Grassley Recalls President Reagan: ‘America is Once Again at a Time for Choosing’

Floor Remarks by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Ranking Member, Senate Budget Committee
 “A Time for Choosing”
Thursday, October 26, 2023


Fifty-nine years ago tomorrow – in other words, Friday – Ronald Reagan delivered his iconic 'A Time for Choosing' speech. In this speech, the future president laid out in stark terms the challenges the Americans faced as a nation, all due to a bloated federal government that threatened Americans’ prosperity and individual freedoms. 

America is once again at a time for choosing. And much like in Reagan’s time, the issues confronting us cross party lines. 

This would be a good time to say that we have a partial step in this direction because of the Biden-McCarthy agreement in June [to avoid defaulting] because the government couldn’t issue debt. 

We have the non-partisan Congressional Budget office and others warning policymakers that, absent changes, the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation would result in an explosion of debt and deficits.

Yet, we in the Congress have turned a blind eye as the country walked headlong towards a fiscal cliff.

For 40 years, our public debt averaged around 35 percent of our economy. But over the past 15 years, that debt has grown by leaps and bounds. 

First came the 2008 financial crisis, which led to a $6 trillion leap in public debt in just four years after 2008. 

This amounted to a doubling of the national debt as a share of the economy, rising from 35 percent, where it was for about 40 years, to over 70 percent of GDP.

Then, we all know what the pandemic has done to the public debt. The pandemic hits and public debt went upwards by $7.5 trillion over three years. 

As a result, public debt soared to roughly equal to our nation’s entire annual economic output, or what you would have economists tell you, that’s about 100 percent of GDP. 

That brings us to where we are today and to take Ronald Reagan’s advice very seriously – a nation drowning in a sea of red ink with no life preserver or rescue boat in sight. 

What’s more, debt continues to rain down upon us at a record clip.

The fiscal year 2023 deficit checked in at $2 trillion once you adjust for the Supreme Court striking down the Biden student loan bailout.

Measured as a share of GDP –that 100 percent I just talked about – the 2023 deficit was larger than in all but five years since 1945. 

Our historic deficit was fueled in part by rising interest payments on the debt, which alone cost $711 billion. 

The cost to service our debt is expected to consume an increasingly larger share of the federal budget. 

While we argue about what we should or shouldn’t spend taxpayers’ money on, interest on the debt is crowding out our priorities and shrinking our options going forward.

And this all automatically happens because you pay the interest on the national debt, or you default. And we don’t want to do that. That’s what the Biden-McCarthy agreement kept from happening in June. 

Going back to June, CBO projected that servicing our debt over the next ten years would cost $10.4 trillion.

However, that projection was made before rates on Treasury bonds used to finance our debt surged to a 16-year high.

The rate on a 10-year Treasury bond is now a full percentage point higher than what CBO assumed this spring – all of that adding to our deficit problems. 

If these higher-than-expected borrowing costs persist, it will mean trillions more spent simply servicing that debt. 

What’s more, we haven’t yet hit the precipice of the fiscal cliff that CBO and other non-partisan experts have been warning will result due to the aging population. And of course, that involves Social Security and Medicare.  

The trustees of these two programs say the trust funds for both programs will be insolvent within the next 10 years.

Moreover, CBO projects that spending for major health programs will skyrocket from 32 percent of federal revenue this day to 45 percent of revenue at mid-century.

We can no longer afford to kick the can down the road. We must put an end to governing crisis to crisis and get back to the fundamentals of government. 

The fundamentals of government for Social Security and Medicare should cause us to look at the success that Reagan and then-Democratic Leader Tipp O’Neill of the House of Representatives [had when they] said, ‘We can’t let Social Security go bankrupt.’ 

They fixed it to this very day by tough decisions that we ought to be making today to fix it for the next 50 years like they did. I’ll bet maybe they, at that time, thought maybe they were only fixing it for 10 or 20 years. But that was from 1983 until now. Social Security’s supposed to run out of resources – reserves – by 2033. 

What I’m saying is, it means actively managing the government instead of doing it from crisis-to-crisis and by not chasing an elusive partisan ideal.

That will require implementing honest budget and appropriations practices that will enable us to begin to chip away at this daunting debt. 

According to the well-regarded Penn Wharton Budget Model, the United States has about 20 years to take corrective action to avoid fiscal disaster. 

I almost hate to say 20 years – but Penn Wharton is respected– because that means we maybe won’t take necessary action in the near term, and it’s always easier to solve these problems yesterday than it is tomorrow. The longer we wait to take these actions, then obviously, I’m saying the more painful those actions will be. 

In Penn Wharton’s estimation, if we put off corrective actions until a fiscal crisis is on our doorstep, no amount of future tax hikes or spending cuts will enable us to avoid defaulting on our debt.

When I just said, as I did, ‘Until a fiscal crisis is on our doorstep,’ Iowans at my 99 county meetings that I hold every year would say we’re already at that point. 

When you talk about maybe it could be done or not done, then you could imagine the cynical people of Iowa just like the cynical people of the United States as a whole are going to lose even [more] confidence in our government institutions. 

We all know there’s plenty of blame to go around for how we got into our current fiscal situation. But, no amount of finger pointing, political or otherwise, will change where we find ourselves today. 

We must now make a choice: We can either continue down the path to fiscal ruin, or we can begin to rein in a bloated federal government in pursuit of a more prosperous tomorrow.

In the words of Ronald Reagan, 59 years ago tomorrow, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.”

“We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

We see on television, a lot of times, people saying how God-awful this country is. And yet, on that same television [on any given day], you can see 10,000 people crossing the border to come to our country. 

For those people who live in America and have lived here all their lives and find America’s not such a great place, they ought to wonder why people from all over the world want to come to America. 

Or sometimes, I tell people at citizenship ceremonies in the courthouses of Iowa when I’m able to go there, I say to this group – many of them have come from autocracies...where they have less freedom than they have in America today… I say to those people: I hope when you hear somebody who was born in America bellyaching how God-awful wrongs we have in this country, I hope you will remind them – as a person born in another country – how great this country is. Because people who were born here lose sight of how great America is. 

Getting back to this fiscal issue I’ve been talking about: 

Whether Ronald Reagan says it, or I say it, or each of my 99 colleagues say it, because I think, to some extent, we’re all on the same page – maybe not how to solve the problem, but that there is a problem – then, I say, like Reagan said: the choice is clear. 

It’s time we do what our constituents sent us here to do, and that basically means to lead – to lead us out of this fiscal crisis. 

I yield the floor.