Speeches & Floor Statements

Colloquy Remarks of U.S. Senator Alexander (R-Tenn.) on the Economic Stimulus Package

Posted on February 12, 2009

Mr. President, the stimulus bill is the subject of discussion. There are some things we know about it and some we don't. We know, for example, it is a massive amount of money, almost $800 billion. These are numbers we throw around. But according to the Politico newspaper last month, this is more than we spent on Iraq, more than we spent on Afghanistan, more than we spent going to the Moon in today’s dollars, and more than the Federal Government spent in the entire New Deal in today's dollars. It’s a massive amount of money. It is not like some of the money we were authorizing to be spent in October and November, when we were giving the Department of the Treasury, in effect, a line of credit to help financial institutions begin to lend again so people could get auto loans. This is money we are spending. It goes out the door. We have to pay it back. It adds to the national debt. It took from the founding of our country all the way to the late 1970s to accumulate a national debt as large as the amount of money we are spending in this bill. We have been moving rapidly on this legislation. It is not only spending. The amount of money spent for education is such that it may be the largest Federal education bill we have ever passed in terms of dollars. The amount of money spent for energy is enough that it will be one of the largest Energy bills. The amount of money spent for Medicaid in the House and Senate bills, nearly $90 billion over 2 years to the States, may completely distort the discussion we are about to have on national health care policy. These are all topics that normally we would take weeks to consider. For example, if we are going to add $40 billion to a Department of Education that only spends $68 billion today, we would ask the question: $40 billion for more of the same, or do we have some better ideas about how we might reward outstanding teachers or give teachers more discretion or parents more choices of schools? I ask the assistant Republican leader from Arizona, this is one of the most important, massive bills. Republicans want a stimulus package. We have made clear we think we ought to start by fixing housing first, letting people keep more of their own money, and confining the spending to only those projects that create jobs. I ask the Senator from Arizona, where are we? Has he had an opportunity to read the legislation to know how much is being spent, how much is actually targeted for jobs, and how temporary that targeting might be? ___ As I listen to the Senator, what occurs to me is, we have some laws about truth in labeling, truth in packaging. This bill wouldn't meet any definition I have ever seen. The whole argument for this legislation is, we are in an economic downturn. We Republicans know that. Americans are hurting. We feel that too. So we thought, what can we do to help make a difference? The thought was, fix housing first. We suggested lower interest rate mortgages. We suggested, with the leadership of Senator Isakson, a $15,000 tax credit for home buyers for the next 2 years to create more demand to stabilize home values. Those ideas would have been actually stimulative. But most of the legislation the Senator from Arizona talks about is very different. Medicaid would come up in the regular appropriations process. As I am thinking about it, what has the Senator heard about one of the aspects of this bill that would be actually stimulative, the one I mentioned, Senator Isakson's proposal for a tax credit of $15,000 for home buyers, so that if they bought a home, they would get $15,000 off their taxes, cash in their pocket, as a way of stimulating the market? Is that in the compromise legislation? _____ Mr. President, if I could ask the Senator from Arizona one more question. Over the last couple of days, we have heard testimony from the Secretary of Treasury about the importance of moving now to help strengthen financial institutions so they can lend money, so people can buy cars, buy homes, and send their kids to college. We have heard about the importance of the housing plan that is coming. We have heard numbers of $1 trillion, $2.5 trillion. We have had testimony from experts outside the administration who have estimated that the so-called bad bank option for taking toxic assets out of banks might need $2 trillion and that we ought to capitalize that bank at several hundred billion dollars. I ask the Senator, is it possible, if we spend the whole piggy bank on this so-called stimulus package, we will not have the dollars left to get the economy moving again by fixing housing and strengthening our financial institutions? ___ Or to put it another way: Don't dump the water out on the street and fertilize the field if you need to throw it on the house. ___ We have a limited amount of water, a limited amount of money. I note the Senator from Arizona and I both voted to give President Obama the money he needed to work on housing and to work on financial institutions, and we may have to do it again. So it is not just a matter of saying no to proposals; it is a matter of being greatly disappointed this legislation is not targeted, is not temporary. The Senator from Wyoming is in the Chamber. He has been an outstanding spokesman on the importance of the stimulus legislation and how to fashion that. I ask the Senator from Wyoming, as he looks at this legislation -- and I know we have not yet seen the entire compromise -- but how satisfied is he the legislation focuses on the problem and will actually create new jobs for Americans in a short period of time? ___ Mr. President, I wonder if I might ask the Senator, he has been especially effective as a spokesman for the importance of fixing housing first. Many of us, especially on this side, believe housing got us into this mess and helping housing restart will get us out of the mess. Can you explain why there seems to be, in a nearly $1 trillion bill, so little focus on housing? ____ Mr. President, I thank the Senator from Wyoming for his leadership, especially as a spokesman on the importance of fixing housing first, which we believe the American people have gotten that message, but apparently the majority writing this bill has not gotten that message. The Senator from South Dakota has arrived. He is vice chairman of the Republican conference, one of the leaders, too, in this debate. I have heard him speak about the importance of this legislation for stimulus being temporary and targeted. Actually, to give credit where credit is due, I believe we borrowed that phrase from the Speaker of the House, who said last year that stimulus packages, programs to create jobs for the American people, should meet the test of temporary, timely, and targeted. I ask the Senator from South Dakota, specifically in light of the McCain amendment, which was offered -- which you may want to describe -- whether he looks at this compromise which is coming our way as temporary, timely, and targeted on the problem of creating jobs for Americans? ___ Mr. President, if I could ask the Senator from South Dakota: As I recall, Senator McCain offered one amendment which almost all of us voted for, which was very targeted and cost about $400 billion, but he also offered another amendment which would have guaranteed that whatever was passed actually be temporary. ___ And we are going down to the bank and borrowing the money in their name? __ I thank the Senator from South Dakota. I imagine my 30 minutes has expired, but seeing none of my colleagues, I ask unanimous consent for up to 10 more minutes. Mr. President, I thank the Senator from South Dakota for his eloquent words. The numbers being thrown around are so huge - and numbers get thrown around so often in Washington, DC - that it is sometimes hard to distinguish between $1 million and $1 trillion or $1 billion or $10. One thing I was thinking of as the Senator from South Dakota was speaking, I believe he said as much as 10 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States would be the size of this year's Federal deficit. What that means is, this country -- even in these bad times -- is such a marvelous country that we will produce about 25 percent of all of the money in the world just for Americans, 5 percent of the people in the world. So what we are saying is, just this year we are going to run up a debt of 10 percent of 25 percent of all of the money in the world and add it to the national debt we already have and which we already know we are going to be increasing because of the responsibilities we have to try to help fix housing and encourage the financial institutions to support the efforts that the President is making to get the economy moving again. What we are asking is, why would we spend the whole piggybank on a $1 trillion piece of legislation that isn't targeted to create jobs when we have so many other pressing responsibilities for this limited amount of borrowed money - namely, fixing housing and getting lending moving again? That is where we would put our attention. So we have a lot of questions about the bill. As the Senator from South Dakota said, Republicans offered our legislation, which was voted down, and it focused on housing, it focused on letting people keep more of their own money and on a limited amount of spending for targeted, job-creating infrastructure projects. That saved $500 or $600 billion which could have been reserved for housing, for lending, or to reduce the debt. But this bill, I am afraid -- and we will know more about it as it comes -- is mostly spending instead of mostly stimulus. Not enough of the jobs come quickly enough to make as much difference as this borrowed money should make. Even most of the tax cuts in the bill aren't stimulative. They may be welcome, they may leave 13 more dollars in your paycheck each week. But is running up the debt this much more worth that? This is a lot of money -- according to one report, more than the Federal Government spent in the entire New Deal, more than we spent in Iraq, more than we spent in Afghanistan, and we should spend this money carefully. As the Senators from South Dakota and Arizona have pointed out, what happens after 2 years? The Senate rejected our amendment that said once the economy recovers, the new spending stops so we don't continue to run up an unimaginable debt. States are having trouble and in a shortfall. Tennessee has an $900 million shortfall this year. But we are sending Tennessee, according to the latest estimates -- even with the cuts and the compromise -- about $3.8 billion. We are establishing policy without even thinking about it. In this legislation, which has never been to the authorization committees, we are having possibly the largest, I believe, Federal education bill in our history in terms of dollars. We are having one of the largest health care bills. We are having one of the largest energy bills. That is not the way we make energy, education, and health care policy - just by passing an appropriations bill with a huge amount of money. We are very disappointed about the lack of bipartisanship. We respect our new President. We want him to succeed because if he succeeds, our country succeeds. We expected that in this first major piece of legislation, a number of us would sit down on both sides of the aisle and compare our notes and say: Let's go forward. We know the Democrats have the majority and we have the minority, and so more of their ideas are going to be included than more of our ideas, but 58 Democrats and 3 Republicans is not a bipartisan effort. That is not the way we do things around here. The way we do things in a bipartisan way around here is when we had the Energy bill in 2005 and Senator Domenici and Senator Bingaman worked side by side. All ideas were considered. We had our votes. It took weeks and we got a big result. Another example is when we passed the America COMPETES Act and we worked side by side, or even with a contentious area such as intelligence surveillance when Senator Bond and Senator Rockefeller worked side by side and we came to a conclusion together. The American people gained more confidence in what we could do and in the result that we came to. I am afraid in this case we have not had that kind of bipartisanship. What I fear is that this is not a good sign for the future because this is the easy piece of legislation. This is the first major proposal from the President. This is just a spending bill, albeit a massive spending bill. Next comes health care and controlling entitlements and whether we want to authorize more money to take bad assets out of banks and to help housing. Next comes whether we want to pass this version of climate change or that version of climate change. All of these are difficult pieces of legislation. I have said on this floor before that President Bush technically did not have to have broad-based congressional support to wage the war in Iraq because he was the Commander in Chief. So he went ahead, and it made the war more difficult. It made his Presidency less successful. "We won the election, we will write the bill" is not a recipe for resolving a difficult problem or for a successful Presidency. I would hope we can either do as the South Dakota Senator said, which is start over again on this bill and retarget it, make it temporary, make it timely, and save hundreds of billions of dollars while focusing on housing and lending. That somehow we can get the Congress on track with the President so that when we say bipartisan, we do bipartisan, and we don't have an attitude that says, in effect: We won the election; we will write the bill. Unless the Senator from South Dakota has additional comments -- I am finished with mine, so I yield the floor and yield to him.