To give one example--and I don't mean to pick on the Walton family, but just as a flesh-and-blood example--Sam Walton's family, the heirs to the Walmart fortune, are worth, give or take, $86 billion. That is a lot of money. The Walton family would receive an estimated $32.7 billion tax break if the estate tax was completely repealed. Does anybody in their right mind believe that when this country has a national debt of $13.7 trillion and when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world and our unemployment rate is 9.8 percent, can anybody for one second fathom Members of the Senate saying they want to give a $32 billion tax break to one family?
In terms of the estate tax, what we have done is made it even more regressive. We have given substantial help to exactly the people who need it the least. That is not what we should be doing. Our job--and I know it is a radical idea--should be to represent the vast majority of the people, the middle class, the working families, and not just the top 1 or 2 percent. This proposal, this lowering of the estate tax, which will cost our government substantial sums of money because the revenue is not going to come in, will benefit only the top three-tenths of 1 percent.
Again, if some of my Republican colleagues are successful in their desire--and they are moving down the path--if we repeal the estate tax entirely, which is what they want to do--it is hard to believe, and some of the listeners out there think I am kidding, but I am deadly serious--it will drive up the national debt by $1 trillion over a 10-year period. Lowering the estate tax rate and raising the exemption is clearly an onerous provision.
It is not only the Walton family of Walmart who will benefit. According to Forbes magazine, there are 403 billionaires living in this country with a combined net worth of $1.3 trillion. That is not shabby. That is pretty good. Anyone lucky enough to inherit this extraordinary wealth would benefit the most from repealing the estate tax.
As Robert Frank wrote in his book "Richistan'':
The wealthiest people in this country accumulated so much wealth that they have been competing to see who could own the largest private yacht, who could own the most private jets, who could own the most expensive cars, jewelry, artwork, et cetera. In 1997, for example, Leslie Wexner, chairman of Limited Brands, the company that owns Victoria's Secret--
And none of us know what Victoria's Secret is--
paid a German shipmaker to build what was then the largest private yacht in the United States. It is called The Limitless.
There is a photo. It is a nice boat. It stretches 315 feet and has 3,000 square feet of teakwood and a gym.
According to Forbes magazine, Mr. Wexner is one of the wealthiest 400 people in this country, worth an estimated $2.3 billion. Permanently repealing the estate tax would allow Mr. Wexner's two children to inherit all of his wealth without paying a nickel to help this country deal with the enormous problems we have.
I wish Mr. Wexner--I don't know him; I hope he is alive and well--a long life. But I believe strongly that in this country, if we are going to see the middle class survive and our kids do well, we cannot repeal the estate tax and we cannot lower estate tax rates.
I wish to address another issue which I talked about earlier. I think there is some misunderstanding. The Presiding Officer raised this issue at a recent meeting we had. All over the country, people say: Isn't it great that we are going to lower the payroll tax on workers? We are going to go from 6.2 percent, which workers now pay, down to 4.2 percent. People are going to have more money in their pocket, which certainly is a good thing. It is going to cost $120 billion in Social Security payroll taxes.
Here is the point. Yes, we do want to put more money in workers' pockets. That is why many of us in the stimulus package supported a $400-a-year tax break for virtually every worker in America. That is what we said. We want people in these difficult times to have the money to take care of their families. When they have that money, they go out and spend it. When they spend it, it creates other jobs because people have to provide goods and services for them. It has a good, stimulative impact. We do want workers to have more money in their pockets.
While this idea of lowering the payroll tax sounds like a good idea, in truth, it really is not a good idea. This idea originated from very conservative Republicans whose intention from the beginning was to destroy Social Security by choking off the funds that go to it. This is not just Bernie Sanders' analysis. There was recently--I distributed it recently at a meeting we held--a news release that came from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. The headline on that press release is ``Cutting Contributions to Social Security Signals the Beginning of the End. Payroll Tax Holiday is Anything But.'' What the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which is one of the largest senior groups in America, well understands is that there are people out there who want to destroy Social Security. And one way to do that is to divert funds into the Social Security trust fund and they don't get there.
What the President and others have said is not to worry, this is just a 1-year program--just 1 year. In fact, they say, the General Treasury will pay the difference. So the Social Security trust fund is not going to lose funding.
The reason we have a $2.6 trillion surplus today in Social Security and the reason Social Security is good for the next 29 years to pay out all benefits is because it comes from the payroll tax. It is not dependent upon the whims of the Congress and the Treasury.
The President and Republicans said: This is just a 1-year program. Don't worry.
I do worry. I worry that once we establish this 1-year payroll tax holiday, next year our Republican friends will say: Do you want to end that? You are going to be raising taxes on workers. And enough people will support that concept, and this 1-year payroll tax holiday will become permanent. And when we do that, we will be choking off, over a period of years, trillions of dollars that we need to make sure Social Security is viable and is there for our children and grandchildren.
But don't listen to me. Listen to somebody who knows a lot more about this issue than I do. Barbara Kennelly is a former Congresswoman from Connecticut. She is the president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. This is what Barbara Kennelly says:
Even though Social Security contributed nothing to the current economic crisis, it has been bartered in a deal that provides deficit busting tax cuts for the wealthy. Diverting $120 billion in Social Security contributions for a so-called tax holiday may sound like a good deal for workers now, but it is bad business for a program that a majority of middle class seniors will rely upon in the future.
The headline is ``Cutting Contributions to Social Security Signals the Beginning of the End.''
This is not a good approach. Providing and figuring out a way that we can get more money into the hands of working people, as we did in the stimulus package, does make a lot of sense. Going forward with a payroll tax holiday is a backdoor method to end up breaking Social Security. It is not anything we should support.
Let me mention a quote from a gentleman who understands this issue very well. He understands the politics of what is going on here. His name Bruce Bartlett, former adviser for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He recently wrote the following in opposition to this payroll tax cut. This is what Mr. Bartlett wrote:
What are the odds that Republicans will ever allow this one-year tax holiday to expire? They wrote the Bush tax cuts with explicit expiration dates and then when it came time for the law they wrote to take effect exactly as they wrote it, they said any failure to extend them permanently would constitute the biggest tax increase in history. ..... if allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire is the biggest tax increase in history, one that Republicans claim would decimate a still-fragile economy, then surely expiration of a payroll tax holiday would also constitute a massive tax increase on the working people of America. Republicans would prefer to destroy Social Security's finances or permanently fund it with general revenues--
Switch the revenue base from the payroll tax to general revenues--
than allow a once-suspended payroll tax to be reimposed. Arch Social Security hater Peter Ferrara once told me that funding it with general revenues was part of his plan to destroy it by converting Social Security into a welfare program, rather than an earned benefit. He was right.
In other words, what this issue is about is breaking the bonds we have had since the inception of Social Security where Social Security was paid for by workers. You pay for it when you are working, and you get the benefits when you are old. That is the deal. There is no Federal money coming in from the General Treasury.
This gentleman, Mr. Bartlett, former adviser to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, thinks--and I suspect he is quite right--this is the beginning of an effort to destroy Social Security.
The real debate about Social Security is not one about finances.
There has been a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there. I hear from some of my friends on the Republican side that Social Security is going bankrupt; it is not going to be there for our kids. That is absolutely not true. Social Security today has a $2.6 trillion surplus. Social Security can pay out every benefit owed to every eligible American, if we do not start diverting funds, for the next 29 years, at which point it pays out about 78 percent of benefits. So our challenge in 29 years is to fill that 22-percent gap. That it is. Can we do it? Sure we can.
President Obama, when he was campaigning, and I think he has repeated since, the very good suggestion that instead of having a cap in terms of which people contribute into the fund at $106,000, what we should do is do a bubble, and people who make $250,000 or more should contribute into the Social Security trust fund. If you did that and nothing else, you have essentially solved the Social Security problem for the next 75 years. Very easy. It is done.
So what this payroll tax holiday is doing, in my view, is pretty dangerous. I do not think enough people understand that. I think that is one of the strong reasons this agreement should be opposed.
Another reason I believe this agreement is not as good an agreement as we can get is that it provides tens and tens of billions of dollars in tax cuts for various types of businesses. I am not here to say these tax cuts cannot do some good. I suspect they can. But I think there is a lot better way to create the jobs we need than providing these particular business tax cuts.
Frankly, I think economists from almost all political spectrums--conservative to progressive--understand that if we are serious about creating the kinds of jobs this economy desperately needs and if we want to do that as rapidly and as cost-effectively as we possibly can, the way to do that is not to provide business tax cuts because right now--right now--corporate America is sitting on close to $2 trillion cash on hand. They have a ton of money. The problem is the products they are creating are not being bought by the American people because the American people do not have the money to buy those goods and services.
So if we are serious about creating the jobs we need, I think what we have to do is start making significant investments in our crumbling infrastructure; that is, rebuilding our bridges, our roads, our water systems, broadband, cell phone service, public transportation, our rail system, dams. In every single one of these areas, we are seeing our infrastructure crumbling.
The point is, if you simply ignore a crumbling infrastructure--and I say this as a former mayor who dealt with this issue--if you simply ignore a crumbling infrastructure, do you know what, it does not get better all by itself.
I know many mayors and Governors would very much like to think they could turn their backs on the infrastructure because it is not a sexy investment. It is not a sexy investment. But the reality is, if you do not pay attention to it today, it only gets worse and it costs you more money. It is like having a cavity. You can get your cavity filled. If you neglect it, as I have, and you end up doing a root canal, it is far more painful, far more expensive. That is what it is about. Do we maintain our infrastructure? Clearly, we have not. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we should be spending about $2.2 trillion in the next 5 years in order to maintain our infrastructure.
I say to the Presiding Officer, I do not know about Alaska--I spent a very brief time in the Presiding Officer's beautiful State--but I do know in Vermont we have bridges all over our State that are in desperate need of repair. It is fair to say that the stimulus package has been very positive for my State. We are spending more money on roads and bridges. But we have a long way to go. So we are putting money into our roads and bridges. We are hiring people to do that work. That is what we should be doing all over the country.
But it is not just roads and bridges. It is water systems. I told this story, I guess a few hours ago now, about a mayor, the mayor of Rutland, VT, which is the second largest city in the State. I was in his office and he showed me a pipe, and the pipe was in pretty bad shape. He said: You know, this pipe was laid by an engineer who then, after he did this, went off to war. And he said: What war do you think he went off to fight? And he said it was the Civil War--the Civil War. So this was pipe laid in Rutland, VT, which is still being used, which was laid, I am guessing, in the 1850s, maybe 1860s. And it is not just Rutland, VT.
When I was mayor of Burlington, we had to spend $50 million, back then, 20 years ago, I think, rebuilding our wastewater plants and making sure that a lot of pollution and filthy water did not get into our beautiful lake, Lake Champlain. It was an expensive proposition. But right now, we are going to have to invest in that. It is our water systems, our dams, our levees, our roads, our bridges.
I mentioned earlier and contrasted what was going on in infrastructure in the United States as opposed to China, and I quoted from a book called ``Third World America,'' written by Arianna Huffington, who tells us, essentially, if we do not get our act together, that is what we will become--a third world country.
She points out that compared to countries such as China, our investments in rail are absolutely pathetic and inadequate. In China, right now, that country is investing billions and billions of dollars in high-speed rail, building thousands and thousands of miles of high-speed rail. They are building over 100 new airports. And what are we doing?
So one of my many objections to the proposal struck between the President and the Republican leadership is I think we can do better in job creation than in business tax cuts. There is a time and a place for business tax cuts, and I am not against them. But I would say that at this particular moment in American history, at this particular moment, it makes a lot more sense to create, over a period of years, millions of jobs rebuilding our rail system, our subways, our roads, our bridges, and our water systems, and many other aspects of our infrastructure.
There are places in Vermont and throughout this country where people cannot today get decent-quality broadband service, cannot get cell phone service. In that area, we are behind many other countries, not wealthy countries around the world. When we make those investments in infrastructure, we not only create jobs, but we make our country stronger and more productive, and we enable ourselves to compete effectively in the international economy.
Another one of my objections to this proposal and why I think we can do a lot better is that I was really quite disturbed to hear the President and others, who defend this proposal, talk about that one of the ``compromises'' that was struck was to extend unemployment benefits for 13 months.
To my mind, as I have said earlier, at a time of deep recession, at a time of terribly high unemployment, it would be absolutely wrong and immoral for us to turn our backs on the millions of workers who are about to lose their unemployment benefits. If we do that, it is hard to imagine what happens to those families, for many of whom this is their only source of income. What do they do? Do they lose their homes? Do they move out onto the streets? How do they take care of their kids? I do not know. There are parts of this country where it is very hard to get a job. Extended unemployment is at the highest level I think we have ever seen. You cannot turn your backs on those families.
But I get upset when I hear that the Republican's willingness to support an extension of unemployment benefits for 13 months is a major compromise. I will tell you--I think a lot of the American people do not know this--that for the past 40 years--40 years, four decades--under both Democratic and Republican administrations, whenever the unemployment rate has been above 7.2 percent--and today we are at 9.8 percent unemployment--always, whether the Democrats were in control, the Republicans were in control,
the President was Democrat, the President was Republican, what people did was say: We have to extend unemployment benefits. It is kind of common sense. It is not partisan. So when you have a program that has existed for 40 years in a bipartisan effort, it sounds to me that it is not much of a compromise for the Republicans to say: OK, we will do what Democrats and Republicans have done for 40 years. What a major compromise. It is not a compromise. It is just continuing existing bipartisan policy, which is sensible. It is sensible from a moral perspective. You cannot leave fellow American families out high and dry.
It is good economics because what the economists tell us is the people who will spend that money quickest are people who receive unemployment compensation because that is all they have. They are going to go out and buy, and when they buy from the neighborhood store, they create jobs. So it is good economics, and it is the moral thing to do.
But, frankly, in my view, this is not much of a compromise. This is just continuing four decades of existing policies.
As I said earlier, there are very clearly positive parts of this agreement, no question about it. I think almost every American will tell you that it would be totally absurd--I know there are some who disagree, but I think the vast majority of Americans believe that in a time when the middle class is collapsing, when median family income has gone down, when unemployment is high, that it would be a real horror show if we did not extend the Bush tax breaks for the middle class, for 98 percent of the American people--98 percent. That is what we want.
We could have crafted it much tighter, couldn't we have? We could have said: Nobody above $100,000, nobody above $150,000. That is pretty generous. We said a family earning up to $250,000 should get an extension of these tax breaks. That is 98 percent of the American people, and that is not good enough for our Republican friends. They are fighting tooth and nail to make sure the top 2 percent--the millionaires and billionaires, the CEOs who earn tens of millions a year--they are fighting--it is as if they are at war. They are so engaged to make sure these fabulously wealthy people receive at least $1 million, in some cases. For people who are making $1 million a year, they are going to receive, on average, $100,000 a year in tax breaks. For the very, very wealthiest, it could be over $1 million a year.
I say to the Presiding Officer, I know you joined me just 2 days ago in saying that at a time when senior citizens in this country and disabled vets, for 2 years in a row, had not received any COLA, that maybe it was the right thing to do--because we know that health care costs and prescription drug costs are soaring--that maybe we should provide a $250 check for those seniors and disabled veterans one time--one time. I could not get one Republican vote in support of that proposition. We won 53 to 45, but around here it does not take 50 votes to win; it does not take a majority to win; it takes 60 votes. We could not get one Republican vote. So here you have every Republican voting against a $250 check for a disabled vet or a senior citizen who is living on $15,000, $16,000 a year. Cannot afford it. But we can afford a million-dollar-a-year tax break for somebody who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now, somebody may understand that rationale. I don't. I really don't. I can't understand it. I can't understand asking our kids and grandchildren to pay more in taxes, and the national debt goes up in order to provide tax breaks for the richest people in this country.
So while there are some good provisions in this bill--certainly extending the tax breaks for 98 percent of our people, for the very broad middle class; I think if the American people demand it, in our democracy we can do better. I don't know if the Presiding Officer or I alone will be able to convince some of our Republican friends or maybe some of our Democratic friends to make this into the kind of proposal we need for the working families of this country, and for our children, for our next generation. I don't know if we can do it inside this beltway.
As I said earlier, I think the way we win this battle, the way we defeat this proposal and come back with a much better proposal is when millions of Americans start writing and e-mailing and calling their Senators, their Congress people, and say: Wait a second. Are you nuts? Do you really think millionaires and billionaires need a huge tax break at a time when this country has a $13.7 trillion national debt? What are you smoking? How could you for one second think that makes any sense whatsoever?
I will tell the Presiding Officer something. I don't know what my phones are doing today in my office right now. But in the last 3 days we have gotten, I am guessing, 5,000 phone calls and e-mails, and about 99 percent of them are in disagreement with this proposal.
I am looking at a chart. We have gotten 2,100 calls that just came in today. I don't know what kind of calls other Members of the Senate are getting, but certainly those are the calls I am getting.
This point cannot be made strongly enough: What our Republican friends want to do--and they have been pretty honest and up front about it, especially some of the extreme, rightwing people who have been running for office and, in some cases, have won--they have been honest enough to say they want to bring this country back to where we were in the 1920s. Their ultimate aim is the basic repeal of almost all of the provisions that have been passed in the last 70 years to protect working people, the elderly, and children. They believe in a Darwinian-style society in which you have the survival of the fittest; that we are not a society which comes together to take care of all of us. You take care of me in need and I take care of you and your family; that we are one people. Their strategy is pretty clear. They want to ultimately destroy Social Security.
What we are beginning to hear more and more of is why don't we raise the retirement age to 68 or 69. That deficit reduction commission, which I thought was--the people on that commission were bad appointees by the President. We could have put together some good economists to say how do we in a fair way--in a fair way--address the deficit and national debt crisis. That wasn't what that commission did. So these folks are talking about major cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
At a time when it is so hard for young people to afford to go to college, they want to raise the costs by asking our young people while they are in college to be accruing the interest on their loans.
So I think if the President believes that if this agreement is passed, the Republicans are going to come to the table and we are all going to live happily in the future, we are all going to work together in a nonpartisan way, I think he is not understanding the reality. These people are going to come back and they are going to come back very aggressively for major cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, education, childcare, Pell grants, you name it, because their belief is--I don't quite understand it--that it is somehow good public policy to give tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country who, in many ways, have never had it so good, while you cut programs that the middle class and working families of this country desperately depend upon.
So I would suggest that this big debate we are having right now on whether we should accept the proposal agreed to by the President and the Republicans is just the beginning of what is coming down the pike. If we surrender now on this issue, we can expect next month and the following month another governmental crisis, another threat of a shutdown, unless they get their way. So I think rather than asking the working families of this country to have to compromise, instead of asking our kids to pay more in taxes to bail out billionaires, maybe--I know this is a radical idea--but maybe we should ask a handful of our Republican friends to join us. Maybe a handful of honest conservatives over there who have been telling us for years their great concerns about deficit spending and a huge national debt, maybe they should be prepared to vote against the proposal which raises the national debt and our deficit by giving tax breaks to some of the richest people in the world.
Quite frankly, I don't think I am going to be able to convince them. I don't know that the Presiding Officer is going to be able to convince them. But I think their constituents can convince them. I think the American people can convince them. I think, as I said earlier, if the American people stand up, we can defeat this proposal and we can create a much better proposal.
Clearly, we must extend tax breaks for the middle class. Clearly, we must make sure unemployed workers continue to get the benefits they desperately need. But equally, clearly, we must make sure we are not raising the national debt which, as sure as I am standing here, will result in cuts in Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and education and other programs if this proposal is passed.
So this is not only an important proposal unto itself: $900 billion plus even in Washington is nothing to sneeze at. But it is an important proposal in terms of the direction in which our country goes into the future. If we accept this proposal of a 2-year extension for the richest people in America, I believe it will eventually become either a long-term extension or a permanent extension. If we accept the proposal that lowers the rates on the estate tax which benefits only the top three-tenths of 1 percent--99.7 percent of Americans get nothing--but if we give them what they want, I believe over a period of years it will lead to the complete abolishment and ending of the estate tax which will cost us over $1 trillion over a 10-year period.
So I hope this issue is not one just progressives or moderates feel strongly about. I hope honest conservatives, who in their heart of hearts believe this country is seriously in danger when we have unsustainable deficits and a huge national debt, will tell their elected officials here in Washington not to pass a piece of legislation which increases the national debt significantly and, in fact, will allow for the permanent--over years, in my view--extension of these tax breaks.
So that is what this debate is about. It is about fundamentally whether we continue the process by which the richest people in this country become richer, at a time when we have the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country on Earth.
As I have said earlier, this is not an issue that is discussed--I don't know--well, I do know why. It is just not an issue that people feel comfortable talking about because they don't want to give affront to their wealthy campaign contributors or take on the lobbyists who are out there. But that is the reality. Throughout the entire world, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income. The top 1 percent is earning 23.5 percent of all income. That is more than the bottom 50 percent. That is not just immoral, it is bad economics because if the middle class gets crushed entirely, who is going to be buying the goods and services produced in this economy?
So this piece of legislation, as important as it is unto itself--and it is very important--is equally important in terms of what it says about where we are going into the future. Are we going to protect the middle class and working families of our country? Are we going to make sure every young person in America, regardless of income, has the ability to go to college, or are we going to allow college to become unaffordable for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of bright, young people, or else force them to leave school deeply in debt?
Are we going to create a health care system which guarantees health care to all of our people--high-quality health care--or are we going to continue a situation where 45,000 Americans die each year because they don't have access to a doctor? Are we going to invest in our energy system so we break our dependence on foreign oil? We spend about $350 billion a year importing oil from Saudi Arabia and other foreign countries--almost $1 billion a day--which should be used to make this country energy independent, which should be used to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel into energy efficiency and sustainable energy, technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass.
By the way, none of that has been addressed, as I understand it, in this proposal.
So my point is not just that this proposal is a bad proposal as it stands before us now, but it is going to move us in the future in a direction that I do not believe this country should be going.
I mentioned earlier my own personal family's history is the history of millions and millions of Americans. My father, as it happened, came to this country at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket. He worked hard his whole life. He never made very much money, but he and my mom--my mom graduated high school; she never went to college--had the satisfaction, the very significant satisfaction, of knowing their kids got a college education. My older brother Larry went to law school, and I graduated from the University of Chicago.
I think what is going on in this country and why the anxiety level is so high is not just that people are worried about themselves--parents worry more about their kids than they do about themselves. But what parents are sitting around and worrying about now is they are saying: Will, for the first time in the modern history of this country, my kids have a lower standard of living than their parents?
Will my kids earn less income? Will my kids not have the education I have? Will my kids not have the opportunity to travel and learn and grow as I have done? Are the best days of America behind us? That is really the question. I don't think that has to be the case.
But I will tell my colleagues, as I mentioned earlier, if we are going to change the national priorities in this country, if we are going to start devoting our energy and our attention to the needs of working families and the middle class, we have to defeat this proposal and we have to defeat similar types of proposals which come down the pike. When this country has a $13.7 trillion national debt, it is insane--nothing less than insane--to be talking about huge tax breaks for people who don't need them. Again, as I mentioned earlier, ironically, we have a lot of these millionaires out there who apparently love their country more than some of the people in this Chamber.
You have some of the richest people in America--Bill Gates and all the good, charitable work he does, and Warren Buffet and many others--who are saying: I am doing just fine. I am a billionaire or a multimillionaire. I don't need your tax breaks. I am worried about the fact that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty; invest in our children. I am worried that our infrastructure is crumbling; invest in our infrastructure. I am worried that 45,000 Americans are dying this year who don't have access to health care; invest in health care. I am worried about global warming; invest in transforming our energy system. These are patriotic Americans. They love their country. They are saying to us: We don't even want it.
So we are giving money to people who, in some cases, don't even want it. I do know there are others out there who do want it. I think if there is one issue that we as a Congress and a government have to address, it is the extraordinary level of greed in this country. We have to stand tall and draw a line in the sand and simply say: Enough is enough. How much do you want? How much do you need? How many yachts can you own? How many homes can you have? Isn't it enough that the top 1 percent now earns 23.5 percent of the income in this country? How much more do they want? Do they want 30 percent, 35 percent? Isn't it enough that the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent? How much more do they need?
I mentioned earlier, when I talked about the situation that got us into this horrendous recession--and that is the collapse of Wall Street--I talked about what I think most Americans understand very well; that is, the incredible greed and recklessness and dishonesty that exists on Wall Street. We must not allow ourselves to encourage and continue the kind of greed we have seen in recent years. It is an abomination that the people who caused this economic crisis--the worst recession since the Great Depression--that the people on Wall Street who caused it are now earning more money than they did before we bailed them out.
Earlier today, I was reading some e-mails that came to my office from Vermonters who were struggling to keep their heads above water. They were terribly painful and poignant stories about honest, good, decent people who are now choosing whether they should put gas in their car or buy the food or prescription drugs they need. It is not just a Vermont story; it is an American story. It is a reality out there for tens of millions of Americans.
In my view, we can negotiate a much better agreement than the one President Obama and the Republican leadership did. There are some good parts of that agreement, which obviously should be retained and perhaps even strengthened. Those include, of course, making sure we extend unemployment benefits to those who need it and, of course, that we extend tax breaks for the middle class. There are some very good other provisions in there which I think are worthwhile.
I think if the American people stand and agree with those of us who say no more tax breaks for the very wealthiest people in this country, we can defeat this proposal, and we can come up with a much better one that is fairer to the middle class of this country and is fairer to our young children.
I do not want to see our young kids--my children and grandchildren--have a lower standard of living than their parents. That is not what America is about. What I think we have to do is defeat this proposal. I think we have to urge our fellow Americans to stand and say no to tax breaks for those who don't need it. I think we have to work in a very serious way about creating the millions and millions of good-paying jobs that this country desperately needs. I personally believe that is a far more effective approach than giving the variety of business taxes that were in this proposal at a time when corporate America is sitting on $2 million of unused cash. They have the money. I think a much better approach, as I said earlier, is investing in our crumbling infrastructure. I think that makes us healthier and stronger as a nation for the future and in the global economy.
I think it creates jobs quicker and in a more cost-effective way than these tax cuts. I also think it is high time the American people move--they want us to move in an entirely new direction in terms of trade. I am always amazed how Republicans and Democrats alike--and I speak as the longest serving Independent in Congress--come election time, have ads on television saying: Oh, we have to do something about outsourcing and about our trade policy. But somehow, the day after the election, when corporate America continues to throw American workers out on the street and moves to China, moves to other low-wage countries, that discussion ceases to exist and that legislation never seems to appear.
So it seems to me we have to defeat this proposal, and that in defeating this, we are going to tell the American people there are at least some of us here who understand what our jobs and obligations are; that is, that we are supposed to represent them, the middle class of the country, and not just wealthy campaign contributors or bow to the interests of the lobbyists who are all over this place.
When I talked a moment ago about the need to invest in our infrastructure as a way to create jobs, being more cost-effective than some of these business tax breaks, I am looking now at a Wall Street Journal article of December 9, 2010. Here is the headline: ``Companies Clinging to Cash; Coffers Swell to 51-year High as Cautious Firms Put Off Investing in Growth.''
That is a story by Justin Lahart. Here is the story. It makes the point I have been trying to express:
Corporate America's cash pile has hit its highest level in half a century. Rather than pouring their money into building plants or hiring workers, nonfinancial companies in the United States are sitting on $1.93 trillion in cash--
I said $2 trillion, but it is $1.93 trillion in cash.
--and other liquid assets at the end of September, up from $1.8 trillion at the end of June, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. Cash accounted for 7.4 percent of the companies' total assets, the largest share since 1959. The cash buildup shows the deep caution many companies feel about investing in expansion, while the economic recovery remains painfully slow, and high unemployment and battered household finances continue to limit consumers' ability to spend.
What have we been talking about? The Wall Street Journal is not my favorite paper, but they are saying that the way you are going to get the economy moving again is to put money in the hands of working people, who will then go out and buy the goods and services these companies produce. I have my doubts about whether these tax rates will, in fact, have the desired result.
As I said earlier, and will say again, I think the most effective way to create jobs, and the most important way, is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. That is our roads, bridges, rail system, water system, wastewater plants, our dams, levees, and the need to improve broadband to make sure every community in America has access to good-quality broadband and access to cell phone service. Unfortunately, as best as I can understand, there has not been one nickel appropriated in this proposed legislation that would go to infrastructure improvements.
I think this proposal should be defeated because it is not a strong proposal for the middle class. It is a proposal that gives much too much to people who don't need it, and it is a proposal that I think sets the stage for similar-type proposals down the pike. I apologize to anybody who has been listening for any length of time. I know I have been, to say the least, a bit repetitious.
But the concern is that when the President and some of my Republican colleagues talk about some of these tax breaks being temporary, we are just going to extend them for 2 years, talking about this payroll tax holiday being just 1 year, I have been in Washington long enough to know that assertion doesn't fly; that what is temporary today is long-term tomorrow and is permanent the next day. I fear very much that this proposal is bad on the surface. I fear very much that this proposal will lead us down a very bad track in terms of more trickle-down economics, which benefits the tricklers and not the ordinary Americans. I think it is a proposal that should be defeated.
The point I wish to make is that is not just my point of view. I think it should be defeated. I think we can do a lot better. I have to tell you the calls that are coming into my office are--here is what we got today: 2,122 calls oppose the deal, and I think 100 calls are supportive of the deal. You can do the arithmetic on it. At least 95 percent of the calls I got today are saying this is not a good deal. We can do better.
I know that in the last 3 or 4 days we have gotten probably 6,000 or 7,000 calls that say this. This is not just Vermont--many of those calls come from out of State, by the way. But I think that is true all over this country.
Let me conclude. It has been a long day. Let me simply say I believe the proposal that was developed by the President and the Republicans is nowhere near as good as we can achieve. I don't know that we are able ourselves to get the handful of Republicans we need to say no to this agreement. I do believe that if the American people stand--by the way, it may not just be Republicans. There may be some Democrats as well. If the American people stand and say: We can do better than this; we don't need to drive up the national debt by giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, that if the American people are prepared to stand and we are prepared to follow them, I think we can defeat this proposal and come up with a better proposal which reflects the needs of working-class and middle-class families of our country and, to me, most importantly, the children of our country.
With that, I yield the floor and I suggest the absence of a quorum.