Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Jobs, Chinese Currency Bill, and Repealing Obamacare

Posted on October 5, 2011

Madam President, our country has endured a 9-percent unemployment rate for a longer period of time than at any time since the Great Depression. Yet, unfortunately, the Democratic leader is reluctant to address this problem of joblessness in a serious way.

One way to address it would have been to take the three trade agreements, which were negotiated 4 and 5 years ago -- one with Colombia, one with South Korea, one with Panama -- and send them up to the Senate and House and let us ratify them and let us move ahead to avoid losing 350,000 jobs -- that is an estimate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- or create as many as a quarter of a million jobs -- that is the estimate of the White House. Yet those three trade agreements had been sitting on the President's desk since the day he took office nearly 3 years ago. They arrived yesterday -- or Monday, I suppose it was -- and they are here waiting for us to act on them.

Every day we do not act on them delays the day when we avoid losing 350,000 jobs or create 250,000 jobs. That has been the case every day for the last nearly 1,000 days. That would be a good way to address the jobs issue, but we have not. Instead, we had the President going around the country during the summer blaming Republicans for not acting on the three trade agreements when, in fact, the President had not sent them to us. There is no way the Congress can act on them until the President forwards them, which he now has. And if he has, why are we not debating them today? That would be a good way to deal with the jobs issue.

Here is another example. On September 8, the President came before the Congress and proposed his jobs bill. He said, if I counted correctly, and I was sitting respectfully in the second row, almost in the front row -- I think he said as many as 17 times: Pass this jobs bill now. And if that were not enough, he has said it almost every day since then. The Republican leader mentioned it a few times.

He was in Dallas yesterday. Pass this jobs bill now; I am ready to enact it, said the President of the United States.

Well, it has been sitting there on the Democratic leader's desk for the last couple of weeks, ever since the President sent it up here. He spoke about it on September 8.

The person in this body whose job it is to set the agenda is the Democratic leader, a member of the President's own Democratic Party. Why doesn't he bring it up? So yesterday the Republican leader said: I will show courtesy to the President. I will ask the Senate to do what the President has asked that we do, which is pass this jobs bill now, and the Democratic leader objected.

So here for the second time we have the President running around the country saying one thing, and then we try to do it, and his leader in the Senate objects. What are we doing instead? Well, a couple weeks ago the Democrats manufactured a crisis over disaster aid when we could have been debating the trade bill, the jobs bill, and we could have been offering the Republican proposals we have to encourage trade, to give this President and future Presidents new trade authority, to reform the tax law, and to have a timeout on regulations that are throwing a big, wet blanket, making it more expensive and harder to create new jobs in America. That would have been the kind of debate we could have had on the Republican proposals we believe would make a difference in this urgent jobs situation which has given us 9-percent unemployment for a longer period of time than at any time since the Great Depression.

So now this week, what are we doing? Well, we are debating a piece of legislation. The Democratic leader has decided this is the important piece of legislation to deal with jobs this week. And what will it do? It will give a punch in the nose to China, our second largest trading partner, our third largest export market, our fastest growing export market, and the second largest economy in the world. History teaches us what will happen. We saw that during the Great Depression. Perhaps it was the cause of the Great Depression. We remember the Smoot-Hawley tariff, the trade war that developed, the reciprocal punches in the nose that countries gave to themselves over trade, plunging the world into a depression.

So here we are in a fragile moment, when headlines are saying we may be about to dip into a second recession, and what do we do? The Democratic majority says their best idea about creating jobs is to punch in the nose our second largest trade partner, our third largest export market, and our fastest growing export market, even though we know exactly what they will do to us. History teaches us they will punch us right back in the nose, and the result will be a trade war, which destroys jobs rather than creates jobs.

Such legislation as that now pending on this floor is not how the world's strongest economy, the United States of America, should conduct itself. Such legislation is a sign of weakness or lack of self-confidence or defeatism that is not worthy of the United States of America.

In Tennessee, we see the advantages of trading with the world, including with China. China is our third largest export market, after Canada and Mexico. Our leading exports are chemicals and agricultural products. Tennessee exports to China a total of $1.85 billion, a 43-percent increase over 2009. A little over 7 percent of all of our exports went to China. In Tennessee, 116,000 jobs are related to the export of manufactured goods; 5.3 million jobs in America. At a time of joblessness, why should we be punching in the nose someone to whom we might sell goods and that would create jobs in the United States?

What should we do instead? Of course, there is legitimate concern about the way China values its currency. The administration should work with China to change that. China should accelerate the appreciation of its currency. But what else should the United States of America do? We might take a lesson from history.

I remember 30 years ago, when I was just beginning my time as Governor of Tennessee, China was not the country in the news. It was Japan. There were books written: Japan, No. 1. The United States was, as it is today, the world's largest economy, but everybody was predicting: Watch out for Japan. Japan is becoming No. 1. The United States cannot keep up with Japan, it was said. Their autos, their computers, their electronic goods, their other sophisticated goods were going to overwhelm our markets, and we would quickly fall behind.

There was in the early 1980s a $46 billion trade deficit with Japan. What did we do? Well, we did not act defeatist. We did not play games. We did not act as if we were the fifteenth largest economy in the world instead of the first. We asserted ourselves. We went to Japan and said to them: Make in the United States what you sell in the United States and take down your trade barriers so we can sell in your country what we make in ours.

I went there myself. I remember vividly going to Tokyo in 1979, in November. I met with the Nissan officials. They were considering locating a manufacturing plant in the United States. At that time, they were making all of the Nissan cars and all the Nissan trucks in Japan that they sold in the United States. But they wanted to be in this market, which was and is the most profitable automobile market in the world. So we said to them: Make here what you sell here. And they did. They came to the United States. And where are we 30 years later? Nissan is saying to us that they have operated for 25 years now the most efficient automobile and truck plant in North America, and they are going to be making 85 percent of what they sell in the United States here in the United States.

Nothing has done more to create higher incomes and better jobs in Tennessee than the arrival of Nissan and the Japanese industry, followed by the American auto industry, in our State over the last 30 years. That is how a strong and confident country asserts itself in world competition. That is not just true with automobiles, it is true with many other manufacturing companies that have come to our State from Japan and from other places. That is exactly the way we ought to deal with China.

Our administration can assert itself in a variety of ways about the currency issue. But we should not act as though we are afraid of China anymore than we were afraid of Japan 30 years ago. We should seize this as a moment of opportunity. We should not escalate a trade war that no one will win. We should grow trade in sales and investment in China and urge them to make in the United States what they sell in the United States. If they should do that, that will create jobs here rather than destroy jobs, as history teaches us a trade war will do.

I hope the Senate will decisively reject the legislation that is being proposed to initiate a trade war with China.

If I may speak on another subject. In February of last year, we had a fairly extraordinary event at the Blair House here in Washington. The President invited a large number of Members of Congress -- must have been 20 or 30 of us around the table. He sat there the whole day, and we sat around the table and we talked about health care. It was called the Health Care Summit.

A great many Americans watched that live on television, and because of the Internet and other explosions of new media, they still watch some of the things that were said that day. The reason I know that is because people have come up to me often and talked about an exchange I had with the President of the United States.

The issue was about health care premiums in the individual market. Citing a Congressional Budget Office letter, I said to the President: "Mr. President, respectfully, your new health care law that you propose is going to increase individual premiums."

He stopped me and said:

Now Lamar, let's get our facts straight. You are wrong about that.

He proceeded to explain to me why I was wrong and he was right. With all respect, I believe I was right and even just a little year later, what the Congressional Budget Office was saying then, which was that individual premiums would go up as a result of the health care law, the last 17 months have shown that we were exactly right. This last week the Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey that showed the average family premium for employer-sponsored insurance was $15,000 in 2011, a 9-percent increase over the previous year. Let me quickly say that employer-sponsored insurance is not the same as the individual insurance I was talking about with the President a year ago. But it is the same subject. Republicans were saying that we opposed the health care bill because it would increase premiums, and what we wanted to do was to lower the cost of health care for Americans by going step by step in that direction rather than expanding an expensive health care system that was already too expensive for more Americans, and doing it in a way that would increase premiums for many Americans.

ABC News said the Kaiser Family Foundation report "underlines that many of the promises surrounding President Obama's health care legislation remain unfulfilled. Though the White House argues that change is coming."

Even the New York Times on September 27 said: The steep increase in rates is particularly unwelcome at a time when the economy is still sputtering. Many businesses cite the high cost of coverage as a factor in their decision not to hire. And health insurance has become increasingly unaffordable for many Americans.

I reported on this Senate floor my conversations with the chief executive officers of restaurant chains around the country. Together they are the second largest employer in the country after the government, and they employ a great many young people and low-income people, the kind of men and women who are looking for jobs today. What they were telling me was that the mandates of the health care law will make it more difficult for them to hire people. In one specific example, one of the largest of the restaurant chains was saying that he operates his store with 90 employees today, and because of the health care mandates, he will seek to operate his store with 70 employees a day. That is not a way to increase the number of jobs.

But there are other provisions in the health care law that cause premiums to go up, which was the point of my discussion with the President in February of 2010.

The CMS Chief Actuary predicted in 2010, saying that by 2014 -- still a couple of years away, 3 years away -- growth in private health insurance premiums is expected to accelerate to 9.4 percent, 4.4 percent higher than in the absence of health reform.

The President had said in his discussion with me that under the law he proposed, the individual market would cost 40 to 20 percent less. That was also in the Congressional Budget Office letter. But those reductions were overwhelmed by other costs that were identified in the CBO letter that would produce a 27- to 30-percent increase. So the net result, according to the predictions in November 2009 by the Congressional Budget Office, was there would be an increase in individual premiums of 10 to 13 percent.

These individual market premiums, premiums that individuals buy without an employer’s help, are not the largest share of insurance policies in America, but they affect roughly 12 to 15 million Americans. That is a lot of people who are having their insurance costs go up.

Aon Hewitt's recently released 2011 Health Insurance Trend Driver Survey reports that for 2011, individual health care plans reported estimated 4.7-percent increases directly due to the new health care law.

Then according to the September 8, 2010 Wall Street Journal article:

Health insurers say they plan to raise premiums for some Americans as a direct result of the health overhaul in coming weeks, complicating Democrats' efforts to trumpet their significant achievement before the mid-term elections. Aetna, some Blue Cross Blue Shield plans and other smaller carriers have asked for premium increases of between 1 and 9 percent to pay for extra benefits required under the law.

In the same article it says Aetna said that extra benefits forced it to seek rate increases for individual plans of 5 to 7 percent in California, and 5.5 to 6 to 8 percent in Nevada. That was precisely the discussion I was having with the President in February 2010, when I said that under the health care law, because of the mandates in the law, individual health care premium costs will go up.

In Wisconsin and North Carolina, according to that same article, Celtic Insurance Company says half of the 18-percent increase it is seeking comes from complying with health care mandates.

Then in a September 16 article last year in the Hartford Courant, ConnectiCare is seeking an average 22-percent hike for its individual market HMO plans. Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Connecticut say in a letter, it expects the Federal health reform law to increase rates by as much as 22.9 percent for just a single provision.

These increases happen for predictable reasons. Because of the requirements in the law for minimum credible coverage -- in other words, if you are required to buy a better kind of health insurance, if you are required to buy a Cadillac instead of a Chevrolet, it is going cost more. And it does cost more.

Another factor that will cause insurance premiums to rise is the new taxes on insurance, lifesaving medical devices and medicines in the health reform law. Someone has to pay for those costs, and the ones who are going to pay for them are the people who buy health insurance.

Then there is the question of what we call cost shift. When we add 25 million Americans to Medicaid, premiums will increase because the costs will shift to private insurers to help pay for those costs. That is according to the Chief Actuary of CMS which is in this administration.

Then, finally, age rating is going to cause insurance premiums to go up. What it basically says is that older Americans will not have to pay as much, so younger Americans are going to have to pay more. It is no surprise that under the new health care law, health insurance premiums are going up, becoming an even bigger drag on employment and on family budgets. This was predicted by the Congressional Budget Office while we were debating the health care law. It was predicted by Republicans who offered an alternative to take steps to decrease costs in health care, instead of this big, comprehensive law that expanded the system that already costs too much.

It offers even more reasons why we should repeal or make significant changes in the health care law if we want to create an environment in which we can make it easier and cheaper to grow private sector jobs, and in which more Americans can afford a reasonable cost health insurance.

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