Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) -- The Budget and AIG Bonuses

Posted on March 24, 2009

Mr. President, I will comment on the Republican leader's remarks. I agree with him that this budget borrows too much. We say that publicly on the floor and we say that privately in our discussions. Many of us are afraid that this 10-year budget is a blueprint for our country that our children and grandchildren simply cannot afford. First, I will say a word about the President's press conference this evening. I hope that during his press conference, the President will reject the bill passed by the House of Representatives last week about the AIG bonuses as not the kind of thoughtful and mature response that the American people deserve from Congress in a time of crisis. It is certainly not worthy of approval from the President of the United States. I hope the President will focus attention on something that is a mature and thoughtful response and is worthy of the attention of the President of the United States, and that is Secretary Geithner's proposal yesterday to use a partnership of public and private resources to begin to get the toxic assets out of banks, fix the banks, and get credit flowing again. I voted last October and then again on January 15 to give, first, President Bush and, next, President Obama the money he needed to fix the banks. I could say, at this point, the proposal of the Secretary yesterday at first blush seems to me to be underfunded, undercapitalized by tax dollars and too late. But it is more important to say I believe it appears to be on exactly the right track, that it appears to be well thought out, and that at first blush it seems to be attracting support from the private sector, which it needs to do to be successful. History shows us some lessons about when we have bank problems -- and we have had plenty of them. When I was Governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, dozens of banks failed because of a problem with the Butcher brothers, who were basically kiting banks. But the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation came in and over the weekend usually recapitalized the banks, got rid of the bad assets, put them back out there, and our economy grew again. That is harder to do today because the businesses are bigger and the crisis is much larger. But the fundamental solution to our economic troubles is the same. We need to fix the banks and get credit flowing again, and the way to fix the banks is to get enough of the toxic assets out so they can have confidence to lend money, and business can start growing, and people can get jobs again. That is the history lesson. There is another history lesson, and that is that we need the President of the United States to focus his full attention on fixing the banks and getting credit flowing again. I have used the example of President Eisenhower going to Korea. Someone said to me: Senator Alexander, no one pays attention to history. Well, they ought to. President Eisenhower said in October of 1952: I shall go to Korea to fix the Korean war. That was in October. He was elected President, and within weeks he went to Korea. He said: I will concentrate my full attention on this problem until it is honorably ended. President Eisenhower was a very capable man. He was capable of doing more than one thing at a time. But he knew the country needed him to do one thing and the country needed to have confidence he would do it. President Obama is extraordinarily capable as well. When I, or others, have suggested he is doing more than one thing at a time, he often says: I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I don't doubt that. I think we may not have had a more impressive President in terms of intellectual ability, and he has impressive people around him. What we need for the President to do -- and tonight would be a good time to start -- is to assure us, as President Eisenhower did when he said "I shall go to Korea," and say: I shall fix the banks and get credit flowing again. We know that a President this impressive and this talented, if he decides to throw himself into this problem with everybody he’s got for as long as it takes, he will wear everybody else out and he’ll get the job done. From the day he makes that clear, confidence in this country will begin to recover at a fairly rapid rate. I say that with great respect to the President and to the proposal Secretary Geithner made yesterday, which I think is mature and thoughtful and the kind of proposal we ought to be focusing on in a bipartisan way. As to the budget, the budget also makes a difference to whether the economy recovers. It is hard for the economy to recover if the Congress spends too much, if the Congress taxes too much, and especially if the Congress borrows too much. The Republican leader pointed that out in his remarks. This 10-year budget is a blueprint for a country our children and grandchildren cannot afford. It doubles the public debt in 5 years, and nearly triples it in 10. It grows the public debt to 82 percent of the gross domestic product by 2019. The gross domestic product is the sum total of all our efforts in a year, all the money we produce, and we produce 25 percent of all the money in the world each year, more or less. This 10-year budget creates more new debt than all the Presidents of the United States from George Washington to George W. Bush combined. Let me say that again. All the Presidents of the United States, from George Washington to George Bush, did not run up as much debt as this President proposes to do in the next 10 years. By the year 2019, we will be spending more than $800 billion just on interest payments on our debt every year. We only spend $720 billion on Defense in that year. We will be spending more on interest than we do on defense, and we will have enough left over to fund all the Federal spending on education. That is too much borrowing. What do we do about that? There are a number of things we can do. I suggest we put a limit on runaway debt so that it cannot be more in any year than 90 percent of our gross domestic product. Another idea would be to enact a bipartisan Conrad-Gregg proposal which would say to Congress and the President: We need to set up a special mechanism to deal with entitlement spending - the runaway spending for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which is the biggest part of our debt problem. The proposal would set up a special commission that would figure out how to bring entitlement spending under control, make recommendations to the Congress, and we would vote it up or down, and act in the same way we close defense bases, which is also very hard to do. The Conrad-Gregg proposal has broad support in the Senate. It has broad support in the House. The President of the United States says he wants to control entitlement spending. The Republican leader of the Senate, Senator McConnell, in his first address this year, went to the National Press Club and said: Mr. President, I am ready to work with you on entitlement spending. In other words, he wants to bring the debt down in the outyears. But so far we have not seen that priority. I think the priority today ought to be to fix the banks and get credit flowing again. I support the President's objective to reform health care this year. I think health care has to be reformed in order to bring entitlement spending under control. But why can't we go ahead and work on Social Security? Why can't we pass the Gregg-Conrad bill? Why can't we send sub-signals that we are serious about reducing entitlement spending? Instead, this budget would move $117 billion of funding for Pell grants from discretionary spending to entitlement spending; in other words, move it from the area where we would spend it only if we can afford it to the area where we automatically spend it without having to vote on it. We shouldn't be adding anything to entitlement spending this year. Finally, new taxation is not good, for this year especially. I care about climate change, but now is not the time to impose a $600 billion tax on electric bills and gasoline prices in the middle of a recession. Republicans will offer a clean energy agenda based on conservation, nuclear power, electric cars, finding more natural gas, aggressively funding research in solar energy, and finding ways to capture carbon. We can do all that without imposing a new tax on the American people in the middle of a recession. I look forward to the President's remarks tonight. I hope, as I believe most Americans do, that he rejects the House bill of last week and expands on Secretary Geithner's proposal. I applaud him and I applaud the Secretary for a mature, thoughtful proposal, and I hope the President will, as Presidents must, select the most urgent issue before us and focus on it with all he has until he fixes the problem. He can do that. Only a President can do it, and this President is especially talented. I believe if he makes clear he intends to do it, the country will have confidence that he will get the job done. I yield the floor.