Budget Speech

Jul 29 2019

Mr. President, there is a quote that's long been attributed to St. Augustine, who during his conversion to Christianity famously uttered a prayer asking, “Lord, help me be chaste, grant me chastity, but not yet.”

The idea behind this is as old as human nature itself, which is that it's easier to have the thought of doing something later than to do that thing now, especially when it's a difficult task. It's one of the reasons why New Year's resolutions often result in a spike, an abrupt increase in gym enrollments and memberships. People develop New Year's resolutions. They decide they're going to lose weight, they're going to exercise more, they're going to eat less, and then it becomes more difficult as time goes by and perhaps over time some of them might find it easier to say, “Well, I'll lose weight later in the year, after starting the new year off to a good start.” They might say, “Well, I'll lose more weight in the last half of the year, later in the year.” It might occur to them that they'll lose more weight in the last two months of the year.

Regardless, as they continue to delay that moment, the task doesn't get easier; it often gets harder. The budget and spending and debt limit deal that was announced earlier this week reminds me a little bit of this aspect of human nature.

It's understandable why this happens. It's especially understandable why it happens in a place where people are elected, where people want to be liked, where supporting greater government spending often results in praise. And calling for even a mild tapping on the brakes often results in rather severe criticism in the press, even by one's own constituents.

That doesn't mean that we can pretend things are different than they really are. So, yeah, you can suspend the debt ceiling. You can waive budget rules. But you can't suspend or waive or ignore the laws of mathematics.

We have to remember that at a time when we're talking about significant expansion of the role of the federal government, when we're talking about suspending the debt ceiling for an additional two years, when we're talking about paving the way for us to spend a whole lot more money through the federal government than we would otherwise spend, this is occurring at a time when Americans are already required to work many weeks, in some cases many months out of every year just to pay their federal taxes.

In addition to this, after that, they're told, by the way, that's not enough. It's not nearly enough. Because for a long time, the federal government has been spending a lot more money than it takes in. Lately, it's been to the tune of many hundreds of billions of dollars a year. It's expected that we will soon see a moment where notwithstanding record-breaking tax revenues we've never in our history brought in more money or as much money into the federal government's coffers than we are bringing in right now.

Notwithstanding those record levels and in spite of the fact that we're at the very top of the business cycle, we've got near record-low unemployment in the range of roughly 4% or a little below, which is, we're told by economists, basically full employment in America; at a time when all these things seem to be going our way, we're enjoying a period of relative peace in the world and in our country, and yet we've got record-breaking deficits. And this budget and debt ceiling deal would expand the path, would pave the path for even more of that.

It begs the question, if we can't control spending now when the economy is performing about as well as it possibly can, then when can we? To borrow a phrase from John F. Kennedy, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Let's talk for a minute about America's history with expanding its debt limit, expanding its debt footprint.

What we see through this chart that I've got here to my right is that in a number of -- during a number of periods of crisis in American history, we have accumulated more debt; that is, a more-than-average amount of debt as a percentage of our gross domestic product. We see various peaks, most of them following and brought about as a result of a major war; in some cases some other type of crisis.

We have the Revolutionary War. The Revolutionary War was mercilessly fought and won. Our debt as a percentage of GDP went down. It peaked a little bit a few years later when we had to fight the War of 1812. We won that war, too. Then debt as a percent of our GDP went down. It remained low. Then for many decades, when we fought the Civil War, it peaked again. It went back to close to 40% of our gross domestic product. The Civil War ended. It went back down. It peaked again at World War I, and then went back down. Peaked to a very significant degree at World War II and then promptly went back down.

See, through this period of time following World War II, in the late 1940's and into the 50's, we had a whole lot of revenue coming in, we weren't accumulating new debt and we were paying off our debt at the same time that our economy was expanding. So, consequently, even though every year didn't result in a balanced budget, our debt held by the public as a federal government went down as a percentage of our gross domestic product.

But in each of these instances, when I described, there was a reason, there was a distinct, unmistakable finite reason why these things happened. And once those reasons went away, once we won the wars in question, our debt as a percentage of our gross domestic product -- that is, the volume of economic activity in America went back down.

We saw a couple of other peaks. We had the Gulf War and a recession in roughly the same period that resulted in an increase of debt as a percentage of GDP. That war ended, and that recession went away, and it went back down. Then something interesting has been happening.

In the last few years, as we came out of the great recession, as we've enjoyed a very significant historic recovery in our economy, the economy has been expanding, jobs abound, the economy in which we now live has more people employed in basically every demographic than a few years ago we would have considered likely. And yet notwithstanding that fact, our debt as a percentage of our gross domestic product continues to go up.

Now, this graph in some ways even understates the matter relative to where we were at World War II. We hit the peak during World War II at I believe about 106%, 107% of gross domestic product. We're not quite to that level today by standard metrics. But if you include in this figure not only the debt held by the public -- that is, the debt held by those who purchase U.S. security bonds, U.S. Treasury instruments generally -- if you add to that the so-called intra-governmental debt, the IOU's the federal government has written to Social Security and Medicare to try to make up for funds that Congress wants access to but doesn't have -- we're actually well over 100% in terms of our debt-to-GDP ratio. In other words, we're at about where we were at the peak of the crisis we were addressing during World War II.

That begs the question, Mr. President -- when does this end? How does this end?

There's not a world war in which we're involved right now. We're experiencing relative peace. There's not a recession. We’re in the middle of one of the greatest peacetime economic recoveries this land has ever seen. So, if not us, then who? And if not now, then when?

But why is it that we now have to suspend our debt ceiling in order to essentially transfer to younger Americans, to subsequent generations the responsibility of financing the government that we have today?

One can easily defend those things when you're talking about the survival of a nation, when you're talking about a world war or you're talking about a war in which our nation's survival is at stake. We're not involved in any such effort right now. We're involved in some conflicts around the world, but those are not really what's driving this.

What's driving in is that we've got a government that's too big and too expensive. This means a lot of things to a lot of people. It's something that should weigh on every American seriously. I believe that it weighs especially heavy -- heavily on younger Americans, not just younger Americans themselves but people who have children and grandchildren.

I represent a state with the lowest median age in the entire country, the state of Utah. We're also the state with the largest percentage of people under the age of 18. I'd like to speak to some of those people right now, those people under the age of 18, especially in my state where they're disproportionately represented.

Young Americans, those who have not yet attained the age of 18, have had all this debt accumulate, some $22 trillion now by the federal government. They're going to be responsible for. Notwithstanding the fact that all of that debt has been accumulated at periods in their life either before they were born or before they were old enough to vote. This amounts to in a sense, Mr. President, a really pernicious form of taxation without representation.

Now, we won a war over that principle and we won that war. We shouldn't be doing this defiantly without a plan for turning it appeared, without a reason to have to do that, a reason that has to do with our very survival, without some sort of plan for getting out of. But instead of getting out of it, we're accelerating into it, and that's troubling.

Now, some might argue and in fact some within this body and in the House of Representatives have argued that so-called discretionary spending is not worth worrying about. Discretionary spending, for those of you not familiar with the term, refers to that part of the government that Congress decides on each and every year, that isn't pre-decided like our entitlement programs are. In other words, mandatory or entitlement spending, spending on things like Social Security and Medicare that are already set aside, those are things that we don't have discretion over. They're already called for by law. We already have to spend money on them.

So there are those in Congress who will maintain that we shouldn't worry about discretionary spending, which is the primary focus of this measure, of this budget caps deal, of this debt ceiling deal, because really the bigger picture, the bigger concern, the bigger threat is in fact about mandatory spending.

It's the entitlement programs they will say is driving the debt prices. But it's important to point out, Mr. President, we're not reforming those either. We couldn't even stick to the budget caps that both parties and both houses and the White House agreed to just a few years ago.

So it's, it defies logic and reason in my mind for people to say well we shouldn't worry about discretionary spending because mandatory spending is really where the problem is. No one would ever advise someone struggling with alcohol consumption that they shouldn't worry about consuming too much alcohol if they're also addicted to something else, meth or heroin or other terribly addictive substance that might be harmful to them. The fact that you’re dealing with one problem doesn’t mean that you also have to face the other problem. That's the concern that I've got with this deal. That's the reason I plan to vote against it.

Now look, I know I will be the first to admit there are no easy solutions here. There are no solutions that anyone would look to and say, yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun. I don't want to do that.

It reminds me of a time when my sister Stephanie was enrolled in a new school shortly after my family had moved back to Utah. Stephanie was in kindergarten. Stephanie was asked by the teachers, they were testing her to figure out which class she should be in, to take out her favorite color of crayon and write down her name. My mom watched from a distance as the teacher administered this test. She knew that Stephanie knew full well how to write her name. She watched in a certain degree of agony as Stephanie sat there and didn't pick up a single crayon.

After the test was complete and the teacher concluded mistakenly that Stephanie didn't know how to write her name, my mom asked her why didn't you write your name? She said, well, the lady asked me to pick up my favorite color of crayon and they didn't have pink, so I didn't write my name.

Sometimes I wonder whether Congress is in the same position as my sister Stephanie when she was at that young age being tested. We don't see our favorite color of crayon. We don't see our favorite option. We don't see any easy options there. In fact, we see a whole lot of options that would involve putting a dent in this problem, this growing, building problem that I’ve pointed out in the graph, and we see criticism that would likely ensue from any one of those options. Now I understand that. It doesn't mean that the laws of mathematics won't eventually catch up to us.

Winston Churchill is known to have said of the American people that the American people will always make the right choice after they have exhausted every other alternative. Now, Mr. President, I don't know whether he in fact said that. If he did in fact say it, I don't think he meant it as a compliment to the American people.

But I take it as such. It is a compliment. It is what differentiates us from other countries. We do in fact make the right choice not because of who we are, but because of what we do. And generally, at least after we've exhausted other alternatives, we do make the right choice, a choice that reflects the principles of liberty that really have always defined us as a nation.

Those principles cannot coexist with an effort that suggests to us that our government is so big and has to be so big that there's nothing we can do about the fact that Americans are required to work weeks or months out of every year just to pay their federal taxes and then be told that we're $22 trillion in debt. By the time the two years contemplated under this deal have passed, we may well be at 23, 24, perhaps approaching $25 trillion in debt.

Is it going to be any easier then to deal with the problem than it is now? I think not. If not us, who? If not now, when?

The way we start making steps in the right direction is to vote against a bill, a bill that like this one, does not meaningfully address the problem.

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.