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Press Conference With Senator Tom Coburn On The Economic Recovery And Reinvestment Act

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. KYL: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us. I think we'll have some additional members of the Republican conference join us in just a moment.

We've had several get-togethers and talked about the position on the stimulus package and I wanted to -- we wanted to share some of our views with you today.

The first thing I want to say is that I think all of us appreciated the effort of the president to join us at lunch. He joined the Republican members of the House for lunch as well this week. And his attempt to reach out to us, I think, is very well received. I'm not sure he had that same lunch with his Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate, though. It doesn't appear that they have been interested in the same kind of bipartisan outreach that the president was.

Also, at the outset, I don't think any of us are of the view that we should not act in important ways to deal with the economic crisis that is upon us. That's not the question, although sometimes our Democratic friends like to present the false choice: Well, we can't do nothing. Of course.

Nobody's proposing that.

The question is, what do you do that will work to help to create jobs and help families that need help in this economic crisis? That's where the debate has been.

And Republicans have appreciated the president's outreach to present ideas, but we are too often met with this response: We won, and therefore we're going to do it our way. Speaker Pelosi: We wrote it. We won.

That's true, and they can do that if they want to. They can cram down a stimulus package without Republican support, but if that happens, then when, as we believe, in six months or so, when the American people say, "Wait a minute. We're not better off. In fact, we're worse off than we were six months ago. Who was responsible for this, and what can be done to fix it," Republican then are going to be in the position to say we didn't have the input into this that we needed, and that's why it hasn't worked. The problem is, nobody's a winner, because all of us lose if this package is not successful.

So it's a bittersweet thing to say at that point. We'd rather have the input now, to make sure that this package works.

One of the results of yesterday's vote in the House -- as you know, it was a bipartisan negative vote -- is that it is clear in the House, in any event, there's not going to be Republican input. How about the Senate? Well, there have been two committee meetings, the Appropriations Committee and the Finance Committee, in which I sit. Not a single one of our amendments was voted up. Every one was rejected -- so essentially no changes as a result of those two markups on the bill that will come to the Senate floor next week.

And if the so-called Ledbetter legislation of last week, the legislation that's on the floor right now dealing with SCHIP are any indication, we'll get votes on amendments, they'll all lose, and the bill will then pass, and we end up with a totally partisan package. I don't think that's what the president had in mind when he talked about putting legislation together in a bipartisan way.

Final point I'd like to make. Some Democrats say: Well, you should like it, Republicans, because, after all, a third of it is tax cut -- used to be 40 percent; I think it's probably closer to a quarter of what they call tax cuts.

But Abraham Lincoln had a famous saying. If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? Four. Calling it a leg doesn't make it a leg. And calling a rebate to people who don't pay income taxes a tax cut doesn't make it a tax cut.

So don't try to define the term in a way that's not appropriate.

Even if it were, it didn't work last time, and it's not going to work this time. So just because you call something a tax cut in this bill shouldn't mean that Republicans have to say, "Gee, we think that's wonderful."

As I read it, there are only about $20 billion worth of legitimate, job-creating tax cuts in the legislation. It's a good little, teeny start on the problem that we all understand is there.

So we have ideas that will really create jobs and help people and help get the economy moving again. We've been rejected in our attempts to get those considered. And if there is not a change in attitude as this legislation moves forward, unfortunately, it's the American people that are going to suffer from the Democrats' partisanship on this important issue.

And I think Senator Inhofe was going to leave quickly, and so let me call on him next.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R-OK): Well, yes, basically, I had a couple of disappointments here. First of all, I thought this might be an opportunity to do something about infrastructure in America -- providing the jobs, getting these things done -- only to find out that only $30 billion out of $880 billion is going to roads and construction. That's something that -- we could have -- had an opportunity here to put a larger percentage there, at least 10 percent of the total amount, and get something done that's meaningful.

Secondly, we know what stimulation is. We know what works. John Kennedy did it. It worked. Ronald Reagan did it. It worked. This -- those elements are not in this bill.

And thirdly, just the amount. I think it's important that people understand, today the president said, quote, "Most of the money we're investing as a part of this plan will get out the door immediately, generating or saving three to four million new jobs." If you do the math, that comes out to $295,000 a job. And it also comes out to, from everyone who files a tax return, $7,700. So it's a very significant thing that people need to understand.

SEN. KYL: Bob? Yeah, just go ahead.

SEN. BENNETT: We should all remember that the crisis is real. This is a recession that will be the deepest and the longest that we have had since the Second World War. And we need to act as responsibly as we possibly can, to deal with it. Republicans need to remember that, as well as Democrats.

Facing that serious crisis, we need to put aside partisanship and look at what works. And we have a very, very clear model, because we passed a stimulus package in the last Congress.

Bipartisan: Republicans voted for it; Democrats voted for it. It didn't work. And one of the reasons it didn't work is because it wasn't focused enough on the real problems that we face.

It was based on economic analysis, of past recessions and past problems, and not the depth and seriousness of this one. And as has been said, much of what is in this package is simply more of what happened a year ago that didn't work.

We saw, if you've seen the charts, personal incomes spike up as a result of the stimulus we put into the economy. And the economy was stimulated not at all. Why? Because the crisis extends beyond government.

Individuals are having economic crises. And when you have an economic crisis, whether you're a company like General Motors or a bank like Citi or an individual, you do what you can to reduce your debt, to pay down your obligations. And that's what was done with the last stimulus package.

People acted very rationally. They paid down their individual debt. That's a good thing for them. But they didn't take the money and go out and buy a car. They didn't take the money and go out and consume, which had been the pattern in some previous recessions. This one is so deep and so strong that it -- the past prescription did not work with this patient.

My objection to what the Democrats are proposing, in the Senate, has nothing whatever to do with a desire, on the part of Republicans, to see anything fail. It has nothing to do with the idea that we might get some political advantage if Obama stumbles.

As an American, I want to see the right thing done, regardless of who gets the political credit. I'm going to vote against this package, because it's not going to work. It needs to be refashioned around the realities of this problem and not simply recycling the theories of past problems.

And I hope everyone, between now and the time when the Senate finally votes on it, will come to that understanding and sit down, regardless of their political position, and say, what can we do that can work in this situation, even if it violates past doctrine with respect to previously-held positions. The country requires that we do that, because the situation is just that serious.

Thank you.

SEN. SESSIONS: There is a growing and grim recognition, I believe, within our conference that there's very little likelihood of a significant change in this colossal spending bill. As such, we are -- I believe, will rally and point out the failures in it. We're talking about the largest spending bill in the history of the republic, when the $347 billion in interest this bill alone will cost the taxpayers of American over the next 10 years, it amounts to a $1.2 trillion spending package and cost to the taxpayer. We've never ever had anything of that size before in our country's history.

And as you've heard and will hear from others as the weeks go by and these 300 economists who signed a statement opposing it, it's not a principled, effective way to spend this money to get the kind of stimulus that we would like to have. There are things that I can support in a stimulus package and will. There are some things in a stimulus package I might have doubts about but I could still support and go along with. But this kind of package at this size and this scope is just unthinkable for us at this time.

I just believe that -- I hoped and thought that we may reach some compromises. But I think the reality today is, based on the Finance Committee, based on the Appropriations Committee in the Senate, based on the House vote, there's very little likelihood that we'll have a substantial change and so we need to resist this package with every strength that we have. Indeed, the financial soul of this country may be at stake.

SEN. WICKER: I think Senator Jim Bunning and I want to follow along with Senator Sessions' reference to the 315 leading economists who have now subscribed to this ad in The Washington Post -- full-page ad today in The Washington Post -- that basically says, let's go slow on this. Let's -- government spending is not the way to improve economic performance. Lower tax rates and a reduction of the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth.

I was hoping that we could have a bipartisan economic stimulus package. Maybe we ought to be asking for a non-partisan economic stimulus package. As far as I know, these leading scholars and economists, now some 315 strong, including Nobel laureates, don't have a political agenda. I don't know what their political registration is. But they've said to the president, let's be careful about this. Let's get worried about the additional spending, and let's do something that will work.

I urge the president to call a meeting with leading economists such as these and get their views on what might work. I urge the president to call in economists on the other side of this issue. But let's be careful, and let's make sure that we're not making the situation worse in an attempt to make it better.

I want to quote someone who I believe is a Democrat -- at least, she worked in a Democrat administration. Alice Rivlin was President Bill Clinton's budget director, and she has urged stimulus proponents to wait on the longer-term transformative spending, to make sure it's done right. And I'm quoting the story. To quote Ms. Rivlin, "such a long-term investment program should not be put together hastily and lumped in with the anti-recession package. The elements of the investment program must be carefully planned" and will not -- "and will not create jobs right away." The risk, she says, is that the money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted.

Ladies and gentlemen, a trillion dollars is a terrible thing to waste. Let's take the time. Let's get the economists together. And let's make sure we're doing it right.

SEN. BUNNING: Just to add to what Roger has said, 300-plus economists; we don't know if they're Democrats or Republicans. But we do know that our attempts in committees, our attempt in the Finance Committee and our attempt in the Appropriations Committee, just to alter slightly some significant part of these -- of this stimulus package, have been rejected on a partisan vote almost every time, not exactly every time but almost every time.

And I think the message from the president was one thing. And I wish, as Jon said, he would have made the same speech to the Democrats in the Senate and the Democrats in the House. Maybe we could have come together.

We know. God, we know, we need a package of some sort, because I fear what's coming in six months to nine months, in this economy, if we don't stimulate it, because we're looking at rather than 9,000 on the Dow, we're looking at 6,000 on the Dow. And that is breathtaking to me, having worked 25 years in the brokerage business.

So please, we've got to go slow. And we cannot accept this current package as it's written.

SEN. : A couple of comments.

First of all, we have seen, when something is truly done in a bipartisan fashion, it's done from the beginning. You have Republicans and Democrats even ahead of the committee process. They sit down. They work things out. They exchange ideas.

Neither party has all the right answers. We understand that. That's why the president has set a bipartisan tone. He wants people with good ideas to come together.

When you shut one part out or the other, you end up with something that usually doesn't work. And that's where we are today, is we have a, quote, "stimulus package," and I put quotes around it, because many of us believe it may stimulate a few jobs here and there. But at what cost?

We cannot look just in the short term. Remember, the Depression lasted 10 years. Japan was -- they call it the lost decade, the 1990s in Japan, because they didn't fix it right. They didn't sit down and fix it right.

If we don't fix it right, we don't want to be here to rush something through in two to three weeks, to know that it didn't work and to know that it actually prolongs this deepening recession.

You know, the thing that we have to keep in mind out there is people are hurting. There's people losing jobs. There's people losing their homes. There's businesses that are closing. There's a lot of pain going on in America. And as leaders -- which is exactly what we should show, is leadership, and that means coming together to solve the country's problems.

So the ideas that we're going to bringing forward next week, we think, could dramatically improve the bill. We don't need to have everything the Republicans want, but we at least have to feel good enough that the bill actually will grow the economy, will create jobs, so -- and it's just not a massive spending bill that is actually going to create this huge interest payment that we all have to pay. It's like interest on your credit card. That's what we're doing, is we're running up the national credit card to where -- just like an individual family, if you run that up too much in the future, there's a lot of things you'll have to do without in the future. In this case, there may be spending priorities we'll have to do without and taxes will have to go up in the next few years to pay for this $1.2 trillion spending bill that is before us. So we urge caution.

Yes -- are we in trouble? Do we need to do something as quickly as possible? Yes. But when we do it too fast around here, that's when we get in trouble. And this bill is coming through in a partisan manner, and they're rushing it through because they have some false deadline that they have set, and we believe this is going to create some problems.

SEN. : Tell them how much a trillion-dollar is --

(Cross talk, laughter.)

SEN. : Yeah, let me just illustrate a little, just so people can kind of get their arms around what a trillion dollars is. If you took and started spending a million dollars a day and did it 365 days a year, to get to $1 trillion, you would have had to start spending that money when Jesus was born, spend it every day, and you still today would not be at your first trillion dollars. And this package is over a trillion dollars. We'd better be careful with this money.

SEN. : I want to just say one thing -- oh, I'm sorry. This is KBH from Texas --

Q That's what he wanted to say. (Laughter.)

SEN. : -- who looks very lovely.

SEN. HUTCHISON: Of all the introductions I've ever received, that was the most recent. (Chuckles.)

SEN. : Well, and this is my sport coat, and she just borrowed it for today.

SEN. HUTCHISON: Thank you all so much. I do think it is so important that we slow this bill down in order to do it right. We're talking about almost a trillion dollars.

And in the studies that I have seen lately of the Great Depression and the New Deal, it was shown that too much government money was spent and it probably delayed the ability to come back from the recession by as much as seven or eight years. We can look at the past and learn from it. This spending bill is too big and it's going in the wrong places for the immediate stimulus that we're all looking for. We all want stimulus.

Let's go to the heart of the problem: the housing industry and credit markets. If we can get money out into the system, into the small businesses so they can keep people working, so they can buy capital goods; if we can get people to be able to stay in their homes by working out mortgages, those are the things we should be focusing on rather than stimulus bills that are -- being said everywhere -- will not stimulate.

SEN. ROBERTS: Thank you. Very good.

One thing that I think is very important is that in all my public service, all the time I've had the privilege of public service, I know that your criteria -- "you" meaning the media, the press, the people who shine the light of truth into darkness -- always have a criteria yardstick on how much legislation people pass and that's a good thing.

Well, it is important to pass good legislation, especially now. We're in a crisis and we need a true stimulus. We don't need just a giant spending bill, but we do need a new stimulus. But it's equally important to prevent bad legislation from passing, and that's what I'm hearing from folks back home. I hear from folks back home in regards to the telephone calls, especially my 350 small bankers, who are worried to death about what is going on and the fact that we do not have any liquidity in the credit system yet and we haven't fixed the housing situation yet, but here we're going to spend a trillion dollars. Simply put, "shovel ready" in Washington is an entirely different meaning in Kansas.

Now, let me just say that we're going to create allegedly 3 million jobs. But we're also creating 600,000 government jobs -- so what is that, one in five -- to implement this 3 million jobs?

I don't -- I -- I don't think so. The bill that we did in the Finance Committee is 431 pages long. I don't know what number of pages is in the appropriations bill. That night we went to 9:30 or 10:00.

SEN. : (Off mike) -- you every time. (Laughs.)

SEN. ROBERTS: That night we went to about 9:30 or 10:00 at night. Not too many of you stayed up with us, but we had 15 amendments, and after five you probably left. Because exactly what happened was, it was like when somebody went to bat against Bunning: strike three.

I mean, it just -- it was not acrimonious; it was pleasant. But we knew that every amendment that came up -- a permanent tax credit, for instance -- on -- something that will really stimulate the economy went down. This has been a highly partisan exercise. This posse has left the -- you know, left the reservation and headed toward a box canyon.

I really wish that we could do exactly what the president said that he would try to do. And I really appreciate the president coming up. And he was very conciliatory. He understands this. I think he has a good grasp of it.

But we have been shut out. We have been shut out. And I don't think that's proper; I don't think that's the way to do this; I don't think that's the way that we're going to get an answer to the tremendous challenges that we face.

Thank you.

SEN. THUNE (?): Am I the only one left?

SEN. : Yes.

SEN. : (You're the man ?).

SEN. : Coburn's going to answer the questions.

SEN. THUNE: Okay. Well, I'm sure they -- everything's been covered.

But I just want to add that this stimulus proposal that has now passed in the House and is being -- as we contemplate taking it up next week in the Senate -- does represent the largest intergenerational transfer of debt in human history. We're talking about a trillion dollars, when you add in the interest associated with it -- over a trillion dollars.

And again, it's a -- it represents, in my view, business as usual in Washington. There's something in there for literally every interest. It's a pent-up wish list of spending programs that many around here have wanted to implement for a really long time. And it's not fair to future generations of Americans for the Congress to be acting on something under the guise of trying to do something about creating jobs in the economy while we borrow a trillion dollars from the next generation.

And it would be one thing if this truly were stimulus, if it really were about creating jobs, if it was going to be effective, if it was going to work. But we've seen lots of studies, including one by CBO, that suggest that much of this isn't going to get spent. Most of it's not going to get spent in the first year -- or in the second year, for that matter. And so it's hard to call it stimulus.

And I think that we can do better. Republicans will offer some amendments next week that focus on the issue of housing, which is what led us into this recession; we believe it'll largely lead us out -- which deals with tax relief for middle-income families and small businesses, which create two-thirds of the jobs in our economy. That's where this ought to rightly be focused.

And so we look forward to debating it. We think that the Democrats are wrong on this.

We appreciate the president in his willingness to express an openness and cooperation and bipartisanship. That was very much the message that he delivered the other day. But it's not being heard by congressional Democrats.

And what we're seeing -- what we saw in the House and are seeing in the Senate is an effort to just jam this thing through, without input from Republicans and without incorporating any ideas that we think are important, in terms of creating jobs.

And I notice even the rhetoric has changed now coming out of the White House. It's now about creating or saving jobs. At one time, it was going to create 3 million jobs. And they're not even adhering to that line anymore either.

So I look forward to the debate next week. And I and many of my colleagues are very interested in having an opportunity to put our ideas forward. But this particular proposal needs to be rejected.

(Cross talk.)

MR. : Any questions.

Q Do Senate Republicans believe philosophically that government spending can turn the economy around? Or is that just a fundamental, ideological difference?

SEN. COBURN: If you get a return on the investment, there's no question that you could invest in bridges, highways, military equipment, buildings, water projects. There's no question that can be stimulatory. So we don't -- we don't deny that. That's not what this bill is about.

This bill is about what President Obama calls countercyclical payments, 175 billion to the states. Well, if we're going to give the states 175 billion, let's loan it to them. We don't help them any by making them less efficient in managing their own budgets.

As I travel around Oklahoma, every city says, here's our list from the stimulus package. I mean, that's what's going on in the country. Everybody wants their share, whether it's going to help us or not. So I would say most of us agree that there are things that we can do that will truly stimulate the economy. But the vast majority of this bill is not that.

MR. : Bob Gates said there was about $69 billion worth of military --

(Cross talk.)

Secretary Gates said he needs just about $70 billion, in spending on the military, to upsize, to replace some things and to provide some new equipment, a lot of which really would put people to work. But I don't think that there's any of that in this legislation.

So the --

SEN. : (Off mike.)

SEN. COBURN: Four billion?

SEN. HUTCHISON: Right. We did have some.

SEN. COBURN: Okay. Great.

Q Senator Kyl, you've talked about -- your complaint seems to be with congressional Democrats. Have you talked to anybody at the White House and said, "Let's engage in some hard bargaining between Senate Republicans and the White House over the next few days"?

SEN. KYL: I think that the president and his chief advisers are well aware of the concerns that Republicans have. We've had the opportunity to express them. Much of what you heard today has been expressed to the president and his advisers.

Q Well, why not contact them and say, "Let's negotiate"?

SEN. KYL: I just said, virtually everything that you've heard here has been conveyed to the president and to his chief advisers.

Q I understand. But again, why not just call them and say, "Let's negotiate"?

SEN. KYL: I think what we were just saying is that we've had no opportunity, and if we're going to support it, that's what would be required. The president said he knew that it could be passed without Republican votes, but I think he said in the Senate he'd like to have -- or like to see 80 votes. And in order to do that, obviously you'll have to have key Republican concepts embedded in the legislation. Believe me, I know he's fully aware of what's in the legislation right now.

Q (Off mike) -- think that is, to achieve that for next week?

SEN. KYL: I'm sorry?

Q How likely do you think that is to achieve that next week, if you're going to vote on this? I mean, are you expecting an open amendment process, and ultimately will it pass?

SEN. KYL: At the risk of repeating almost every comment made here, the pattern seems to be clear; and the pattern does not suggest that Republicans are going to have receptivity to our ideas sufficient to cause sufficient Republican votes.

Q Senator, if this pattern continues in the next week, what method will you employ to block this bill?

SEN. KYL: Again, our effort is to try to see that the economy recovers, that people who are hurting are helped, that jobs are created, that small business, which creates most of the jobs, can get back on its feet again. We would like to participate in the process to see that happen. Whatever we can do, whether it's offering amendments, whether it's voting against the bill because it could not be amended, whatever parliamentary opportunities are available to us, we will explore, because this isn't about playing the game, this is about trying to do something that's good for the American people that six months from now we will have found worked.

(Cross talk.)

SEN. SESSIONS: Can I just say that I don't think the American people yet understand how colossal this legislation is? The debate next week and the days to come are going to be critical to informing them of that. And I think the ground may shift. I don't think the American people like this. I don't think they know how much is being spent and where it's all going to be spent. And I believe we'll have, after the ground shifts a bit for public opinion, I think we'll have an opportunity to maybe make some improvements. But just token changes, I don't believe, are going to be sufficient.

SEN. COBURN: Let me make one point. This is about spending money we don't have for things we don't need. That's 80 percent of this bill: spending money we don't have for things we don't need that will not stimulate the economy. That's what this bill is about. And that's why you're seeing such a reaction, because if we're going to spend the money, let's at least make sure that it accomplishes its purpose. And any of you that have studied this bill recognize that that is not in the works.

Q Senator Coburn, when is a trillion dollars okay or $800 billion? The same argument could be made for the war in Iraq, which has cost nearly as much. There weren't many objections to --

SEN. COBURN: I believe it's about half as much, which is not nearly as much.

Q It was about 600 --

SEN. COBURN: There's no question that we've spent -- and there's no question that that's money that we're obligated to spend. The question now is whether we spend money that will actually accomplish its purpose rather than spend money to accomplish a political purpose. What we all ought to be about is throw party politics away and start looking at the policies that will benefit this country in the next generation.

This bill is a generational theft bill. That's what it is. This is the general theft bill. It's denying the wealth of future generations for the way this bill's going to work.

SEN. BENNETT: I want to make this quick comment --

SEN. SESSIONS: Let me just say how big the bill is. This is a good indication on the enormity of --

SEN. BENNETT: Let me make this quick comment about the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was thoroughly debated in both houses over a significant period of time. It was approved in a bipartisan way, the initial decision, by a number of Republicans and Democrats. The subsequent appropriations all went through regular order, either in the form of an appropriations bill or a supplemental that was debated by both parties with full hearings and the complete institutional memory of the Congress applied to it, over a six-year period.

This bill has been put together within two weeks. Compare the amount of careful examination that went into those two expenditures.

(Cross talk.)

SEN. KYL: Last question. I have to run.


Q (Off mike.) Something you said earlier about the fact that in order to do this, you were going to need Republican ideas embedded in the legislation. When you hear Barack Obama -- (off mike) -- is there any argument? Actually what do you say to the argument by Democrats that Republican ideas were rejected in the last election?

SEN. KYL: I don't think that you can credibly argue that the debate that's going on right now, about what should be in the stimulus package, was ever part of the presidential debate between Senator McCain and Senator Obama.

This is a new problem. It came upon us rapidly in fact just before the election was held. And that was one of the criticisms for the TARP legislation that was passed. And to some extent, the speed with which that was done and the fallout from that could affect this as well.

I don't think any of us are saying we shouldn't quickly address the problem. But we are saying we need to get it right. And I think it would be very wrong to assume that the American people, in electing Barack Obama, were in any way expressing support for any of the particular provisions that are in this bill right now.

Thank you.

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