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Public Statements

Debt Ceiling Limit Talks

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. TONKO. Mr. Speaker, this evening it is my pleasure to initiate discussion as to the events here in Washington as they affect our debt ceiling limit.

There is much attention being paid to the efforts for America to pay her bills, and obviously America's working families understand what it's all about. They understand that you work hard, you roll up your sleeves, you make ends meet, and you pay your bills on time.

Well, the concern we have today is that as we attempt to get that phenomenon done--as we have many times over the last several years--the bills have been rung up, perhaps by those Members of Congress before us and by administrations before us; but nonetheless, they are bills that need to be paid. And as we go forward, I think it's important for us to recognize that the honorable thing to do is to acknowledge that we need to pay those bills so as not to accrue additional interest charges, pay them as soon as we can, and make certain that we don't draw all sorts of havoc and damage to the American economy and perhaps the international economy as we move forward with the saga of being able to pay our bills with a debt ceiling limit being addressed.

Now, many Presidents have asked for this opportunity so as to be responsible in their administrative role, in their executive role. This President has now been addressing this issue. And we have brought in discussion to enable to authorize that debt ceiling limit being adjusted, that it should be accompanied by spending cuts. And so it has created a certain give and take, a tug of war, so to speak, here in Washington to enable us to pay those bills and have the ceiling limit addressed.

An agenda is being attached that would include spending cuts, spending cuts that in some ways can devastate the working families of this Nation, an assault on many of the needs that they have.

There is, with the Ryan plan--that now has become the ``Republican plan,'' as it has been passed by this House--would address Medicare as we know it. It would end Medicare, a program that was initiated back in 1965, took hold about 45 years ago in 1966, and has addressed the economic vitality of many senior households since that time.

Prior to that legislation for Medicare, many of the seniors were victimized, not being able to access that sort of care, not having the health care plans they required. The industry would cherry pick; they would take certain elements of a senior population that were a safer risk, an easier risk. And when it came to affordability, again, a drain on the economic vitality of retirees. Those who would retire at a certain level of economic viability would have that situation dip southward as their medical costs would drain those retirement savings.

And so history has shown that that economic vitality of our senior community has stayed more constant, more durable since the time of Medicare. It has enabled a cushion, a security to be there for our senior population so as they advanced into their golden years, they would have that coverage that was so essential.

There is this correlation of the need for health care with growing older. That's easily understood. And so what we needed was a plan that would provide security and stability, and we found it, and the Nation celebrated in bipartisan fashion. And for decades we have improved the system and addressed it so as to meet the needs of our Nation's seniors.

And now, as we look to address a debt ceiling limit, discussions have brought in a cutting services agenda where we are going to deny certain programs, amongst them Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid being reduced, programs that speak to core needs--Pell Grants for higher education, education aid and Head Start for our youngsters, the workforce of the future. A number of issues under attack, an assault on the middle class, programs that are required for working families, for their children, for seniors, for veterans, for establishment of jobs.

To create a jobs agenda, we need oftentimes to invest. Also at a time when we're asked to invest in a clean energy and innovation economy because there is a global sweepstakes going on amongst the world nations to compete for clean energy with investments that are required for R&D, and you name it, so as to develop that soundness of an agenda and create jobs here, utilizing and embracing the American intellect.

So all of that is put at risk by this frenzy to have spending cuts while we authorize this debt ceiling limit, which allows us, authorizes us to pay our bills, has the executive branch pay its bills, has this country pay its bills, as the President has suggested time and time again.

But the outcome is that many are thinking this is giving us new authorization to spend when in fact it covers the bills of the past. And to accompany their vote here, they would want spending cuts. And so Medicare has been on that block; it has been on that chopping block, and many of my colleagues are concerned about that.

We're joined tonight by my colleague from California, who represents, I believe, the 32nd District of the State of California, Representative Judy Chu, who has been outspoken in her defense of maintaining the Medicare program, improving it, strengthening it, providing greater opportunity for generations of seniors yet to come, and not ending it. Ending Medicare would be a torturous thought for many out there. And there are those who defend the program here in the House, amongst them Representative Judy Chu.

Representative Chu, thank you for joining us this evening, and I welcome your thoughts on where we're at as we address these debt ceiling limit negotiations and now having these demands of spending cuts put upon us that could impact the senior population via the end to Medicare.


Mr. TONKO. Representative Chu, you raised an interesting fact with the end to Medicare proposed by the Republicans in the House. The cost shifting that takes hold, it's about a two-thirds/one-third split today. And the out-of-pocket expenses to a senior at times--as you pointed out, $19,000 as an average income--even those out-of-pockets for the one-third today can be rather demanding. But to shift that now to flip it to one-third/two-thirds, where 32 cents on the dollar would be what you're provided with your voucher--as you suggested, through the course of time, it will not reflect accurately well enough the growth in health care costs because they don't index it correctly.

So you start with a one-third burden of what government will contribute. That means 68 cents out of pocket for seniors. I don't know how they would afford it. I represent a disproportionately high number of senior citizens in the 21st Congressional District in New York State. This would be a drain on many households. And when we see the costs that some of them would have to absorb, with pharmaceutical costs that enable them to either recover or at least live in some sort of dignified manner, it is really a strong concern.

And for the groups who are proposing this to have the audacity to suggest that it's what Congress gets--when Congress is getting 72 cents, I believe, on the dollar for their health care coverage, so for every dollar of premium that they pay, 72 cents is covered, as opposed to the 32 cents they would have go the way of senior citizens--nothing could be farther from factual than what they portray here. So this is a cost shifting that is a very painful measure.

We've had a program that's worked so well that seniors in my district say, Hands off my Medicare. Hands off the Medicare. If you want to do anything, make it even stronger. Protect that Medicare program. But that, for 45 years, has worked so well and has worked in a way that has addressed the dignity of seniors in their retirement years. So Representative Chu, we thank you for your participation here this evening.

We've been joined by another colleague, from the State of Maryland, Donna Edwards. I believe it's Maryland's Fourth District, Representative Edwards?


Mr. TONKO. Representative Edwards, when you talk about this debt, I think we need to state too very clearly that these were off-budget. All of these tax cuts, the wars during those Bush years were paid for by borrowing, and we borrowed from China and other nations totally to pay for this because they were totally off-budget. So people need to know, this debt ceiling limit authorization is to pay for bills that have accrued from decisions made in administrations prior to this and perhaps sessions of Congress that came far before the 112th session of Congress. So it is an authorization to pay bills. And in order to get that approval, there are many who are suggesting we have to cut spending, including ending Medicare.


Mr. TONKO. Again, if you would suffer an interruption, when we talk about the beginning days of Medicare, the propensity to do something then would become the same cause today, because people were being impacted by cherry picking, by unaffordable rates, by inaccessible outcomes, where there was absolutely no desire to write a policy for some. And as we look at that age curve rise exponentially, I mean the life expectancy, I believe, in 1965 was 70 years of age. That has grown tremendously. And so now you are going to have more and more people living longer, and we need to help strengthen Medicare. But to end it at a time when people would go back to this rat race of trying to find someone to cover you, it puts the insurance company back in the driver's seat. Seniors would have precious little control over their destiny.

And what I think can be documented clearly from that time in 1965, 1966 is that the economic vitality of senior households, that durability of their income status was held harmless with Medicare. And it used to dip south because health care costs would drain those retirement incomes in some format that would really impoverish our senior community. We're going to head back into the disaster of pre-1965.


Mr. TONKO. Absolutely. Representative Edwards, you struck on a chord that is just repeated over and over again in my district. Many thought, well, if the seniors are told that this will affect senior communities into the future, that they will get buy-in from today's senior citizens. I am impressed with the very generous statements made, the advocacy embraced by our senior community of today saying, This has served me so well, I don't want it denied my children or my grandchildren.

And as you pointed out, you know, a 54-year-old of today will have to save about $182,000 out of her or his pocket in order to pick up the slack that would be part of this shop on your own, you know, putting the insurance companies back into control. The senior's going to get a voucher that covers a third of the costs that they need to have health care coverage and then dig into their pockets for the rest. So that means a 54-year-old of today will have to save $182,000, but then the 30-year-old will have to save $400,000.

Where are we going with this? This is all to cut a program that has served, with dignity, the senior community of this country, all to pay for the Bush-era tax cuts. So this is a way of sliding savings by ending Medicare and bringing it over to pay for millionaire and billionaire tax cuts and for subsidies to oil companies. This is as vulgar as it can get.

And to attach this to a discussion on debt limit, where we look for authorization to pay our bills, just like America's working families roll up their sleeves, earn that money and pay their bills, they expect the government to do the same thing. And to play a game on Medicare where you deny access and affordability for a basic core human need after a record of tremendous performance since 1966 is, I think, so objectionable that it's no wonder when we go home, when you go to Maryland, when I go back to upstate New York, people are saying, Hands off my Medicare.


Mr. TONKO. Very well said, Representative Edwards, and I just want to attach my comments to yours about the impact of Medicare, an investment that has produced a lucrative dividend. We have kept the dignity factor alive for seniors, we have kept our seniors well, we have enabled them to recover, we have enabled to them to live because of an attachment to our health care plan.

On the other side, we have allowed for spending for a tax cut for millionaires and billionaires, spending on a tax cut for millionaires and billionaires time and time again, knowing that the result is no real lucrative dividend, negligible. We look at not only the spending that people acknowledge was okay for something not returning a dividend, we lost 8.2 million jobs in the Bush recession, but then we borrowed all the money to spend, needed to spend, for that tax cut.

What a contrast. And the Democrats in this House have said, no, let's do programs that have a return. Let's invest in our senior community and let's not spend on these tax cuts that have no dividend, no lucrative dividend.

And if we didn't have the money to spend for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, why then did we go and borrow from China and Saudi Arabia?

So it makes very little sense to follow that road to ruin which the Republican plan, once the Ryan plan, now speaks to.

We have been joined by Representative Jackson Lee from the State of Texas. Welcome, Representative, and thank you for joining in the discussion on the attempts here to end Medicare and to allow for those savings to go toward spending on tax cuts that get somehow attached to a discussion on the debt ceiling, the debt ceiling being raised so that America can pay her bills. It's convoluted at best.


Mr. TONKO. Well said, Representative Jackson Lee.

You know, for us to now quickly approach this deadline by which the debt ceiling has to be raised and to put the added pressure of ending Medicare into that discussion is vulgar.

Forty-six million Americans are watching this. And they know that they're at risk here simply because people want to unnecessarily attach the end of Medicare into this discussion. And as Representative Edwards said earlier, we've improved it with the Affordable Care Act, we've allowed for no deductibles, no copayments for annual checkups and for certain screenings. We're making it stronger. We're trying to get prevention in there to bend that cost curve. Many of us are looking to allow for bulk purchasing of pharmaceuticals, which we do with Medicaid and we do with the VA program. But it was not allowed when the Bush agenda was authorized.

Representative Edwards, that chart that you're holding there tonight is still haunting me because I look at all of that debt that was assumed for tax cuts for millionaires that now they want to do again, continue forward, and I look at the wars that were not paid for, I look at the, again, the Medicare part D program that was part of that growth of debt that we're now being asked to pay as the bills have accrued, the interest that we would have to pay if we don't raise that debt ceiling is astronomical.

So, again, we welcome you to the floor this evening on a very important discussion. And your thoughts. You were going into the concerns about Medicare being ended for those that count on you to be their voice here in the House.


Mr. TONKO. Congresswoman Edwards and Congresswoman Jackson Lee, I would say, too, that Medicare, yes, speaks to the health care needs of senior households, but there's also a stability there. There's a security so that some of the available expenditures that are out there today from seniors investing in their community, spending in their community, would be lost. And so the economic recovery, then, again, gets threatened.

And when I look at this, all through that blob of color of which you speak, all during that time was like a loss of 8.2 million jobs. So where was the quantifiable benefit of all of this relief to those perched way high on the income ladder? There wasn't a corresponding benefit. So we need to recognize what works and works well. And when Medicare has worked for all these years, why would we threaten it? And what I think bothers me most--I'm on the Budget Committee, and today we had a hearing with Secretary Sebelius. And when you talk about bending that health care cost curve, the Republican plan, after they end Medicare and they toss it to the market for the shopping to be done by our senior community, there's no bending of the cost curve. They're saying sharpen the pencil, bottom-line benefit through competition to help our seniors.

We have watched, Representative Jackson Lee, since the start of Medicare the private sector insurance costs have risen by over 5,000 percent, that's 5,000 percent. The track record on Medicare, no administrative burden to speak of--no heavy one--no marketing budget, no wasteful expenditures and no high profit columns, we've seen back-to-back profit columns go out of sight for these industries. And when we look at this, when we say we need to go to the bank to borrow, that's helping the friends in the big bank industry. When we need to put it in the private sector and end Medicare, that's helping the deep pockets of the insurance industry. This is like helping those who are looking for more business at the expense of containing costs, bending a health care curve, providing for dignity for the senior community and shedding a program that has worked for nearly half a century and that people have advocated should be there for their children and their grandchildren and generations yet unborn. That is uniquely American. That's uniquely American. It shows and expresses a degree of sensitivity, of compassion and of ability to make things happen.

A budget, a plan that we put together here is merely a listing of our priorities. What do we deem most essential? And when you can reach 46 million, 47 million people in their golden years and provide guaranteed health care, that ought to be a high priority, not taking the savings of ending Medicare to pay for millionaire tax cuts, billionaire tax cuts, or oil industry handouts. Let's get real. Let's get real here. Let's get compassionate. Let's be understanding that what we're ending has a tremendously sound bit of history.


Mr. TONKO. The Representative from Texas talked about strengthening and improving Medicare, not ending it.

Some have suggested as much as $156 billion could be saved by bulk purchasing for our pharmaceutical needs for the program, for Medicare. That also is a savings of probably, I think I've heard, $27 billion as the number for seniors, themselves, because there is a fraction that they assume in those costs. If we do that, we send over not only the savings for government but we send it over to the senior community, also. And so there are ways to address fraud and inefficiency.

The New York Times reported just a short while ago that there were double chest CT scans being done, CT chest scans being done and that the Federal Government was overbilled by some $25 million. That's one small example of accountability, or lack thereof, and the need to continually stay vigilant in our efforts to search out fraud and inefficiency.

But take it, make it work, strengthen it and provide for that continuation, just the stability that we can provide to enable seniors to breathe more easily, to know that a basic core need for them that's correlated as they grow older, as any of us grows older, it's correlated that you're going to require that health care attachment.

And how dare we--I say ``we''--how dare they, how dare a Republican majority in this House suggest it's worked well, it's been there for seniors for 46 years, but we're ending it, because we're going to box the situation: if you want your debt ceiling limit to be raised so America can pay her bills, you're going to do it with spending cuts and we're starting with Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid.

Well, isn't that nice? That's a take-it-and-weep scenario, and that is terrible because the people that would weep deserve our voice to be heard resoundingly on the floor, to say we step in and we defend the program and, more importantly, we defend the recipients of the program.


Mr. TONKO. Very well said.

We have about 5 minutes left. I'm just going to do a bit of close and then ask for each of our Representatives that remain here on the floor--we were joined earlier by Representative Chu from California--to offer your sentiments, and then we will bring the hour to a close.

What I think is very important to note is that if we can find ways to save on Medicare, we should invest that in Medicare to strengthen Medicare. If we can find ways to save in Social Security, reinvest in Social Security. They deserve to be stand-alones because they are prime, prime opportunities, programs for strengthening the fabric of America's families. So that should be a separate turf and not be using these dollars, these savings as the Republicans would end Medicare, to somehow

bring that over in a fungible fashion to pay for these tax cuts.

Today, I talked to my medical colleges, and they are going to get impacted by the cuts to NIH. In New York State, we probably have over a billion dollars in revenue streams that go to hospitals for research. So you cut the NIH program, you put more people out of work, and you cut a revenue stream for hospitals that need to train the human infrastructure that will make all of our health care programs work. Similarly, when you look at our need to compete effectively in a global economy on clean energy and innovation, the winner of that race will be the go-to nation that will create stability for generations of their workers. Why shouldn't America be number one in that investment?

If we can find savings somewhere or if we do create revenues, they need to go into investments to grow jobs. That's what America told us at the polls last November: we want jobs to be the number one priority. We haven't done a jobs bill in this House; but we've come up and found ways to end Medicare, which right now is so vulnerable to this discussion on the debt ceiling limit. We have to end that crazy plan, and we need to go forward with a sensible plan that enables us to invest in jobs, invest in our senior community, invest in their well-being and to again see these two programs worthy of saving and strengthening; and if we have the economic means, let's do it.


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