Speeches & Floor Statements

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

Posted on March 26, 2009

Mr. President, I understand the Senator from North Dakota, the chairman of the Budget Committee, may come to the floor. If he does and wants to speak, I will defer to him. In the meantime, I will address the President's budget, which the Senate will begin to consider this morning at 10 o'clock. Those of us who have spent a lot of time around schools, children, and education know there is a very good way to get a picture of the future and that is to walk into a first-grade class in Arkansas, Tennessee or anywhere else in America and take a photograph of the first graders. If you do that, you have a picture of that town, that neighborhood, that community, and our country 10, 15, 20 years out. The President's budget plan for the next 10 years gives us that kind of photograph of the future of our country. I commend the President for his candor, but I don't like the picture I see. I think, increasingly, our friends around the world and people in this country feel the same way. The Budget Committee chairman, Senator Conrad, has developed a different budget -- somewhat different. He says it is about 98 percent similar to the President's budget. What the chairman, Senator Conrad, does is say let's look 5 years out, not 10 years, as the President has suggested. Senator Conrad has moved a few "children" out of the picture -- the alternative minimum tax "child" is over here during the class photograph, so we will not be seeing that person. I think the “doc fix” to avoid cuts in physician payments, which we are going to spend money on, is over here, so we will not see that "child" during the class picture. The money for the banks -- I think we all hope Secretary Geithner's plan to begin to get toxic assets out of the banks will work. If it doesn't, we may have to go to plan B, and we should have the money in reserve if that is necessary. That "child" is also out of the class photograph. With all respect, the attempt of the chairman of the committee to present a 5-year budget, leaving out items that we know we will be spending money on, doesn't come nearly as close to giving us an accurate picture of what the country would be like 10 years from now with the budget we are acting upon. The President's photograph of the future is a more accurate picture, one we should pay attention to. But it is a blueprint for America that is a very different kind of America -- an America with less freedom, with more Government, with more taxes, with more spending, with more borrowing, and an America that our children and our grandchildren will have difficulty affording. This blueprint that President Obama has laid out for us includes a trillion dollars more in spending for health care on top of the trillion dollars in so-called stimulus money that was spent. It includes more than a trillion dollars in taxes, including a national sales tax on energy in the middle of a recession. It would double the debt in 5 years and nearly triple the national debt in 10 years. There is nothing in the President's budget that would seriously get to work on something he said he wants to work on, which is out-of-control entitlement spending, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the spending in this budget. It is important for the American people to know this budget that we begin working on at 10 a.m. this morning is a budget of which 60 percent is out of Congress’ hands. It is on automatic pilot. It is spending for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and it is going up -- everyone agrees -- at an unsustainable rate, which means we cannot earn enough money to pay at that rate 10, 15, 20 years out; and there is nothing in the budget that would begin to take charge of that problem, such as the commission that Senator Gregg and Senator Conrad have proposed; whereby, we would, as a Congress, come up with a plan and present the plan for controlling entitlement spending, and we would vote it up or down -- much in the same way that we deal with the difficult problem of closing defense bases. This 10-year picture of America's future is causing concern around the world. In China, where the savings rate is as high as 50 percent, compared to ours of about 1 percent -- although it is up temporarily in the recession to about 5 percent. In China, a country that buys many of our dollars, leaders there express extraordinary concern about the value of the dollar and whether they should continue to buy our dollars. Of course, if people overseas do not find buying our dollar as attractive, the price of our dollar goes down and the cash we are paid when we work is worth less and we can buy less and our standard of living will be less. We are a very lucky country. Here we are in the middle of this recession where people are hurting, where people are having difficulty finding jobs, and still in this year, we will be producing nearly a quarter of all the money in the world to be distributed among just 5 percent of the people in the world. One way we keep that high standard of living compared with the rest of the world is to make sure the dollars we produce and earn and spend are valuable dollars. If we spend too much and tax too much and borrow too much, they become worth less and China and other countries will not buy those dollars. Not only is it causing concern in China, we have our European friends expressing concern about the U.S. financial condition. This is a turn of affairs. I have heard a lot of comment on this floor and over in the House of Representatives about: Oh, my goodness, we don't want to be like France, we don't want to be like some European country. We are already worse than that in some ways. In order to be admitted to the European Union, a country's annual deficit has to be less than 3 percent of its gross domestic product. We are already exceeding that. The President's 10-year budget plan would have us settle in, after the recession is over, at about 4 percent. So we would be permanently disqualified from joining the European Union, according to the plan that is laid out before us. The plan also shows that every year of the 10 years of this budget, our total gross debt, which is all of the public debt we have -- that is, debt that we individuals have when we loan money to our own Government or that we owe to the Chinese when they buy our dollars, or other countries around the world -- that debt every year exceeds 90 percent of our gross domestic product, 90 percent of everything we work and earn and produce every year in this country that produces 25 percent of the world's income. We would be at that level for each of the 10 years. That is an alarming number. That is the highest amount of debt compared to our gross domestic product that we have had since the end of World War II. And, of course, during World War II we were just paying no attention to what we spent, what we borrowed, what we taxed because we had to win the war. Still we find ourselves today with that level of debt. Polls show this not only is causing concern around the world, it is causing concern at home. I normally do not think it is wise for elected officials to rely on public opinion polls when they vote. We are sent here, of course, to respect the views of the people who elected us but also to make some independent judgments. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation –- which is headed by with David Walker, the former Comptroller General of the United States –- has done some very important work over the last few years to try to bring to the American people the seriousness of the problem of our debt. Earlier this month, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation released a public opinion survey that was done jointly by Democratic and Republican pollsters. It showed the following: that voters rank the need to address our budget challenges as a top priority for the Obama administration second only to the need to get the economy back on track and get Americans back to work; that Americans see the threat to our future posed by our growing deficit and debt as more grave and more significant than global warming, more grave and more significant than declines in education, more grave and more significant than manufacturing, and more grave and more significant than the prospect of a rogue nation developing a nuclear weapon. In other words, the American people, like people in the rest of the world, look at our fiscal condition, look at this budget discussion we are beginning at 10 a.m. today -- in just a few minutes -- and they are concerned about this issue. We are the world leaders. Our dollar is the world's currency by choice. People who buy and people who follow our leadership are concerned. Another way to think about the importance of the debt is this way: In the 10th year of the President's budget, we will be spending $800 billion on interest alone. Our credit card will have that big a monthly payment just for interest. That means we will be spending more on interest in the 10th year than we will on national defense, which is $700 billion. We will be spending eight times as much on interest as we will be spending on education, eight times as much on interest as we will be spending on transportation. Every dollar we spend on interest is a dollar we will not be spending on investments to protect our nation’s competitive edge in the future, it is a dollar we will not have in our pocket to spend for our families, it is a dollar the small businessperson will not have in his or her pocket to create a job, and it is a dollar that makes us a little less wealthy. No one is suggesting that President Obama single-handedly caused these large deficits this year or that he is responsible for the economic mess in which we find ourselves. Our friends on the other side, the Democrats, always like to begin their speeches by blaming whatever they can on President Bush. But I think the American people are ready for a talk about where do we go from here. President Bush did not cause Hurricane Katrina, but he got in some trouble for how he dealt with the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. In the same way, President Obama had nothing to do with the economic mess in which we find ourselves today, but he will be judged and his administration will be correctly judged based upon how well they lead us in responding to the economic mess in which we find ourselves today. We would suggest that spending this much, taxing this much, and borrowing this much will not help get us out of our economic mess. The right way to deal with this is not to increase our debt levels to levels that have not been seen since World War II. The right way to deal with it is not to spend another trillion dollars on health care at a time when we are already spending 17 percent of the gross domestic product, which is that much more than every other industrialized country in the world is spending. The right way to do it is not to put a national energy tax on the American people in the middle of a recession. There is a better way, and I will be offering an amendment in a few minutes in the Budget Committee to show how we can deal with climate change and clean air without new taxes. We can do it by starting with conservation, with construction of 100 new nuclear powerplants. That is 70 percent of our carbon-free energy today. We can do it by electrifying half our cars and trucks and plugging them into nuclear plants and to coal plants at night when they have plenty of extra electricity. We do not have to build one new powerplant in the next 20 years for the purpose of charging plug-in electric cars unless we wish to. We need to have aggressive research to make solar power cost competitive, to find a way to capture the carbon produced by coal plants, to have the safe processing of nuclear waste. We need to be very aggressive on conservation and efficiency, which is the easiest way for us to deal with clean energy. We need to develop our oil and gas offshore. We can do it 10 miles offshore so we cannot see it, but we need to do it because the natural gas is important for home heating and, to some extent, for electricity. We are going to be using oil even if we do electrify half our cars and trucks, and we should be using our own oil instead of sending billions of dollars overseas and making us hostage to countries that are not always friendly to us. This is an important day in the Senate. This is a day when we begin to talk about the budget. We Republicans appreciate the fact that the President has given us a photograph of the future, in the same way we would take a photograph of first graders, and imagine what the country would look like in 10 years. We admire and appreciate his honesty in doing that, but we do not like the picture we see -- too much spending, too much debt, too much borrowing, levels that concern the world and levels that concern the American people. It is not necessary to do that. It is not a wise way to create jobs in this country and to begin to get us out of this economic mess –- but it will give us in that picture of our future a very different kind of country with more Government, more debt, less freedom, and a country that our children and grandchildren will have a difficult time affording. I yield the floor.