1/28/2010 — 

Madam President, our Nation faces unprecedented fiscal and economic challenges. This situation did not happen overnight. It did not happen in 2009. It is a situation created by 8 years of mismanagement and complacency under President Bush. For a decade, the easy replaced the difficult, and instead of seizing the chance in 2001 to wipe out our national debt, President Bush and his supporters went in the opposite direction. They focused on the short term, they encouraged lax regulatory oversight, particularly of financial markets, and they adopted an economic doctrine that called for borrowing to fund virtually every major Presidential initiative--tax cuts that were skewed toward the rich, difficult and costly wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and a prescription drug program that failed to negotiate costs with drugmakers and still leaves many seniors without coverage.

   Let's be clear: When President Bush took office, he was handed a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion, which was quickly frittered away. In 8 years, the Bush administration added more debt than all the previous administrations combined, all the while middle-income households saw their earning power decline.

   Due to these failed and irresponsible economic and fiscal policies, the Obama administration inherited the worst recession since the 1930s and a $1.3 trillion budget deficit. It should be no surprise to anyone that President Obama and Congress cannot reverse this mountain of bad decisions and deficits in a year, but we have been trying. Indeed, according to the very same nonpartisan agency, the Congressional Budget Office, that predicts our budget deficit for this year, the health care reform bill the Senate passed reduced health care spending and would have cut the deficit by $130 billion in the first 10 years and over $1 trillion over 20 years. We also had to take action on a recovery bill that kept States from cutting police, firemen, and teachers, gave our Governors funds to repair and rebuild our infrastructure, and provided $288 billion in tax cuts to help middle-class families and businesses deal with the recession. These were not easy steps, but they were the right steps, and it is fair to note that the other side of the aisle's answer to these proposals has been to oppose these measures and offer no coherent alternative.

   Today, because of the shortcomings of the Bush administration and the recession that started in December 2007, we face the question of whether we want to default on the government's financial obligations to Social Security recipients and those who have purchased U.S. bonds. If we follow the course proposed by the other side of the aisle and vote no, the outcome is an even worse economic situation. Ask any economist of any background whether the government should default on its obligation and the answer is a resounding no. Yet that is what is proposed by too many here in the Senate. Although it is troubling to have to raise the debt to pay for a series of irresponsible choices, tax cuts, and a war in Iraq--all of which I opposed--it would be irresponsible to reject this measure.

   There is no doubt that we need to address the long-term fiscal challenges facing our Nation. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that producing a budget is not merely adjusting numbers on a ledger; it is allocating resources to serve people. Today, our first order of business has to be ensuring that economic recovery has taken root. While some areas of the country have shown signs of recovery, most Americans have not seen the benefits. In places such as Rhode Island, where State governments lack the resources to help people who are struggling to deal with crushing unemployment levels, the need for Federal assistance remains great.

   To balance the budget, we will have to make very difficult decisions, but many of us here have made them before. In 1993, without any support from congressional Republicans, Democrats made the tough decisions and took politically difficult votes that brought the budget surpluses that were handed off to President Bush 8 years later and then quickly squandered. Through the tough decisions we made, we were able to not only turn the economy around but eliminate deficit spending and cut the debt. Indeed, I remember that in 2001 some on the other side used the argument that we were paying off the government's debt too quickly as one reason they supported President Bush's reckless tax cuts for the wealthiest. And I stand ready to work with those who want to do the hard work of making the compromises that are necessary when it comes to spending and revenues. I am ready to support a pay-go rule that says you cannot pass a new bill without offsetting its costs, and I would urge my colleagues to reconsider the largess of the last farm bill, the multibillion dollar giveaway to ethanol makers, and the host of tax cuts for oil companies and companies that shift American jobs overseas.

   It is instructive to remember that in 1993 the challenge was met, as it should have been, through the normal legislative process, not by handing off the tough choices to a deficit commission. Congress can do better than give its responsibilities to a commission whose recommendations would very likely tilt toward cuts in programs that are crucial to our seniors and our young people. At the same time, the record shows that similar commissions have been unsuccessful in the past. It is only when elected representatives tackle the tough issues that we see positive results. Conversely, when these issues are ignored, as they were during the last administration, we see how quickly fiscal responsibility can unravel.

   President Obama and this Democratic-led Congress have already begun to take the hard and decisive steps to get our fiscal house in order. In response to skyrocketing health care costs, the Senate passed a health care bill that would meet President Obama's goal of reducing health care spending below projected levels, reining in the deficit by $132 billion over the next 10 years and by up to $1.6 trillion over the next 20 years.

   We have a difficult series of choices before us. Yet we can respond to the crisis of the moment and get our Nation on a path of fiscal soundness.