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Wyden backs ‘must-pass’ budget deal – but with caveats


Here’s the full text of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s remarks as prepared for delivery on the Senate floor during Thursday’s debate of the 2-year budget agreement:

The Senate today kicks off debate on a major, bipartisan budget compromise. Here’s what this is all about: Fiscal battles in Congress come and go, but nothing should ever threaten America’s sterling economic reputation, which spans generations.

Without this agreement, the Congress is staring at a potential debt default just days away, when the Treasury loses its authority to borrow to make payments. By now, everyone knows the dangerous consequences of default – housing costs shooting upward, retirement accounts shrinking, jobs disappearing, consumer confidence falling.

Nobody in either party is ever thrilled by the prospect of raising the debt ceiling, but it’s a job that must be done. This country is an economic rock in a tumultuous sea. Our disagreements change with every news cycle and election. But America pays its debts, and it pays them on time. That’s why this legislation is so important.

This bipartisan compromise also reduces the threat of a potential government shutdown in December. When this becomes law, the pin will be back in the grenade where it belongs, and that’s positive news as businesses and citizens alike look for predictability.

Now Congress ought to look at this compromise as a springboard to a full and productive debate over the budget in the next two years. The fact is, last-minute budget deals have become too commonplace, and they’ve left a lot of important policy improvements on the cutting room floor. For example, with America’s West growing hotter and drier every year, our broken system of budgeting for wildfires is in drastic need of improvement. The same goes for several of the programs that support rural communities. Fortunately, this legislation lays the groundwork for Congress to get back to having robust budget debates that can solve these challenges.

Now, with my time this morning I want to address some specific elements of this bill, starting with what I see as a number of constructive policies.

First the bill staves off the full brunt of the automatic budget cuts known in these corridors as sequestration. That policy was designed to be painful from the get-go, and it weakens Medicare and many other domestic programs. Sequestration was supposed to disappear two years after it began, but it continues to haunt the budget debate. It’s important that this legislation eases the burden by $80 billion over two years. That means more investment in education, medical and scientific research, housing assistance, public health, and more.

Second, this bipartisan plan is going to prevent a big spike in Medicare costs for millions of seniors. Several weeks ago, the news came down that seniors were facing a hike in premiums and deductibles in Medicare Part B of potentially more than 50 percent. That amounts to an increase of hundreds of dollars – perhaps more – in a year when Social Security benefits are not expected to grow. From my years as director of Oregon Gray Panthers, I can tell you that would hit a lot of older Americans living on fixed incomes like a wrecking ball.

Earlier this month, several of my Democratic Senate colleagues and I introduced legislation that would shield seniors from this huge financial hit. Following our work, the bipartisan compromise before the Senate includes a version of this important fix. It’s not as generous as the proposal my colleagues and I introduced, and there are questions about how it will affect the landscape a few years down the road. But make no mistake about it, this legislation goes a long, long way to protecting seniors and their pocketbooks, particularly the so-called “dual eligibles” on Medicare and Medicaid.

Third, the budget compromise takes an extraordinarily important step to shore up one of America’s most vital safety-net programs, Social Security Disability Insurance. Without a fix, the SSDI benefits that workers have earned would be slashed by 20 percent in the near future. This proposal is going to follow a commonplace, bipartisan strategy of shifting funding within the Social Security program to make sure beneficiaries are protected through 2022. I introduced legislation earlier this year, along with 28 of my colleagues, which would have gone further by guaranteeing that SSDI remained solvent through 2034. But this compromise package does strengthen SSDI for several years.

Fourth, the budget package makes big progress on tax compliance. It includes some important proposals that will crack down on taxpayers who seek to dodge their responsibilities and pass the buck to other Americans. For example, enforcing the tax laws with respect to large partnerships has been a challenge for a long time. There are more than 10,000 of these complex businesses in the U.S. More than 500 of them have at least 100,000 partners. So there’s no way to conduct audits effectively under the current rules, which are decades old. In my view, the proposal before the Senate makes meaningful improvements. More taxpayers will pay what they owe instead of using sleight of hand approaches to dodge their responsibilities.

The complexity of this part of the tax code is mind-boggling, and there may be more work that goes into getting this policy right. So my colleagues and I on the Finance Committee will keep giving this issue the scrutiny it deserves.

Those are four specific areas of progress in this bipartisan compromise that staves off a risky budgetary battle. But I also feel it’s important to share one of my concerns with the bill, specifically with a portion that has very little to do with the budget. It’s called Section 301, and it allows debt collectors to make robo-calls directly to Americans’ cell phones. Here’s my view: Debt collectors should not be gifted broad permission to harass people, particularly through robo-calls, running up costly charges in many cases. FCC limits on the number and duration of calls are not sufficient. In a healthier budget process, this kind of proposal would get weeded out. So I’ll be working with my colleagues to reverse this action in the weeks ahead.

Finally, in my role as Ranking Member of the Finance Committee, I want to address how these fiscal agreements are financed in the future.

Medicare and Social Security absolutely cannot become the honeypots that Congress raids whenever it needs to pay for legislation. If you go around the country – to Oregon, to Georgia, to North Dakota or Texas – and you ask typical Americans what they want their representatives in Congress to do, protecting Medicare and Social Security is right up at the top of the list. I hear it in every town hall, and I’m certain my colleagues do, too.

There is a longstanding tradition that says changes in Medicare policy should strengthen Medicare for the future. The same goes for Social Security. Yet twice now, entitlement programs have been used to fund budget deals, and Medicare sequestration is sticking around long past its original expiration date.

This legislation preventing a calamitous default is coming down to the wire, and it’s a must-pass bill that I support. When we talk about where we go from here, it’s important to recognize that these critical safety net programs must not be used as ATMs for other spending in the future.

The bottom line is that the process of reaching a budget and keeping the lights on in Congress needs to change. Congress cannot continue to govern by crisis. It’s our job as lawmakers to set the right temperature in our economy with smart, forward-looking policies that help businesses succeed and help people get ahead. You cannot do that when you’re lurching from one crisis to the next. So let’s use this legislation as an opportunity to get back to writing the budget in a bipartisan fashion through regular order.

I yield the floor.

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