(Senate - July 20, 2011)

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[Pages S4691-S4693]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office []

                         CUT, CAP, AND BALANCE

  Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, we are going to move to a debate on our 
budget deficit, particularly on the debt ceiling we face on August 2. 
The proposal before us was enacted by the House yesterday on a 
virtually partisan rollcall, with one or two exceptions. The 
Republicans passed a proposal which they have characterized as cut, 
cap, and balance, and they will bring it to the floor of the Senate for 
consideration. It tries to project spending targets and cuts in 
spending for the years to come and also to include in the conversation 
the balanced budget amendment.
  It is interesting, the way they approach it, because the balanced 
budget amendment is literally an amendment to the Constitution of the 
United States, and those of us who take our oath seriously--and I 
assume that is every Member of Congress and the Senate--understand that 
we are sworn to uphold this Constitution. In other

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words, it is to be treated as the guiding document for our actions as 
Members of Congress. I have taken that oath many times as a House and 
Senate Member, and I take it seriously.
  Also, because of that oath, I am skeptical of those who come forward 
and want to amend the Constitution on a regular basis. We have had 27 
amendments to the Constitution. They have been enacted over the course 
of our Nation's history. They address some of the most serious issues 
and most historic moments in our history. I think we should address 
that document, that Constitution, with an air of humility, a feeling 
that before we add our words, whatever they may be, to this great 
document that has endured for more than 200 years, we should take care 
and be serious about it.
  I don't often question the motives or the intentions of others who 
come to the floor, and I won't do it in this instance, but I will say 
that to have before us, as we will later in the day, a proposal that we 
amend the Constitution of the United States by choosing one of three 
options--and that literally is what we will face, three different 
versions of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, and what 
we will consider here will address choosing one of them. I don't think 
we were elected to the Senate and sworn to uphold the Constitution to 
be part of a multiple-choice test about what the next amendment will 
be. I think we should be much more serious in our undertaking.
  I will also tell you that I have been here in Congress long enough to 
remember a little bit of history. There once was a President named 
Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Reagan, as President of the United States, 
was in a leadership position of the United States at a critical moment 
in our history, there is no question about it. Some amazing things 
occurred during his administration, but when it came to the budget side 
of things, there was some history made there as well.
  We are considering the debt ceiling of the United States. What is the 
debt ceiling of the United States? The debt ceiling of the United 
States is the authority Congress gives to the President to borrow 
  Each year, the Treasury Secretary will call the President and say: I 
need additional authority to borrow money. Why does he ask for 
additional authority? Because Congress--the House and the Senate--sent 
requests for more spending, and the President has to borrow money to 
honor those requests. How much does the President have to borrow? In 
this day and age, about 40 cents for every dollar we spend.
  So the President has been told that August 2 is the drop-dead date. 
He needs more authority to borrow money for the actions taken by 
Congress. As an example, many Members of Congress--even some who now 
say they won't give the President this authority--voted for America to 
go to war not once but twice, and in so voting, for example, on the war 
in Afghanistan, they are committing the United States of America to 
spending $10 billion a month in defense of our men and women in 
uniform, members of our family who are waging this war. They voted for 
  Now President Obama has said to them: The bill is coming in for the 
war in Afghanistan, and I have to borrow money to pay for it. These 
same Members of Congress--the House and Senate--who voted for the war 
in Afghanistan are now saying: We won't pay the bills. We won't extend 
the debt ceiling. We won't allow you, Mr. President, to borrow the 
money to sustain our military forces in Afghanistan.
  That is literally what we are talking about here in this debate. The 
American people are starting to come to understand because when you 
first ask a person, do you want to extend the debt ceiling, the obvious 
answer is, no, are you crazy, Senator? Why would I want more debt in 
this country? We need less debt, not more. Don't you get it?
  Understandably, that is the public reaction. But when you go to the 
point of explaining that this is to pay for debts we have already 
incurred--and it is not just to wage war; it is a debt incurred to pay 
for Medicare. We said to 65-year-olds across America: You get a health 
insurance plan called Medicare, and it will be there when you need it. 
When you go to the hospital and turn in your bills, we will pay that 
doctor and we will pay that hospital. And we borrowed money to do it.
  Mr. BROWN of Ohio. Would the assistant majority leader yield?
  Mr. DURBIN. I would be happy to yield.
  Mr. BROWN of Ohio. I appreciate the Senator's comments about where we 
were. About 10 years ago, we had a budget surplus in this country, as 
you recall. We had a number of years of quarter after quarter of 
economic growth, and we know that when you have economic growth, 
obviously the budget gets in a better situation. But then it was the 
tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that I believe the Senator opposed, as I did 
when I was in the House of Representatives, that went overwhelmingly to 
the wealthiest taxpayers; and then the two wars the Senator talked 
about that the people enthusiastically--some, not the Senator--voted 
for but didn't see a reason to pay for them; and then this Medicare 
bill, which was basically a bailout to the insurance and drug companies 
in the name of privatizing Medicare, and we are in a situation now 
where we are simply trying to pay the bills.
  I appreciate the Senator's thoughts and comments about where that 
takes us. It seems to me it is not like raising your credit card debt 
limits. These are obligations we have, and we have to be responsible 
elected officials, as we would as responsible citizens, and pay the 
debts and the obligations we have incurred as a nation, correct?
  Mr. DURBIN. That is correct. And I would say to the Senator from Ohio 
that when you look back in history, since 1939 when we had this debt 
ceiling, President after President has extended the debt ceiling 
because the cost of government--the debt of the United States--has 
generally gone up in most administrations.
  The record holder for extending the debt ceiling in U.S. history 
since 1939: President Ronald Reagan, on 18 different occasions during 
an 8-year period of time, extended the debt ceiling. During his 
administration, we tripled our national debt, and so we needed to keep 
borrowing. So to say this debt ceiling extension is the product of a 
Democratic President is to misstate the case. Every President has faced 
it. Ronald Reagan asked for those debt ceiling extensions more than any 
other President. When it comes to incurring debt in 8 years in office, 
Ronald Reagan has the record for tripling the national debt, and coming 
in second is George W. Bush for doubling the national debt while he was 
in office and asking on seven different occasions to extend the debt 
  The point I am making is that President Obama has asked to extend the 
debt ceiling, and there is ample history--some 89 different times--that 
it has been done, and it is done to pay for obligations we have already 
made, debts we have already incurred.
  Now what happens if we don't extend the debt ceiling? Well, what 
would happen if the Durbin family of Springfield, IL, did not make our 
mortgage payment on our home this month? Not good. We are likely to get 
a call from the bank at some point saying: You probably overlooked it, 
but there was a mortgage payment due. And if you said: We are just not 
going to pay it, we are not going to continue to borrow money from your 
bank, they would say there are consequences. And the same thing is true 
if you don't extend the debt ceiling.
  If we don't extend the debt ceiling of the United States and 
authorize the President to borrow money to meet our obligations, two 
things will happen. The credit report of the United States of America 
is not going to look good the next day. The same thing is true for 
individuals and families: If you don't pay your bills, your credit 
report doesn't look so hot. What is the difference? For the United 
States of America, it means the AAA credit rating we have enjoyed 
throughout our history will be in danger. It means the interest rates 
charged to the United States for our own debt will go up and interest 
rates across the economy will go up, affecting every family and 
business in America that borrows money, which would be most families 
and businesses.
  Raising interest rates with this high rate of unemployment is exactly 
the wrong thing to do. Every single day, the Federal Reserve, under Ben 
Bernanke and his Board of Governors,

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sits down and tries to figure out a way to make interest rates low so 
the economy will grow and jobs will be created. If we have a self-
inflicted wound of not increasing the debt ceiling, the net result will 
be a higher interest rate on our government and higher interest rates 
on families and businesses. A 1-percent increase--1-percent increase--
in the interest rate paid by our government on its debt costs us $130 
billion a year--1 percent.

  We are running the risk, by missing the deadline of August 2, of 
raising that interest rate, killing jobs, making it more difficult for 
businesses to expand, and increasing the deficit. Can we imagine three 
worse outcomes at this moment in our history?
  So when Members of the Senate and the House come and make these pious 
pronouncements of ``I am never going to vote for an extension of the 
debt ceiling,'' they are jeopardizing our economic recovery and the 
debt we face.
  Some of them have said: I will tell you what. I will vote for a debt 
ceiling if we can amend the Constitution and put in a balanced budget 
  Throughout my time of service in the House and the Senate, I have 
never--underline ``never''--voted for a balanced budget amendment and 
here is the reason: We don't need the Constitution to tell us what to 
do. We know what we need to do. We should have the will to do it. For 
those who have been guilty of voting for all this spending and now want 
a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, it reminds me of the 
person who says: I will not promise I will not steal again, but I will 
vote for the Ten Commandments. Well, great. Wouldn't it be better if 
they changed their conduct and the way they acted? Wouldn't it be 
better if Congress dealt with this budget deficit forthrightly? And we 
  For those who say we don't have a very good track record, they are 
right. But efforts are underway on the part of what is known as the 
Group of 6, which is expanding in size, which is trying to, on a 
bipartisan basis--Democrats and Republicans--come up with a way through 
this budget deficit problem. It is not easy. We have been at it for 
more than 6 months. We have produced a plan which is now being 
carefully scrutinized and will be worked on, I am sure, for a long time 
to come, but it moves us in the direction of $4 trillion in deficit 
reduction. It does it by putting everything on the table--everything--
including spending cuts, entitlement programs, and revenue.
  Spending cuts are easy compared to the other two--easier for us, I 
might add, because they generally involve future spending, and we make 
the reductions thinking, perhaps, it will not have the negative impact 
in the future that some imagine.
  When it comes to the entitlement programs, I think we deal with a 
different mindset when it comes to the American people. I believe 
Social Security and Medicare have become even more important to 
American families than they were 25 years ago because of the 
vulnerability of families today. Many families planned for their 
retirement and saved some money and maybe they had a pension plan at 
work and then they had Social Security. Well, over the years, perhaps 
the savings took a hit when the stock market went down some 30 percent 
a few years ago. Many of the pension plans didn't survive corporate 
restructuring or bankruptcy, and Social Security was the last game in 
town for a lot of the people retiring.
  So when we talk about changing Social Security, people all across 
America--40 million or 50 million Americans--perk up and say: Senator, 
what do you have in mind because we are counting on it and we don't 
want you to mess it up.
  Here is what I can say about Social Security. Untouched, with no 
changes--no changes--Social Security will make every promised payment 
with a cost-of-living adjustment for 25 years--25 years. That is pretty 
good. There isn't another program in government that can say the same. 
But what happens at the end of 25 years? Then the trouble starts. We 
start running out of money and reducing Social Security payments 22 
percent. About one-fifth--or a little more--of the payment a person is 
receiving today would disappear in 2 years. So what we are talking 
about in all the deficit conversations is to find ways to extend the 
life and solvency of Social Security.
  There are ways to do it. We have talked about a variety of different 
ways to do it. Any savings in Social Security will stay in Social 
Security. It is similar to Las Vegas. We are going to make sure the 
savings we put in Social Security will be reinvested in the program to 
make it stronger longer.
  I also want the program to be fair--we all do--in terms of 
beneficiaries, particularly the most vulnerable beneficiaries. About 20 
percent of Social Security beneficiaries--the lowest 20 percent--are 
below the poverty line, even after they get the Social Security check. 
We need to change that. We shouldn't allow that to happen. These are 
mainly elderly people who, with the helping hands of our government and 
Social Security, should be lifted above the poverty level.
  Medicare is much the same. If we don't deal with Medicare, the 
increasing cost of health care is going to cause that program to run 
into trouble. What we need to do is to make certain at the end we 
protect the benefits under Medicare but find ways to reduce the cost. 
We have to reward value rather than volume when it comes to medical 
treatment, and we have to keep our promise to the Medicare 
  There have been proposals made. One was made by the House Republicans 
in their budget, the so-called Paul Ryan budget, which would have 
dramatically changed Medicare. Out-of-pocket expenditures by senior 
citizens would have more than doubled to $6,000 a year. So $500 a 
month, by a person who is retired, can be a hardship, if not an 
impossibility. Even worse, the House Republican budget would have taken 
Medicare as we know it and turned it upside down and said: In the 
future, under the House Republican plan, Medicare is going to be 
managed in the tender loving arms of private health insurance 
companies. I don't think most Americans feel a sense of confidence or 
relief to hear that.
  So as we begin this debate this afternoon on the so-called cut, cap, 
and balance, the point I wish to make is this: We should not be 
considering a plan which does not put in specific language a balanced 
budget amendment but asks Members of the Senate to vote for a multiple 
choice test as to what the next amendment to the Constitution will look 
like. Secondly, we should carefully scrutinize every word of that 
amendment. Those who have say they are poorly drafted and have no place 
in the most important document in America. Third, let's accept the 
responsibility to do what we were elected to do--to reduce spending, to 
bring this budget to balance, and to do it in a sensible and humane 
way. The notion we would somehow amend our Constitution and wait for 
three-fourths of the States to ratify it is, in my mind, not 
  I am going to oppose this. I am not going to oppose efforts to reduce 
our deficit, but I am going to oppose this notion that somehow a 
balanced budget amendment to the Constitution is going to be our 
salvation. As the old Pogo cartoon used to say: We have met the enemy 
and they are us.
  We have to do this ourselves--Members of the Senate on both sides of 
the aisle.
  I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.
  The assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.
  Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order 
for the quorum call be rescinded.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Udall of New Mexico). Without objection, 
it is so ordered.