Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003

By:  Lindsey Graham
Date: Feb. 12, 2004
Location: Washington, DC

SAFE, ACCOUNTABLE, FLEXIBLE, AND EFFICIENT TRANSPORTATION EQUITY ACT OF 2003

Mr. GRAHAM of South Carolina. Mr. President, I must say this has been a very interesting first year in the Senate. Our country has been challenged in many ways. I have listened to this debate about the highway bill. If I were a citizen of Oklahoma, I would be pretty proud. You have two Senators down here expressing different points of view but in a very articulate way.

The problems Senator Inhofe related in Oklahoma are very real in South Carolina. We are billions short of the money we need for bridges and roads. It is an honest-to-God legitimate problem. This is not about getting reelected. When people say that, I disassociate myself with that. This is about trying to do some good for the country economically.

One good thing about the highway bill that needs to be said more is, it is not just about jobs. That is very important. But another thing for sure, these jobs are going to be here. When you pave these roads and you build these bridges, most of the time, if not all the time, Americans are going to be doing the jobs.

One of the reasons we have had a kind of jobless recovery is that the jobs that are being created are being created overseas. When you look at trying to create a domestic opportunity for somebody to go to work, a bill such as this is an excellent opportunity for people to go to work.

Whether or not it busts the budget, I have had a fascinating opportunity, sitting in the chair for the last hour, to try to figure all that out. Senator Nickles is going to be sorely missed by this body. I find him to be an extremely smart, capable person. Senator Grassley and Senator Nickles are very good friends. I like them both. Senator Grassley took the floor about the bill being paid for.

Here is where I come down. The President has made a decision for the first time in his Presidency to threaten to veto a bill if it goes above $256 billion. To the defense of the people in the Senate, there has been a little bit of bait and switch here. The White House at one point in time was not so inflexible in growing the number. I don't know what has happened there, but something has happened. My best guess is that the President sees a trend that is pretty disturbing to our party and maybe the country in general. We have lost sight of our fiscal responsibilities. The deficit is larger than anyone would like. It is going to grow.

The things we have done in the past have all been necessary. A prescription drug benefit can save you money because if you keep people out of the hospital with a prescription drug, that is a lot better than having to treat them in the hospital. But at the end of the day I voted no on that bill because I believed that by the way we set it up, utilization rates would go through the roof.

I am totally convinced that the marketplace works in two ways: It can bring out the best in people or the worst. If you have a dollar copayment, if you make under $12,000 a year as a senior-and a lot of people are in that situation-your payment under the Medicare prescription drug bill is $1. That is it. I just really believe that people are going to start using drugs at a higher rate and that if you are in the middle of the pack, as a middle-income senior, this is not that great a deal. The donut hole will be filled in because of political pressure. The means test is a great idea and the health savings accounts is a great idea, if we can hang on to them.

At the end of day, my fear was that the Medicare bill would not be $395 billion; it would explode. Even in my wildest dreams, I never believed it would explode by some $130 billion in a week. So the estimate of 395 is now 534.

Let me tell people in South Carolina about these estimates. It is a guess at best. It is an educated guess. The deficit is an educated guess. Two years ago we had trillions of dollars of surpluses as far as the eye could see over a 10-year period. The truth is, you really can't govern based on what is going to happen 10 years from now because you really don't know. You can govern pretty well if you will watch every year or every couple years where you are and project down the road and not let this thing get out of hand.

The highway bill is not like the farm bill. The farm bill was special-interest driven even more than the highway bill. I wound up voting for the farm bill. The amount of money we spent on the farm bill was more than I felt comfortable with, but I wound up voting for it because I am trying to get my legs here as a new Senator.

Senator Inhofe and Senator Grassley were the two leading proponents of the tax cuts. I am very glad I voted for the tax cuts because I think they have helped the American economy. But we are going to have to make a decision in light of everything we have done in the last year-the war, the tax cuts, because it does take money away from the budget in the short term, but it has helped the economy-how far do we go down this road, no pun intended.

I guess I have made a decision. I have made a decision that the President's desire to not see this bill grow over 256 is probably a good decision. You hate to do it on a bill where so many people have worked so hard to address legitimate needs and to clean up the mess of highway funding. Senator Inhofe, his colleagues, and his ranking member should take great pride in the fact that they have taken the funding of highways that was kind of a hodgepodge and made it more professional. You brought money back into the highway trust fund that should have been there all along. You have taken interest payments on highway trust fund moneys that went to the general revenue and you have brought them back. I congratulate you for trying to build a stronger fund because we need a stronger fund.

Here is the really hard part for me as a conservative. The average person in my State works until about May, or now almost June, to pay taxes. If you are out there working for a living, when you add up your State tax and local tax and Federal tax and you look at your pay, it takes you almost half the year before you start working for yourself. So the last thing I want to do is come up here and put another burden on people.

The worst thing I could do is come up here and lie to people. This is the truth: Our highway funding needs are far in excess of the money coming in from the gas tax, the mass transit taxes. We are trying to get more money back into the pot, and I don't want to use general revenue.

The reason I don't want to use general revenue is that it would be a bad principle. If you start using general revenue to fund highways, then you will just have total budget chaos. The authors of this bill have tried to avoid that as best they can. They put money back into the fund. In their opinion, it is not enough.

We are at war. The Senate highway bill is increased by 43 percent. I am sure every penny could be used in a legitimate manner. But when you do the family budget and when you do your budget back home at a business entity, to raise one area by 43 percent would be a very difficult task to do to keep the budget balanced. As much as I would like to get money into Oklahoma and South Carolina in a more robust fashion, I don't believe a 43 percent increase, given our financial dilemma up here with the war and other problems, is going to be fiscally sound.

With the President's increase of 18 percent and 43-I hope we can reach a compromise. The House version of 70 percent is not going to happen. The key issue is, how can you get more money in the trust funds without raising taxes? Down the road, I don't see how you do that. So some time in the near future, America is going to have to come to grips with a couple of competing concepts. The war on terrorism was unexpected in many ways, in terms of its scope and cost. Maybe it should not have been, but it was. Every day we are trying to get better in fighting that war. We have spent a lot of money we did not plan to spend but couldn't afford not to spend. That is on the deficit.

The recession is finally over. That has been hurting our revenues. As I see it, as a fairly new Member of this body, future budgeting is going to be tough to get this thing back to balance in my lifetime. We are going to have to do some things we have never done before. I think there have been a lot of creative things done to the trust fund to make it more solvent in the future.

This is a bridge too far for me. I want to build bridges, but there are too many being built given our other needs right now. Probably, over time, conservatives are going to have to come to grips with a gas tax increase, which is going to be the only legitimate and honest way to make up the shortfalls in terms of our highway needs in this country. You can play with the numbers all day long, but a legitimate, honest debate over whether we need new revenue has been had in this bill. The question is how to do it.

I think this bill borrows money. This bill is not paid for. The point of order is legitimate. I am not blaming anybody because the needs are real. But some day, somehow, somewhere, we are going to have to start saying no to something. The President has chosen to say no to this approach to highway funding.

This President has not vetoed a bill since he has been in office. Whether or not he will veto this particular bill, I don't know. But his letter was correct in terms of his concerns about the way we are going as a Nation, in terms of spending. I hope and pray we can work out a compromise between the House and Senate and the President that will do most of the things Senator Inhofe would like to do, because those are legitimate concerns. They will not be able to get everything they want, given the amount of money we have to spend. That is probably true of people in South Carolina who voted for me or did not vote for me. This year, you are not going to get everything you would like because times are tough.

My hope is if we cannot do a 6-year bill we can agree on, which will withstand the highway road building projects in a way that will allow things to go forward, we will come back next year after the election and look at some long-term solutions. That is my hope. At the end of the day, I think the President will veto this bill, and it will be a debate that probably needs to be had about how far you can go before you literally not only break the bank but make it impossible for the bank to be restored.

I know a lot of people have worked long and hard. Senator Grassley was given the job of trying to come up with some offsets, and he is right, it is hard to do. I think Senator Inhofe has looked at the highway trust fund every way you can look at it to try to make it more sound and secure and to get legitimate revenue into the pot. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the amount of money we are going to spend has a deficit component, in my opinion. I may be wrong. But the President sees it that way. The politics of this bill is probably the most important decision we will make this year in terms of domestic spending. If we can resolve this issue in a way that maintains budget integrity and gets money out into the country to create jobs, we have set a good tone for the rest of the year. But if the political discourse about this bill at the end of the day divides us along many lines, and creates an us-versus-them attitude and we try to say one side is good and the other side is bad-that is about where we are right now-the prospect of a consensus down the road to maintain the fiscal discipline we need to balance the budget one day I think will be lost. I don't know how it happened, but it has happened.

All the forces that are in play post-9/11 and before are coming together on this bill-the obligation of the country to defend itself, the obligation of the country to make itself economically viable by improving infrastructure, the moral duty for one generation not to put so many burdens on the next so that they cannot survive, making hard decisions that are inconsistent with some of the things you have said as a politician in the past, like raising taxes-all of those concepts are coming to bear on this bill. To me, this bill and how we resolve it is a test of character as much as it is of anything else.

Do we have the ability to set aside our individual hopes and dreams, whatever they may be-whether deficit reduction, highway spending, never having a tax increase, whatever drives your train-can we find some common ground? If we leave the playing field having a veto that was overridden, the consequences to this country, not just the Republican Party, are extremely serious because if we cannot control it on highways, as popular as that might be, how will we ever control it when it comes time to repair Social Security?

That trust fund is $5 trillion short of the money it needs to maintain solvency by 2042. By 2075, that trust fund is $75 trillion short of the money it needs to maintain solvency. Those are numbers beyond comprehension. How did we get into that mess? Both parties, in my opinion, have played games with the real problem of Social Security, because nobody in the past has really wanted to embrace the looming problem Social Security faces. Why? It is very hard in any election cycle to talk about Social Security, because people who are on it get scared to death.

I was born in 1955. There were over 16 workers for every retiree when I was born. Today, there are three workers for every retiree. Twenty years from now, there are going to be two workers for every retiree.

The point I am making is Social Security has a problem that is not created by the Republican or Democratic Party. Social Security is funded by payroll taxes. That is the exclusive source of money coming into Social Security. The highway trust fund is funded by gasoline taxes. If you think the highway bill is a problem, trying to live within these numbers, you have not seen anything yet when it comes to Social Security. The consequences of having 2 workers for every retiree versus 16 for every retiree when I was born are huge.

In 2042, which is not that far away, the only way we can keep the checks coming is to reduce benefits across the board by 28 percent or double taxes. To sit on the sidelines for the next 30 years and argue with each other is unacceptable because after 2042, it gets worse. The highway bill has a similar problem but not nearly as dramatic. I think every dollar we will spend in this highway bill has a legitimate purpose.

If we overspend this year, if we go to 43 percent this year and add to the deficit and not have a fiscally sound plan to save the highway trust fund, we set in motion the forces that come back to haunt us. If we could solve the highway problem in a bipartisan fashion, then maybe we will solve Social Security in a bipartisan fashion. But the truth is that the highway needs, the infrastructure needs of this country cannot be maintained at the current rate of revenue flowing into the trust fund. That problem gets worse over time, not better.

I do not want to pass on every problem on my watch to somebody else. I would like to be thought of as somebody who at least embraced a few problems on my watch in a serious way and did things outside the box. There is nothing outside the box about trying to create offsets. We do that all the time. There has been some outside-the-box thinking about this trust fund and recapturing money, and that will make this trust fund more solvent and more sound over time.

At the end of the day, in my humble opinion, we can't afford, at this point in our Nation's history, with a looming deficit that seems to have no end, a nation at war that seems to have no end in the short term, to increase spending on something as meritorious as highways at this level now this way. That is why I think this vote on this bill will define us for the rest of this year and maybe in years to come.

I am totally convinced of the following: That if the leaders of the House and the Senate sat down with the President, we could find a way to put new money into the trust fund, get through this conflict, and next year talk about some new funding that would be permanent over time. I think that is possible. I hope that happens because the quality of the people with whom we are dealing are capable of doing that. I will not be in that room as a junior member.

I just have one vote, and my vote will be cast for a purpose. It is not to deny anybody a chance to improve their State or for us to improve the economy through better infrastructure. I will vote no, and hopefully the President will have some support for his veto threat. That "no" vote is cast to say let's look at a different way, a better way of resolving this issue. This, right now, is sheer, tough politics.

People wonder: If they vote no, will they lose all their highway projects. That won't be up to me. People have to choose the path they think is best to manage their bills and to run the Senate. But I can say for absolute certainty that the best way for me to go home and get reelected is to be me. I am not going to try to change and become something overly opposite of what I ran on. So I believe if I vote no with the proposition that 43 percent is more than the taxpayers can afford right now in terms of retiring the deficit over time, that this is a bridge too far, most people will agree with me.

That is my hope; that is my bet. But if they don't, I am still going to vote no because the reason I was sent here, I assume, was to use the best judgment I can muster. And the best judgment I can muster after having listened to this debate, which I think has been good and healthy, is that this highway bill has been innovative. We have done some things to make the trust fund sound, and the needs are real, but we are going too far. We are putting too much pressure, combined with the other actions that we have taken, on future generations, and somebody sometime has to say: Whoa.

That is what I intend to do-to cast my vote with the idea of let's look at this in a new and different way in light of the rest of our problems.

I yield the floor. Mr. President, I thank you for listening.