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Border Crisis

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. KING. Mr. President, a few years ago Tom Brokaw wrote a brilliant and important book called ``The Greatest Generation,'' and he described our fathers and grandfathers and mothers and grandmothers and what they did for this country by coming through the searing fire of the Great Depression, fighting and winning World War II, and then rebuilding our economy in the 1950s. We owe that generation everything we have. That generation sacrificed--I have to repeat that word ``sacrificed''--on our behalf. We are literally standing on their shoulders. We are driving on the highways they built. We enjoy our freedoms because of their sacrifice in World War II and in Korea.

If Tom Brokaw writes another book about us, I don't know what it will be called, but it will not have ``greatest'' in the title. Instead of a compliment, it would be more of an epithet. We are leaving our children a gigantic national debt, crumbling infrastructure, and a changing climate that threatens their well-being and future opportunities in this country.

I rise to talk about one of those factors; that is, infrastructure. I had a great insight when I was the Governor of Maine because every year Governors go to New York to go through a ceremony of genuflecting and kissing the ring of the rating agencies in order to try to get our States a high bond rating so they will have a low interest rate on their loans. I was all prepared for my meeting with the rating agencies. I had all kinds of data about how prudent Maine was, how low our debt level was, how we paid it off in 10 years, and how low our debt level was per capita. I was in the middle of this presentation when one of the rating agency officials stopped me and said: Governor, just because you have low debt, if you are not fixing your infrastructure, that is debt just as if it is debt on the books, just as if it is dollars you owe because the infrastructure is eventually going to have to be fixed. Of course, when it is fixed, the later you do it, the more it is going to cost. That was an insight for me.

We have this sort of mental bookkeeping where we have the dollars we owe, but we don't think about a bridge being fixed as a form of debt. Yet that is exactly what we have in this country. We are handing our children a gigantic debt on all fronts because we are unwilling to pay the bills.

I had another exchange once with a fellow who was a clerk in a hardware store. This was in the early 2000s, and I said: What do you think of the tax cuts we recently passed? I was just making conversation.

He said: There haven't been any tax cuts.

I said: What are you talking about? You see it all over the news. There are all these tax cuts we just passed in Washington.

He said: No. No, we haven't passed any tax cuts.

I said: Don't you watch the news?

He said: Look, if you pass tax cuts when you are in a deficit situation, all you are doing is borrowing more money and your kids are going to have to pay for it with interest, so you are merely shifting the taxes from us to them.

I had never thought about it that way before. Of course, he was exactly right. If we cut taxes and cut expenditures at the same time, OK, that is legitimate public policy, but if we cut taxes and borrow the difference, we are just shifting the cost to the next generation, and that is what we are doing right now, today, and we are doing it on all fronts. We are doing it in our Federal debt and deficit posture, and we are doing it in our infrastructure posture.

This is going to cost all of us. The subject I am addressing--which I neglected to clarify at the beginning--is the fact that the highway trust fund goes broke in just a few weeks.

Funding from the Federal Government for highways for infrastructure around the country will decline precipitously starting in August, and around here we are about a patch, about something that will get us through 2 or 3 months or maybe 8 months, but nobody is talking about solving the problem. Everybody is talking about all of these convoluted ways to avoid the reality that we need to pay for what we do. We need to pay for our highways, for our roads, for our bridges, and right now we are not doing it.

This is really going to hurt Maine. The estimates from our Department of Transportation is that it is going to cut our highway funding in our State by 17 percent--almost 20 percent. It is particularly going to hurt if we don't do something in the next month because we have a short construction season. If we lose our funding between August and October, we have effectively lost it for the next 8 or 9 months. It is going to impair projects that are ongoing, and it is going to essentially eliminate--across the country--new highway and infrastructure projects.

By the way, if you are the head of the Department of Transportation and your funding is going to be cut, what are you going to do? You are going to maintain, not invest. Maintaining is the bare minimum, but it is not investing because investing is where we have our wherewithal to compete in a global economy.

It is very revealing to me to compare the funding levels of our infrastructure, maintenance, and investment with other countries. That is a fair comparison. It sort of tells us how we are doing. It puts it in perspective. Right now our infrastructure investment is about 2.6 percent of gross domestic product--2.6 percent of GDP. In Japan it is 5 percent and in China it is 8.5 percent. It is more than three times the level in our principal future economic competitor. They are investing, and we are disinvesting because the infrastructure is crumbling faster than we are fixing it.

The joke in Maine this winter was the potholes were so bad that instead of filling them, we were going to lower the roads. That is a joke, but it says something about the seriousness of this issue. Maine is no different than any other State. In fact, I would argue we have some of the best roads in the country, particularly given the farflung nature of our State, but this is going to hurt us. It is going to hurt every State in the country. Yet we are around here trying to avoid talking about paying for them.

There are indirect and direct costs. Not fixing the highways is costing our drivers more than an increase in the gas tax in terms of delay, in terms of maintenance of automobiles, in terms of bent wheels from potholes.

I talked to some people from the United Parcel Service, UPS. As to their fleet nationwide, a 5-minute delay per vehicle--because of congestion, because of lack of infrastructure investment--costs that company $100 million a year--a 5-minute delay. Multiply that by everybody in the country and we are paying a high price.

The point is, we are paying a high price, but it is hidden. We do not notice it. If we increase the gas tax, everybody is going to notice that. But that is called paying your bills.

As a young man, I represented a client before the Maine legislature that was an engineering firm that was owed a bill by the State of Maine, and for some reason it had not been taken care of. I ended up appearing before the appropriations committee. This was 40 years ago. But I remember distinctly going before the committee and saying: Here is this bill and it has to be paid, and the members of the committee--by the way, the senior members were all Republicans--they looked at each other and said: We have to pay our bills. That is called governing, and right now we are not paying our bills. It seems to me that is what we have to do.

One interesting thing about the gas tax is--which, by the way, has not been increased since 1993, 21 years ago; it has fallen in value by something like 35 percent because of inflation over that period--but the interesting thing about the gas tax is, it is the only tax that is not effectively indexed. By that I mean the sales tax, which many States have--my State does--5 percent. You say: Well, that is fixed over time. It is not indexed. But it is because the value of goods to which the sales tax applies goes up over time. On a hundred-dollar tire, the sales tax, at 5 percent, is $5. But 5 years from now, that tire is probably going to cost $110, so it is going to be higher revenue. It is the same thing with the income tax. It may be at a flat level--22 percent or 15 percent or in Maine 5 or 6 percent--but incomes go up, so revenues go up proportionately to the changes in the economy.

The gas tax is a fixed number--18.4 cents. That is what it has been since 1993. It does not change at all. Do you think, Mr. President, the cost of building a road is the same today as it was in 1993--21 years ago? The answer is no.

We have to grapple with this. To me, what bothers me about this is it is part of a pattern. I started with Tom Brokaw and the ``greatest generation.'' If you think of the legacy that ``greatest generation'' left us--because they were willing to make sacrifices on our behalf--and then you say: What is the legacy of our generation? it is debt and it is crumbling infrastructure and it is the crippling of our ability to compete in a globalized economy. Shame on us.

I do not know exactly what the answer is. I do not know whether it is a gas tax, a mileage tax, a change of the tax to the wholesale level as opposed to the retail level. I do not know. But I do know that no matter what we do, and no matter how much we try to avoid it, we are going to have to pay our bills; and to not pay our bills, we have to realize, is simply passing those bills to our kids. That is unethical. It is immoral, it is wrong, and it is not what our parents and grandparents did for us.

I think we owe the same level of consideration, the same level of sacrifice, the same level of realism, the same level of paying our bills to our children and grandchildren that we have been the beneficiaries of.

So I hope, as this debate unfolds in the next several weeks, that we pay attention to the critical importance infrastructure plays in the competitiveness of our society and in the future of our children. The ``greatest generation'' built the Interstate Highway System, and we cannot even keep it maintained. That is inexcusable. It is inexcusable, Mr. President, and I am sorry to be so preachy about this, but I think this is a really important issue, and I think it goes in some ways to the heart of our politics today where we are trying to do things and accomplish things but not pay for them. The point of my comments, though, is: They are going to be paid for; it is just going to be somebody else, that is, our children and grandchildren, who are going to be paying that bill. I think we ought to stand up and pay the bills ourselves and maintain the infrastructure this country needs to compete and give the same opportunity to our children and grandchildren we were given by the ``greatest generation.''

Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Will the Senator from Maine wi

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