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Thomas H.
Former Democrat IA
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    Sequestration

    by Former Senator Tom Harkin

    Posted on 2013-02-28

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    HARKIN. Madam President, we are now on the eve of the so-called sequester. Tomorrow, March 1, Federal agencies will begin making $85 billion in arbitrary, destructive budget cuts--cuts that economists tell us will damage our fragile economy and cost nearly 1 million jobs. This is a shame and it is shameful. This is yet another self-inflicted wound to our economy, and it is completely unnecessary.



    For months, President Obama and Democrats in Congress have urged Republicans to join with us in negotiating a balanced package of spending cuts and revenue increases to head off this sequester. Regrettably, we have run up against the same old response from our Republican colleagues: obstruction, obstruction, obstruction--an adamant refusal to compromise. They reject the very idea of a balanced approach, insisting that all deficit reduction must come exclusively from cuts to spending and investment. Since they have not gotten their way, they are now willing to allow all the destructive impacts of the sequester to happen.

    Think about it, because it really is breathtaking. Republicans would rather allow our economy to lose up to a million jobs than to close a tax loophole that pays companies to move American jobs to foreign countries. They would rather risk jolting the economy back into recession than to close a tax loophole that allows hedge fund managers making hundreds of millions of dollars a year to pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families. It really is breathtaking.

    I am deeply concerned about the arbitrary cuts to programs that undergird the middle class in this country--everything from medical research to [[Page S1072]] education to food and drug safety. Earlier this week, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, warned that the sequester would slash $1.6 billion from NIH's budget, directly damaging ongoing research into cancer, Alzheimer's, and other diseases.

    Funding for special education would also suffer deep cuts, eliminating Federal support for more than 7,200 teachers, aides, and other staff who support our students with disabilities.

    Funding for food safety would be severely impacted, resulting in thousands of fewer inspections, a slowdown in meat processing, costing jobs and endangering the safety of the public. The Food Safety and Inspection Service may have to furlough all employees for approximately 2 weeks, which could close down or severely restrict meatpacking plants around the country.

    The list of destructive budget cuts goes on and on, and what many people may not understand is that these are just the latest cuts to spending and investment.

    Over the past 2 years, the President and Congress have already agreed to $1.4 trillion in spending cuts, all from the discretionary side of the budget. These have been very dramatic spending reductions.

    As I said earlier today, when we hear the Speaker of the House say: Well, since the first of the year, we have given on revenues but we have not had any spending cuts--he says: No more revenues, just spending cuts because we have already done the revenues--well, you see what he is doing is he is drawing an arbitrary starting line. His starting line is the first of this year. But you have to go back a year and a half to the Budget Control Act when, beginning with that, this Congress made $1.4 trillion in spending cuts--$1.4 trillion--and in January we did $700 billion in revenues. So we are still $2 in cuts for every $1 in revenue. Yet the Speaker says we should have no more revenues, all spending cuts, to get up to our $4 trillion that is needed to stabilize our debt in this country. So that means he wants to have another $2.6--well, let me think about that; I have to add it up-- it would be $1.9 trillion more in spending cuts.

    Think about that, and think about it in terms of just one area that I know about firsthand in my capacity as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. That subcommittee has jurisdiction over spending, for example, at the National Institutes of Health. Over the last 2 years, Congress has completely eliminated 65 programs under that jurisdiction, totaling $1.3 billion. What that means is no more funding for education technology, $100 million; no more funding for civic education, $35 million; no more funding for creating smaller learning communities in high schools, another $88 million.

    LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, has been cut by $1.6 billion. That is a 30-percent cut--a 30-percent cut. That cut eliminates home heating and cooling assistance for 1.5 million low- income and elderly households in this country. That has already been done. Now the Speaker wants to do more. Maybe he wants to eliminate the entire LIHEAP program.

    The administration's signature education initiative, Race to the Top, has been cut by $150 million. That is a 20-percent cut--already, a 20- percent cut. That is what we have done already. If we cut any more, you are really going to be destroying education initiatives in this country.

    How about lead poisoning, childhood lead poisoning. It has been cut by 93 percent, from $29 million a year down to $2 million, meaning that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no more has any funding to test children for lead poisoning. And we know that if you get kids early, you can stop the deteriorating effects of lead poisoning. But now we are not even going to be testing these kids anymore.

    National programs to keep our schools safe and drug free have been cut by two-thirds, from $191 million to $65 million.

    As I said, national programs that keep schools safe and drug free are cut by two-thirds. I wonder how many people know that. I wonder how many people know we cut that already by two-thirds.

    Again, this list goes on and on with deep cuts to vital programs. I wish to emphasize, these are the cuts we have already made in the last 2 years. The sequester will cut them even further.

    Fighting childhood lead poisoning, which we know continues on in this country, we know how it destroys kids and their future growth, and we know early intervention can alleviate that. Yet it has been cut by 93 percent. What are we going to do, cut it by another 7 percent? We just will not have any efforts at all to test kids for lead poisoning early on. The sequester will have very real consequences for the economy and for our society.

    Finally, let me step back and put our discussion of this sequester in a broader perspective. By all means, we need to reduce deficits further, especially in the longer term. But I have questioned repeatedly the sort of obsessive, exclusive, almost borderline hysterical focus on budget deficits. Meanwhile, we are neglecting other urgent national priorities. How about the jobs deficit, the deficit in our investment in our infrastructure, the deficit in our investment in a strong, growing, middle class? What we need is an approach to the budget that addresses all of these--reducing budget deficits, yes, but doing it in a way that allows us to strengthen the middle class and lay the foundation for future economic growth.

    We also need to look at the demographic projectory of our country as well as the challenges posed by globalization. Our Nation is growing older with the retiring baby boomers. This will dramatically increase government costs for health care and other services. We are also now in a global economy competing not only in manufacturing but also in a growing range of services, from telemarketing to the reading of medical MRIs. In order to compete successfully and keep quality jobs in the United States, we need to invest robustly both in a 21st century infrastructure, as well as in a system of education and training that equips our young people and workers for the jobs of the future.

    In this broader context, what is the best way to address the resulting deficits? Do we just slash spending for education, slash spending for infrastructure, slash spending for research and discovery, sacrificing the investments we will need to grow our economy in the decades ahead? Do we just allow this destructive sequester to kick in, costing us jobs, cutting vital supports for middle-class Americans? These are the destructive budget options which will take effect starting tomorrow if we fail to act. This is why I come to the floor, at the eleventh hour, to plead one final time for a compromise and common sense from Republicans. Yes, I am here to plead for some common sense, some compromise from Republican leadership.

    There are plenty of areas where we can cut spending without seriously harming the economy. There are plenty of commonsense options for raising revenue without lifting tax rates or hurting the middle class.

    It is still possible for Senators to come together, but that may only happen if we have some willingness to compromise on the Republican side.

    When the Speaker says absolutely no more revenue, how do you compromise with that? We know from the polling data that the vast majority of the American people, 60, 70 percent, believe we should have a balanced approach, both in revenues and in cutting spending.

    We have reached out our hand in an effort to shake hands with the Republicans. They have not reciprocated by reaching out their hand to close the deal.

    It is still possible, but it is only possible if the other side is willing to make some compromises. Time is short. I urge colleagues to put ideology and this partisanship aside, stop this sequester, tackle these budget deficits in a way that allows us to invest in a growing economy and a stronger middle class.

    A lot of people say if the sequester kicks in, people aren't going to feel it right away. Well, maybe not tomorrow night, maybe not even Saturday or Sunday. We will beginning next week, when the Food Safety and Inspection Service starts furloughing people and we begin fewer inspections and maybe the week after that when our air traffic [[Page S1073]] controllers begin to be furloughed because they don't have enough money and air traffic begins to slow down in New York and Chicago and Washington, DC, and Atlanta.

    It is always true that in times such as these, when we have these kinds of crises facing us, who gets hurt first and the most are the people at the bottom rung of the ladder, kids with disabilities, families who need some heating assistance in the middle of the winter, elderly people who may need some Meals On Wheels delivered to their homes.

    These are always the people who get hit first and the hardest. We can't forget our societal obligations as a Congress to make sure their needs are met also. We can't turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the needs of people in our society who don't have anything anyway. We can't throw them out in the cold. We can't let our children be denied Head Start programs or adequate child care programs. This is not befitting a great and wonderful society such as America.

    I am hopeful with a meeting in the White House tomorrow--as I know it is not just a photo opportunity--we will hear from the Speaker of the House that, yes, we need a balanced approach, and we are willing to take that balanced approach. If they do that, we can get this settled within the next few days and then move ahead.

    So that is my hope for tomorrow. And I hope, again, we will see some forthcoming on the part of Republicans that they are indeed willing to compromise.

    Madam President, I yield the floor.

    ____________________

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