President Bush continues to tell the American people how great the economy is doing. Bush and his advisors say the economy is "strong and getting stronger," the economy is "thriving," the economy is "robust," the economy is "vibrant;" the economy is "solid," the economy is "booming," the economy is "powerful," the economy is "fantastic," the economy is "amazing," and "marvelous," He's wrong, of course, as every American living from paycheck to paycheck knows. The Senate on Tuesday has a chance to tell him so when it votes on the president's nominee to be the White House budget director.
"Personally, I like Jim Nussle," Senator Bernie Sanders said. "We came to Washington together and I worked with him for 16 years in the House of Representatives. He's smart. He is passionate. My strong opposition to Jim Nussle becoming Director of the Office of Management and Budget has much less to do with Mr. Nussle and much more to do with the current failed trickle-down economic policies of the Bush administration. The problem is that the president and his advisors have become increasingly isolated and out of touch with the economic realities facing ordinary Americans. While the middle class continues to shrink, poverty is increasing, the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing wider and wider, and millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages.
"How can the president claim that the economy is "robust" when nearly five million Americans have slipped into poverty since 2000, including over one million children? How can the president say the economy is "vibrant" when median income for working-age families has declined by about $2,400 since 2000? How can Bush claim that the economy is "strong and getting stronger" when the personal savings rate has been below zero for eight consecutive quarters, something that hasn't happened since the Great Depression? How can he claim that the economy is "healthy" when 8.6 million Americans have lost their health insurance since 2000, and a record-breaking 47 million Americans are uninsured with millions more under-insured?
"How can the president and his advisors claim that the economy is "thriving" when 35 million Americans in our country, the richest country in the history of the world, struggled to put food on the table last year and the number of the hungriest Americans keeps going up? How can he claim that our economy is "booming" when college students are graduating, on average, 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 he say the economy is "fantastic" when home foreclosures are now the highest on record, turning the American dream of home-ownership into the American nightmare for millions of Americans? How can he claim that the economy is "powerful" when the number of working families paying more than half of their limited incomes on housing has increased by 72 percent since 1997?
"While the president tells us how "robust" and "vibrant" the economy is, the American people know better. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published last month, more than two-thirds of Americans said they believe the U.S. economy is either in recession now or will be in the next year. Meanwhile, 72 percent of Americans surveyed in the most recent Gallup Poll said the economy was "getting worse," the most pessimistic outlook on the economy since Gallup began asking the question in the early 1990s. Moreover, consumer confidence is at a two-year low and the number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits increased for five consecutive weeks something that hasn't happened since May of last year.
"The fact that the economy is not booming should not be rocket science. If the president spoke to workers whose jobs have been outsourced to China, or middle class families who are trying to send their kids to college, he might get a clue as to what was happening in the real world. But as long as the president lives in a cocoon surrounded by advisors who won't tell him what's really going on in America, he is not going to be able to develop policies that help solve our nation's problems.
"What the Bush administration needs is a serious reality check. And, the reality is that each and every morning millions of Americans drag themselves out of bed and wonder how they are going to pay the bills. Their day begins by taking their kids to daycare. And, many of them wonder is this the last day that they will be able to afford childcare? Who will take care of their kids? Mom isn't able to stay at home like she was able to do 30 years ago. That is not an option. It now takes two-incomes to support a family. That is the first reality check. Then they drive to work, and many of them wonder how they are going to pay for the price of gasoline, and you know what, Mr. President? They start to get angry. They understand that for the past 2 years, Exxon-Mobil has made more profits than any company in the history of the world. They hear that the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, Lee Raymond, received a $400 million retirement package, and that gets them mad.
"But, they can't stay angry about that for very long because then they have to go to work. And, at work, many of them will receive a notice from their employer that their pension is being cutback; their healthcare premiums will be rising; their prescription drug coverage has been eliminated; their pay will be going down, and, by the way, if they try to complain, their job is going to China. Their job is going to Mexico. Their job is going to Vietnam. Or even more insulting, they will have to train their own replacement who just came in from India on an H-1B visa.
"So, they put up with the cuts to their pension. They don't object to the cutbacks in their health benefits. They even accept a cut in their pay and they stay on the job. They play by the rules, they don't say a word, and they pray that their job will be there tomorrow.
"And, then, after working 8, 10, 12 hours, they go to their mail box. And, they open it up. And, what do they find? They find out that the interest rate on their credit card (the credit card that they are using to pay for childcare, to pay for gasoline, to buy groceries, diapers and prescription drugs) has tripled even though they were never late paying the bill. They find out that the interest rate on their Adjustable Rate Mortgage will double next month. And, some of them have learned that their utility bill will be going up by 50 to 70 percent. That is the reality that millions of middle class Americans have to live with every single day. And, what I fear the most is that if we keep going in the direction that we are headed our children and our grandchildren will have a lower standard of living than we do. We must not allow that to happen, but I am afraid that it already is. According to a recent joint study by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Brookings Institution men in their 30s earned on average 12 percent less in 2004 than their fathers did in 1974 after adjusting for inflation.
"President Bush desperately needs a budget director who is not afraid to tell the president the truth about these harsh economic realities, not an echo. He needs a budget director who will make him face the facts, not fan his fantasies. And, perhaps most importantly, he needs a budget director who is willing to compromise with a Democratic Congress for the benefit of all of the American people, not just large corporations, and the wealthy few. Unfortunately, I am afraid Jim Nussle is not that person.
"A budget, after all, is more than a long list of numbers. The federal budget, like any family budget is a statement of our nation's values and priorities. In fact, the federal budget is a statement of what our country is all about. We would all, I think, find it irresponsible and counterproductive if a family spent all of their money on an expensive vacation, didn't have enough money to pay the rent and wound up out on the street. Most of us would view this as an example of misplaced priorities. The family, in this case, is spending money where it shouldn't and not spending it where it should.
"Preparing the federal budget is exactly the same process. It's about spending taxpayer dollars where we should and not spending it where we should not. It's about taking a hard look at the needs of our people and prioritizing the budget in an intelligent and rationale way.
"Now, in February, the president told us about his values and his priorities when he submitted his Fiscal Year 2008 Budget to Congress. Let's look at his values and his priorities.
"The president has proposed in his budget that, despite the growing health care crisis in our country, he would like to cut Medicare and Medicaid by $280 billion over the next decade, lowering the quality of healthcare for approximately 43 million senior citizens and people with disabilities who depend on Medicare and more than 50 million Americans who rely on Medicaid. The lack of health insurance kills more Americans each year than September 11th and Katrina combined. In fact, the National Academy of Science estimates that 18,000 Americans die each year because they have no health insurance. And, the President's budget proposal would make a bad situation even worse. Healthcare isn't just a human rights issue, it isn't just a moral issue, it is an economic issue as well. Small businesses cannot survive if they are forced to pay huge increases in healthcare premiums each and every year. Even large businesses like General Motors and Ford are struggling like they have never struggled before to pay for the healthcare of their employees, and have threatened to move all of their U.S. plants to China, Mexico and elsewhere if their workers don't accept huge cutbacks in health and retirement benefits. Right now, we spend twice as much per person on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet we have a lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality rate than Canada, Japan and most of Europe. In fact, the United States is the only country in the industrialized world that does not have a national health care system. Even worse, at a time when 8.7 million children have no health insurance, the President has refused to adequately fund the Children's Health Insurance Program in his budget.
"Now, here's where the president really needs some good advice. Last month, we all know that the Senate voted by a 68 to 31 margin to expand the S-CHIP program to provide an additional 3 million kids with health insurance at a cost of $35 billion over five years. Eighteen Republican senators thought this was a good idea. Though, I believed the Senate should have done much, much more, I also voted for this legislation. The House passed an even more generous bill to expand S-CHIP with the support of 5 Republicans But, instead of working with the Senate and the House, the President issued veto threats on both of those bills because he believes, among other things, that we don't have enough money.
"While the president doesn't believe we have enough money to increase health insurance coverage for children, it has been reported that the President will be asking for another $50 billion for the misguided war in Iraq. He wants $50 billion in additional funding for the Iraq War, but we don't have $5 to $10 billion per year to provide health insurance to millions of uninsured children. It's time that the President had a Budget Director who was willing to say, "Excuse me, Mr. President, but that is wrong."
"It's time to get our priorities straight. I am afraid that Mr. Nussle will not do this. Mr. Nussle is the wrong man, at the wrong time for this position.
"What else does the president's budget have to say about the priorities of this country? What about childcare?
At a time when our childcare and early childhood education systems are totally inadequate to meet the needs of working parents, the Bush budget reduces the number of children receiving childcare assistance by 300,000.
"Amazingly, child care fees today are higher than college tuition at a four year public university in 42 states in this country. In other words, we have a childcare crisis in this country. The President's response: Deny childcare to 300,000 children. That is wrong! The President needs an OMB Director to tell him that. Jim Nussle is the wrong person, at the wrong time for this job.
"What else? The president's budget provides a $100 million cut to the Head Start program. Today, only about half of the children eligible for this important and excellent program actually participate in Head Start due to a lack of funding. In other words, millions of kids cannot get into Head Start. The President's response: Cut Head Start funding. That is wrong. He needs a Budget Director to tell him that. Jim Nussle is the wrong person for that job.
"As I mentioned earlier, while hunger in this country is shamefully increasing, the president's budget proposes to deny food stamps to 280,000 families and eliminates nutrition assistance to over 400,000 senior citizens, pregnant mothers, and newborn children. That is unacceptable. The president needs a Budget Director who understands this. Jim Nussle is the wrong man for that job.
"What else? Well, we are in a war in Iraq. We are in a war in Afghanistan. The number of our veterans is increasing. More than 27,000 have been wounded, many seriously. Many will come back to this country with post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet the President has proposed cutting the VA budget by $3.4 billion over five years, after adjusting for inflation. And, on and on it goes.
"In this great country, with so many people struggling desperately to keep their heads above water, we should not be cutting back on the promises made to our veterans. We should not be cutting back on health care. We should not be cutting back on nutritional benefits for senior citizens on fixed-incomes and pregnant mothers. We should not be cutting back on Head Start, affordable housing, and educational opportunities for middle-class families. That is what we should not be doing. The President needs a Budget Director who understands this. Jim Nussle will not do this. He is the wrong man at the wrong time for this job. Just look at the Budget Resolutions Mr. Nussle crafted as Chairman of the House Budget Committee. In most cases, Jim Nussle's budgets were even more extreme than the president's.
"Now, while the president has said in his budget that we don't have enough money to address the needs of the middle class, working families, senior citizens, children and veterans, the President has said that we do have enough money to provide $739 billion in tax breaks over the next decade to households with incomes exceeding $1 million per year. The average tax break for this group of millionaires will total $162,000 by the year 2012.
"Let me be very blunt. In my view it is wrong, in my view it is immoral to give huge tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires -- the people who need them the least --while cutting back on the needs of the middle-class and working families of our country. That is wrong.
"Is the president's budget, a reflection of the values of the people of our country? I do not believe that. I do not believe ordinary Americans think it is right and appropriate to give tax breaks to billionaires and then provide inadequately for our veterans, for our children, and for our seniors. That is not, in my view, what America is about.
"We are told over and over again by the president and this administration that we do not have the money to reduce childhood poverty in this country. We are told we do not have the funds to wipe out the disgrace of hunger in America. We are told we do not have enough money to make sure the young people who graduate from high school in this country, who are excited about going to college, will be able to do so without coming out deeply in debt.
"We do not have the money to help those families. Yet, while we turn our backs on the middle-class and working families of our country, it appears we have plenty of money for the millionaires and billionaires of this country. We have tens of billions, in fact, to shower on those who need it the least, yet we have nothing, and we are cutting back on the programs, for those who need it the most.
"Included in the president's budget, amazingly, is the complete repeal of the estate tax which would take effect at the end of 2010. The complete repeal of this tax would benefit only the top three-tenths of 1 percent of the American people. Let me repeat that. The complete repeal of the estate tax would benefit solely the upper three-tenths of 1 percent of the American population.
"These are families, of course, who already are millionaires and billionaires, and these are families who in the current economy have been doing exceedingly well. In other words, 99.7 percent of Americans would not benefit by one nickel from the complete repeal of the estate tax, as proposed by the President.
"According to the president's budget, this repeal of the estate tax would reduce receipts for the Treasury by more than $91 billion over the next 5 years and more than $442 billion over the next decade. But the long-term damage to our fiscal solvency is even worse. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, repealing the estate tax would cost over $1 trillion from 2012 to 2021 -- over $1 trillion. In other words, if the president's plan to permanently repeal the estate tax succeeds, the children and family members of the most privileged families in America will reap a massive tax break. Instead of closing the gap between the rich and the poor, instead of addressing the huge national debt and deficit problems we have, we make both situations worse by fully repealing the estate tax.
"The granddaddy of all of the winners under the Bush budget is none other than the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune. If the estate tax was completely repealed, the entire Walton family would receive an estimated tax break of $32.7 billion -- that is $32.7 billion in tax relief for one family which today happens to be one of the wealthiest families in this country already. Meanwhile, in contrast, the president's budget proposes to cut Medicaid by $28 billion over the next decade, driving up the cost of health care for tens of millions of Americans. In other words, while one of the wealthiest families in this country gets a tax break of over $30 billion, tens of millions of Americans - children and seniors included -- will suffer. Now, that may make sense to the president, that may be fair to Jim Nussle, who also voted to repeal the estate tax, but it sure does not make sense to me. In other words, if the president's proposed budget passes, millions of Americans will lose, including some of the most vulnerable people in our country, while one very wealthy family wins.
"A second major beneficiary of the president's tax cuts are the heirs to the Mars candy bar fortune. Now, I like Snickers as much as anybody. And I do not want to be seen here as attacking Snickers, one of the basic food groups of American society. But the family that owns Mars is slated to receive an estimated $11.7 billion tax break if the estate tax is fully repealed. Meanwhile, the president's budget proposes cutting the VA budget by $3.4 billion over the next five years. This comes at a time when hundreds of thousands of veterans are forced onto a waiting list to receive the healthcare benefits they were promised because of a lack of funding. Veterans lose under the Bush budget.
"Another major winner in the president's budget is the Cox family. They are the heirs to the Cox cable fortune. They will gain $9.7 billion if the estate tax is repealed. Meanwhile, while the Cox family would receive almost $10 billion in tax breaks, the president wants to cut funding for education by $1.5 billion. The president keeps talking about No Child Left Behind while his budget continues to leave, in fact, millions of children behind. In Vermont and all over this country, school districts are struggling with grossly inadequate funding for special education, which the President also wants to cut. We do not have the money to fund special education to improve public education in America. We do not have that money. But we do have $9.7 billion for one family, the Cox family.
"Another major beneficiary of the president's budget is the Nordstrom family, owners of the upscale department store chain. By repealing the estate tax, the Nordstrom family stands to receive an estimated $826 million tax break, according to the April 2006 report from United for a Fair Economy. Tax breaks of over $800 million for an enormously wealthy family, and yet we see a $630 million cut in the President's budget for the Community Services Block Grant Program. The Community Services Block Grant Program provides the infrastructure necessary to deliver services to 15 million of the lowest income people in our country. These are people who are hungry. When they are hungry, they go to the community action program. When they are homeless, they go to the community action program. When they do not have any money to buy food, they go to the community action program. The President proposes to cut back on that program, but he believes we have $826 million in tax breaks for the Nordstrom family.
"In addition, the former CEO of ExxonMobil does very well from the President's tax breaks. As I mentioned earlier, while the cost of gasoline was soaring, while the profits of ExxonMobil were soaring, the company decided, in its wisdom and generosity, to provide a $400 million retirement package for their departing CEO, Mr. Lee Raymond. Now, the President wants to reward Mr. Raymond by providing his estate with an estimated $164 million tax break. On the other hand, there is a program called the Commodity Supplemental Food Program which provides a package of high-quality, nutritious food to some 480,000 seniors, mothers, and children each and every month. The president wants to eliminate this program. He is saying to the 4,000 seniors in Vermont who benefit from this program, the almost half a million seniors, mothers, and kids who benefit from this package of food once a month: We in America don't have enough money to provide for you who are hungry, for you who are old. We can't do it. But if you are the former CEO of ExxonMobil, if you have a $400 million retirement package at the end of your career, guess what. Your family will get a $164 million tax break.
"As a member of the Senate Budget Committee, it appears to me that the choice we as a Congress are facing and that the American people are facing is pretty clear. Do we continue to shower huge tax breaks on millionaires and billionaires, people who are already doing phenomenally well, while we cut back on the needs of the middle-class working families and the most vulnerable people in this country?
"In my view, it all comes down to the phrase "which side are we on." Are we on the side of those people who make huge campaign contributions to Congress and the White House, or are we on the side of tens of millions of working families, struggling hard to keep their heads above water? That is the choice we face.
"And, that is why I am voting against Jim Nussle. Not because he is not smart, he is. Not because I don't like him, personally, I do. I am voting against Jim Nussle because I believe we should not give a break to the heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune. Rather, we should be fighting to substantially increase financial aid for low- and middle-class families so that every American, regardless of income, can receive a college education.
"We should not give another tax break to the former CEO of ExxonMobil and his family. Instead, we should be working to support working families all over this country who are desperately seeking quality and affordable childcare.
"I don't think that the heirs to the Mars Candy Bar fortune should get a tax break. In my view, it is far more important that we keep our promises to the veterans of this country who now find themselves on waiting lists to get the health care they need.
"If, as a nation, we are serious about addressing the long neglected needs of the middle-class and working people and creating a fairer and more egalitarian society, we have to invest in education, health care, housing, and our infrastructure. We have to deal with the crisis of global warming and sustainable energy, as well as many other areas. We also have to reduce our national debt. Given that reality, Congress must develop the courage to stand up to the big money interests, to the wealthiest families. We must roll back the tax breaks given to the wealthiest 1 percent, and we must demand that fortunate people rejoin American society and understand that like everybody else in this country, they are part of America and not a special breed. If we are to keep faith with our children, our seniors, our veterans, and with those people who have no health insurance, we can do no less.
"It seems very clear to me that we, as a nation, need to change our national priorities, and that the U.S. government should start paying attention to the struggling working families of our country rather than the powerful special interests who have so much power in Washington. We need a budget director who will remind the president that he is supposed to represent the interests of all Americans, and not just wealthy Republican campaign contributors.
"That is why I am voting against Jim Nussle.