I think most people who choose a career in public service truly want to help others. I know I’ve spent the better part of my career in West Virginia and in Congress looking for ways to make life better for the American people.
Perhaps it’s a simple idea, but I can say with some pride that over the years we’ve made real strides.
It’s popular to beat up on the government, but the truth is, the government does an incredible amount to help people in their lives every day. The benefits of government are not always visible – they don’t make the nightly news -- but they are enormously important.
This government looks after veterans when they come home from battle.
It takes care of seniors with our Medicare and Social Security programs.
We have Medicaid and CHIP that provide comprehensive health coverage to our most vulnerable populations, including children – because it is morally right and in the best interest of our nation to be sure that children have a healthy start in life.
We help build the roads, the bridges, and other infrastructure that connect small towns and communities together – the fabric that links families and business all across the country.
Federal agencies making sure the food we eat is safe and the water we drink is clean. And they help communities pay for public safety and law enforcement to keep our streets safe.
I could go on, and on. There are literally thousands of things government has done over the years to improve the quality of life for every single man, woman and child who live in this great country.
But in recent weeks, we’ve seen the discussion about the role and purpose of government take a nasty turn.
Some of my colleagues on the other side have lately taken up a call to arms to do whatever it takes to slash and close the government. They want to hold the American people hostage, with a ransom note that keeps getting higher and higher.
There is no question that we must get our growing deficit under control – and Democrats have taken responsible steps to do just that. But, at every turn, Republicans have blocked reasonable attempts to rein in government spending. Instead, they have made unreasonable demands and changed the goal posts repeatedly.
Last December, Democrats produced an omnibus appropriations bill for 2011 that would have reduced spending by $20 billion, a level endorsed by a bi-partisan group of Senators. Incoming Speaker John Boehner, however, launched a campaign to oppose the bill.
Republicans ramped up their opposition to the bill and instead all we were able to pass was a short-term extension of funding for 2011.
In February, Republicans offered a long-term proposal to fund the government through the end of fiscal year 2011 with $32 billion in cuts. BUT Tea Party Republicans rejected the $32 billion and instead insisted on deeper cuts of $61 billion that Republicans knew and openly admitted were both dangerous to the economy and unlikely to pass the Senate.
In the meantime, Democrats have fought to keep our government operating. We have passed $10 billion in cuts since March – and offered another $20 billion in cuts to Republicans so that we can end this stand-off.
And, just when we thought we had finally reached agreement on $33 billion in additional cuts below 2010 enacted levels – which is $73 billion below the President’s 2011 Budget proposal – at the end of March, Republicans changed the rules of the road AGAIN – demanding $40 billion in cuts to appease the far right.
Some of my colleagues on the other side have lately taken up a call to arms to do whatever it takes to close the government. Now, despite a previous commitment from the Speaker, middle-ground funding cuts of $33 billion are no longer good enough.
Then, as the final bomb, they passed the 7th short-term spending measure that is loaded with $12 billion in spending, which by the way is six times more than the agreed upon rate of $2 billion, includes the Department of Defense Appropriations bill, and riders that have absolutely no place in an appropriations measure.
What is required is less concern about Tea Party messaging, and total attention to the well being of the American people and the health of our Nation.
The Tea Party cry – delivered in gleeful shouts and rants on the floor of the House, the Senate and sometimes in rallies here outside the Capitol – is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Just recently, we watched as an extremist crowd standing on the lawn outside waved flags with snakes on them and shouted “shut it down, shut it down,” as if this were a sporting event.
Even the leadership on the other side has joined in – with one Republican member telling the crowds and people everywhere that he wants to see the government shut down.
Really? You have such disdain for our constitutional government, you so disrespect our fellow citizens – the people who sent us here and count on us – that you want a government shutdown?
Has anyone else noticed that in many parts of the world today, there are protests in the streets about basic freedoms? Here, where we are privileged already to enjoy those freedoms, yet we’re stuck in a political debate with extreme positions and Members of Congress who seem not to care what happens here so long as they “win” or score points for the next election.
Frankly, this cynical posturing from the other side has not only brought us to the brink of a government shutdown – it’s taken us to a point where we are forgetting what it is that we were arguing about in the first place.
What should be a serious, thoughtful debate about finding reasonable ways to cut the budget and scale back our deficit has for some instead turned into a game.
I say that because what we are hearing from the other side is that they want mostly to move an extreme agenda. It’s not longer about agreeing on a dollar figure to cut from the budget. It’s about trying to turn the government into the bogeyman and close its doors.
Let me tell you why that’s unacceptable to me.
It’s because this is not a game. This is real life. And the decisions we make here have real world implications for the people of West Virginia and every other state.
Let’s consider what would happen if the extremists wing of the Republican party get its way and the government shuts down.
Soldiers would not get their paychecks. That’s right – the servicemen and servicewomen who risk their lives so that we may live in freedom – might not be paid. Does that sound like a sane policy?
In my state of West Virginia there are more than 6,500 people serving in the National Guard alone. Nationally, about half of the young men and women in the military are 25 or younger and about 40 percent have children.
Many of these families are on one income and some are living paycheck to paycheck. Now, they don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s one more thing that they should not be thinking about when they ought to be focused on staying alive and completing their mission.
There’s so much more on the chopping block if the extremists here in Congress get their way.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) wouldn’t be able to process mortgage loans.
Social Security claims would freeze. Did you know that during the four days of the 1995 shutdown, 112,000 claims for Social Security retirement and disability benefits were not taken and 800,000 callers were denied service on the Social Security Administration’s phones?
In a shutdown, the IRS could stop refunding checks - more than 235,000 West Virginians will file their taxes using paper forms this year and they will wait longer for their returns to be completed.
Small businesses would stop getting government loans.
We’d turn the lights off on the NIH - and tell scientists working on developing life-saving treatments or finding a cure for cancer, that their work will have to wait. And they will have to turn away patients whose best or only hope is to join a clinical trial for new treatments or medicines.
We’d shutter the agency responsible for regular federal mine safety and health inspections – should I remind my colleagues here that this month marks one year since the worst mining accident in recent history at Upper Big Branch?
Inspections of stock brokers and routine oversight of financial markets by Federal agencies would cease. Enforcement actions would be
West Virginia is set to receive $416,590 in Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). But that stops in a shutdown.
Some of the FEMA flood mitigation and flood insurance operations would stop. Have we forgotten the lessons of Katrina so quickly? In West Virginia, spring storms often bring torrential and devastating floods to the valleys that can wipe out entire communities.
Most Veterans Benefits services would stop; we know the last time that extremists on the other side closed the government more than 400,000 veterans saw their disability, pension or educational benefits delayed.
I could go on.
What’s more ridiculous is that even the leaders on the other side have conceded that the vast “shut down” movement is not even sound fiscal policy.
The Speaker of the House, who is not as extreme as others in his party, said recently that if you shut the government down, it will end up costing more than you’ll save.
A new study from Goldman Sachs said that a federal shutdown would cost $8 billion a week. And the economist Mark Zandi predicted that a shutdown would have a detrimental impact on our recovery.
Why? Because many of the contracts and other services that are interrupted do not go away – they just get delayed. So you often end up paying more in the long run.
It’s tempting to wonder if the other side is interested in anything more than finding clever new ways to attack the White House and score political points. We started this debate earlier in the year with a mutual agreement that we need to find ways to pay down the deficit and make some cuts and somewhere along the way we went off the rails.
During the last couple of weeks, as extremists on the other side have prevented us from arriving at a deal, Congress has resorted to short, stop-gap funding measures that cut billions of dollars from federal programs as part of a deal to buy more time.
Instead of just tossing out a claim that we must cut $33 billion more from the budget without any distinction on what’s valuable, wouldn’t we be better off having a conversation about reforming the tax code to end the disgraceful tax breaks for the rich at the expense of the middle class?
I’ve tried for years to work towards a tax policy that would do less for corporate America and more for Main Street American; less for offshore operations and more for seniors and families; and less for big oil companies and more for investment, infrastructure and innovation.
Does the other side realize that at a certain point we are mocking the American people, we are mocking the legislative process and we are mocking the entire Congress by turning this issue into a game of chicken where the other side doesn’t care about consequences?
To the cynics who recklessly argue that the government should “shut down” I ask: Do you realize the impact of your words? Do you see what would happen to the people of West Virginia, or any other state in this great nation, if we just tell everyone that the government can’t function right now?
I want to make another point here. The other side likes to go on and on about how important it is for us to get the economy back on track and keep the recovery going.
Have any of them who keep crying that we should “shut it down” stopped and thought about the economic impact on families of sending home thousands of hard working Americans without a pay check?
During the two government shutdowns in 1995-1996, about 800,000 federal employees were unable to work. Is cheering for a repeat a good path towards prosperity?
Is the best way to curb spending really to just tell people go home and sit? To tell them that they may have a job at some point but for now we are closing programs, parks, grants, inspectors and everything else they can think of?
With workers facing frozen wages, struggling to pay their mortgages, coping with trade deficits and closed factories - is this really the best we can do for them?
Shutting down the government is a simple and easy way to pander to the Tea Party and the extremist elements of the far right.
By insisting on their way or no way, the Tea Partiers are squandering precious time and resources.
The best part of what we do here is working together. Finding the best ideas and working until we have a solution.
This squabble should be settled by a reasoned discussion and a thoughtful exchange of ideas between Democrats and Republicans.
I call upon the other side to show some leadership and bring us back from the brink.