January 26,2010

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Dan Virkstis

Baucus Floor Statement Regarding Conrad-Gregg Deficit Reduction Commission

Mr. President, the journalist Brooks Atkinson once said: “The perfect bureaucrat . . . is the [person] who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility.” 

Mr. President, the Senators from North Dakota and New Hampshire have come up with the perfect process to transform all Senators into bureaucrats. They have come up with a process that saves all Senators from making decisions. They have come up with a process to escape Congress’s central responsibility. 

At the core of the Conrad-Gregg proposal is the idea that Senators could not amend this new commission’s recommendations. Senators could not change the commission’s product.

Senators could not exercise their central responsibility as legislators. Two things most define a Senator. Senators can amend legislation, even with different subjects. And Senators can debate legislation, sometimes at length. The Conrad-Gregg proposal curtails both of those defining powers.

The Conrad-Gregg proposal completely eliminates the ability to amend. And the Conrad-Gregg proposal sharply limits the ability to debate. And that’s why the first amendment that this Senator offered would protect Social Security.

The Conrad-Gregg proposal would not allow Senators to offer amendments to protect Social Security later. So that’s why we have to vote to protect Social Security now, while we still can. The Conrad-Gregg proposal would allow Senators to escape responsibility for cutting Social Security later. So that’s why we have to vote now, while we still can, to ensure that this new commission cannot cut Social Security later.

Social Security is a solemn contract that we as a nation made with our seniors. They were the Greatest Generation. They fought World War II. They fought in Korea. They worked a lifetime. They paid their taxes. And now, we owe them the benefits that they earned. Social Security is one of the greatest poverty-fighting machines every invented. If Social Security did not exist, 44 percent of America’s seniors would live in poverty today. Social Security lifts 13 million American seniors out of poverty.

America’s seniors rely on Social Security. For two-thirds of America’s seniors, Social Security provides most of their income. For a third of America’s seniors, Social Security provides almost all of their income.

The Chairman and Ranking Republican Member of the Budget Committee have painted a big red bull’s eye on Social Security. Their commission is a Social Security-cutting machine. This morning, we will put that proposition to the test. If Senators want to put Social Security on the cutting table, then they should vote against my amendment. But if they truly want to protect Social Security, if they don’t want this new commission to cut Social Security, then they should vote for my amendment.

At least with regard to Social Security, let us not stand by like bureaucrats. Let us take responsibility. And let us protect this vital lifeline. I regret that I have only one other amendment slot available to me. Because I also want offer an amendment to protect veterans programs. We owe a solemn duty to America’s veterans, as well.

I also want to offer an amendment to protect America’s ranchers and farmers from this commission’s cuts. I also want to offer an amendment to protect America’s poorest citizens from this commission’s cuts to Medicaid. 

The point is: We don’t know where this commission will cut. All we know is that if we adopt this new Conrad-Gregg commission, we will not be able to offer amendments to stop it from cutting Social Security, Medicare, veteran’s benefits, farm price supports, or the safety net for the poorest among us.

Yes, we should address the fiscal challenges before us.

But that does not mean that we have to become bureaucrats. That does not mean that we have to stop making decisions for ourselves. That does not mean that we have to give up all responsibility. For those who favor creating a fiscal commission, there is an alternative. Pending before the Senate, in addition to the Conrad-Gregg commission, is this Senator’s amendment to create a fiscal commission.

My amendment would create the exact same commission as the Conrad-Gregg amendment. But my amendment would not create new fast-track procedures for the commission’s product. Thus, my amendment would allow Members of Congress from both parties to come together to formulate policies to address our fiscal challenges.

But my amendment would protect the rights of Senators to offer amendments to the commission’s recommendations. My alternative would allow Senators the best of both worlds — a bipartisan statutory commission, without the damage to the Senate’s process.

Some who advocate the Conrad-Gregg amendment have asserted that we have employed special procedures to enact prior budget agreements. They cite these budget agreements as a reason to adopt the Conrad-Gregg amendment.

But let’s look at two recent budget agreements, those of 1990 and 1997. Both of these agreements led to substantial deficit reduction. Congress enacted both of these budget agreements using the existing budget process. Both in 1990 and in 1997, Congress employed the budget reconciliation process to enact these agreements.

And as a result, the Senate considered numerous amendments to each of these amendments. The 1990 budget agreement had the support of the first President Bush as well as the Democratic Leadership of Congress. Even so, the Senate considered 23 amendments. The Senate voted on 21 amendments to that legislation. That was a broad, bipartisan agreement.

But the Senate still allowed amendment. And then, the Senate passed that landmark legislation, using the existing budget process. Again, in 1997, the President and the Congressional Leadership came together in a bipartisan budget agreement. That time, in 1997, it was President Clinton and the Republican Leadership in Congress. And even thought it was a bipartisan agreement, the Senate considered 77 amendments. And the Senate voted on 47 amendments to that legislation. And then, the Senate enacted that landmark legislation using the existing budget process.

Thus, in the two most successful recent bipartisan efforts to enact substantial deficit reduction, the Senate employed the existing budget process. And the Senate allowed Senators to amend those agreements. That’s the process that Congress employed in 1990 and 1997. And that’s the process that Congress should employ to implement any bipartisan agreement today.

This Senator knows something about bipartisan agreements. This Senator knows something about legislating. Moving major legislation is not easy. But it’s not impossible, either.

This Senate has, in recent memory, passed legislation to reform health care. We have enacted legislation to expand coverage for children. We have enacted legislation to provide life-saving prescription drugs to America’s seniors. We have enacted legislation to cut taxes broadly for middle-income Americans.

And this Senate has, within the memory of this Senator and many of our Colleagues, enacted major deficit reduction legislation — in 1990, in 1993, and again in 1997.  None of those efforts came easily. But then, few good things in life do.

That does not mean that they were impossible. That means that they took skill. That means that they took effort. That means that they took courage. Bureaucrats do not enact great legislation. Senators do.

I call upon my Colleagues. The people of our states elected us to do this work. Let us not shirk our responsibility. Let us make decisions for ourselves. Let us accept the responsibility that our constituents gave us. And let us reject this commission.