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Mr. MARKEY. Mr. President, I support the Murray-Ryan budget agreement, even though I disagree with a number of provisions included in the bill, because it includes balanced savings to roll back sequestration for the next 2 years and help restore much needed certainty to government agencies and our economy.
Sequestration is just a fancy word for cuts--mindless cuts. I strongly believe we must end the mindless, across the board cuts from sequestration which have significantly reduced funding for a number of Federal programs that are critical to Massachusetts families and businesses.
Sequestration has also significantly cut Federal spending on the research
which has been critical for the development of the Massachusetts economy and will damage our economy in the long-term.
Under the Murray-Ryan agreement, sequestration under the Budget Control Act would continue. However, the size of sequestration will be rolled back and the Appropriations Committee will have the authority to make changes to existing spending rather than be required to impose an across the board cut. The agreement would set overall discretionary spending for this year at $1.012 trillion--which is about $46 billion less than the Senate budget level and $45 billion above the level set in the Budget Control Act. Spending would increase only slightly next year. Unfortunately, this legislation does not eliminate sequestration from future years, in fact the agreement extends sequestration for 2 additional years (fiscal years 2022-2023).
The agreement includes dozens of specific deficit-reduction provisions, with mandatory savings and non-tax revenue totaling approximately $85 billion. Those provisions include higher security fees for airline passengers, reduced contributions to Federal pensions, higher premiums for Federal insurance for private pensions, and savings from not completely refilling the strategic petroleum reserve.
Finally, the agreement would reduce the deficit by between $20 and $23 billion. It also includes a 3 month extension of the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, SGR.
It is unfortunate that this agreement fails to include a critical extension of unemployment insurance, which is a critical component of our ongoing recovery and a lifeline to millions of Americans seeking employment. As a result of objections raised by the minority in the Senate, unemployment insurance will terminate just a few days after the holiday season ends. This action will cut off support desperately needed by more than 1.3 million Americans including more than 30,000 in Massachusetts. The U.S. Department of Labor has found that for every $1 of unemployment benefits spent, $2 of economic activity are generated. Extending unemployment benefits would increase our Gross National Product by 0.2 percent and create more than 200,000 jobs in 2014 alone. These Americans need our help and deserve our best efforts to resolve this issue before we adjourn for the year.
Before the Senate adjourns for the year, I hope that the Senate can act on the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act which would reinstate and continue Federal support for unemployment insurance (UI), effective January 1, 2014, for an additional 3 months to temporarily prevent the expiration of benefits for 1.3 million Americans. I am a cosponsor of this legislation because it would allow all States to continue Federal unemployment insurance without a lapse from January 1, 2014. The bill would also allow any State whose agreement was previously terminated in 2013 to enter into a new agreement with the Department of Labor for emergency unemployment compensation.
I have heard from a number of veterans from Massachusetts who have expressed their deep concerns about a provision in the budget agreement that would reduce the annual cost of living increase for military retirees under the age of 62. I am concerned that this provision could have a serious financial impact on these patriots and their families who fought to protect our freedom. The retirement compensation of servicemembers and Federal employees should never be reduced to lower our deficit especially while corporate tax loopholes and billions in subsidies for oil companies remain on the books.
I am proud to cosponsor the Military Retirement Restoration Act. The bill would replace the cuts to military retiree benefits from the Murray-Ryan Budget Agreement by preventing companies from avoiding U.S. taxes by abusing tax havens. I am hopeful that the Senate will be able to consider this legislation early next year. I also strongly support the review of this provision by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Levin before it takes effect in December 2015. Finally, I await a comprehensive review of the military retirement and compensation systems being conducted by the Military Retirement and Compensation Modernization Commission established by Congress which can provide a better solution than the one included in the budget agreement for military retirees.
I would also like to speak about another provision of the Bipartisan Budget Act: section 203, which limits access to the Social Security Administration's Death Master File, DMF. The DMF is a little-known but critically important piece of our Social Security system. It is the authoritative index of all deaths reported to the Social Security Administration from 1936 to the present, an index that contains over 85 million records of death. The DMF is therefore the prime tool available to formally confirm the death of an American citizen, and a variety of enterprises, from life insurers to pension funds, rely on the DMF to administer benefits and premiums.
Under section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act, access to the DMF will be greatly restricted. From now on, the Department of Commerce will not be allowed to disclose information in the DMF with respect to a newly deceased person for 3 years except to persons certified under a new program managed by the Commerce Department. Under this new program, which has yet to be established, certification will be given only to those persons who have either a legitimate business or fraud prevention interest and have processes in place to safeguard the information. The goal of section 203 is laudable--to prevent persons from using the DMF to engage in identity theft and fraud. Given the sensitive nature of this information, it is good that steps are being taken to prevent the misuse of this data.
Yet, while I support the goal of this section, I am concerned about how it will be implemented. Many insurance companies and pension administrators rely on the DMF to determine when benefits should be paid to their beneficiaries. In fact, nine States actually require that insurers access the DMF prior to the payment of benefits. These companies' access to the DMF is critical to their efforts to serve consumers, and their access cannot be interrupted while the Department of Commerce creates its new access certification program. Similarly, State Treasurers and Comptrollers, and their authorized personnel, also use the DMF for important purposes and need continued access while the regulations are being developed by the Secretary of Commerce.
I therefore urge the Department of Commerce to take immediate regulatory action to ensure that insurance companies, pension plans, and State Treasurers and Comptrollers' access to the DMF is not inhibited during the initiation of the certification program and that all parties have an opportunity to obtain certification prior to losing access to the DMF. The Department of Commerce should also ensure that stakeholders, both in the industry and in the beneficiary communities, have an opportunity to provide input on any rulemakings regarding either the certification program or the access restrictions themselves.
Earlier this year, I released a report that outlined the damage to our economy caused by sequestration and proposed an alternative plan that would produce the $1.2 trillion savings called for in the Budget Control Act without imposing the mindless, across-the-board sequestration cuts.
I strongly believe we can work together on a bipartisan effort to replace these misguided cuts of sequestration with a balanced deficit reduction plan that includes a more progressive tax code, targeted cuts to defense spending and nuclear weapons, an end to unnecessary oil subsidies, and the expansion of innovative programs in Medicare that improve the quality of healthcare for beneficiaries.
At the same time, we must make smart investments now that will create jobs and continue our country's economic recovery. We can no longer afford to make irresponsible across-the-board cuts that hurt middle class families and hurt our still-fragile economy.
Our national strategy for job growth must continue to emphasize the areas in which Massachusetts excels: an emphasis on education; investment in our high-tech, medical, and clean energy industries; and strong support for the teachers, firefighters, and police that form the backbone of our communities. This approach has resulted in the Bay State consistently having an unemployment rate that is significantly lower than the rest of the Nation.
I want to work in a bipartisan effort to fix our fiscal problems and I believe working together we can reach a bipartisan agreement to fix sequestration and maintain our fiscal discipline.