Our accumulated national debt has grown to an unacceptable level. This is a debt service that each of us, and our children and grandchildren, will be required to repay for decades to come. It is important to note that non-defense, discretionary spending makes up a mere 12% of our overall budget. In order to address our nation’s debt crisis, all programs must remain on the table and restraint is needed on both the spending and revenue sides of federal fiscal policy.
The federal government had three consecutive years of budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton Administration, during which time $400 billion of the national debt was repaid and a $5.6 trillion surplus was projected; in fact, it was expected that our nation would be debt-free by 2010.
When former President George W. Bush took office, our national debt was approximately $5.8 trillion; however, when he left office, it was $10.6 trillion. In those eight years, the debt nearly doubled and deficits ran rampant. The majority of this increase is attributable to policies that were enacted when President Bush was in office. These costs include two wars, the Medicare prescription drug plan, and tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest Americans, none of which were paid for. In addition, the economic downturn and subsequent recovery efforts necessitated several enormous infusions of debt-financed taxpayer funds to keep our economy from collapsing. Now that our economy has stabilized and continues to improve, it is critical that we work together in a bipartisan manner to address our growing debt and deficit.
Returning the federal government to a responsible budget is one of my key priorities. Although more needs to be done, Congress has taken a number of important steps in recent years to begin addressing our nation’s debt problem. On August 2, 2011, Congress approved the Budget Control Act (S. 365). This measure put in place a process to cut more than $2 trillion in spending, representing the largest deficit reduction package in our nation’s history. The package cuts nearly $1 trillion over 10 years through spending caps. The legislation also directed a bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers to identify additional deficit cuts between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion. The “Super Committee” failed to reach an agreement, which triggered a spending sequestration. The automatic across-the-board spending cuts were scheduled to begin on January 1, 2013, continuing through 2021 to recoup the $1.2 trillion in required deficit reduction.
On January 1, 2013, the Senate and House of Representatives approved a compromise fiscal package known as the American Taxpayer Relief Act (H.R. 8). The measure averted the “fiscal cliff" by retaining the Bush-era tax cuts for most Americans while also delaying the automatic spending cuts for two months. The agreement allowed the Bush-era tax cuts to expire only on incomes exceeding $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for married couples. Allowing the tax cuts to expire for the very wealthy is projected to raise $620 billion in revenue over 10 years.
While I am relieved that some level of certainty has been restored to our tax code, it’s clear that many difficult budget decisions remain on the horizon for Congress in coming months. It's important to note that the agreement simply delayed the automatic $1.2 trillion in spending cuts through March 1, 2013. I was disappointed that an agreement was not reached to replace these across-the-board cuts with a balanced approach to deficit reduction.
I will continue working with my colleagues to replace the automatic spending cuts with a smart and targeted approach. We need a common sense budget that promotes job creation and invests in our country’s future, while still making the difficult choices that will put our nation on track to achieve a sustainable budget over the long term.
Congress came together in the past to turn around a ballooning deficit, and we can do so again. As noted above, the federal government ran three consecutive years of budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton Administration. Although the opportunity to retire our debt was lost in the decade that followed, that experience illustrates the fiscal discipline that we will need to achieve – and sustain – in order to return our country to a responsible budget position. I will continue working to identify workable and reasonable budget solutions so that we can end budget deficits and retire our debt.