NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2010 -- (Senate - July 16, 2009)
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HIGHWAY INVESTMENT PROTECTION ACT
Mr. VITTER. Mr. President, in September of this year, just a couple of months away, the highway bill--the program under which we build bridges and roads and highways around the country--is set to expire. Even more worrisome, in August of this year--next month--the highway trust fund, which funds all of that activity, is scheduled to run out of money. So I think--I hope--there is a broad consensus here that we need to act to continue the ongoing highway program. To not act--to allow the highway trust fund to run out of money, to allow the highway program to end--would be an enormous antistimulus for the economy because a lot of significant, productive infrastructure spending and activity would just stop overnight.
So we must act, and I believe everyone acknowledges that. What I am concerned about is that we are going to go right up to the eleventh hour, to the precipice, and then we are going to be given one choice, and one choice only, here on the floor of the Senate, rather than have a calm and reasoned debate about the best way to act and the best way to pay for that. So I strongly urge the Senate to take up this matter sooner rather than later and to consider all of the reasonable and all of the available options.
As I understand it, the Obama administration will propose an 18-month extension of the current highway program, and I have absolutely no problem with that. I plan to support that. The key issue in my mind is how we pay for that extension, how we replenish the trust fund, at least for the next 18 months. We faced this shortfall late last year, and unfortunately there was no good idea, no option presented except to spend more money--borrowed money--and increase the debt to keep that trust fund going.
I suggest that with our debt rising so dramatically, with all of the actions this Congress has taken--the stimulus, the budget that doubles the debt in 5 years and triples it in 10--we need a better solution than merely to print more money or borrow more money from the Chinese. That is why I have introduced my proposal, S. 1344. That bill specifically is called the Highway Investment Protection Act. It would extend and reauthorize the highway program for an initial 18 months, and it would fund that out of existing stimulus dollars which have already been appropriated.
Some may ask: What is the point of that? The point is real simple. If we use existing, already appropriated stimulus dollars, we are not borrowing more money, we are not printing more money, we are not borrowing more money from the Chinese, and we are not yet again increasing the deficit and increasing the debt. That is very important. We are also not increasing taxes, which is a horrible thing to do, particularly in the middle of a very serious recession.
One of the clear lessons from the Great Depression is the things you don't do, which, unfortunately, leaders back then did, in some cases. One of the things you don't do is to increase taxes, which made the Depression far worse and far longer in duration than it otherwise needed to be.
So this program doesn't print more money, it doesn't borrow yet more from the Chinese, and it doesn't raise taxes. That is the great advantage of it.
In addition, it is specifically structured to give maximum flexibility to the Obama administration in terms of where to find those stimulus dollars. So we don't say specifically take it from this account, which they may favor; take it from that account, which they may prefer. We give the Obama administration maximum flexibility. And I think virtually everyone acknowledges that at the end of the day, when the entire $800-plus billion stimulus program is worked through, there will be over this amount of money that remains unspent and unobligated. There will be more than what is required for the next 18 months for the highway trust fund--about $20 billion--which cannot be spent out of the stimulus anyway. So this is simply capturing that money and using it to extend this vital highway program and this important infrastructure spending.
Several months ago, when we debated the stimulus here on the floor of the Senate, there were many of us--Democrats and Republicans alike--who wanted more infrastructure spending, more highway spending in the stimulus. It is very clear from every poll that was published that the American people felt that way. One of the absolute top categories of stimulus spending money the American people supported was highway construction--roads, bridges, highways. So this is very consistent with the idea of a broad-based stimulus program. It is not inconsistent with that at all.
Again, the alternatives are to simply move money from the general fund. That means we are borrowing more money from the Chinese or whomever--in a sense, printing more money--or there may be a proposal to increase taxes to pay for it, which I believe, no matter what the source, is a very bad idea in the middle of a serious recession. That is very antigrowth.
My fear is that given our very constricted busy schedule between now and the August recess, this matter is going to be pushed to the very end, right before we are set to leave for the August recess, and there will be one alternative and one alternative only: Just print more money. Just borrow more from the Chinese. My fear is there is going to be an attempt to rush that through the Senate, and I don't think that is the way to get the best result and the most consensual result on this important issue.
I propose we think about this now, sooner rather than later. I propose we discuss all the reasonable alternatives and certainly look at the very commonsense alternative of using already appropriated stimulus dollars--again, no new debt, no new spending; use what has already been appropriated in the stimulus; give the administration maximum flexibility in terms of how to do that.
Finally, I would also point out that the bill is drafted very carefully, so that within these 18 months, if the Congress were to enact a new highway reauthorization program, a new multiyear program, this extension would automatically dissolve and go away and this money from the stimulus would automatically stop and whatever the provisions of that new multiyear highway bill would be would come into full force and effect. I urge all my colleagues--Democrats and Republicans--to consider this commonsense approach.
In that vein, I would like to propound a unanimous consent request.
UNANIMOUS CONSENT REQUEST--S. 1344
I ask unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to the immediate consideration of S. 1344, a bill to use stimulus funds to protect the solvency of the highway trust fund; and I ask unanimous consent that the technical amendment at the desk be agreed to; the bill as amended be read a third time and passed, the motion to reconsider be laid upon the table, and that any statements relating to the bill appear at this point in the Record.
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Mr. VITTER. Mr. President, in closing, let me say that I think it is unfortunate we don't take up this serious matter next after the Defense authorization bill and that we don't take it up in plenty of time to look at all of the reasonable alternatives.
I hope when we finally take it up, it isn't in a mad dash to the August recess; that it isn't under all of the normal artificial pressure that is built up where we must act in the next few hours and we have one choice and one choice only. We have heard all that before. We have heard it before when we were forced into quick consideration of the bailouts. We heard it about the stimulus. Now we are hearing it about health care.
Let's try to do some things right and not just quick. This has to be done before the August recess because the highway trust fund will run out of money during the August recess. So let's take this up sooner rather than later.
Let's take this up right after the current Defense authorization bill on the floor is dealt with and look at all the available alternatives, including using stimulus funds already appropriated so we don't raise taxes in the middle of a recession, so we don't increase the debt and so that we don't borrow more money from the Chinese and print more dollar bills. The American people are very fearful of that growing trend.
With that, I yield the floor.
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