Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor speech: The debt-paying generation

Posted on December 17, 2013

    We are watching America pass from the hands of the "greatest generation" to the hands of the “debt-paying generation” with nothing to show for it but the bill.  For months Republicans have challenged President Obama to fix the federal debt, to save entitlement programs that Americans depend upon, and to rescue young Americans from being forever known as the debt-paying generation.  

            Earlier this year, for example, I called on the president to show the same kind of leadership that President Johnson did on civil rights, that President Nixon did on China, that President Carter did on the Panama Canal Treaty, and that President Reagan did on Social Security.  Confront your own party.  Say what needs to be said.  Do what needs to be done. 

    This has not happened. 

            I appreciate very much the efforts of the senator from Washington and Representative Ryan to try to bring certainty to the budget process.  That is why I voted today to allow a vote on the House-passed budget agreement.  It seems to me, at least, that a Republican senator could allow a vote on legislation passed by the House of Representatives with the support of the House Republican leadership and two-thirds of the House Republicans, so I voted yes to allow a vote. 

            However, I am going to vote against the Ryan-Murray budget amendment because it avoids the federal government's single greatest challenge; that is, reducing the growth of runaway entitlement spending.  Instead, it spends savings that should be used to strengthen Medicare, to strengthen pensions, and to strengthen the air transportation system. 

            I believe in user fees.  When you build a highway, you have a gas tax to pay for the highway.  You do not raise the gas tax to pay for education.  You do not raise the gas tax to pay for a health program.  A user fee is related to the service it provides.  This budget agreement does not withstand that test. 

            It would have been much better to pay for this budget agreement by using a small part of the almost $1 trillion in entitlement savings that Senator Corker and I have suggested in the Fiscal Sustainability Act or with meaningful entitlement savings from the president's own budget. 

            The Fiscal Sustainability Act that Senator Corker and I have suggested would slow the growth of out-of-control mandatory spending by, among other things, recommending a more realistic Consumer Price Index.  This is a Consumer Price Index that most economists have said is more realistic in its assessment of what the increase in the standard of living is.  The monthly difference between the current Consumer Price Index and the more accurate Consumer Price Index is about $3 per month for the average beneficiary, which is less than the average cost of a gallon of gasoline.  This modest change would help to slow the growth -- not cut but help slow the growth of mandatory entitlement spending.  The purpose of that is to help make those programs solvent so beneficiaries can depend on them. 

            The Medicare trustees have told us that Medicare will not have enough money in it in 13 years to pay all of the hospital bills.  What are seniors going to think of senators who in 2013 did not take the steps to make Medicare solvent?  We could do that if we would begin to adopt some of the recommendations in the Corker-Alexander Fiscal Sustainability Act or in the president's own budget.  He also recommended a smaller version of the more realistic Consumer Price Index.  He recommended several hundred billion other dollars of changes in entitlement programs that Republican senators might be able to agree with. 

            To go back to the Consumer Price Index, according to the Congressional Budget Office, we could save $162 billion over 10 years if we adopted a more realistic Consumer Price Index for entitlement programs.  That is twice as much money as we needed for the budget agreement.  The rest could have been used to reduce the debt today, and the reduction would be even more in future years. 

            As I emphasized before, the purpose of reducing the growth of entitlement spending is so the programs are solvent, so a Medicare beneficiary does not get to a point in 13 years and say:  Why does Medicare not have enough money to pay for all of my hospital bill? 

            Here is another way we could have cut wasteful spending:  Eliminate the wind production tax credit.  The senator from West Virginia and I have written a letter to the Finance Committee and suggested we do that.  Here we are in the budget agreement struggling to find $63 billion over the next 10 years.  Where could we find $63 billion?  That amount about equals what we could save if we did not extend the wind production tax credit each year for the next 10 years.

            So any way you slice it, we could either have taken some of the president's suggested savings in entitlement spending, some of Senator Corker's and my suggested savings, we could have taken half of the savings from the more realistic Consumer Price Index, paid for the budget agreement that way, and then I could have voted for it because we would have moved money from the out-of-control side of the budget to relieve the sequester, and we would have done what we should have done. 

            What I have to ask with all respect is, Where was the president in all of this?  I mean, if Lyndon Johnson can pass a civil rights bill and Richard Nixon can go to China, if Jimmy Carter can pass the Panama Canal Treaty and Ronald Reagan can work with Tip O'Neill on Social Security, why can't President Obama get involved with his own budget recommendations and help us begin to deal with entitlement spending, which everybody knows is the single biggest problem we have facing our country?

            Washington could learn a lot about debt and taxes from Tennessee.  Tennessee's tax burden ranks third lowest of any state, it has the lowest per capita debt, and it balances its budget every year.  All that did not happen by accident.  I was governor when we needed three big road programs.  Instead of borrowing the money, we paid for it as we went.  We used user fees, the gasoline tax, but we applied that to the roads.  Guess where we are today?  We have one of the best four-lane highway systems in America and zero road debt.  While other States have billions of dollars of road debt, we have zero.  So all of our gas tax money goes to keeping one of the best four-lane highway systems in the country.  Those policies have paid off.  According to the Department of Labor, Tennessee is the fourth best state in the country in net new jobs. 

            Getting debt under control is the foremost problem we have facing our country.  If we do not do that, the people who depend upon Medicare and other important programs will be not able to depend on them to pay their hospital bills.  Runaway spending is going to leave our young Americans forever known as the debt-paying generation. 

            We are watching America pass from the hands of the "greatest generation" to the debt-paying generation with nothing to show for it but the bill. 

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