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Public Statements

Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution Relative to Requiring a Balanced Budget

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. President, I rise to speak in favor of legislation I have authored to amend the United States Constitution to require that Congress balance the Federal budget. The Senate's debate on the balanced budget amendment, which will occur over the next few days, is an incredibly important debate.

It is a debate that will spark a wide range of emotions and it will test our policies, goals, and philosophies. Thus, I want to recognize at the outset that we hold strong and differing opinions about the wisdom of adding a balanced budget amendment to our U.S. Constitution. Amending the Constitution is not something any of us in the Senate takes lightly. In fact, we have only amended our Constitution some 27 times in the history of our Nation. Our Founding Fathers in their wisdom designed the Constitution to discourage amendments. They created a high hurdle to clear before an amendment can be passed by the Congress and ratified by the States.

I intend today to make a case for why my proposal, which has been cosponsored by several of our colleagues, meets that elevated standard. Today I aim to explain why this balanced budget amendment will help restore the fiscal health of our Nation, protect our national security, and spur our future competitiveness in the global economic race.

Let me start by discussing some basic facts that color this debate. First, our government debt now totals over $15 trillion. That is $48,000 for every man, woman, and child in our country. Let me say that again: $48,000 for every man, woman, and child. Moreover, we borrow 40 cents of every dollar that the Federal Government spends. The total amount of public debt now held by us equals 68 percent, almost 69 percent, of our gross domestic product. That reflects a level rarely seen in our country's history.

Finally, in August of this year, one of the major credit agencies downgraded our Nation's credit rating because of Congress's inability to work in a bipartisan manner to reduce our debt. I don't think I have to tell the viewers that the last thing our struggling economy or job creation efforts needed was that downgrade. It is little wonder that Americans hold us in such low regard or that other countries wonder what we are doing in the Nation's Capitol.

I could go on and on, but I will not. These facts are appalling enough to most Americans. These are hard-working Americans who balance their checkbooks on a weekly and monthly basis. It is appalling to me that Congress is so unable to resist the temptation to spend without limit while also trying to keep taxes as low as possible. We have even been willing to watch the debt grow to a level where national security experts are telling us that our own self-created problem is a bigger threat than any of our enemies.

In the last several years Congress has taken steps to try to reach an agreement on how to reduce our deficit and pay down our debt. Many of us have spent countless hours working in bipartisan groups to chart a commonsense balanced debt reduction plan. I have not given up hope that we may eventually reach a comprehensive plan to cut spending, reform the Tax Code, and shore up programs such as Social Security and Medicare which are critical to our Nation's middle class. To give up on that goal would be to say to hard-working Americans, we are not serious about ensuring that the American dream is within everyone's reach. After watching Congress struggle to reach even a basic plan to cut spending or reasonably raise new revenues to pay our bills, I am convinced we need additional tools that force fiscal discipline. If we don't put limits on how Congress does its budgeting, the question won't be whether we can stop the bleeding, it will be how much do we cut to the bone or even into vital organs the programs that we value. In other words, without some fundamental reforms now, the foundations of our government will be severely weakened later.

To be sure, a balanced budget amendment will not solve the problem on its own, but a reasonable balanced budget amendment would help us ensure we never get into this position again. Passing my middle-ground, commonsense balanced budget amendment would send a strong signal to the financial markets, U.S. businesses, and the American people that we are serious about stabilizing our budget for the long term. That is the signal they want to see to give them the confidence to expand and create jobs.

Before I move to making the case for specifics in my balanced budget proposal, I want to make a few points about exactly how our skyrocketing national debt affects all of us. As a start, our debt threatens investments we need to make. It harms our ability to compete with countries around the world, it inhibits job growth here at home, and it dampens our innovative spirit. If we don't address our debt now, it would sap the economic power that has enabled our Nation to become the most powerful force on the globe.

Throughout most of our history--perhaps aside from the Great Depression--our economic strength has enabled the United States to create an environment that is good for business. This strength has then helped our own people on our Main Streets thrive in communities all over Colorado and across our Nation, and it has meant that every generation has been able to build on their parents' success, seize opportunity, and live the American dream. We all know this is what has made the United States exceptional. But today across our great country, families are wondering whether the American dream is still within their reach. Whether you are a college graduate and living at home because you are unable to find a job or a middle-aged factory worker laid off for the second or the third time struggling to pay your bills, our economic future seems a bit tougher.
Our country has endured a terrible economic slump for over 3 years now. In order to move quickly to turn things around, we need businesses to hire again. Business and community leaders across Colorado and elsewhere have told me that in order to have the confidence to do that, they need to know our national debt is not poised to send our economy off a cliff. The cochairman of President Obama's bipartisan commission on debt reduction tapped into that sentiment and called our debt a cancer that is eating away at our economic health. Beyond pure economic factors, our growing debt burdens us more broadly.

The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for whom we all have enormous respect, ADM Mike Mullen, warned that our national debt is ``the single biggest threat to our national security.'' By now these are familiar arguments here on the floor of the Senate. We know the challenges that confront us. The problem is Congress is not doing what every economist and every one of us in this body acknowledges we must do, and that is get our out-of-control budget under control. We all have our theories for why this is the case. I personally believe that part of the problem is the nature of Congress itself. We are all temporary single Members of a greater body. We each have our own constituents, goals, and responsibilities. It is sure tempting to come to Washington, fight like hell for our corner of the Nation, and lose sight of or willfully ignore

the bigger picture. As Members of Congress, it seems as if we are hardwired to fight for results that are important to our constituents and our political ideologies.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Democrats are reticent to support meaningful adjustments in entitlement spending, and many of my Republican friends turn a blind eye to the revenues needed to support retiring baby boomers and our national security needs.

My father, who had the great privilege of serving for 30 years in the House of Representatives as a Congressman from southern Arizona, witnessed this same phenomenon several decades ago, and he used to recall the advice that was given to freshmen House Members. That advice was: ``If you want to get ahead in Congress, do two things--vote for every appropriations bill and against every tax bill.''

In many ways the Federal budget deficits we face are so daunting today because too many Members of Congress have taken that advice literally over the past decades, but also because it is what Americans expected of us. It is only natural that people want the best of both worlds. We cannot continue down this budgetary path and hope that the results will be any different than they have been in the past.

In fact, the results get worse by the day. Based on what I hear from Coloradans, our constituents are now ready to make a little sacrifice. They are ready for us to make some tough decisions that may cause a little budget pain. Americans now get it, and that is why it is time for some serious action. A balanced budget amendment to our Constitution is serious action. It would require us to consider our larger, collective obligation to the national economy.

I will admit that my support of the balanced budget amendment has not made me particularly popular with some of my Democratic colleagues. Democrats traditionally have not been big fans of the balanced budget amendment idea. These days Democrats are suspicious that balanced budget proposals are a Trojan horse. They look good on the surface, but actually they are designed to further dismantle government programs that most Americans value. But a few decades ago Democrats were leading the charge for a reasonable balanced budget amendment.

Most notably, Senator Paul Simon of Illinois--a progressive and serious-minded legislator--was perhaps the greatest champion of a balanced budget, and I want to share with my colleagues some of his words. In debating the balanced budget amendment in 1993, Senator Simon said the following, which he addressed to his fellow progressives:

I am here to tell you that the course we are on, unless it is changed soon, absolutely threatens all of the programs that you and I have fought for and believe in so strongly. The fiscal folly that we followed for more than a decade has brought us to a crossroads. We face a basic decision, whether through default or through our actions to choose wisely the course that will lead us away from the brink.

If we do not act, interest payouts will spiral upward until they consume not only Social Security but health care, education, transportation investments--every need on our national agenda. My warning to you today is that a rising tide of red ink sinks all boats.

That is a powerful warning from a very wise and respected colleague. His warning is even more serious in December of 2011 than it was in 1993.

There are not any easy answers here, especially since our aging population and the post-9/11 national security needs have squeezed our Nation's budget in ways we have seldom seen in our country's history. But it is time for us to listen to hard-working Americans who are telling us loudly and clearly, make the tough decisions necessary to get our national debt under control. So I say to my colleagues here today, it is time to put aside our political differences, check ultimatums at the door, work across the aisle, and challenge ourselves to put our country first.

I want to reiterate a point I made earlier, which is that a balanced budget amendment is not the sole answer to the problems we face. It is not a perfect solution, and I recognize that. For example, it will not help us deal with our current debt, much less reduce it. For that we need a comprehensive plan along the lines of the recommendations of President Obama's bipartisan commission. It has been headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Senator Al Simpson.

Two years ago I helped create the Bowles-Simpson Commission, and I continue to believe its recommendations, which would lower the debt by more than $4 trillion over the next decade, are the best place to start on a path toward fiscal soundness. Let's own up to the mistakes of our past and take charge of the opportunity staring us in the face by passing the Bowles-Simpson debt reduction plan. That plan would require all of us to put some skin in the game, and it represents our best path to balance our books.

I have also fought for bipartisan proposals to create a Presidential line-item veto to ban earmarks and to enforce pay-as-you-go budgeting. These should all be and could be and must be tools in our responsible budgeting toolbox. Even though we have to find the courage to get our current fiscal house in order, we also need to have stronger rules in place to ensure Congress is not tempted to fall off the wagon in the future. In my view, passing a balanced budget amendment to prevent us from ever again trading fiscal responsibility for political expediency is a critical step we must take.

That long windup brings me to the balanced budget amendment proposals under debate in the U.S. Congress today. Let me start by saying that I was pleasantly surprised to see last month the U.S. House of Representatives pursue a balanced budget amendment that was more realistic than what some of my Republican colleagues here in the U.S. Senate have proposed. The House proposal required a balanced budget unless three-fifths of the House and Senate agreed there was an economic downturn, a national disaster, or another emergency that required temporary expenditures and increases thereon.

It was a straightforward measure, and it was designed to garner a broad range of support. However, the House proposal fell short by nearly two dozen votes, largely because it did not win enough support from Democrats. As we know, in order for a balanced budget amendment to succeed, it must be bipartisan. So I was surprised to see that after the House balanced budget amendment failed, instead of seeking to find consensus with those who could bring along additional Democratic votes like me, my colleagues in the Senate on the other side of the aisle, led by my dear friend Senator Hatch, have taken an altogether different route.
There are important differences between the two approaches the Senate will vote on this week, my amendment and Senator Hatch's amendment. So I want to spend some time differentiating between the two proposals because they represent two philosophically different ideas. We will have a vote on both of these proposals later this week.

Balancing our books is a simple equation based on the principle that our Nation is healthier without an unreasonably large debt load. Members of both parties can agree on that. Yet Senator Hatch's proposal goes a number of steps further and seemingly seeks to shrink government altogether. Not only does it require an unwieldy two-thirds majority to waive it in case of national emergencies, it also locks in special interest tax breaks and could weaken Social Security, Medicare, and other important programs that are supported by a vast majority of Americans.

Ironically, Senator Hatch's proposal--at least by some analyses--could jeopardize our national defense as well. Why do I say that?

I see my dear friend on the Senate floor. I look forward to engaging with him over the course of this important debate.

The Republican proposal prevents government from spending more than 18 percent of gross domestic product, which is less than the historical average, less than what George W. Bush spent, less than what Ronald Reagan spent, and less than what is required to care for our Nation's seniors and protect our homeland against terrorist attacks. Quite simply, to my way of looking at this, Senator Hatch's alternative proposal goes too far and has the potential to harm our middle class and future economic growth.

So what am I proposing? Well, let me tell you what I think my proposal would do, and I would note that it is cosponsored by a number of my colleagues from across the country.

My amendment would allow us to avoid the mistakes of the last decade without locking ourselves into a requirement that could tie our hands in an emergency. In such a case, if we tie our hands, we could make our economy worse for the middle class and small businesses and therefore for all of us.

My balanced budget amendment proposes and incorporates a big dose of Colorado common sense. It is aimed at finding common ground that both parties and a big majority of Americans can support. It starts with a strict requirement for balancing our books. My proposal would then allow deficits only when three-fifths of the House and Senate vote to address serious economic downturns or a war or other emergencies. However, it would also prevent some of the worst mistakes Congress has made in the past 10 years. For example, it would prevent deficit-busting tax breaks for Americans who earn $1 million or more per year. I think the Presiding Officer and I have a fundamental question. We wonder why we should continue to give tax breaks to the wealthiest among us during times when we are running huge deficits and aggregating debt like never before.

My amendment would also create a Social Security lockbox to keep Congress from raiding the trust fund to hide the true size of our annual deficits. Right now, the Treasury Department owes close to $3 trillion to the Social Security Administration. What I want to do is to see that never again is Social Security used as a slush fund to remedy our budgeting problems.

In sum, my proposal upholds the principle that we should pay for our government in a responsible manner, with waiver authority to be used only in exceptional circumstances. I think most Americans could agree to that. Coloradans certainly do.

I encourage all of my colleagues to acknowledge that passing a balanced budget amendment will require some flexibility and cooperation, and my version is designed to do just that. It is meant to bridge the divide between us.

The American people are demanding that we get our fiscal house in order. As usual, they are a few steps ahead of us. We have an opportunity to catch up to the American people. So I am here on the floor of the Senate today to ask my colleagues of both parties and both Chambers to support my proposal. As I have said, amending the Constitution may not be the solution desired by many in this Chamber. It is not something to be done without great thought. I, therefore, look forward to an honest and spirited dialog about the balanced budget amendment. I look forward to discussing the best ways to dig ourselves out from under our suffocating debt in a way that will encourage investment and job creation and help Americans and small businesses feel secure about their economic future. Our children's future depends on it.

I yield the floor.


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