April 21, 2010

Sheldon’s Opening Statement at Markup of FY 2011 Senate Budget Resolution

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I want to begin by applauding your continued leadership as our nation begins to recover from the worst economic downturn of our lifetimes. I also wish to wish ranking member Gregg well on his last budget procedure. We will miss you.

Thirteen months ago, when we met in this room to consider the budget resolution for the current fiscal year, our economy was in peril. Unemployment was climbing up to 700,000 lost by Americans every month, the stock market had plummeted to a level not seen in more than a decade, the bank lending had virtually frozen, and economic anxiety pervaded the nation. President Obama was just two months on the job and the ink on the Recovery Act was still wet.

We are by no means out of the woods just yet, but before turning to the work that still needs to be done, we should remark on the progress we’ve made over the last year. The Recovery Act has already supported between 2.2 and 2.8 million jobs, helping first to stop, and then begin to reverse, our surging unemployment. Indeed, the two-year long climb in unemployment has been halted, and the national rate is once again below 10%. Although in my home state of Rhode Island, it is hovering just under 13%. As the economy has stabilized, consumer and investor confidence has recovered. Much of the value that had evaporated from retirement accounts and investment portfolios has been made back over the past year. On the day the Recovery Act was signed into law, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 7,552. Yesterday, it closed at 11,117. It did require borrowing to counteract the inherited meltdown, tightening belts is the wrong analogy in the middle of an economic contraction, if we followed that advice we probably would be in a second depression now.

In addition to the economic gains of the past twelve months, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the historic passage of health care legislation that will ensure that all Americans have access to affordable quality health care. The primary economic anxiety for many families in Rhode Island and around the country is obtaining and retaining health insurance coverage. The Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care law will ensure that citizens of this most affluent nation on Earth finally have access to quality, affordable health care coverage.

While our progress over the past year has been substantial, many parts of the country continue to suffer through a recession-level employment. Again, unemployment in my state of Rhode Island stands at 12.6%. Our recession started earlier than most places and the suffering has been deeper. I’m pleased that the Chairman’s resolution includes a jobs reserve fund which will provide us with procedural flexibility in passing new jobs legislation and extending assistance for the unemployed.

As most of you surely know, Mother Nature hit Rhode Island hard recently with the worst flooding since the Great September Gale of 1815. Three-thousand Rhode Islands are out of work because of the storms and the uncovered damages to homeowners, businesses, and the state and local governments will likely reach into the hundreds of millions. We’re a small state, for us those are big numbers. Tomorrow, I plan to offer an amendment that would expand the reserve funds in the Chairman’s resolution to cover flood prevention and mitigation legislation as well as legislation to bolster our nation’s failing dams. I hope that my colleagues will support this language and work with me to provide assistance to the flood victims in my state.

The Chairman’s resolution will compliment many of President Obama’s budget priorities from maintaining the Make Work Pay Tax Credit, and shielding middle-class Americans from the AMT, to supporting Pell Grants, and providing for investments in science, education and health care. It also follows the President’s request to freeze non-security discretionary spending for the next three years.

As Americans are forced to reexamine their budgets, so too should our government. I hope that my colleagues will see this freeze as an opportunity to cut duplicative spending and make our government run more efficiently. I’m pleased to serve on the task force the Chairman established on this committee, the Government Performance Task Force chaired by Senator Warner, and I look forward to exploring efficiency opportunities with him as the work of the task force continues.

I want to end on a cautionary note for anyone intent on falsely framing the President Obama as fiscally irresponsible. A conversation about who’s responsible for our nation’s budget deficits is one that I’m quite prepared to have. President Clinton left President Bush an annual budget surplus, and a budget trajectory predicted by CBO to eliminate the federal debt, and leave a completely debt-free America, by 2009. We could be going into the second year of a completely debt free America but the irresponsible polices of the Bush Administration changed all that: $1.3 trillion of tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy, a prescription drug benefit designed to line the pockets of big pharma, a war not paid for, and regulatory failures that led to near financial collapse, all put us where we are today.

While I am ready indeed to engage in that conversation, I hope that we will choose instead to put our rhetoric aside and work together on a constructive budget with appropriate attention to spending and revenue. We owe it to our constituents to do our best to restore prosperity to the economy and balance to our nation’s budget.

Mr. Chairman, I once again commend you for your leadership and look forward to working with you through the budget process and back to brighter budget days.

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