Let me begin by thanking Chairman Conrad and his staff for their very hard work in crafting this important Budget Resolution.
Mr. Chairman, as you know, a budget is more than just a long list of numbers. A budget is a statement about our values and our priorities, and the time is long overdue for the United States Congress to get its priorities right, to begin to stand up for the middle class and working families of this country, rather than multinational corporations and the wealthiest people who, year after year after year, have had their way on budget initiatives.
Mr. Chairman, when we analyze the merits of a federal budget, we have to begin by taking a very serious look at the economic reality facing the American people. In other words, what is really going on in the lives of our people?
On many occasions our committee has heard testimony from a representative of the Bush Administration. And over and over again each and every person tells us that the economy is doing great; to use Treasury Secretary Paulson's word, it is just "marvelous."
Well, I can tell you with a good deal of certainty that the people in my State of Vermont don't think this economy is "marvelous," and I don't believe that the middle-class and working families of this country share that view either.
In fact, the economic reality facing the vast majority of our working people is that the middle class is shrinking, poverty is increasing and tens of millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages than they used to. In Vermont and throughout this country, parents are wondering why, despite a huge increase in technology and worker productivity, there is a strong likelihood that, for the first time in the modern history of our country, their kids will have a lower standard of living than they do - the American dream in reverse.
Mr. Chairman, how can the economy be doing great when more than five million Americans have slipped into poverty since the President has been in office, including over one million children?
How can the economy be doing great when median income for working-age families has declined for five years in a row and when the personal savings rate is below zero - something which has not happened since the Great Depression?
How can the economy be doing great when almost seven million Americans have lost their health insurance since President Bush has been in office and when, according to the USDA, 35 million Americans in our country struggled to put food on the table last year and hunger in America is increasing?
How can our economy be doing great when college students are graduating with about $20,000 in debt and some 400,000 qualified high school students don't go to college in the first place because they can't afford it?
How can our economy be doing great when home foreclosures skyrocketed to the highest level in nearly four decades according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, and when we have lost over three million manufacturing jobs since President Bush has been in office, including about 10,000 in my State of Vermont?
How can our economy be doing great when 3 million fewer American workers have pension coverage today than when President Bush took office and half of private sector American workers have no pension coverage whatsoever?
Mr. Chairman, when the President and his Administration tell us the economy is doing great, the truth is that he is right - in one sense. While the economy is not doing well for the middle class or working families of our country, it is doing well for the wealthiest people in this country. That is true. The wealthiest people in our country are becoming wealthier - much wealthier. That is the reality.
The reality is that the upper 1 percent of the families in America today, have not had it so good since the 1920s. According to Forbes magazine, the collective net worth of the wealthiest 400 Americans increased by $120 billion last year to $1.25 trillion. The 400 wealthiest Americans are worth $1.25 trillion.
Mr. Chairman, I've given this outline of the economy in order to place the debate about the budget in context. If the rich are becoming richer while the middle class is shrinking and poverty is increasing, how do we respond to that through the budget process?
The President, in his budget proposal, has given us his answer.
Despite the growing health care crisis, he has proposed to cut Medicare and Medicaid by $280 billion over the next decade and to inadequately fund the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Despite the reality that we have 23,000 wounded in Iraq, and tens of thousands more who will be coming home with PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury, the President has, once again, inadequately funded the needs of our veterans - as he has year after year. In fact, since President Bush has been in office an estimated one million veterans have been denied access to health services at the VA.
Despite a horrendous crisis in child care access and affordability for working families, the President has, in his budget, reduced the number of children receiving child care assistance by 300,000 and cut funding for Head Start.
Despite millions of homeowners paying outrageously high property taxes the President has, in his budget, further retreated from the federal commitment to special education and cut funding for that program. This will result in a lowering of the quality of education and increases in property taxes. His proposed budget would also make it harder young people can go to college without going deeply into debt.
Somehow, while cutting programs and ignoring the needs of the working families of our country, of veterans, of children and our seniors, the President has reached the conclusion in his budget that we do have enough money as a government to provide enormous tax breaks to the wealthiest people in our society - $739 billion in tax cuts for households earning more than one million per year over the next decade.
Part of the President's budget calls for the complete elimination of the Estate Tax - a tax which now applies only to the wealthiest 3/10th of 1 percent of our population. The elimination of this tax would provide an estimated trillion dollars in tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires between 2012 to 2021. One multi-billionaire family, the Walton family which owns WalMarts, would receive an estimated $32 billion in tax relief.
Cut-backs for the needs of working families and the poor, and huge tax breaks for billionaires is what the President's budget is really all about.
While the Budget Resolution prepared by Chairman Conrad that we will be debating today is far from perfect, it is much more responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans than the President's. Instead of cutting back on the educational needs of this country, this Budget Resolution provides over $6 billion more than the President's request for education, including significant increases for Pell Grants, Head Start, Title I, and special education.
Instead of cutting back on health-care, this Budget Resolution provides an increase of $2.8 billion over the President's request for health-care including strong funding for community health centers and the National Health Service.
Instead of cutting back on the needs of our veterans, this Budget Resolution provides a $3.3 billion increase over the President's budget for our nation's veterans, one of my top priorities.
But, Mr. Chairman, I think that, over the long-term, we can and must do much better in establishing our budgetary priorities than this budget does. This is a good start but we have a very long way to go.
Last week, I introduced the National Priorities Act which would expand the middle class, reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and lower the poverty rate. The basic premise of that legislation is pretty simple. We raise $130 billion in new revenue by rescinding the tax breaks that President Bush gave to the wealthiest 1 percent, spend $100 billion on the needs facing ordinary Americans and provide $30 billion to lower the deficit.
If, as a nation, we are serious about addressing the long-neglected needs of the working people of this country and creating a more egalitarian society, we have got to change our national priorities. The wealthiest people in this country are doing just fine. It's time that we acted on behalf of working families and the middle class.
Mr. Chairman, while I appreciate all of your hard work and the work of your staff, I do have one area of serious concern that I feel compelled to raise and that is the level of mandatory veterans funding provided in the bill.
On the discretionary side of veterans programs, you deserve tremendous credit for providing a funding level that begins to meet the needs of those who have served this country. Your funding is very much in line with the View and Estimates that were unanimously approved by the majority on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. As a member of that committee as well, I want to thank you for working with us to deal with the severe under-funding that veterans have experienced in health care and other areas over the years.
Your funding level is also very much in line with the Independent Budget, the annual recommendations developed by some of our nation's leading veterans service organizations. From my experience, this is the first time in a long time that we have seen a budget resolution that seriously addresses the needs of veterans that are funded by discretionary veterans programs.
As you know, however, the Views and Estimates provided by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee also provided a list of much-needed amendments to a relatively small number of veterans programs that are funded with mandatory spending. The proposed changes totaled some $252.5 million in FY 2008.
Given the large number of reforms that could be enacted on the mandatory side, the Senate Veterans Committee proposed only a small number of the most pressing changes. Let me give you an idea of what those changes are:
The first would undo a long-standing practice that cuts the disability benefits of disabled veterans by some $20 million a year to help lower the deficit by rounding down the disability payment the veteran would otherwise be entitled to. As part of the new majority, we should reject this practice which effectively helps balance the budget on the backs of disabled veterans
In addition, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee recommends that we increase the burial benefit and plot allowance - which are currently at levels originally approved in 1973 - so that veterans' family get back at least some of their lost purchasing power. In a $3 trillion budget is there really not the funding to give veterans families more than $300 to purchase a burial plot?
We also want to make sure that veterans' widows who have minor children get back the purchasing power they have lost since 2005 because they have been denied a cost of living increase in their Dependency and Indemnity Compensation transitional benefit since that time.
We need to make sure that value of grants that help disabled veterans modify their homes and cars are updated so that these American heroes can live active and dignified lives when they return to their communities. We are talking about veterans who have suffered a disability in the service of their country. We hear a lot about increasing care at Walter Reed, but what happens when these veterans return home and don't have the money to modify a car so they can remain active in their often rural communities.
Also, we want to make a very small increase in the amount of life insurance that totally disabled veterans can purchase, and we need a small increase to maintain current services for state approving agencies that are responsible for making sure that education and training programs in the various states are legitimate. This state approving agency funding is needed to maintain current service due to the expiration of an extended ceiling in the amount of mandatory funds available for this program. Finally, after all these years, we need to keep our promise to those remaining Filipino veterans who served in the United States armed forces during World War II but who have been denied promised benefits.
Mr. Chairman, I understand the very difficult task that you and your staff have in putting together a budget that will pass the United States Senate. And I know that you personally support all these changes. Mr. Chairman, as tight as this budget is, and recognizing how much you have done for veterans in this bill, we have to find room in this budget to accommodate these very, very modest fixes that will help our disabled veterans, and their widows and families. I sincerely hope that we and our staffs can work out some agreement on how to address these issues during this mark-up process so we can produce a budget that we can all support.