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Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2008

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Thank you very much, Madam President. I thank the distinguished Senator from Connecticut not only for yielding time but also for the extraordinarily hard work he has put in over the last several days and, in fact, over a week. And I want to thank his counterparts on the other side, including Senator Gregg, for their hard work.

The fact that we are even here voting on a plan to rescue our economy from the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street and some in Washington is an outrage. It is an outrage to every American who works hard, pays their taxes, and is doing their best every day to make a better life for themselves and their families. Understandably, people are frustrated. They are angry that Wall Street's mistakes have put their tax dollars at risk, and they should be. I am frustrated and angry too.

But while there is plenty of blame to go around and many in Washington and Wall Street who deserve it, all of us--all of us--have a responsibility to solve this crisis because it affects the financial well-being of every single American.

There will be time to punish those who set this fire, but now is not the time to argue about how it got set, or whether the neighbor smoked in his bed or left the stove on. Now is the time for us to come together and to put out that fire.

When the House of Representatives failed to act on Monday, we saw the single largest decline in the stock market in two decades. Over $1 trillion of wealth was lost by the time the markets closed. It wasn't just the wealth of a few CEOs or Wall Street executives; the 401(k)s and retirement accounts that millions count on for their family's future became smaller. The State pension funds of teachers and government employees lost billions upon billions of dollars. Hard-working Americans who invested their nest egg to watch it grow saw it diminish and, in some cases, disappear.

But while that decline was devastating, the consequences of the credit crisis that caused it will be even worse if we do not act now.

We are in a very dangerous situation where financial institutions across this country are afraid to lend money. If all that meant was the failure of a few banks in New York, that would be one thing. But that is not what it means. What it means is if we don't act, it will be harder for Americans to get a mortgage for their home or the loans they need to buy a car or send their children to college. What it means is businesses will not be able to get the loans they need to open a new factory or make payroll for their workers. If they can't make payroll on Friday, then workers are laid off on Monday. If workers are laid off on Monday, then they can't pay their bills or pay back their loans to somebody else. It will go on and on and on, rippling through the entire economy. Potentially, we could see thousands of businesses close; millions of jobs could be lost, and a long and painful recession could follow.

In other words, this is not just a Wall Street crisis, it is an American crisis, and it is the American economy that needs this rescue plan. I understand completely why people would be skeptical when this President asked for a blank check to solve this problem. I was, too, as was Senator Dodd and a whole bunch of us here. That is why, over a week ago, I demanded that this plan include some specific proposals to protect taxpayers--protections that the administration eventually agreed to, and thanks to the hard work of Senator Dodd and Republican counterparts such as Senator Gregg, we in the Senate have agreed to, and now, hopefully, the House will agree to as well.

Let me go over those principles. No. 1, I said we needed an independent board to provide oversight and accountability for how and where this money is spent at every step of the way. No. 2, I said we cannot help banks on Wall Street without helping the millions of innocent homeowners who are struggling to stay in their homes. They deserve a plan too. No. 3, I said I would not allow this plan to become a welfare program for Wall Street executives whose greed and irresponsibility got us into this mess.

Finally, I said that if American taxpayers are financing this solution, then they have to be treated like investors. They should get every penny of their tax dollars back once the economy recovers.

This last part is important because it has been the most misunderstood and poorly communicated part of this plan. This is not a plan to just hand over $700 billion of taxpayer money to a few banks. If this is managed correctly--and that is an important ``if''--we will hopefully get most or all of our money back, and possibly even turn a profit, on the Government's investment--every penny of which will go directly back to the American people. If we fall short, we will levy a fee on financial institutions so that they can repay us for the losses they caused.

Now, let's acknowledge, even with all these taxpayer protections, this plan is not perfect. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have legitimate concerns about it. Some of my closest colleagues--people I have the greatest respect for--still have problems with it and may choose to vote against this bill, and I think we can respectfully disagree. I understand their frustrations. I also know many Americans share their concerns. But it is clear, from my perspective, that this is what we need to do right now to prevent a crisis from turning into a catastrophe.

It is conceivable, it is possible, that if we did nothing, everything would turn out OK. There is a possibility that is true. And there is no doubt there may be other plans out there that, had we had 2 or 3 or 6 months to develop, might be even more refined and might serve our purposes better. But we don't have that kind of time and we can't afford to take that risk that the economy of the United States of America--and, as a consequence, the worldwide economy--could be plunged into a very deep hole.

So to Democrats and Republicans who have opposed this plan, I say: Step up to the plate. Let's do what is right for the country at this time because the time to act is now.

I know many Americans are wondering what happens next. Passing this bill can't be the end of our work to strengthen our economy; it must be the beginning. Because one thing I think all of us who may end up supporting this bill understand is that even if we get this in place, we could still have enormous problems--and probably will have big problems--in the economy over the next several months and potentially longer. Because the fact is, we have had mismanagement of the fundamentals of the economy for a very long time, and we are not going to dig ourselves out of this hole immediately. So this is not the end; this is the beginning.

As soon as we pass this rescue plan, we need to move aggressively with the same sense of urgency to rescue families on Main Street who are struggling to pay their bills and keep their jobs. They have been in crisis a lot longer than Wall Street has. I have said it before and I say it again: We need to pass an economic stimulus package that will help ordinary Americans cope with rising food and gas prices, that can save 1 million jobs by rebuilding our schools and roads and our infrastructure, and help States and cities avoid budget cuts and tax increases. A plan that would extend expiring unemployment benefits for those Americans who lost their jobs and cannot find new ones. That is the right thing to do at a time when consumer confidence is down and we are in great danger of slipping into a big recession.

We also must do more than this rescue package in order to help homeowners stay in their homes. I will continue to advocate bankruptcy reforms. I know my colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, has been a strong champion of this, as have many others. It is the right thing to do, to change our bankruptcy laws so that people have a better chance of staying in their homes, and so we don't see communities devastated by foreclosures all across the country. We should encourage Treasury to study the option of buying individual mortgages as we did successfully in the 1930s. Finally, while we all hope this rescue package succeeds, we should be prepared to take more vigorous actions in the months ahead to rebuild capital if necessary.

Just as families are planning for their future in tough times, Washington is going to have to do the same. Runaway spending and record deficits are not how families run their budgets; it can't be how Washington handles people's tax dollars. So we are going to have to return to the fiscal responsibility we had in the 1990s. The next White House and the next Congress are going to have to work together to make sure we go through our budget, we get rid of programs that don't work and make the ones we do need work better and cost less.

With less money flowing into the Treasury, some useful programs or policies might need to be delayed. Some might need to be stretched out over a longer period of time. But there are certain investments in our future we cannot delay precisely because our economy is in turmoil.

Mr. President, I have exceeded the time a little bit. I ask unanimous consent for a couple more minutes.

Mr. DODD. I ask unanimous consent that the Senator have as much time as he would like to have.

The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Pryor). Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, there are certain investments in our future that we can't delay precisely because the economy is in turmoil. We can't wait to help Americans keep up with rising costs and shrinking paychecks, and we are going to do that by making sure we are giving our workers a middle-class tax cut. We can't wait to relieve the burden of crushing health care costs. We can't wait to create millions of new jobs by rebuilding our roads and our bridges, by investing in broadband lines in rural communities, and by fixing our electricity grid so we can get renewable energy to population centers that need them. We need to develop an energy policy that prevents us from sending $700 billion a year to tyrants and dictators for their oil. We can't wait to educate the next generation of Americans with the skills and knowledge they need to compete with any workers, anywhere in the world. These are the priorities we cannot delay.

Let me close by saying this: I do not think this is going to be easy. It is not going to come without costs. We are all going to need to sacrifice. We are all going to need to pull our weight because, now more than ever, we are all in this together. That is part of what this crisis has taught us, that at the end of the day, there is no real separation between Wall Street and Main Street. There is only the road we are traveling on as Americans. We will rise or fall on that journey as one Nation and as one people.

I know many Americans are feeling anxiety right now about their jobs, about their homes, about their life savings. But I also know this: I know we can steer ourselves out of this crisis. We always have. During the great financial crisis of the last century, in his first fireside chat, FDR told his fellow Americans that:

There is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. Let us unite in banishing fear. Together, we cannot fail.

We cannot fail. Not now, not tomorrow, not next year. This is a nation that has faced down war and depression, great challenges and great threats, and at each and every moment, we have risen to meet these challenges--not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans, with resolve and with confidence; with that fundamental belief that here in America, our destiny is not written for us, it is written by us. That is who we are, and that is the country I know we can be right now.

So I wish to thank again the extraordinary leadership of Chairman Dodd and the Banking Committee, as well as Chairman Baucus and Majority Leader Reid. They have worked tirelessly. I also wish to thank the leadership in the House of Representatives.

I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this important legislation, understanding that this will not solve all our problems. It is a necessary but not sufficient step to make sure this economy, once again, works on behalf of all Americans in their pursuit of the American dream.

Thank you. I yield the floor.

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