Thursday, December 09, 2010

Sen. Coburn speaks on Senate floor about debt crisis

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Muskogee) gave the following speech on the floor of the Senate yesterday.

Part One:

Part Two:


Mr. President, I hope the American people are watching Washington right now. We are at a defining moment in our country. There is not anybody in this body who does not recognize that our country is on an unsustainable course. They know it. It is well known. The world knows it. We can argue about how close we are to the debt crisis and the liquidity crisis, but no one disputes that one is coming. We just don't know when. Yet in the next 2 weeks Congress is going to make that problem $1 trillion worse.

We can say that a lot of what we are doing is the right thing to do, but what we are not doing is addressing the real issues that need to be accompanied by grownups as we look at this. What should the American people make of this? It is kind of like we are on the Titanic here in America and everybody is saying: The bar is open, we will just have a party the next 2 weeks. We are going to spend another $900 billion or we are going to set it up so that it can be spent.

I do not often agree with a columnist by the name of Thomas Friedman, but he has a column today that I think everyone in our collective body should read. It is aptly titled ``Still Digging.'' Here, he writes: Given where we need to go, this tax deal--this tax deal, opportunity scholarship deal, unemployment deal, tax holiday deal--is just another shot of morphine to a country that needs to do things that are big and hard and still only wants to do things that are easy and small. He concludes: Economics is not war. It can be win- win. So it can be good for the world if China is doing better, but it can't be good for America if, every time we come to a hard choice, we borrow more money from a country that is not just outsaving and outhustling us but is also starting to outeducate us. We need a plan.

I couldn't agree with him more. I was part of the deficit commission, taken a lot of criticism for saying we needed to have that debate on the Senate floor. I still think we need to have that debate on the Senate floor. But this body will not even agree about having a debate about having a plan.

Last week, the members of the debt commission refused to even debate the plan--the Members refused to even debate the plan in Congress. We didn't get 14 out of 18 votes; we only got 11.

I wish to congratulate Senator Durbin, Senator Conrad, Senator Crapo, and Senator Gregg for their efforts on that commission. You see, they think we need a plan. Senator Conrad had a wonderful statement about it. He said this: The only thing that is worse than being for this plan is being against it. What he was really addressing is the fact that we are not willing to make the hard choices. We will not come together and do what is best for America. What we will do is just take another shot of morphine, drink another drink on the Titanic, and hope that somehow it gets better.

The fact is, we already have a debt commission. It is called the U.S. Congress. That is why I voted initially against the debt commission. I spent 8 months, had a full-time staffer working on that commission for the last 8 months. We are the debt commission. We have to have a plan to avert the catastrophe that is in front of us.

America needs to know it is urgent. It is not something that can wait a year. We are going to have a major liquidity crisis, and we are also going to have a major interest rate crisis. Nobody knows when it comes. But the one thing we do know is that if we don't have a plan, we will no longer control our ability to get out of our problem; the people who own our debt will control how we get out of our problem.

So if, in fact, we want to hand over our responsibility in the Senate to the bondholders of the world, then we should continue to not have a plan. But if, in fact, we want to embrace the oath we were given, then we should have a plan.

As we debate over the next 2 weeks coming up to Christmas, part of that debate has to be whether we are grown up enough to recognize that the party is over and that we better start bailing water, we better form the line, the bucket brigade; otherwise, we are going to go down with the ship.

Now, people can say: You are scaring people.

That is realism. That is what is getting ready to happen to us. Mr. Bernanke cannot solve our problems in this regard. Only we can solve these problems for the American people.

Cutting spending should be the easy part of our solution. We can document hundreds of billions of dollars a year that are either wasted, defrauded, or duplicative in the Federal Government. I have given hundreds of speeches over the last 6 years outlining those things, whether it be the $5 billion the Pentagon pays to contractors for performance bonuses when those contractors do not meet the performance requirements to get the bonus or the $80 to $100 billion a year in fraud in Medicare and Medicaid. Those are facts--the fact that we pay three times as much for a motorized wheelchair as it costs. We have not done anything to address any of those issues. It is not hard to cut spending. It is hard to get the will to have a plan that recognizes that we have to keep on keeping on until we get America out of this very dangerous time period we are experiencing.

We just learned that we rank 25th in the world in math, 17th in science. Yet we have 105 different, separate government programs to incentivize excellence in science, technology, engineering, and math. This is just a tiny little example of the work we need to do. We need to have one plan. It needs to have measurements on it. We need to oversight it. Then we need to look at it the next year. Is it working? Is it effective? We have 105 sets of bureaucrats, and we have not made the headway we all know is required for us to be competitive in a global economy. Yet not once this year, not once last year, not when Republicans were in control, not when Democrats were in control, did we do the effective oversight that is necessary to get us out of the jam we are in.

Oversight is hard work. It is not easy. It requires that we actually know what is going on in the government, which is part of our oath to begin with. We have to do the work, we have to read it, we have to go to the hearings, we have to interview the people, and we have to have investigators so we know what is going on. Yet we do not do that.

I often hear from my colleagues on the other side that we need to pay for the so-called Bush tax cuts, which are really your tax cuts. The assumption is that once the money comes to the government at a certain rate, it is always going to come, and it is not yours, it is the government's.

Let's grant that premise for a minute. Let's grant the premise that it is the government's money and not the individual's. I would issue this challenge: Anyone who thinks we ought to pay for tax cuts ought to have to put up a list of programs that we ought to eliminate to pay for them. I put up, every time, when people are wanting to spend money, a list of options we can do to make it to where we do not increase the very problem holes we keep digging in.

The fact is, the body is not interested in cutting spending, and the proof is what we did last year. The very same people who claim we need to pay for the tax cuts uniformly voted to override pay-go to the tune of $266 billion last year, just in this last year--not this whole Congress, just this last year.

So what we need to do is move away from that rhetoric. The problem is too big for us to take pot shots at each other on what we think is a political point. And we need to get down to the real business of having a plan that gets this country out of the very real difficulties we face. The very fact that we do not know when the problem is coming, the very fact that we cannot control our own destiny unless we start taking action now should give us all chills, that we are about to be the Senate, the Congress of the United States that allowed this to happen.

We cannot let that happen, no matter what our positions are. The only way we get out of the hole we are in is if we make shared sacrifices. That means political sacrifices. That means position sacrifices. That means monetary sacrifices. That means sacrifices against our wish list. It means we all have to sacrifice.

Some people say it is suicide to tell the American people they have to sacrifice. I adamantly disagree with that. They are grown up. They get it way ahead of us. They have already seen what is happening to us. They are feeling it now. They have this innate sense that we are disconnected from the very real problems they are seeing. They are ready to do their part.

I will borrow a line from someone far more eloquent, J.F.K. I remember; I was in high school.

Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.

It was a great statement then. It is more appropriate now than ever.

What does a shared sacrifice mean? It means that if you live in this country and make a decent income, you need to be more responsible with your health care and retirement than you are today. If you have gamed the system to get disability benefits or workmen's compensation, sorry, your free ride is over. If you are receiving a special tax break because you have a good lobbyist, you are going to have to give that up. If you are a defense contractor, you might only get a bonus for doing exceptional work, not standard work, not for just showing up to work. And if you are a politician, it might mean you have to lose an election to do what is best for this country.

If we think about what is required and how we would achieve real change, we have two truths in tension: One, we have a government we tolerate; two, the American people have the power to change that government.

We can solve all of the difficult challenges before us, but we can't solve them if Washington will not even debate the problem. And if we can't overcome our courage deficit, the American people have a responsibility to replace us all--to replace every one of us.

Courage is having the fortitude to do the right thing for the right moral reason at the right time regardless of the consequences to you. And we lack that in our body politic today.

I know a lot of people see this tax deal as a big political victory. I do not see it as a victory at all for the country or for our side.

Actually, a former Bush staffer, Don Bartlett, is quoted as saying:

We knew that, politically, once you get it into law, it becomes almost impossible to remove it. That's not a bad legacy. The fact that we were able to lay the trap does feel pretty good, to tell you the truth.

This gentleman just ignored the magnitude, severity, and urgency of the problems that face America.

The political cynicism that accompanies this should give us all pause to think for a minute on the games that are being played in Washington. Congratulations. Somebody embarrassed somebody else.

How does making our entitlement dilemma worse by passing Medicare Part D feel? It is now up to $13 trillion in unfunded liability, and the rich get the same benefit as the poor; does that feel good? How about doubling the size of the government since 1999; does that feel good, especially at a time when fraud, waste, and abuse has doubled? Does it feel good that we have done nothing to reform Social Security in the years since people applauded in the middle of the State of the Union address because of President Bush's failed effort to fix Social Security? Does that feel good? Did that solve something or was that political showmanship? That belies the history of this body of coming together.

Our Founders created the Senate to try to force consensus. That is what the rules were all about. What we need to do, Democrats and Republicans and our Independent colleagues, is recognize the depth and magnitude of our problem right now. There needs to be a great big time out. Who cares who is in charge if there is no country to run that can be salvaged? It doesn't matter.

Economists worldwide and some of the brightest people at Harvard and MIT, the University of Texas, Pennsylvania, they don't sleep at night right now. They know we are on the razor-thin edge of falling over a cliff.

The fact is, both parties have laid a trap for future generations by our inaction, our laziness, our arrogance, and a crass desire for power. We are waterboarding the next generation with debt. We are drowning them in obligations because we don't have the courage to come together and address or even debate a real solution.

The reason I voted for the deficit commission report? It had a lot of stuff in it I absolutely hated. It had one thing in it Oklahoma can't tolerate that will have to be changed. But the fact is, I believed the problem was so big and so urgent and so necessary that we ought to have that debate. We ought to make sure the American people know the significance of the problems facing us. Both Senator Conrad and Senator Durbin have taken heat. Guys on our side of the aisle have taken heat because we dared to say we should have a debate about the real problems that face this country. The special interests immediately started attacking from both sides.

That tells me we were doing some good. I often hear my colleagues assert the power of the purse when it comes to earmarking, but I never hear the same thing when we talk about trying to cut spending. The bias is to spend, not to cut spending. We are either going to do it or outside financial forces are going to force us.

Look what has happened so far this year with some other countries. In the first column of this chart, we see the debt in U.S. dollars in fixed terms. The second is what they have done in terms of government spending. In terms of debt, we, of course, lead the world, $13.8 trillion. We have France at $2 trillion, Germany at $1.46 trillion, Spain $602 billion, United Kingdom $1.47 trillion, and Canada. Every one of them froze or reduced the pay of their Federal employees. Every one of them cut their Federal workforce. Every one of them cut Federal spending by significant amounts. What have we done? A big goose egg, zero. That is what we have done. So no wonder the world does not have confidence and no wonder our business investment isn't coming in. We haven't created an environment where they would have confidence.

There is no question when the tax bill goes through we will see a bump up in confidence. When people get 2 percent more on their paycheck, we will see some bump up. But it will be short-lived.

The problem is not the tax deal but the fact that we are not addressing our real problems. We are addressing the symptoms of the problem. Does a 2-year extension give businesses, small and large, the confidence they need to plan for the future? I certainly hope so. But tax reform that had a meaningful effect on future capital investment would do a whole lot more. The problem is, we are not even willing to consider the hard choices. We will not even have an honest debate about a debate about hard choices. We just want to take our shot of morphine and go on down the road, have another martini on the deck of the Titanic.

The history of our country, at least what I saw growing up from the 1940s to the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s, was that our Nation thrived because we always embraced the heritage of service and sacrifice when our future was at stake. We actually have seen some of that in the last 10 years. I challenge my colleagues to go to Gettysburg or Philadelphia or visit ground zero and ask: What went through the minds of the brave young Americans when the doors of their landing craft opened on Omaha Beach? What motivated the heroes on flight 93 on 9/11 when they stormed a cockpit occupied by terrorists? What did our Founders think when they signed the Declaration of Independence, knowing their lives and fortunes were on the line? They were thinking about the future. They were making that critical decision to have courage in the face of adversity and take with it what may come. But they knew doing the correct and honorable and right thing was more important than their reputation or any other thing they had.

Here is what one of our Founders thought. Almost 234 years ago, on December 19, 1776, Thomas Paine was contemplating the great and uncertain struggle that lay ahead in our battle for independence and freedom. He said: ``If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.''

At the time of Christmas and Hanukkah, isn't that what we want for those who follow, peace of mind to not be threatened by what we have set up as an unsustainable debt dungeon?

I think we ought to have it in our day. Let it be our day. Let it be today. Let it be started with this debate we will have on the tax bill that will come before us. Let's make the effort to come to a consensus that we have to have a plan. It doesn't have to be my plan or the plan of Senator Bennet, but we have to have a plan. We have to signal to the rest of the world that we are willing to start making some of the appropriate sacrifices and generate the austerity that will allow us to continue this wonderful experiment. We are now facing the most predictable crisis in our history. We are doing nothing to avert the catastrophe, nothing, zero. In fact, we are still digging. It is time we stopped digging.

How will we be remembered? As a generation of politicians who saw a gathering storm and took action or a generation of politicians who put off the hard choices of honor and dishonored the sacrifices of our past?

We do have a choice. We can choose to come together and work to solve this problem in the very short term that will have a tremendous impact in the long term. What we don't have is a lot of time. As I heard somebody say today: Time fritters away so fast in Washington. It goes by so fast. We are all so busy. There is no problem in front of us in any committee, on any issue that is greater than the problems facing this country. We need to come together across the aisle to put a plan together that will give security to not only the generations that come and are here already but the peace of mind to know we are listening, we understand, and we are willing to make and lead by example in the sacrifices that have to come for us to solve the problems.

I yield the floor.


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