In Senate Floor Speech, Bennet Highlights Urgent Need for Health Care Reform that Helps Families and Small Businesses, Restores America's Fiscal Health
Highlights Need for Common-Sense Budgeting Mechanism Like PAYGO and Deficit Reduction Act of 2009 to Bring Fiscal Discipline to Washington
Bennet: We Owe More to Our Kids Than to Leave Them a Huge National Debt and No Plan to Get Out of It
Washington, DC - Tying the urgent need for health care reform to the long-term imperative of restoring the country's fiscal health, Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator for Colorado, delivered a speech urging his colleagues to do right by future generations and begin the difficult work of putting America's fiscal house back in order.
Citing the increasing toll rising health care costs are taking on Colorado's working families, small businesses and the country's fiscal bottom line, Bennet called on Washington to recognize its responsibility to expand, not limit, opportunities for current and future generations and make the difficult decisions necessary to get America's deficits and debts under control.
Bennet also urged Congress to adopt two bills he has introduced that would provide common-sense frameworks for bringing the budget under control: statutory PAYGO, which will help restore fiscal discipline to Washington by ensuring any proposal to create new spending is paid for, and the Deficit Reduction Act of 2009, which would limit the amount of money that Congress can spend on year-to-year choices and place a yearly cap on the deficit, while fully protecting Social Security and Veterans benefits.
"If we fail to confront the tough issues so we can control the cost of health care, we will have squandered this narrow window of opportunity," said Bennet. "If we fail to step up to the plate and pass a fiscally sound health care reform bill, this Congress will be remembered for years to come as having let down the country. If we fail - not just to stop digging this deep fiscal hole, but to put a process in place for climbing back up to solid fiscal footing - we will have failed to perform as the stewards of our children's dreams."
Bennet's remarks, as prepared for delivery, are included below:
Our nation's annual deficits are staggering, and our national debt is absolutely unsustainable. For the future of our country and for our children's sake, as we recover from this devastating blow to our economy we have to stand together and begin to start the difficult but essential work of putting our fiscal house in order.
Health care reform must help solve this nation's fiscal problems, not make them worse. To accomplish this, effective reform must bend the cost curve in health care spending - both in the public and private sector.
In part because of years of neglect and inaction, this Congress has reached a defining moment of reckoning. Rising health care costs - especially Medicare costs - are now the largest driver of our deficits. Our nation's health care spending is 17% of our nation's gross domestic product and is projected to grow to over 20% of GDP in the next ten years alone - on it's way to 35%; health care alone - just health care - will soon account for one-fifth of our economy. This represents a greater share of the GDP than our manufacturing, agricultural, forestry, mining, and construction industries combined.
As we emerge from this terrible recession - the worst since the Great Depression - we cannot commit a fifth of our economy to health care and expect to compete effectively in the global marketplace.
Adding to the urgency of the problem, this recession has made rocketing health care costs even more painful for families and businesses. In the last 15 months, both large businesses and small businesses have cut some 5.1 million jobs, and 2.4 million of these newly unemployed workers have lost the health coverage their jobs once provided. Now the same people must try to find insurance in the individual market, where they can be rejected by private insurance companies for pre-existing conditions, like asthma, diabetes, or even cancer.
Mr. President, health care costs are strangling opportunities for working families and small businesses all over my state and the country. As health care costs rise, families are forced to make choices no one should have to make between insuring their family or their employees, and sending their kids to college; taking a lower paying job with less responsibility just for the medical benefits; and defaulting on their mortgage payments to pay for their medical bills.
Every one of these examples springs from the experiences of people in my state.
It's no mystery why people are having to make these terrible choices. Middle class wages are not even close to keeping up with these rising insurance costs. While median family income in this country fell by $300 during the last decade - staggering by the way - over the decade in real dollars median family income in the United States actually declined by $300. Health care costs increased over the same period by 80%.
The cost of health insurance is eating into family budgets faster and faster. Over the past decade, premiums for Colorado families have more than doubled, growing four times faster than wage increases. The cost of premiums for a Colorado family is over $13,000 today. If we do nothing, by 2016, Colorado families will be spending over $25,000 on their premiums, a 90% increase.
Left unaddressed, this imbalance, which is the creation of our catastrophically inefficient health care system, will destroy the middle class in this country. If we do nothing, if we continue on with the status quo, by 2016 - just seven years from now - 40 cents of every dollar a typical Colorado family earns will be eaten up by health care costs, leaving just 60 cents for everything else. Think about it - that's almost half an average family's income- money spent not to educate their children, not to feed them or house them, but just to cover the cost of the family health care plan.
And that's just paying for coverage. Never mind if you actually get sick. In 2007, 62% of personal bankruptcies in this country were due to medical costs.
Traditionally, most peoples' employers help pay for cost increases. That's been the case for many years. But I have heard from employers all over Colorado who are having to make tough choices - cutting back on benefits and laying off more cost to their employees. In the coming years, co-pays for Coloradans will go up by double digits for medicine. More Coloradans are being forced into health plans with higher deductibles, and more employers are getting out of the business of providing health insurance for their employees altogether.
Mr. President, we won't be able to completely flatten the health care cost curve in the short-run, and we should be careful not to overpromise. But we have to make the rising cost of health care something that our economy can plausibly absorb. Part of the solution is reducing waste and curbing overpayments to insurance companies. And part of the answer is encouraging patients to seek preventive care.
Small businesses may not see health costs go down immediately, but we sure can slow their rise and we've got to work hard to ensure that they don't continue to rise so quickly. Reforming our health care system could save over 100,000 small business jobs in the coming years that will otherwise be lost if we do nothing.
And, Mr. President, I agree with bipartisan voices that are saying that our first health care goal has to be to drive down costs. And we must start with Medicare. As I travel throughout Colorado, I have met countless physicians, nurses, and hospital workers who tell me about the perverse incentives in Medicare. Instead of being paid to spend time with patients and produce better quality care, doctors and nurses are paid for the number of patients they see in the shortest amount of time and the number of procedures they perform. This is no way to produce patient-centered care, and it is no way to reduce costs.
Medicare doesn't just influence the care of the elderly and disabled. As the largest health care program in the United States, Medicare influences every level of health care. Private insurance and employer-based health care look to Medicare as they make decisions on what to pay doctors, nurses, and hospitals.
Owing to the perverse incentives in Medicare, however, since 1970, every year for almost forty years, - year in and year out - Medicare spending per person has risen by over 8 percent each year, and private insurance spending per person has risen by over 9 percent each year. If we expect reform to begin to gain any traction, we must drive costs down at the federal level first.
We can start by paying doctors and nurses to actually do what they're supposed to do - and what they want to do: Be focused on patients. We have to reform the system so that we are paying for quality, not volume.
We must improve care, produce savings and slow down cost growth, by bundling payments, paying for performance and outcomes, and providing better coordinated care for patients and providers.
The burden is on us to meet the public's expectations - that we will drive down costs in the health care system and make it more efficient, that we will make the health care marketplace more competitive, and that we will provide affordable, stable health care coverage to the American people that can't be taken away because you lose a job, have a pre-existing condition, or have reached some arbitrary cap.
Mr. President, controlling health care costs would help our fiscal situation a great deal, and that's one of the fundamental reasons health care reform is needed. But this alone will not be enough to fill the deepening hole of national debt that threatens America's prosperity. The fiscal decisions that we make today matter so much because they will dictate the well-being and range of choices of the generations that follow us.
Sometimes in the daily hail of press clippings, these issues may seem overly complex. But I like to use a simple analogy. The way we have run our government is not different than if you or I were to buy a house - probably a bigger one than we reasonably could afford - and then we tell the bank to please send the mortgage documents to our kids. Imagine how that burden, paying for mom and dad's house, would constrain our children's choices. What dreams would they have to defer because their first obligation is to a debt they did not even incur?
My three daughters, aged 9, 8 and 5, have never had an economics class, but I can tell you that as much as they love their mom and dad, if asked, they would never do that deal. Especially my five year old, Anne. Whether we are taking her blanket away, or telling her to stop sucking her thumb, or putting a mountain of debt on her, she knows a raw deal when she sees one.
We in Congress owe the next generation more than this, Mr. President. We ought to be able to build on our roles as parents and community leaders to respect our children, come together and plan America's way back to fiscal health.
The longer we wait, the more difficult our choices become. If we wait ten years, we'll face a massive gap between our spending and the revenue that the government collects. If we wait ten years to take action, we'd have to increase individual income taxes by almost 90% just to keep pace. That's an unacceptable outcome for Colorado families. Don't like tax increases? Fine. Then we would have to slash federal spending by almost one-half. That would mean massive cuts to Medicare, our nation's defense, and other critical initiatives that keep our country strong. No one wants to be put in the position to make those kind of choices either. These outcomes are unacceptable, yet we can see them coming. Mr. President, that's why inaction is so unacceptable on health care and returning to policy on fiscal discipline.
Mr. President, it is long past time to put in place the policies that will reverse this condition. And as with any deep hole, the first order of business is to stop digging.
The good news is, we have a tried and true way to stop making matters worse. In the 1990's, we had PAYGO, which effectively forced the shovel from Congress's hands and made Congress stop digging. PAYGO means that before Congress can create new spending on permanent programs, it needs to figure out how to pay for that new spending. Just like every family in the state's we represent. PAYGO helped turn 1980's deficits into 1990's surpluses.
PAYGO is common sense budgeting. It's not any different than what a family does when its spending gets out of hand. When that bad credit card statement comes in the mail, a parent knows that it's time to sit down at the kitchen table and plan how to stop the spending.
PAYGO is what Congress and President Clinton did to respond to Washington's bad credit card bill. PAYGO was smart lawmaking, because it imposed a culture of fiscal responsibility, and I would say, discipline, on the Congress.
Yet for some reason, early in this decade a new Administration let PAYGO expire. That played a part in how these surpluses all of a sudden turned back into big annual deficits. This is how America incurred years of new debt. And Mr. President, the frustrating reality is that we are not getting enough out of borrowing all this money in the end. Fighting an expensive war with tremendous unseen long-term costs to follow, ignoring the staggering cost of our health care system and entitlements, paying huge interest costs on our debt in large part to foreign countries. These are hardly worthy uses of deficit spending.
In 2003, the Bush Administration and Congress passed a new entitlement program - Medicare Part D - it's very popular but we never paid a dime for it. They also chose two tax cuts for people who needed them least over fiscal discipline. They ignored skyrocketing mandatory spending. They created a brand new bureaucracy and just saddled all of this heavy new weight on America's national debt. In short, Mr. President, Washington was unwilling to ask the American people to pay for any of its investments - they put it on our children's shoulders instead.
And the tragedy of this incredible mismanagement is that it didn't work. Our economy plunged into the deepest hole we've seen since the Great Depression.
Fortunately, earlier this year, the House rightly passed new statutory PAYGO. The Senate should pass PAYGO too. That's why today, Senator McCaskill and I introduced PAYGO in the Senate. We believe that PAYGO is one important way to make sure that our fiscal situation doesn't get any worse. Mr. President, PAYGO is no magic bullet, but it can be part of the answer to our fiscal woes.
Though once it is in place, we cannot stop there. PAYGO will only help us stop digging. But we also need to budget for the future, we got to stop running large deficits and fill this fiscal hole we have inherited completely. I'm optimistic it can be done, and it will take bipartisan commitment and discipline.
One place to start is with the growth of our yearly spending. Mr. President, like PAYGO, limiting the yearly spending of Congress has also been done before, and it has worked.
That's why today I am introducing separate legislation, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2009, that would create yearly limits on discretionary spending. By pairing these discretionary spending limits with PAYGO, we can start to make a substantial change in how Washington does business.
But it's not enough just to limit new spending across the board. Much of the reason we are running such large deficits, is that we have made long-term spending commitments, which people in Washington call ‘mandatory spending.' To truly reverse the totality of our disastrous fiscal course, we must be willing to address rapidly expanding mandatory commitments too.
You know, it's funny when you use that word mandatory, it's the word that should be used to express what this debt-burden is that we're putting on our kid. It will be mandatory that they pay that back before they make decisions about how to educate their own children, before they make decisions about how to provide health care in this country, or make other kinds of investments, all across the United States in transportation or in new economies. What will be mandatory, as we fall farther and farther behind in this global economy, what will be mandatory for them is to pay the bill left behind by their mothers and fathers.
The best way to get Congress to take a hard look at mandatory spending today is to place a flexible cap on our annual deficits. That's the other main component of what my new legislation would do. The cap in the Deficit Reduction Act is realistic. It doesn't do us any good to say that tomorrow we're going to balance our budget deficit, it's not going to happen.
We need to be realistic, and this cap would impose limits that are consistent with what economists, on both sides of the aisle, consistently believe we can sustain. This deficit limit is flexible -- providing an exception when we are in a recession, and here's how the deficit limit would work: Whatever the Gross Domestic Product is in a given year, Congress must limit the deficit to 3% of the GDP or less. Economists tell us that this 3% number is sustainable over time, and that is a reasonably healthy ceiling, we all should do a better job than that, we should push it below 3%, but this is a good starting point at setting and adhering to a budget. We would all applaud if the deficits of today - 12 or 13 % of GDP - were 3 percent, and no one would clap louder than our children.
Under my legislation, if Congress failed to meet these deficit control requirements, the government would have to impose an across the board cut called a sequestration. Certain programs such as Social Security and Veterans programs would not be subject to cuts. Yet most of the government's functions would be. The goal of this, of course, is not to have the need for an across the board cut, to avoid this drastic measure by forcing Congress to plan ahead, and forcing Congress to pay attention to the deficit when it makes its spending choices.
Deficit limits make perfect sense during most years. But Mr. President, as we have learned during this recession, an infusion of public funds can jolt a frozen economy and help turn the economy around and I think we're beginning to see signs of that. Running temporary deficits can kickstart a stagnant economy. But this only works if during healthy economic times, we reduce government spending. The deficit limits I am proposing in this legislation would put Congress on a gradual track back to solid fiscal footing.
Mr. President, we should immediately enact budget reform proposals like PAYGO, discretionary spending limits and deficit limits. The CBO has concluded that after 2019, the rate at which we accumulate debt. By the way, on this point, the CBO doesn't need anybody to manage this, this is going to happen on autopilot if we don't do something different. The CBO has concluded that after 2019, the rate at which we accumulate debt will continue to accelerate due to the aging of the population and increased health care costs. As angry as we all are with the excessive leverage in the private marketplace over the last ten years, it brought the stock market, our bond market, our credit market to its knees. It is also obvious that Washington set an extremely bad example.
Let's put an end to these unsound fiscal policies. Let's not put our kids in the kind of situation that we have inherited. Let's not make matters even worse, and the policy decisions regarding the national debt even harder for our kids.
What we need now is leadership and cooperation; not more shifting of costs to them. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if we remain on our current course, the total debt owed by the public will stand at over $17 trillion by the end of fiscal year 2019, only ten years from today.
The point, Mr. President, is that linked with our growing debt are the dreams and plans of millions of American families. There's nothing fun about tightening our belt and cutting popular programs. I don't like it any more than anyone else who is here. Yet there are plenty of encouraging signs that this Congress and this President can stand together and do exactly that. Recently, just a couple of weeks ago the Senate stood with the President for fiscal discipline and slashed nearly $2 billion from an outdated weapons system. No one in Washington believed it was going to happen. All of the predictions were that the votes weren't there to do it and we did it. That's a good start and I gladly support it. But so much more is left to do.
Coloradans already know we're in a bad way. People in my state are well aware that the excesses in recent years are catching up to us, and they know that Congress and the President have to make hard fiscal choices, reform health care before it eats up our entire budget, and pay for our reform efforts.
This challenging outlook may be just what it takes to bring both political parties to the negotiating table. Paired with PAYGO, Mr. President, it is my hope that this new legislation, and other ideas that other people in the chamber might have, can be a real starting point for meaningful fiscal negotiations. It's time we came up with an intelligent framework of fiscal management, that keeps Congress thinking ahead each time it makes a decision, and each time it puts together an annual budget, and each time it is faced with America's long-term fiscal trajectory.
Mr. President, Washington's fiscal mess was created over many years, and we won't solve the problem overnight. But this bill would give Congress and the President a guidepost to make the decisions necessary to get our budget under control. It would set a strong and binding standard for us to act responsibly.
We must start with what unites us. When I worry about what type of country we will leave my daughters and all of our young people, I know that others who vote differently than I do have exactly the same concerns. We owe more to our kids than to leave them a huge national debt and no plan to get out of it.
If we don't start making difficult decisions soon, we'll be limiting our children's ability to make our country a better place, before they even get started. We'll be limiting their ability to invest in education, life-saving scientific research, or new technologies that form the foundation of economic growth. We'll be limiting their ability to defend the nation during future times of war that we can't even think of today. And we'll be limiting their chances of having a quality of life even better than what our parents and grandparents left to us.
If we fail to confront the tough issues so we can control the cost of health care, we will have squandered this narrow window of opportunity. If we fail to step up to the plate and pass a fiscally sound health care reform bill, this Congress will be remembered rightly for years to have been a Congress that let this country down. If we fail - not just to stop digging this deep fiscal hole, but to put a process in place for climbing back up to solid fiscal footing - we will have failed to perform as the stewards of our children's dreams.
Mr. President, let's stand together, with our President and with American families. Let's get health care reform done responsibly, let's take action to reduce the deficit and the debt, and let's put this economy back on track.