Apr 19 2012 -
I rise today to discuss what I did in the Budget Committee yesterday, why I did it, and where we are headed.
I have heard people say repeatedly that the Senate has now gone for some 1,000 days since passing a budget resolution. What they are not telling people is that last year, instead of a budget resolution, the Senate and the House and the President signed a budget control law.
The occupant of the chair knows very well, being a former attorney general, that a resolution is purely a congressional document. It never goes to the President for his signature. The Budget Control Act we passed last year, while it is true it is not a resolution, it was a law signed by the President of the United States, and that law -- the Budget Control Act -- said we are going to set the budget for this year and next, but beyond that we are also going to put in place 10 years of spending caps, saving $900 billion.
On the question of whether the Budget Control Act represents or takes the place of a budget resolution for this year and next, let me read from the text because I think it makes it abundantly clear. It says: “The allocations, aggregates, and levels set in the Budget Control Act shall apply in the Senate in the same manner as for a concurrent resolution on the budget.”
That is pretty clear. This law, the Budget Control Act law, is to serve in the same manner as a budget resolution for 2012 and 2013, and it sets out the spending limits for those years. But it even goes further and sets spending caps for 10 years -- something that, in my time here, has never been done in a budget resolution. Never in a budget resolution, while I have been here, has there been the setting of 10 years of spending caps, but that is what was done in the Budget Control Act last year.
But that law went even further than that. It also created a special committee and empowered that committee to come up with a proposal to reform the entitlement programs -- Social Security and Medicare -- and reform the tax system of the United States, and it told that special committee that if it came to an agreement, that legislation could come to the floor without fear of filibuster -- without fear of filibuster. Extraordinary powers were granted in that Budget Control Act to reform Social Security and Medicare and the tax system as well.
That special committee did not agree, and the Budget Control Act said: If you don't agree, there are consequences, and the consequences are another $1.2 trillion of spending cuts on top of the $900 billion of spending restraint that was in the underlying act.
So the special committee didn't agree, and now we have the prospect of a sequester imposing another $1.2 trillion of spending cuts on top of the $900 billion of spending cuts in the underlying act, for a total of over $2 trillion of spending cuts. That is the biggest spending cut package, as far as I know, in the history of the United States. Yet the other side suggests repeatedly that nothing has been done to set spending limits when they know full well what the Budget Control Act, passed last year, does. Yes, it wasn't a resolution; it was a law. Boy, that is sort of civics 101, that a law is stronger than a resolution.
I said several days ago I would go to markup in the Budget Committee and I would lay out a long-term plan because while it is true that we have in place for the next 2 years a budget under the Budget Control Act, what we don't have is an overall long-term plan. The Budget Control Act limits discretionary spending for the next 10 years, but we also need a program that outlines what we are going to do about entitlement programs -- Medicare, Social Security -- and what we are going to do to reform our tax system, which is badly broken.
So several days ago I said I would lay before the Budget Committee the Bowles-Simpson plan, which is the only bipartisan plan that has emerged. It was supported by 11 of the 18 Commissioners. I was proud to be one of five Democrats, five Republicans, and one Independent.
Eleven of the 18 voted to support that Bowles-Simpson package. Unfortunately, it took a super supermajority for that plan to come to the floor of the House and the Senate; it required 14 of the 18 members to agree. Eleven of 18 did, which is more than 60 percent. Even in Washington, usually 60 percent carries the day, but it didn't with respect to the Bowles-Simpson recommendations.
So I said several days ago I would put before the body the Bowles-Simpson plan. I did not suggest we would complete action on it at the beginning of the markup. Why? Because we already have in place the spending limitations for this year and next. What we don't have is a longer term plan. We don't need that longer term plan right at this moment, but we need it before the end of the year because at the end of the year all of the Bush-era tax cuts are going to expire, and at the end of this year we are going to face that sequester I mentioned that is in the Budget Control Act law that we passed last year instead of a budget resolution.
Why do we need this longer term plan? Well, because we are borrowing about 40 cents of every dollar we spend, and that is unsustainable. It has to change. I have warned repeatedly of where we are headed if we don't change course.
And here is where we are headed. This chart shows the gross debt of the United States if we stay on the trajectory we are on. We can see we are here in 2012. At the end of this year, the gross debt of the United States will be 104 percent of our gross domestic product, headed for 119 percent on our current trajectory. That shouldn't be permitted to happen, and under the plan I laid before our colleagues yesterday, it won't happen.
If we look at the underlying cause of these deficits and debt, we can see it is the relationship between spending and revenue. The red line is the spending line, the green line is the revenue line of the United States looking back to 1950, and what one sees is that spending is at or near a 60-year high. Actually, we have fallen back somewhat from the 60-year high we reached 2 years ago. Revenue is at or near a 60-year low. Actually, we can see it bumped up to a 70-year low back in 2010. But still we see a very wide gap between revenue and spending. As a result, there is a very large deficit -- a deficit of $1.2 trillion.
Now, I could have gone before the Budget Committee yesterday and laid out another partisan plan, because that is what is happening. Congressman Ryan, to his credit, laid out a plan, and in the House they passed his plan. I give him credit for laying out a plan. I think the plan is a very bad plan for the country and completely lacks balance. It is all done on the spending side of the equation, which leads him to truly Draconian cuts -- dramatic changes in Medicare, for example, dramatic changes in Medicaid, dramatic changes in the whole structure of services the government provides people in this country. And the American people don't want a plan that is just a partisan plan. They do not want a plan that lacks balance. They do not want a plan that is just on one side of the ledger.
As I showed in the previous chart, we have a problem on both sides of the ledger -- on revenue and on spending. We have to work on both sides of the ledger. And the American people believe that as well. When asked in the Pew Research Center poll last year in November, "What is the best way to reduce the Federal budget deficit?" 17 percent said just cut major programs -- only 17 percent, 1-7. On increasing taxes, 8 percent said just increase taxes. And 62 percent said a combination of both. I think the American people have it right. They are pretty smart. They are pretty smart.
In 2010 we had the Bowles-Simpson Commission, the so-called fiscal commission. Eighteen of us were named to serve. It was created by the President after a legislative attempt, led by Senator Gregg of New Hampshire, a Republican, and myself, failed here. We got a majority but we didn't get a supermajority. So our attempt to form a commission legislatively was thwarted. President Obama showed leadership and named a Presidential commission in order to take on the subject, and in December of 2010 that commission reported their conclusion, with 11 of the 18 of us agreeing to the recommendations.
Here are the principles and values the fiscal commission used to guide their efforts: that it is a patriotic duty to make America better; that we shouldn't do anything that would disrupt the economic recovery; that we ought to cut and invest to promote economic growth and keep America competitive; that we ought to protect the truly disadvantaged; that we ought to cut spending we cannot afford, with no exceptions; that we ought to demand productivity and effectiveness from Washington; that we ought to reform and simplify the Tax Code; that we shouldn't make promises we can't keep; and that the problem of deficits and debt are real and the solution will be painful.
Let's be honest. When you are borrowing 40 cents of every dollar you spend, you are not going to solve this in a way that doesn't affect anyone. All of us are going to have to participate in the solution.
The last principle that was used to guide the commission was that we should do things to make America sound over the long run.
So what does the fiscal commission plan I laid out do? It puts in place $5.4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, including savings that have already been enacted in the Budget Control Act.
It lowers the deficit from 7.6 percent of GDP in 2012 to 2.5 percent in 2015 and down to 1.4 percent in 2022. So because of the reductions in deficits, it stabilizes the debt and begins to bring it down. In fact, it stabilizes the gross debt by 2015 and lowers it to 93 percent of GDP by 2022.
Remember my previous slide? Here is the quiz. What did it say the debt would become by 2022 if we don't do anything as a share of GDP? It said it would become 119 percent if we didn't act. Under the proposal I laid before the Budget Committee yesterday, it would bring down the debt to 93 percent of GDP -- the gross debt to 93 percent of GDP by 2022 instead of 119 percent if we fail to act.
The plan I laid out reduces overall spending to 21.9 percent of GDP by 2022, discretionary spending to 4.8 percent of GDP by 2022, a record low -- a record low. In fact, this overall spending level is lower than the average spending level during the Reagan administration.
Our colleagues on the other side are always eager to embrace Ronald Reagan's policies. The proposal I laid out yesterday has a lower average spending as a share of our national income than did President Reagan during the entire period of his Presidency.
The plan I laid out also builds on health care reform with additional health care savings and fully funds the doc fix. What is the doc fix? That is the measure to prevent the doctors who treat Medicare patients from taking a cut of more than 20 percent.
The plan also calls for Social Security reform that ensures the 75-year solvency of Social Security, with the savings only to extend solvency, not for deficit reduction. In other words, Social Security reform, those savings are not used for deficit reduction. They are only used to extend the solvency of the program itself. The plan I laid out includes fundamental tax reform; makes the Tax Code simpler, fairer, more efficient, while raising more revenue to reduce our deficit and debt.
This chart shows the deficit as a percentage of GDP under the Fiscal Commission Budget Plan I laid before our colleagues yesterday. We can see, it takes the deficit from 7.6 percent of GDP this year -- which is down, by the way, substantially from 10 percent, which is where it has been -- down to 1.4 percent in 2022. The Fiscal Commission Budget Plan reduces the deficits below the 3-percent-of-GDP level that is considered sustainable by economists, and it does that by 2015.
Again, the gross debt under the plan I put before colleagues that comes from the fiscal commission work, the Bowles-Simpson plan that was concluded and recommended in 2010, would take the gross debt down to 93 percent of GDP from the 104 percent it is now and, as I indicated earlier, an even more dramatic improvement compared to what the debt would be if we failed to act.
As I indicated, the spending level under the Fiscal Commission Budget Plan is about 21.8 percent of GDP. During the Reagan administration, spending was 22.1 percent of GDP. So we have lower overall spending as a share of the national income than was the case during the Reagan administration. In fact, discretionary spending goes to an all-time low of 4.8 percent by the end of the 10-year plan.
We can see, discretionary spending -- that is distinct from mandatory spending. Mandatory spending are things such as Social Security and Medicare. Discretionary spending are things such as defense and national parks and law enforcement and education. We can see, discretionary spending as a share of our national income is dropping very sharply under this plan.
What is happening on the other side of the spending ledger is the 800-pound gorilla, which is health care. That is the thing that threatens to swamp the boat around here because we can see what is happening. Back in 1972 Medicare, Medicaid, and other Federal health spending was about 1 percent of our gross domestic product. If we don't take further steps by 2050, it is going to be 13 percent of our gross domestic product, from 1 percent to 13 percent. Right now in this country, 18 percent of our GDP is going to health care. One in every six dollars in our whole economy is going to health care -- more than $1 in every $6. So that is something we have to focus on like a laser, and in the fiscal commission plan, we do focus on it like a laser. It doesn't open the health care reform debate that we just concluded, but it does provide an option to phase out the tax exclusion for health care that economists tell us would be one of the most effective things we could do to change the direction of health care expenditure.
It fully offsets the cost of the so-called doc fix, so our doctors treating Medicare patients don't face this huge cut that is currently in the law. We have additional savings proposals with Medicare beneficiary cost sharing, payments to health care providers being reformed, eliminating State gaming of the Medicaid tax, and providing the Medicaid drug rebate for those who are duly eligible in Medicare. This would save hundreds of billions of dollars.
While the fiscal commission did make a recommendation on Social Security, those numbers are not included in the proposal I put before our colleagues yesterday because I am precluded from doing so by the law. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 prohibits the inclusion of Social Security in deficit totals of a budget resolution. So I did lay out the proposal from the fiscal commission on reforming Social Security; but I could not include it in the numbers because I am precluded from doing so by the law.
Here are the recommendations from the fiscal commission that I included in my proposal to our colleagues but that are not in the numbers for the reason I have given: calls for Social Security reforms to make it solvent, not for deficit reduction; restores 75-year solvency and puts it on a stable path beyond 75 years; strengthens the safety net by enhancing the minimum benefit for low-wage workers and by giving an actual bump up in benefits for the oldest seniors and the long-time disabled. One of the things we know, people who live a long time run out of their benefits. So in the fiscal commission we proposed to actually give them a little bump up after they have been in retirement for an extended period of time.
We also provided a hardship exemption for those who are unable to work past the age of 62. One of the things we know is a person can take early retirement at age 62 -- and we are going to have to increase the retirement age of Social Security over time, over a very long time, by the way. In this proposal, we increase the retirement age to 69 over decades.
We have to increase also the maximum level of wages that are taxed for Social Security because the traditional standard is no longer being followed. We are not taxing 90 percent of wages. That doesn't mean the tax is 90 percent, by the way. It means 90 percent of wages is being subjected to the tax. What has been happening over years is we have been getting a reduced amount of taxable wages to apply the Social Security tax to. That is one of the reasons we have a shortfall over time.
Under this plan, we raise the retirement age -- but only very gradually -- reaching 69 by 2075. This is 2012. So we don't raise the retirement age to 69 until 2075. That is 63 years from now. But make no mistake, that is important because people are living longer. In fact, people are living much longer.
We also have a need for tax reform. The Tax Code is out of date, it is inefficient, and it is hurting U.S. competitiveness. The complexity imposes significant burden on individuals and businesses. The expiring provisions create uncertainty and confusion. We are hemorrhaging revenue to the tax gap, to tax havens, to abusive tax shelters.
Many times on this floor I have shown a picture of a little building down in the Cayman Islands called Ugland House. Ugland House claims to be the home to 18,000 corporations. A little 5-story building down in the Cayman Islands claims to be the home to 18,000 companies. Are all those companies doing business out of that little five-story building? No. The only business they are doing down there is monkey business, and the monkey business they are doing is ducking their taxes here and shoving the burden onto all the rest of us who pay our taxes. That is not right.
We have to go after these tax havens, these abusive tax shelters, and we can do it. We need to restore fairness. The current system is contributing to growing income inequality, and our long-term fiscal imbalance, the deficits and debt we talked about, must be addressed.
The CBO Director, Mr. Elmendorf, talked about the economic benefits of tax reform in a hearing before the Budget Committee. He said: “I think analysts would widely agree that reform of the Tax Code that broadened the base and brought down rates would be a positive force for economic growth, both in the short term and over a longer period.”
Tax reform has to be part of the agenda of this Congress. Here is what is happening to income disparity in America. Look at what is happening. The top 1 percent -- and I am all for the top 1 percent doing well. I want everyone to do well in America, but look what is happening. Since 1979, the top 1 percent, their incomes have gone up almost 300 percent. Look at what has happened to those in the middle and those at the bottom. Their incomes have stagnated. They have been about stable -- gone up a little bit but not very much. The top 1 percent has gone up like a rocket.
One of the reasons is the Tax Code of the United States has dramatically reduced for the wealthiest in our country the tax burden they shoulder. They will show us, oh, their taxes have gone way up. Sure, they have because their incomes have gone way up. What has gone down -- what has gone way down is the effective tax rate they pay. The top 400 families, the wealthiest 400 families in America, have had their effective tax rate almost cut in half since 1995.
Again, I am not one who is against success. I come from a family who has succeeded. I come from a family who has done well, and I am deeply appreciative. I am grateful for the opportunity this country has provided to my family. But do you know what. What is fair is fair. What is fair is fair. We have to ask everybody to help pull this wagon out of the ditch. We are in the ditch, and let's get serious about getting out.
If we broaden the base of our tax system, the people who will be most affected are the wealthiest among us because look what happens. Here is the increase in aftertax income, on average, from tax expenditures in this country; that is, the loopholes, the deductions, the credits, the exclusions that are in the current Tax Code. The average benefit for the top 1 percent is $219,000 a year. The middle quintile, their benefit is $3,000. If we reform tax expenditures, which we should do, that will put some additional burden on those who are the wealthiest among us.
By the way, not everybody who is doing well is treated the same way under this Tax Code. There are many people who are doing well who are paying a tax rate that is very close to the top rate of 35 percent. There are others who are paying at a level one-half as much; the same income but paying much less in taxes. Why? Because they have set up their affairs in a way that they especially benefit from the credits, the exclusions, the deductions, and all the rest of the tax gimmicks that riddle the current Tax Code.
Here is what one of the most conservative economists in the country said about reducing tax expenditures. This is Martin Feldstein, professor of economics at Harvard, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan. This is what he said about cutting tax expenditures: “Cutting tax expenditures is really the best way to reduce government spending.... [E]liminating tax expenditures does not increase marginal tax rates or reduce the reward for saving, investment or risk-taking. It would also increase overall economic efficiency by removing incentives that distort private spending decisions. And eliminating or consolidating the large number of overlapping tax-based subsidies would also greatly simplify tax filing. In short, cutting tax expenditures is not at all like other ways of raising revenue.” That, from one of the most conservative economists in the country.
Our colleagues on the other side say wait a minute, we should not have revenues more than 18 percent of gross domestic product because that is, on average, what it has been over the last 30 or 40 years. The problem with their analysis is the last five times we have balanced the budget the revenue has not been 18 percent of GDP. The last five times we have balanced the budget, revenue has been at 19.7, in 1969; 19.9, in 1998; 19.8 percent of GDP in 1999; 20.6 percent of GDP in 2000; and 19.5 percent of GDP in 2001. If people want to be serious about balancing the budget, we are going to have to have a revenue level, based on what we see historically, that is more than 18 percent of GDP.
The fiscal commission plan I laid before colleagues yesterday, the so-called Bowles-Simpson plan, does this with respect to tax reform. It eliminates or scales back those tax expenditures we were discussing but lowers tax rates. You can lower tax rates and get more money if you broaden the base, if you reduce some of these tax expenditures that frankly go disproportionately to the wealthiest among us and have grown like Topsy in the Tax Code.
We can promote economic growth and improve America's global competitiveness, we can make the Tax Code more competitive, we can have what was included in the fiscal commission, an option, a reform plan that calls for three rates for individuals: 12 percent, 22 percent, and 28 percent. The top rate now is 35 percent. A corporate rate of 28 percent. The corporate rate now is 35 percent.
The fiscal commission plan called for capital gains and dividends to be taxed as ordinary income. Instead of having a differential for capital gains and dividends, they were taxed at ordinary rates. But the fiscal commission also said if you want to have a differential, you have to pay for it by buying up the top rate. For those who believe strongly you need to have a differential for cap gains and perhaps dividends, you can do that, but then you have to have a higher top rate than 28 percent.
The fiscal commission plan reforms the mortgage interest and charitable deductions, it preserves the child tax credit and earned-income tax credit, and completely repeals the alternative minimum tax.
Under this plan, revenues grow to 20.5 percent of GDP by 2022. In fact, the revenue under the fiscal commission plan during the 10 years of the plan averages 19.7 percent. That is right at the level that has been required the last five times we have balanced the budget. That is very close to the revenue level during the Clinton administration, the last time we did balance the budget. By the way, that was a Democratic President.
Some say that is a big tax increase you are talking about, Senator. No, it is not a big tax increase. It is additional revenue of $2.4 trillion compared to roughly current policy, what is happening right now. But compared to current law it is actually a $1.8 trillion tax cut because all of the tax cuts that were put in place in the Bush administration are about to expire. So if you compare it to that law, this proposal represents a $1.8 trillion tax cut. It is more revenue than we would get under current policy but less revenue than we would get under current law.
The fiscal commission plan I laid before colleagues yesterday, the so-called Bowles-Simpson plan, also had certain process changes to tighten things up around here, to become more disciplined. It set discretionary spending caps through 2022 enforced by a 60-vote point of order and sequester; firewalls between security and nonsecurity spending so money could not be diverted between the two; a separate cap for war funding with annual limits proposed by the President; more rigorous emergency designation procedures and annual budgeting for disasters; a fail-safe to pressure Congress to maintain a stable debt-to-GDP ratio starting in 2015; more accurate inflation adjustments for indexed programs -- that is the so-called chained CPI, a more accurate measurement for inflation adjustment; and a process to ensure more reliable and timely extended unemployment insurance benefits.
I have heard from my colleagues repeatedly that the President showed no leadership. I don't believe that. I think the President showed extraordinary leadership. He averted a depression -- and make no mistake, that is where we were headed when he came into office. When he came into office here is what was happening. We were losing 800,000 jobs a month in the private sector. That is what he walked into. He did not create the conditions that led to losing 800,000 jobs a month, he inherited that.
Look at the progress that has been made. Since 24 months ago we have seen jobs in the private sector on the positive side of the ledger -- 4 million jobs created. That is after he was in a situation in which we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. In the last 4 months we have been averaging 200,000 jobs created. That is pretty good leadership. That is a dramatic turnaround.
The same is true of economic growth. When he came into office the economy was shrinking at a rate of almost 9 percent. Now it is growing at a rate of about 3 percent. That is pretty good leadership. That is a dramatic change from what he inherited.
When I hear that the President did not show leadership -- oh, yes? I would say he showed pretty good leadership. He stopped the hemorrhaging. He got us going back in the right direction. It is not everything we hoped for, but my goodness, what a remarkable turnaround. Two of the most distinguished economists in this country said if we had not taken the actions that were taken by the Federal Government at the end of the Bush administration and during this administration, we would be in a depression.
We are not in a depression. In fact we are growing. We are growing modestly but we are growing. We are creating jobs in the private sector. The private sector is growing. It added 4 million jobs since this President got things turning around. This President named the fiscal commission. There would not be a Bowles-Simpson commission had the President not appointed it. The Bowles-Simpson commission plan is what I put before our colleagues yesterday.
Some have criticized me to say: You didn't vote on it. That is right. We are not going to vote on it until we believe there is the best possible chance to actually get results. If you go back to the Bowles-Simpson commission approach, what you saw is they did not time the vote until after the 2010 election. What I am saying to colleagues is I think we ought to follow their good example. That is because the truth is, people are not likely -- all sides are unlikely to get off their fixed position right before a national election.
Let me end as I began. We have a budget for this year and next. It is contained in the Budget Control Act, a law that was passed last year. When my colleagues say there was no budget resolution passed, what they are not telling you is instead of a budget resolution, we passed a budget control law. A law is stronger than any resolution. A resolution is purely a congressional document and never goes to the President for his signature. The Budget Control Act passed the House and the Senate and was signed by the President of the United States.
It says in part: “The allocations, aggregates and levels of spending set in this act shall apply in the Senate in the same manner as for a concurrent resolution on the budget.”
What could be more clear? This law is in place of a budget resolution. It is stronger than any resolution because it is a law.
Next time somebody tells you there has been no budget resolution for 1000 days, ask them, but did they pass a law that set spending limits? That set the budget for this year and next? That set 10 years of spending caps that saved $900 billion, that gave a special committee the ability to change Social Security and Medicare and the tax system of the United States and not face a filibuster? And if they did not succeed, there would be another $1.2 trillion of cuts? And because they did not agree, that additional $1.2 trillion of cuts is now in law and will begin to be imposed at the beginning of next year?
That is a total of more than $2 trillion of spending cuts in the Budget Control Act passed by the Congress, signed by the President, and in force today. That is the biggest spending cut package in the history of the country.
If anybody suggests to you no spending limits have been put in place, ask them: What about the Budget Control Act? Didn't you vote on that? Because it passed the House. The Republican-controlled House, they passed it. It passed the Senate and it was signed by the President of the United States. It is the law. A law is stronger than any resolution.