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Secure Fence Act of 2006--Motion to Proceed

Location: Washington, DC

SECURE FENCE ACT OF 2006--MOTION TO PROCEED -- (Senate - September 20, 2006)


Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I rise today to talk about the most pressing issue that I believe families feel across this country and certainly in my home State of Michigan, and that relates to the squeeze that families are feeling on all sides today. It starts with the issue of jobs. We see that almost 3 million jobs have been lost in the manufacturing sector in the last 6 years--almost 3 million jobs. When we look at this chart, under this administration we see that we have the slowest job growth of any administration in over 70 years. We have to go back to Herbert Hoover to see the kind of job loss that we are now seeing--the slowest job growth in over 70 years.

In my home State of Michigan it is even worse than that, because what we are seeing is the impact of a lack of a 21st century manufacturing strategy on those in my State who have been the global leaders--who are the global leaders--in manufacturing. Almost 3 million jobs have been lost in manufacturing alone, and 260,000 of those jobs have been in manufacturing in Michigan.

Now, to add insult to injury, we see expenses going up on all sides for families. They are losing good-paying jobs.

Mr. SARBANES. Mr. President, would the Senator yield for a question about the previous chart?

Ms. STABENOW. Absolutely. I yield to my dear friend who is the ranking member on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.

Mr. SARBANES. Mr. President, as I understand it, this figure here reflects the amount of annual growth rate of employment under the Bush administration.

Ms. STABENOW. That is correct.

Mr. SARBANES. At four-tenths of 1 percent.

Ms. STABENOW. That is correct.

Mr. SARBANES. We should compare that with the job growth that has taken place in all of these previous administrations. This is the smallest amount until we get back to Herbert Hoover, is that correct?

Ms. STABENOW. Absolutely. Prior to the Great Depression.

Mr. SARBANES. Right. It is a matter of very great concern. This chart is a dramatic demonstration that this so-called economic recovery has not really produced jobs, which, after all, is one of the main purposes that we seek in terms of the workings of the economy.

Ms. STABENOW. Absolutely. In my home State of Michigan, because we are the global leaders in manufacturing, and I know in my good friend's home State of Maryland it is the same way, in terms of manufacturing, that number is even worse because of the lack of effectiveness in enforcing trade-offs, because of our inability to address health care and being able to change the way we fund health care, because of the lack of investment in education and innovation. That number does not reflect the fact of the impact of the loss of good-paying jobs, the kind of jobs that have built the middle class of this country.

Frankly, I am very proud to represent a State that has been at the forefront in the auto industry, with an industry that has created the middle class in this country--middle class jobs, not only in autos, in furniture production, in other manufacturing.

The reality is that we have lost almost 3 million jobs that created the middle class of this country. Even though there has been just a tiny little bit of an increase here over all, we see it is the lowest, slowest job growth of any administration. We have to go way back to Herbert Hoover to find an administration that has a worse jobs record than this particular President.

I have to say it is particularly insulting to those of us in Michigan who, given this record and the fact that we have almost 3 million jobs that have been lost, and 260,000 manufacturing jobs in Michigan alone, that when the President of the United States came to Michigan a couple of weeks ago to do political fundraising, he didn't have 30 minutes to meet with the auto industry. He didn't have 15 minutes to meet with the executives of the largest employers in the country. In fact, he has postponed or canceled I believe three different meetings with them and now says he is prepared to meet with them after the election.

This isn't about elections. This isn't about politics. This is about a fight for a way of life. This is a fight for a way of life in this country. While he is waiting until after the elections to meet with the auto industry and to begin to engage to do something about these numbers, we have folks who are facing layoffs today. We have headlines. We have Ford Motor Company and their latest headlines. We have struggles going on throughout the industry. Every day, somebody in Michigan gets up in the morning and worries about whether or not they are going to have a job, worries about whether or not they are going to be able to afford to send their kids to college, whether or not their health care is going to still be there, and whether or not they are going to be able to pay for it.

To add insult to injury, too many people who have worked all their lives and who have paid into a pension are now finding themselves in a situation where that pension won't be there. I think that is the ultimate outrage. In the United States of America, I never thought I would have to stand on the floor of the U.S. Senate and say somebody may be in a situation to lose a pension they have paid for their whole lives. We addressed this issue on a bipartisan basis, and I am very proud we put in place efforts that are going to save many of those pensions because of the work that we did a few weeks ago. But too many people still find themselves on the line as a result of that, and that should not be an issue. Bankruptcy or no bankruptcy, in this country you ought to get your pension, period.

So we have a situation where more and more families are on the edge, more and more families who believe in America, who believe in playing by the rules, who get up every day and work hard at one job, two jobs, three jobs, and still find themselves falling more and more behind.

On top of the job situation that they are concerned about, they are being squeezed on all sides by all of the other costs that relate to their families. We see, for instance, a 44 percent increase in the cost of college tuition, room, and board--a 44 percent increase. So here we are, we are in a transition. We hear that the economy is changing. We need to be investing in education. We need to be investing in opportunity for the future, and in innovation and, at the same time, we see the costs going up, and the exact opposite policies are being put in place in terms of cutting opportunity for people.

We all want our children to have a better opportunity than we have had. I am very fortunate to have two children who have worked their way through school and a wonderful stepdaughter who just graduated. I understand about student loans and what that means. I know the costs have gone up, because we have watched them go up over the last several years. There is no question that families are feeling more and more squeezed as it relates to creating opportunity for their children to be successful, and that makes no sense in this country. That makes no sense at this time when we could be doing something about it.

Health insurance premiums have gone up 71 percent. Seventy-one percent under the Bush policies and this administration--71 percent. Now, this is an issue for us in Michigan with not only families and individuals who are struggling to be able to pay for what I believe should be a right in this country, not a privilege, which is health care, but we know what it is doing to our businesses as well. We know that in a global economy, we are the only industrialized country that pays for health care the way we pay for it. So we add to the burdens on our manufacturers, our small businesses, and others by having health care predominantly on the backs of business.

To make it even worse, we end up, because of our system, because of the craziness of our health care system, paying twice as much of our GDP for health care as any other country, but we have 46 million people with no health insurance. What is wrong with this picture? The United States of America has the highest infant mortality rate. Shame on us. We can do better than that. All this takes is a matter of political will, to make the changes that are necessary so no family has to go to bed at night praying that the kids are not going to get sick; no small business has to worry about whether they are going to be able to find health care for themselves and their employees; and no manufacturer should have to worry about whether they are going to be able to compete internationally and still provide health care for their workers.

Health care costs have gone up 71 percent. To add insult to injury, gasoline prices experienced a 104-percent increase. They are coming down now. They are coming down a little bit before the election. We know what will happen after the election. And we also know what has happened to people trying to go to work, trying to take the kids to school.

In my home State, in Michigan, where we have a very robust tourism season, we want everybody to be able to go to the cottage up north, take the boat out, and enjoy the wonderful Great Lakes or go fishing on the inland lakes and rivers. This is a major economic factor for us, gas prices. What happens to individuals who have to take more money out of their pockets just to be able to get to work? Maybe this summer they didn't take that trip they normally take, which means our small businesses up north were hurt. It means economically we are not seeing the robust investment in tourism that normally we have seen in Michigan.

Families are being squeezed on all sides. This is just a fraction of the cost we have seen going up. What has been the response of this administration? What has been the response of the Republicans in Congress? Unfortunately, the response has been, first of all, to block our efforts to ban price gouging. As part of the Energy bill that passed a year ago, an amendment of mine was agreed to that required the Federal Trade Commission to do a complete investigation of price gouging. It took them way too long, but they finally came back and indicated that on the surface of it, they didn't think it was happening and they really didn't have the tools. We had not defined price gouging so that they could really be serious about that. The administration basically took a pass on whether there is price gouging. So we introduced legislation to define it. That has not been able to move because there has been no support to do that.

Health care costs? We could go on and on in all of the areas in which, instead of coming together and doing what we can do, efforts have been blocked. Here are some of the basics, starting with the Medicare prescription drug program. Instead of having a plan that works for seniors and the disabled, a plan was written that was great for the drug industry. Included in that was the outrageous provision that we are not allowed--Medicare is not allowed to negotiate group discounts. Can you imagine that anywhere else? Anybody knows bulk purchasing is cheaper, negotiating group prices is cheaper. Yet, in the area of Medicare, in behalf of the industry, that is prohibited.

What is the result of that? First of all, we have a Medicare plan, essentially, that is privatizing Part D, requiring those to go through private insurance rather than directly through Medicare. There is just a great big hole. Some folks have called it a doughnut hole, this gap in coverage, because there is not enough money to pay for complete coverage because they can't negotiate group prices. All the money is going to the industry rather than going to make sure there is comprehensive coverage.

There is a better way to do that. I am introducing legislation that would allow us to go directly to Part D. Any senior, any person with disabilities, could go directly to Medicare, sign up under Part D under the normal copays and premiums, go to their local pharmacy, they negotiate prices, we eliminate the gap in coverage, and folks would get what they need without all of the confusion and complexity. But that has stalled. We have not been able to move that forward because of the administration and those in control.

Mr. SARBANES. Will the Senator yield for a question?

Ms. STABENOW. Absolutely.

Mr. SARBANES. Isn't it the case that the VA, in providing health care for veterans, can use its bargaining position with the pharmaceutical companies to get lower drug prices and therefore is in a better position to provide more extensive coverage for the veterans as a consequence? But on the Medicare for our seniors--I remember the Senator opposing that provision so strongly here on the floor--it is prohibited that Medicare enter into this bargaining with the pharmaceutical companies, bulk purchasing, in order to get lower prices on the drugs?

Ms. STABENOW. The Senator is absolutely correct. We have the model. It is the VA. They have done it very well. They have been able to get a better deal, anywhere from a 35-percent to a 40-percent lower price because they negotiate prices. I don't know anywhere else in the Federal Government where we are not trying to get the best price, where we are not trying to negotiate, except in the area of prescription drugs, except in the area of lifesaving medicine where somebody may need it or they may not be able to live or may not be able to treat their symptoms for high blood pressure or diabetes or get their heart medicine or get their cancer medicine--except in the area that is lifesaving.

Even with the VA, which does a marvelous job in negotiating prices, we are able to do that in every area except Medicare--Medicare, the health care system for older Americans and the disabled. It is the only place where the decision was made to go with the drug companies rather than to go with the people who are on Medicare.

There are so many areas in health care costs we should be addressing--health IT, bringing down the cost of prescription drugs with the use of generic drugs, addressing the issue of health care costs. Senator Durbin and Senator Lincoln have a very important proposal that would allow small businesses to pool together nationally and to be able to have a pool--whether it is Blue Cross, whether it is other private insurance, whether it is HMOs--be able to pool together to get the best price. That came to the floor and was voted down.

I have legislation that would provide a catastrophic tax credit for our manufacturers. We know about 1 percent of employees in a business will be seriously ill during the year, but it is 20 to 25 percent of the cost of the health care paid during that year. We could take a major step forward if we provided a tax credit for catastrophic costs to help our manufacturers and our businesses.

This is not rocket science. It is about having the political will and the right values and the right priorities. This has not happened here, and every day people continue to struggle with their health care. Too many people end up in emergency rooms where we pay twice as much because they are sicker than they should be and they are not getting the care at the time they should be getting it. They get treated. The hospital, of course, does the treatment, as it should. Then the costs roll over onto everybody with insurance. That is why we pay so much for health care, and we in the Senate should be focusing on this as a No. 1 priority.

I mentioned college tuition before. Right when we need to be focusing on more opportunity for people in a changing economy--we all talk about education all the time--what happens here? Right before Christmas, we had the largest cut in student loans in the history of the country, $12 billion. For everybody who had to refinance their loan by July 1 and saw their interest rate go up, it was as a result of that.

Then, on top of that, we see the President proposed the largest cut in education for next year, the largest ever proposed since the Department of Education was established. Who would believe that at this time, in a global economy, that we ought to be proposing and passing the largest cuts ever suggested for education? These are the wrong priorities and the wrong direction.

And then, certainly, time and time again, we have tried to pass a minimum wage bill that truly raises the minimum wage for everyone. It is something that makes sense. It is something where workers in every State will find that their minimum wage will be raised.

Let me just say that I see our distinguished colleague here, Senator Reed, who has played such a distinguished role on economic issues, and I will yield to him to speak in just a moment, but when you look at the numbers and you look at what is happening to families across this country, we need a new direction. We need a new direction. We need to create a new set of priorities based on a different set of values that put Americans first--American businesses and American workers.

What I see happening in this country is a willingness by the President and those in charge of Congress to accept a race to the bottom in a global economy. Too many workers in my State have been told: If you only work for less, pay more in health care, and lose your pension, we can be successful. That is a lose-lose strategy. First of all, there is always going to be somebody in another country who can work for less.

I don't want to win that race. Nobody in Michigan is interested in winning a race to the bottom. What we understand is that we need to do what America does best, which is make this a race to the top. In order to make it a race to the top, we have to have a level playing field on trade. We can compete with anybody if the rules are fair, if it is a level playing field. We have to change the way we fund health care and address health care costs for businesses and families. We have to change. We have to start passing legislation that addresses health care in a positive way, to truly bring down costs, not just shift them around but bring down costs in a real way and make health care available and affordable and support businesses and families.

We have to continue to say we are going to protect pensions. We did make a step forward in that area, and I am proud that we did that together.

Then we have to race like crazy on education and innovation. That is what we do in America. Let's race up. Let's make every other country race to keep up with us. Let's be the ones who are continuing to invest in education, in opportunity for every child, in opportunities for everybody to be able to go to college and focus on areas of math and science and technology and engineering and all of those things we need to do to make it a race up, areas of health research, creating new opportunities and new discoveries. That is what we do in America. That is what we have always done in America. But we have seen in the last 6 years a willingness to put that all aside for other priorities, put that all aside and make this a race to the bottom. That is not good enough.

We believe in a race to the top, and we know that is going to take a new direction. It is going to take a different set of priorities. It is going to take a different set of values to do that. But in a global economy, if we are going to keep our middle class, we have to do that.

We are in a fight for our way of life in this country. It is not going to do any good if a few people have a lot of money if the average person has no money in their pocket to be able to buy that house, that car, send the kids to college, get the boat, and be able to enjoy the beautiful lakes in Michigan, be able to buy their medication. It is not going to matter if everybody is being asked to race to the bottom.

So I am hopeful--in fact, insistent--that we turn things around. America can do better. We need a new direction. We need a race to the top. We can do this. It just takes people who get it, people who get it to be in charge with the right values and the right priorities, and Americans are expecting that to happen. In fact, they are tired of waiting for it to happen. And so am I.

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