trillion in savings.

    As a member of the Budget Committee, we got to hear from the Bowles- Simpson Commission, the Domenici-Rivlin Commission, a whole series of prominent economists who broadly agreed we needed $4 trillion in savings to get our deficits under control and to stabilize our debt as a percentage of our economy.

    We have made about $2.5 trillion in progress and that leaves us about $1.5 trillion, maybe even $2 trillion left to go to achieve that target, depending on how we count. More than 70 percent of the savings we have already enacted have come from cuts, overwhelmingly cuts to domestic spending that are critical to the future of our economy. I think it is important as we go forward that we achieve some balance in the remaining component.

    This Chamber will have to pass a budget resolution this year. That is what we are already working toward in the Budget Committee, a meeting from which I just came. We must cut spending, we must, in my view, raise revenue, and we must reform our entitlement programs. All of these have some role to play in dealing with these long-term issues. None of them though can solve the problem on their own, and this has been clear for the 3 years I have been serving here.

    Our problem has been that we have a vocal part of one party who largely would not entertain raising any revenue and a vocal part of another party who largely would not consider reforming our entitlement programs, so we have lurched from crisis to crises. We [[Page S970]] try to force each other to do it on the backs of one piece of our large Federal budget.

    So to my conservative neighbors or those in the other party, I am sorry, we just cannot do this through cuts to discretionary, nondefense programs alone or through entitlement reforms alone. We cannot responsibly deal with this deficit and debt just within those two areas.

    In the last 2 years we already made more than $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending cuts. On the trajectory we are on now, in the next decade the percentage these programs make of our total Federal Government will drop to levels not seen since Dwight Eisenhower was President, even as our revenues today are at their lowest as a percentage of our economy in 50 years.

    Federal spending, done right, in the right sectors, fuels our long- term competitiveness. I am talking about investments in education, in infrastructure, in R&D, and basic science and curing diseases, and in speeding commerce. They are key to our future.

    One of our core areas of focus here ought to be on how do we create jobs in a progrowth agenda for our country? By simply focusing on hacking off the domestic, discretionary piece of our Federal budget, it is like an airplane that is trying to get lift but one of its engines is being cut off. We need to sustain investment in some of these critical areas of the Federal budget. But equally, I will say to my liberal neighbors, to folks in my party, we cannot solve this budget problem just by raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. The math just does not work. There is not enough we can raise there to deal with the whole challenge.

    Remember, the fiscal cliff deal we just passed in the last few weeks will bring in another $600 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. So we are making progress.

    We also cannot do it if we simply ignore the poor fiscal health of our long-term entitlement programs either. Last year Medicare and Medicaid Programs--plus interest on the debt--made up almost 30 cents of every $1 the Federal Government spent. In two decades, on our current trajectory, it may be 50 cents of every $1.

    Demographics, steadily rising costs of health care will keep driving this, and we must deal with it. Unless we change course, putting all these things together, productive expenditures that grow our economy-- medical research, R&D--will be crowded out. Progressive priorities such as Head Start, low-income housing assistance, breast and cervical cancer screenings--the things that help care for the least among us or that help make us healthier will be gone.

    So in my view, why not take this moment when we still have a Democrat in the White House and Democrats in control of this Chamber to make tough choices while we have historically low interest rates and fight to preserve the legacy of the earned benefits--Medicare, Medicaid, and the vital entitlement programs we treasure. In my view, we cannot simply hope that the cost of our entitlement programs comes down and we cannot simply tax our way to economic health. Anyone who tells you that either of these is enough is wrong. Spending has to be cut. Entitlements have to be reformed. Revenue needs to be raised. They are all part of the problem, and they should all be part of the solution.

    Somehow, though, when we actually do manage briefly to have a substantive debate on these questions, we tend to spend all of our time focusing on the smallest facet of the Federal budget--discretionary spending--but almost no time discussing these others, the rest of the equation, the big drivers.

    This place has become somewhat of an alternative reality where, if we dig in real hard and people get really scared and we use fancy words such as ``sequester'' or ``fiscal cliff,'' we can ignore the facts. There is no question that we do have to reduce spending, but the sequester is the worst way to do it. When conceived, the sequester was such a bad idea that both sides were supposed to be motivated to move Heaven and Earth to prevent it from taking effect. That is how terrible it is as policy. Yet here we are.

    I am dumbfounded. It is not as though we have not had plenty of time to make this better--18 months, by my count. Why are people talking now in the press here on Capitol Hill about whether Boehner will lose his speakership or whether the first person to suggest the sequester worked in the White House or in the Capitol, whether Republicans have more to gain by the sequester kicking in or Democrats? How much time have we been spending trying to fix blame rather than fix the problem? Who owns the sequester seems to be the fight of the day here. Who cares is my question. There are no winners in this fight.

    I think the question of how we reduce our deficits, stabilize our economy, prioritize spending that will grow jobs--this debate can either dominate the next 10 years, as we lurch every 3 months from crisis to crisis, or we can address the broader, bigger question and fix it and lay a groundwork for health, for growth, for recovery. Again, the math is not that hard; the politics are.

    We here in Congress, with the executive branch, have largely created this problem, and now we need to solve it. Tomorrow, leaders from this Chamber and the House will go to the White House to meet with President Obama about how to address the sequester on the very day it takes effect. On behalf of my constituents, on behalf of the teachers, the police officers, the nonprofits, the personnel at Dover Air Force Base, the kids, their parents, my neighbors, on behalf of my State, I urge our leaders to embrace this moment and to work not only to avert this short-term sequester--not just this $85 billion in cuts--but to resume their work on the grand bargain. We need a big deal. We need it to be balanced. We need it to be fair. Spending, entitlements, revenue--they all need to be on the table, and they all have to be part of the equation.

    My question for everyone in that meeting tomorrow---- Mr. McCAIN. I have to ask for regular order.

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