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Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. McGOVERN. Mr. Speaker, I rise in very strong opposition to this rule. It is totally closed, and it denies Democrats, led by the gentleman from Maryland (Mr. Van Hollen), the substitute.

We're not asking for dozens of amendments or something that hasn't been done in the past with regards to reconciliation bills. All we are asking for is one vote on our substitute, one vote on what we believe is a better alternative to the Republican bill. Last night in the Rules Committee, every single Republican--every single one of them--voted to deny Democrats that opportunity.

Mr. Speaker, as one who does not believe in arbitrary and thoughtless across-the-board cuts as a way to balance our budget, I want to support Mr. Van Hollen's substitute in order to avoid the implementation of the Budget Control Act's sequester. In my opinion, to allow this sequester to go into full effect would be bad for the country.

We are here in this awful mess because a so-called supercommittee failed to reach agreement last fall on a comprehensive and balanced deficit-reduction plan due in very large part to the absolute refusal of Republicans to put revenues on the table. Bowles-Simpson, Rivlin-Domenici, and the Gang of Six all had deficit-reduction proposals that sought to be balanced with both spending cuts and revenues. They sought to be fair. They realized that you cannot solve our long-term fiscal problems by slashing and burning the last century of social progress in America.

But, today, my Republican friends have brought to the floor a reconciliation bill that actually makes sequestration look good. What's going on here is very simple--very troubling, but very simple. They are protecting the massive Pentagon budget and demanding no accountability by exempting it from sequestration and finding even deeper cuts in programs that benefit the people of this country.

The bill before us would create a government where there is no conscience, where the wealthy and well connected are protected and enriched, and where the middle class, the poor, and the vulnerable are essentially forgotten. I have never seen anything like this. It is outrageous. It takes my breath away.

My friends won't cut billions in subsidies for Big Oil at a time when oil companies are making record profits and gauging Americans at the pump. They won't address the inequities of the Tax Code, which allows billionaire Warren Buffett to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. The revenues from fixing these two unjust policies alone would result in billions and billions and billions of dollars in deficit reduction. But the Republicans have protected Big Oil, and they've protected the billionaires. However, my Republican friends take a meat-ax to SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. This is a program to help poor people afford food.

My friends on the other side of the aisle should heed the words of President John F. Kennedy:

If a free society will not help the many who are poor, they cannot save the few who are rich.

Mr. Speaker, we are one country. We should care about one another, especially those who are most vulnerable. That's not a weakness or something we should be ashamed of. Rather, it's something that makes us strong and great.

As my friends know, I have spent a lot of time and effort in Congress on the issues of hunger, food insecurity, and nutrition. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens don't have enough to eat, and every single one of us--Democrats and Republicans alike--should be ashamed. And that's why I am so outraged by the $36 billion in SNAP cuts.

This notion that SNAP promotes a culture of dependency, that SNAP is a golden ticket to prosperity is just wrong. Some on the Republican side have even claimed that SNAP enslaves Americans. Give me a break. In fact, even in 2010, when unemployment was close to 10 percent and jobs were scarce, the majority of SNAP households with a nondisabled working-age adult were working households--working households.

Working families are trying to earn more. No one wakes up in the morning dreaming to be on SNAP, but these are tough economic times. Some people have no choice. But we know that SNAP enrollment and spending on SNAP will go down as the economy improves, as families see their incomes rise and no longer need SNAP to feed their families. Don't take my word for it. This is directly from the Congressional Budget Office.

Of course, last night in the Rules Committee, we heard the tired line that there's a lot of abuse in the SNAP program. We heard that there are countless numbers of people receiving benefits who do not deserve them. That, Mr. Speaker, is simply not true.

It's a common and unfortunate misconception that SNAP is rife with fraud, waste, and abuse. Many have decried SNAP as a handout that can be sold or traded for alcohol and other items that shouldn't be purchased with taxpayer funds. It cannot. And to the extent that there is abuse, the USDA is cracking down on it.

SNAP is both effective and efficient. In fact, the error rate for SNAP is not only at an all-time low, but it has among the lowest--if not the lowest--error rate of any Federal program. If only we could find a program at the Pentagon that had such a low error rate.

Last night we also heard about categorical eligibility, a process in which a low-income person is automatically eligible for food stamps if they are already enrolled in another low-income assistance program.

Categorical eligibility--and I think it's important to state this because there's such misconception here. Categorical eligibility makes it easier for poor people, those people who are already approved for low-income assistance programs, to receive SNAP benefits. But it also makes it easier on the States that have to administer these programs. This saves time and money and paperwork, because the people who are already eligible for similarly administered benefits do not have to reapply for SNAP, and States do not have to waste workers' hours processing paperwork for people who are already eligible based on their incomes.

Categorical eligibility does not mean that people who don't qualify for SNAP get those benefits. To the contrary, people still have to qualify for the program to receive food. Any claim that this is a fraudulent practice or that it is rife with abuse is just another falsehood and smear against one of the most efficient Federal programs.

The demonization of SNAP and other food and nutrition programs by my Republican friends must come to an end.

We have an obligation in this country to provide a circle of protection for the most vulnerable.

Cutting $36 billion means that more than 22 million households will see a cut in their benefit. This means 22 million families will have less food tomorrow than they do today. In fact, 2 million people would be cut from the SNAP program altogether. Another 280,000 kids will lose access to free school meals.

My friends on the other side of the aisle don't like to hear this, but sometimes the truth hurts. If this bill before us becomes law, it will take food out of the mouths of children in America, all in the name of protecting tax cuts for the wealthy and increased Pentagon spending. The Republican reconciliation bill threatens Medicare, it threatens children's programs, it threatens educational programs, as well as programs that support our infrastructure. In short, if this were to be adopted as law, it would threaten our economy as a whole.

And the bill not only protects the Pentagon budget, it increases it by billions of dollars. Does anyone here honestly believe there's not a single dollar to be saved anywhere in the Pentagon? If you do, you're not reading the newspapers. It's there in front of us every single day, the abuse that goes on. No-bid defense contractors. I can go on and on and on.

We have, and will continue to have, the strongest military on the face of the Earth. But at some point national security must mean more than throwing billions of dollars at unnecessary nuclear weapons or at pie-in-the sky Star Wars programs that will never actually materialize.

But national security has to mean taking care of our own people. It means educating our children. It means an infrastructure that isn't crumbling around us. It means clean air and clean water and a health care system that works. Those should be our priorities. But sadly, those are not the priorities in the bill before us today.

Of course, Senator Reid says the bill is dead in the water in the Senate. At a press conference yesterday, the Senate Majority Leader said:

As long as Republicans refuse to consider a more reasonable approach, one that asks every American to pay his fair share while making difficult choices to reduce spending, the sequester is the only path forward.

That's a pretty clear statement that the Senate will not consider this bill. Quite frankly, it's the right thing to do.

A reasonable approach is what the American people want. Yes, they want us to get our fiscal house in order. They want us to reduce the deficit in a fair way so that the wealthiest among us pay their fair share. But mostly the American people want jobs, something the House Republican leadership continues to ignore.

The American people know that the best way to bring this deficit down is through job creation. They want the economy to improve. They want their lives to get better. This bill does not do that.

Mr. Speaker, let me conclude by quoting President Dwight Eisenhower in a speech he made in 1953:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

I'm afraid, Mr. Speaker, that President Eisenhower wouldn't recognize today's Republican Party.

We should reject this closed rule and the underlying bill, and I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. McGOVERN. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume just to reemphasize the point that Mr. Van Hollen made.

You know, the Rules Committee has the right to be able to waive the rules to bring any piece of legislation to the floor. And as Mr. Van Hollen rightly pointed out, in the report on this rule, the Republicans waive, implement waivers because their proposal, without these waivers, would violate the rules.

And so, you know, my friend talks about that this shouldn't be a partisan discussion. I would just say to my friend, the reason that this is a partisan discussion is because the Republicans have made it such by denying us the right to come to the floor and offer our substitute, not as a procedural matter, but as a real substitute. You have politicized this debate. You have shut us out, and that is why there is frustration.

And I just want to say one other thing again because I am so sick and tired of the demonization of programs that benefit poor people in this country, especially the SNAP program.

My friend was talking about all of this money that we invested in SNAP as if somehow we were giving these very generous benefits out. Just for the record, in 2002, the average SNAP benefit was $1 per meal per day per person--$1. With all of the improvements we have made, today it is about $1.50 per meal per day; and it is going to go down next year because of cutbacks we've already made in this program, unfortunately, to offset other things over the past few years. That means in a 10-year period that we have increased this benefit by 50 cents per meal. Now, I don't know about my friend, but $1.50 doesn't go very far today.

So when we're talking about trying to help people get through this economic crisis, that's what we're talking about. So this is not some extravagant, overly generous benefit. That's what it is. That's what it is. And rather than cutting waste in the Pentagon budget, which we all know exists, you protect the Pentagon budget. Rather than going after subsidies for oil companies and going after billionaire tax breaks, you protect all of that. And where do you go to find the savings? From programs that help the poorest of the poor. I mean, it's outrageous.

Mr. Speaker, at this point I would like to yield 3 minutes to the gentleman from Maryland (Mr. Van Hollen), the ranking member of the Budget Committee.

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Mr. McGOVERN. Just so the gentleman understands, the General Accountability Office says the error rate in the SNAP program is less than 3 percent. What is he talking about when people are getting benefits that they don't deserve? I'd like to know the numbers of that. How much?

Mr. WOODALL. This is important, Mr. Speaker, and I hope folks are paying attention back in their offices. The gentleman is talking about the error rate, the error rate, folks who have mistakenly gotten food stamps because in the application process they got the application process wrong. They shouldn't have qualified but they have given them away anyway.

What the CBO says is something entirely different. What the CBO says is that 1.8 million American families, if they walked into the office today and applied for food stamps today, would not qualify for food stamps. It's not an error. It's not a mistake. It's that the rules of the game have been changed to say we just want everybody, we just want everybody to have a part in the program.

When the gentleman says it's a paperwork nightmare for States, I happen to agree with the gentleman. There's a tremendous paperwork challenge for States. But this does not solve that. All we're saying is go through the application process. To suggest that we're trying to take benefits away from people who need those benefits is disingenuous.

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The gentleman is wrong. He's just wrong when he talks about the abuse of the SNAP program, that people are somehow getting benefits that they're not entitled to. And the demagoguery that's going on with regard to categorical eligibility is just inexcusable. That actually cuts paperwork and bureaucracy at a State level, and it helps people who are eligible to get the benefits.

I'd also say to the gentleman, he gets up on the floor and talks about this payroll tax cut for Members of Congress. That was a payroll tax cut for everybody.

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Mr. McGOVERN. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself 1 minute.

What galls me is that the Republican majority is balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable in this country, on the poorest of the poor.

The gentleman talks about the CBO. The CBO says that cutting $36 billion from the SNAP program means that more than 22 million households will see a cut in their benefits. It means that 22 million families will have less food tomorrow than they do today. In fact, 2 million people would be cut from SNAP altogether. That is not my making up numbers. That's the CBO. That's where I get that from. I think that's cruel and inhumane during one of the worst economic crises that we've faced.

Yes, we have to balance the budget, and we have to make tough choices, but why does it have to be on the backs of the most vulnerable? Why can't Donald Trump pay a couple of more dollars in taxes? Why can't we end the subsidies to Big Oil? Why can't we make it so that Warren Buffett pays the same tax rate as his secretary? That's all we're saying here.

Your reconciliation bill represents your priorities. What we're arguing is that your priorities are wrong and bad for the country. We have an alternative. You won't even let us have the opportunity to debate that alternative on the floor.

I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. McGOVERN. Mr. Speaker, I urge my colleagues to defeat the previous question. If we defeat the previous question, I will offer an amendment to this closed rule to let the House work its will and to give Mr. Van Hollen's substitute an up-or-down vote in the House. It deserves more than a procedural vote.

I ask unanimous consent, Mr. Speaker, to insert the text of the amendment in the Record, along with extraneous materials, immediately prior to the vote on the previous question.

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Mr. McGOVERN. Mr. Speaker, I think what we're talking about here today are two different visions for this country. The Republicans have their vision that is outlined in their reconciliation package. Mr. Van Hollen, I think, has adequately summarized what the Democratic priorities are.

The main difference is that, in their proposal, there is no balance. It's a meat-ax approach to everything--cut, cut, cut, cut--regardless of what it means to the people of this country. What we're trying to do and, quite frankly, what other bipartisan commissions have recommended, is a more balanced approach: we cut spending, but there are also some revenues to be raised.

At a time in our country when we have a Tax Code that allows Warren Buffett to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary, it seems that it's time for a little fairness, and that's all we're asking for here. That's all we're asking for--a balanced, fair approach. We are prepared to make the tough choices. Yes, some of those tough choices mean cuts. But I'd say to the Republicans that some of those tough choices may mean you'll have to go back on the pledge that you signed with Grover Norquist, that you'll have to support closing tax loopholes and raising taxes on the wealthiest individuals in this country.

Mr. Speaker, I would at this time like to insert in the Record a letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and I want to read one paragraph from that letter, which is to the Members of Congress:

The Catholic bishops of the United States recognize the serious deficits our country faces, and we acknowledge that Congress must make difficult decisions about how to allocate burdens and sacrifices and balance resources and needs. However, deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility efforts must protect and not undermine the needs of poor and vulnerable people. The proposed cuts to programs in the budget reconciliation fail this basic moral test. The catechism of the Catholic Church states it is the proper role of government to ``make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.'' Poor and vulnerable people do not have powerful lobbyists to advocate their interests, but they have the most compelling needs.

Mr. Speaker, that paragraph sums up what I feel and what so many of us feel about what my friends on the other side of the aisle are doing. Yes, we have to make tough choices, but why are always the tough choices on the backs of middle-income families and on the backs of the poor?

There are people in this country who are hungry. We are the richest country on the planet, and we have hungry people here. Yet what is our response? It's not to figure out a way to help deal with this terrible scourge. Our response--their response--is to take a meat-ax approach to SNAP, which will cut benefits. That's what the CBO says, that it will cut benefits and that people will have less food tomorrow than they have today if this is to become law.

I think that's a horrible choice. That's not a choice we should be discussing on the floor. Yes, let's make these programs more efficient. But I'm going to tell you the SNAP Program is a hell of a lot more efficient than the Pentagon--the waste, the fraud, and the abuse in the Pentagon, the wasteful weapons systems in the Pentagon. I want to tell you that I don't care what Leon Panetta says. There are savings to be found in the Pentagon's budget, and we ought to go after that. We ought to make sure that Donald Trump pays his fair share in taxes, and we ought to close these corporate tax loopholes that allow corporations to get away with paying no taxes. Middle-income families can't do that.

This is about fairness. That's what we're looking for--fairness and balance. This is a tough time. But rather than following the European model--which my friends seem to love, a model of austerity and of cut, cut, cut, cut, which is not very popular, as they're seeing--what we're trying to do here is to make responsible cutbacks and responsible investments: investing in a robust highway bill to put people back to work, investing in education to make sure our young people are prepared to compete in the 21st century economy, and, yes, investing in the social safety net and investing in programs that provide a circle of protection to the poor and the most vulnerable.

There is nothing wrong with that. We should be proud of the fact that we are a country that cares. Let's not give that up. That's a strength. It's not a weakness. It's a strength. I say to my colleagues that my biggest problem with what the Republicans are doing is that it fails that test. What it does is it goes after the most vulnerable in a way that, I think, is cruel and wrong.

Mr. Speaker, I urge my colleagues to vote ``no'' and to defeat the previous question. I urge a ``no'' vote on the rule, and I yield back the balance of my time.

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