Thursday, March 17, 2005

Kerry on Budget

Remarks by Senator John Kerry “Unbalanced Washington’s Unbalanced Budget Debate” As Prepared for Delivery

This week’s debate on the federal budget should remind all Americans that Washington is not working for them.

To the public, the budget debate can seem as confused as it is contentious. The fact is, underlying this debate are fundamental choices about American values. The votes this week weren’t just ticks in the won-loss column; they were assaults on our nation’s character. Honesty, Opportunity and Responsibility were all cut from this budget. And these cuts should give us all cause for concern, because in the end budgets are a statement of your priorities. They are your values backed up by dollars and cents. And the American people who every day choose between doctor bills, car payments, saving for retirement and saving for college deserve better - because they understand better than anybody how to make a budget and live by it. They don’t get to hide the consequences in a cloud of spin.

Honesty, Opportunity and Responsibility - these are values most Americans live by, the values we pass along to our children - to tell the truth, to live up to responsibilities, and to work and sacrifice so our kids will have greater opportunities than we did.

Hold this budget to those simple values: Is it honest? Responsible? Does it create opportunity for all Americans? By any standard this budget fails to measure up, and even sells out our most cherished values.

Surely, when you’re talking about the budget of the United States, honesty at least means actually counting every dollar we’re planning to spend. It sounds simple, it’s what every American does, but this budget doesn’t do it.

Ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to cost almost $400 billion over the next ten years. That’s not in the budget. The President’s Social Security scheme will cost over $750 billion over the next ten years. That’s not in the budget. Saving middle-class families from enduring a major tax hike from the Alternative Minimum Tax will cost over $600 billion over ten years. That isn’t in the budget either, and astonishingly, neither is interest on the debt, which not even the most creative accountant would leave out.

What’s more, the President said he wouldn’t spend any of the Social Security Trust Fund. Now he’s spending all of it. The Bush Administration seems to be banking on Mark Twain’s old adage that, “A good lie will have traveled half way around the world while the truth is putting on her boots.” Well, the truth is catching up with them today.

Think about how crazy Washington must seem to people at home reading the headlines. They’ve already heard about the Medicare actuary who was forced to fudge the numbers and lie to Congress to keep his job. They’ve heard about the falsified numbers in Iraq on everything from the cost of the war to the number of trained Iraqi troops. They’ve heard about the EPA scientists who were pressured to downplay the harmful effects of toxic mercury. And now they’re learning the Administration funded fake newscasts to mislead people all across America. It’s one thing to watch Jon Stewart; it’s another to use your tax dollars and try to imitate him.

This budget is like an Enron budget: smoke the numbers, cook the books, hide the truth and hope no one finds out. When Enron went bust the stockholders were the big losers. When this budget comes home to roost, the American taxpayer will be the loser.

America will lose because this budget does exactly what Enron did. This budget makes irresponsible choices the Administration doesn’t want you to know about. They don’t want you to know they’re breaking a 200-year tradition of responsible leadership. For George Washington, responsibility meant the judgment to relinquish power, setting our nation on course for sustainable democracy. For Harry Truman, responsibility meant doing the right thing by our troops with the GI Bill. For Bill Clinton, responsibility meant the discipline to use the economic success in the 90’s to pay down the debt. And for us, taking these lessons from the past, responsibility means telling the truth about the budget and making the tough choices to be fiscally responsible while we invest in the future. That begins by rejecting a tax cut for the wealthy that we just can’t afford.

The truth is, this budget breaks faith with so many Americans, none more so than those who wear our nation’s uniform. We’re not being responsible to those who’ve served by raising veterans’ healthcare fees by $250 a year while we cut taxes for millionaires. We’re not supporting our troops when we welcome them home with $2.6 billion in unanticipated co-payments and fees when we could be cracking down on offshore tax shelters.

Several years ago I met an Air Force veteran I’ll never forget - Joey Dubois. Joey sits in a wheelchair, proud of his country and his service. But he’s still being docked his disability pay in this budget because we say we can’t afford to pay for it. If our sense of responsibility tells us anything, it’s that there are plenty of places to cut back, but veterans like Joey Dubois have earned the right to not have their disability pay cut by the nation they defended.

And if responsibility means anything, it should also mean a budget that keeps faith with those who wear the uniform today. We could be helping military families meet the inevitable increased expenses when a loved-one is deployed. Thousands of reservists, for example, take a cut in pay when called to active duty. Some employers make up the difference in lost wages, but many can’t afford it. We should offer a tax credit to small businesses to help pay difference. We should allow all service members to make free withdrawals from Individual Retirement Accounts for deployment-related expenses, like increased child-care and other costs. Instead of so many of us spending so much effort to stop bad things from happening, it’s time we came together to start making good things happen - and that starts with doing the right thing by our troops.

As many as one-in-five members of the National Guard and Reserves don’t have health insurance. That’s bad policy and bad for our national security. When a member of the National Guard or Reserve is mobilized, and unit members fail physicals because they haven’t seen a doctor in two years, that’s bad for readiness and bad for unit effectiveness. As part of a Military Family Bill of Rights, we could make health insurance available to all members of the National Guard and Reserve, whether mobilized or not. In a time of war, that’s what living up to the value of responsibility demands we do.

You know, some on the other side are quick to embrace the symbols of patriotism with words, but too often deeds lag behind. Let’s be clear: this budget leaves our nation’s patriots behind, and that’s unacceptable.

Responsibility also means keeping our nation on sound financial footing for the long run - keeping our responsibility to the next generation by refusing to dump mountains of debt on their shoulders. The Administration even has the audacity to claim this budget cuts the deficit in half in five years. But you heard the numbers before, the over $1.6 trillion in new deficits over the next ten years. The deficit isn’t going down - it’s moving fast in the wrong direction.

Think about it: The Congressional Budget Office estimates we’ll be facing over $5 trillion in new debt because of this President. These debts not only hurt your children in the future - they hurt you and every working family today. Almost eight cents of every tax dollar you pay goes just toward paying interest on the debt. By contrast, you only pay about two cents on the dollar for education. So, $160 billion goes to interest on the debt, not to giving healthcare to every child, not to fully funding No Child Left Behind, not to securing our energy independence or funding a Military Family’s Bill of Rights. Eight cents on the dollar is a lot of money, and it’s not buying you more security and it’s not buying your kids a better education. But you want to know who’s benefiting from our deficits? Bankers in Japan and Korea and Taiwan, and you should be worried about it. Responsible leaders wouldn’t turn our economic future over to the whims of Asian bankers, they would fight to keep it in responsible hands here at home.

The American people also deserve a budget that keeps faith with the promise of opportunity for all, special privileges for none. One of the dangers in tight fiscal times is you start hearing a lot of empty talk about tough choices. Too often the tough choices you hear about are excuses for serving the special interests at the expense of real opportunity. You heard the excuses from the Administration during the recession, you heard them during the war, and you’re going to hear more excuses during this budget debate. But I don’t think creating real opportunity is a tough choice; it’s the responsible choice.

Let me give you an example: This budget gives a tax cut for millionaires - that’s right, people making over $1 million a year - that will cost a little over $32 billion next year alone. The Administration is saying we have to make the tough choice to NOT provide healthcare to every child, even though that $32 billion could insure every one of the 11 million American children living without health insurance. What would you choose? If you were President for a day would you insure every child or would you give millionaires a little more play money?

Maybe you wouldn’t insure every child. Maybe you would fully fund No Child Left Behind. Maybe you would start rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure. But I know that none of you would give millionaires another tax break when we can make any number of choices that make our nation stronger and our people richer.

The budget is full of choices like this, but the Administration isn’t making tough choices, it’s making the wrong ones. The budget sells off the Arctic wilderness to oil companies while cutting funding for renewable energy of the future. They refuse to negotiate cheaper drug prices for seniors while the budget cuts healthcare for poor children, pregnant women and the disabled. The budget wastes billions of dollars in corporate loopholes while gutting the Manufacturing Extension Program that has created so many jobs. The budget wastes billions more in offshore tax shelters, but cuts funding for literacy programs and the Safe and Drug Free School Program. I just listed a lot of choices and there wasn’t a tough choice among them. If this nation is ever going to move forward, the Administration needs to stop making excuses and start making smart choices.

Pare back all the rhetoric, and here’s the difference on opportunity in the budget we’re debating this week. They say let's not import less expensive drugs. Let's not negotiate better drug prices. Let’s ignore the 45 million Americans without any health care coverage. Let's forget about patients' rights. Let's weaken coverage. Let's raise premiums with a phony small business health plan. Let’s pretend the answer for families struggling to afford insurance is just another tax cut for the wealthy that leaves them behind. And while we’re at it, let's dump the responsibility for covering low-income families and their kids on the states, and let them take the heat for dumping them altogether. That's how the president who promised to usher in a “responsibility era” proposes to deal with a real and present health care crisis. The President says he wants to create an “ownership society,” but the fact is it’s nothing more than a cradle-to-grave “irresponsibility era” that leaves you on your own.

Instead, we could be talking about a Kids First proposal that would be the first step toward ending this irresponsibility era and keeping our promises. And when it comes to giving kids health care coverage, it's a promise we not only can afford to keep, but one we cannot afford to break.

Covering all kids would reduce avoidable hospitalizations by 22 percent. Covering kids means replacing expensive critical care with inexpensive preventive care. And the long-term cost savings, not only in health care, but in education, in job training, in the stress on our families - are incalculable. We do know that children enrolled in public health insurance programs achieve a 68% improvement in measures of school performance. If no child is left behind in the doctor's waiting room, then we’ll have a much better chance of ensuring no child is left behind in school.

That’s a debate we could be having - if we had a budget that reestablished national responsibility for children's health care, built a strong partnership with the states, and most of all, kept faith with parents, who are fundamentally responsible for raising healthy kids. But that’s not the debate we’re having today - because the values of honesty, responsibility and opportunity have been cut from this budget and silenced. The facts are hard to argue with. An honest budget would actually tell the truth. A responsible budget would put the American people’s interests ahead of the special interests. A budget built on opportunity wouldn't destroy it for so many. It doesn’t have to be this way. I met so many families with so much faith in the promise of America. They hate hearing about a budget that slashes funding for science programs, because they believe their children should be at the center of the next revolution in technology. Every American I meet has a vision for greatness in America. It isn’t always the same. For some the dream is energy independence. For others it’s Internet access for every American. For others the dream is healthcare for every child.

People outside Washington believe there’s nothing we can’t achieve if we have the right priorities and work hard enough. They know a budget is more than a balance sheet. It’s an affirmation of the values that really define us: honesty, responsibility, and opportunity. A budget should be a statement of fiscal responsibility, and a declaration of responsible priorities. Let me put this as plain as I can: as a statement of fiscal responsibility, this budget is a sham. As a statement of responsible priorities, it fails the test of common sense. The result: opportunity lost for countless Americans.

Every time America has been challenged, our citizens have risen to the occasion to do the hard work necessary. We’ve exported Democracy abroad, and we should be proud of it, but we have to start making our Democracy stronger here at home. No one knows tough choices better than the American people, and that’s why we must have the courage and conviction to build a new coalition and speak the truth. When we do that, we will find a powerful ally in the American people. Thank you.


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