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Public Statements

Increasing The Statutory Limit On The Public Debt

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC




Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, as we continue to debate our Nation's debt limit on the Senate floor, I rise today to review how we came to this point of serious budgetary imbalance and, in particular, how $9 trillion of it is Bush-Republican debt.

At a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work and families across the Nation are struggling to heat their homes and pay their bills and buy their prescriptions and put food on the table, our constituents are rightly frustrated at America's lack of fiscal restraint. They deserve to hear the whole story. The unfortunate truth is that President Bush left us with a budget so warped and imbalanced and an economy in such disarray that President Obama and this Congress have had no choice but to run temporary deficits. The previous administration must bear at least $9 trillion worth of the blame.

Let's roll back to the time when George Bush took the oath of office as President of the United States. In his first address to the Nation, he pledged to ``call for responsibility and try to live it as well.'' It had been a divisive election, and many Americans now found some comfort and hope in those words. They were to be disappointed. But on the budgetary front, there was good reason for optimism on that January morning in 2001. After decades of deficit spending, President William Jefferson Clinton had set the Nation on its healthiest fiscal path in generations.

After 28 straight years of multibillion-dollar budget deficits, our Nation saw surpluses beginning in 1998 under President Clinton.

In President Clinton's last full year in office, we saw the largest budget surplus in our Nation's history--a budget surplus of $236 billion under President Clinton--and that good budgetary news looked forward as well.

The month George Bush first moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, our Congressional Budget Office--the nonpartisan accounting arm of Congress--projected that we would continue to see surpluses throughout the following decade.

Those budget surpluses, the product of responsible governing--some might even say fiscally conservative governing--were projected to be enough to completely wipe out our national debt by 2009. That was the picture we looked forward to when George Bush took office in 2001--predictions by the Congressional Budget Office that our national debt would be zero by 2009.

Indeed, there was actually debate in academic circles about whether a debt-free America was a good idea. That discussion seems rather bitter now.

In other words, at that time, the hard work had been done. The Nation was on a strong financial course. If President Bush had stayed that course of fiscal responsibility, he could have been the first President since Andrew Jackson in 1836 to govern a debt-free United States of America. If President Bush had chosen the responsible path, we would be having a very different debate today.

Of course, President Bush and the Republicans who governed Congress did not choose the responsible path. This chart illustrates the difference between the surpluses that George Bush inherited and the deficits he created. This top line, at the top of the red, shows the CBO budget outlook I have described that was projected by CBO in January of 2001, climbing with increased surpluses over the years to come. The bottom line at the bottom of the red shows what the Bush administration actually did, the budget results under the Bush administration.

The difference between the anticipated path President Clinton left this country on and what President Bush actually did is a mind-boggling $8.9 trillion. For purposes of rounding, I will call it $9 trillion. That is a conservative figure that does not include the likely cost of servicing that debt over the years. We have to pay interest and not just pay back our borrowing. It also does not include the spending President Obama had to do to offset fiscal disaster because of the financial meltdown he inherited. That spending by President Obama was not anything President Obama wanted to do. It was not anything he campaigned on. It was not on his agenda. It was an emergency measure necessary to clean up the economic wreckage left by the Bush administration.

Look at one particular contrast. Our current majority leader, Harry Reid, has worked to craft a health care reform bill that would not only achieve near universal coverage but would do so without adding one penny to the national debt. In contrast, when George Bush and his Republican allies in Congress designed a Medicare prescription drug benefit, they did so without offsetting at all the hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending. Indeed, they even larded it up with special deals for the pharmaceutical industry. In other words, the Republicans relied entirely on deficit spending to fund a huge new entitlement program. That was the way they actually did business. The Republicans relied entirely on deficit spending to fund a huge new entitlement program. That is the fact.

Now Republicans inaccurately and, frankly, hypocritically, rail on budgetary grounds against our efforts to extend health care coverage. But unlike their costly prescription drug bill, our health care bill improves our budget baseline.

The baseline we inherited from President Bush desperately needs improvement. This next chart shows the deterioration of annual deficits under the previous administration. The facts are plain. George Bush vastly increased spending while cutting tax revenues. The structural deficit he built in and left to President Obama simply cannot be sustained. But how soon our friends on the other side of the aisle forget.

In fact, as this next chart shows, the national debt limit had to be increased seven times--seven times--while George Bush was President. President Bush inherited from President Clinton a $5.95 trillion national debt limit. By the time he left office, his reckless spending and his tax policies favoring the rich at the expense of working Americans necessitated a debt limit almost twice as high, at $11.52 trillion.

We should not take lightly the borrowing expansion we are now forced to pursue to help recover from the Bush economic meltdown. But we should also not forget how we ended up in this position.

Each borrowed dollar, borrowed under the Bush administration, involves a debt service cost, and the Republican explosion of debt between 2001 and 2009 now makes everything we do, from running the government to stimulating the economy, more expensive.

Balancing our budget is a priority at which Democrats have succeeded in the past. It is one of the legacies of President Clinton. I am confident Democrats will succeed at it again because we believe in responsible governance.

But now is not the time to play games with our Nation's finances and put essential programs on which families depend at risk. In the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, the analogy between family budgets and the Federal budget is a false one. If the Federal Government contracted its spending, shrunk its spending at the time when States, municipalities, companies, and families are all shrinking and constraining their spending, it would further shrink the economy. It would worsen the recession. It would make things worse for American families. Period. Saying anything else is simply false.

Unemployment hovers around 10 percent nationwide and even higher in hard-hit places such as my home State of Rhode Island. Economic recovery must remain our top national priority. Indeed, we need to do even more to put Americans back to work. The increased borrowing power we are now considering will give us the flexibility to enact new job-creating legislation.

Let me make one point very clear. An upfront commitment of resources to creating jobs need not add to our Nation's long-term liabilities. Let me give some examples.

Throughout the Nation, there are bridges condemned or under weight restrictions. We have bridges in Rhode Island that are condemned or under weight restrictions. There are roadways that the U.S. Department of Transportation has deemed unfit for further maintenance. In my State, the Providence viaduct is in that condition. We have, across the country, water treatment facilities that release raw sewage into our waterways after it rains. We have old school buildings that pose demonstrated safety hazards for our students. We have numerous other structures in demonstrable disrepair. We have an infrastructure deficit.

All these projects need repair, and repairing them is going to require our attention sooner or later. Thus, getting that work done now would not add in a meaningful way to our national long-term liabilities. We have to rebuild this failed infrastructure. We are not going to let those bridges fall into the rivers. Why not do it now when we need the jobs? Why not do it now when the old adage ``a stitch in time saves nine'' prevails?

Every American understands, whether they are working on their car or making repairs on their house, that when you get after maintenance earlier, the cost is always lower. So there is no need to be concerned about the Nation's fiscal liabilities when we are engaged in the repair of decrepit infrastructure.

A vote to increase the debt limit should be taken in proper context. When he was sworn in, President Obama faced the twin evils of a deep recession--a recession that for many American workers is as bad as the Great Depression--and he faced the $9 trillion Bush debt, run up in a time when things were fine. It was fair-weather spending, fair-weather debt.

Our top priority now must be to continue working on job creation until our economic prosperity is restored, until we have recovered from this great recession. We must not sit still for lectures in fiscal probity from the party that ran up $9 trillion in fair-weather debt to fund a war that need not have been embarked on, to fund tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans who did not need them, and to pursue economic policies that led to the recession we are trapped in now. Those policies lit the fires President Obama still is fighting to put out.

I yield the floor. I suggest the absence of a quorum.


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