Durbin Statement on Budget Control Act

Madam President, this is an historic vote and it's one that has involved a lot of emotion and a lot of soul-searching and a lot of hard work. Our leaders are on the floor, Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate -- Senators Reid and McConnell. I want to salute both of them for working so hard to bring us to this moment where we have an opportunity to vote. The House has passed this legislation, so-called Budget Control Act. The Senate will take it up shortly. It is my belief that it will also pass in the United States Senate. But my vote for this legislation does not come without some pain.

You're told in life to follow your conscience. Well, Madam President, on this matter my conscience is conflicted. If this bill should fail, we will default on our nation's debt. That will be the first time that has ever happened. And if we should default at midnight tonight on our nation's debt, terrible things will ensue. We will find America’s credit rating in the world diminished; the interest rates which we pay as a nation increased. The cost of money for businesses and families across the United States will increase at exactly the wrong time, in the midst of recession.

If we fail to pass this legislation, tomorrow the Secretary of the Treasury would sit down with the President of the United States and decide in the month of August which Americans who were expecting a check, will actually receive one. Will we pay social security recipients? Will we pay the members of our military? Will we pay the Central Intelligence Agency? It is an impossible choice that the President would face if we fail.


But there's another side to this story. If this bill passes, we will reduce spending on critical programs. We have to be honest about it. Fewer children from poor families will be enrolled in early childhood education. Working families and their children will face even more debt to pay for college education. Medical research will likely be cut. And the list goes on. So from where I stand, it is not the clearest moral choice.


I spoke to our Chaplain before we started the session about a line in Shakespeare that I have always struggled to understand. It is from Hamlet, and it's the line in his famous soliloquy when he said “conscience makes cowards of us all.” This morning I still cannot clearly articulate what it means, but I feel it. Struggling with this conscience question of defaulting on our debt—with all of the consequences on innocent people across America—and passing this bill—with all of the consequences on innocent people in America.


Madam President, I’ve spent the last year and a half focused on this debt situation like I’ve never been focused before. I understand it a little better today than I did when I started. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if we are going to be honest about our debt and honest about reducing it, we have to be honest on how it will happen. Sure, we must cut spending. That’s where we have to start.


But we also have to understand that it goes beyond that. We have to be prepared to raise revenue. In the Bowles- Simpson Commission and in the Gang of Six, I thought we came up with an honest answer to that question. It was a balanced approach that put everything on the table. Well, this bill makes a serious and significant down payment in spending cuts. Now a joint committee is created to take the next step. I will say this, if the next step is to be fair, if the next step is to be serious, it has to go beyond spending cuts. It has to look at serious questions about how we can save money in entitlement programs without compromising our commitment and how we can ask those who have profited so well in America, who live so comfortably, to join us in this effort by paying more in taxes. That is the stark reality. If we continue to move toward more and more spending cuts, we will literally disadvantage the poor and working families of America to the advantage of those who are well off. That isn't fair and it isn't right.


Many people who criticize us say, “you know, you don't even read these bills that you vote on.” So yesterday I sat down to read this bill. It's not that long. And I will have to tell you that the front end of the bill is almost unintelligible. You need someone from Budget Committee sitting next to you to explain each paragraph. But I basically understand that portion of it. I also understand the portion that Senator McConnell proposed for how we'll sequence for interest in the national debt. I certainly understand and am puzzled in some ways by the joint committee's basic charge to find—in ten weeks—anywhere from $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in savings over the next ten years. In ten weeks, these twelve members of the House and Senate are to come together and reach an agreement. It’s a daunting task.


But there's one provision in here that I really want to call the attention of the Senate to, and it is one that troubles me greatly. It is a provision that calls for, requires that the United States Senate and House of Representatives before December 31 of this year vote on a Constitutional amendment to balance the budget.


Madam President, I searched this bill long and hard to find the language of that Constitutional amendment, because I thought if we're going to have to face the prospect of amending the Constitution, I want to know what the language is. This is an awesome responsibility.


Madam President, you can read this bill from top to bottom; there is not one word of substance about that amendment. All it says is the House and Senate shall consider a bill which is a, quote, "joint Resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States to balance the budget." End of quote, end of substance, end of reference in this bill.


It gets better. Not only do they require us to take up the balanced budget amendment and fail to include the language of that amendment. Listen closely; this bill says there shall be no amendments to the proposed Resolution in committee in the House or on the floor of the House, in the committees in the Senate or on the floor of the Senate. Take it or leave it.


As I say these words, I can imagine Robert C. Byrd descending from heaven, standing at that desk and waiving this Constitution and reminding members of the United States Senate that one of the few times in our lives when we have taken a solemn oath, members of the Senate swore to uphold and defend this document, this writing.


He would find it nothing short of outrageous that we are mandating a vote on a Constitutional amendment that is not even written. That we are prohibiting the House and the Senate from considering—even considering—the change of one word in that proposed Constitutional amendment.


Madam President, I think the language of this bill entirely discredits this effort toward a Constitutional amendment. We cannot take it seriously if we take our oath seriously to uphold and defend this document.


Madam President, at the end of the day, I will vote for this measure, and obviously with a heavy heart. There are parts of it that I will struggle to explain and defend, but I can't let this American economy descend into chaos if we fail to extend the debt ceiling.


The job ahead will be hard, but let us hope that we will in reducing this deficit further do it in a balanced and fair way with everything on the table. At the end of the day, members of congress and people in higher income categories should feel that they too are called to sacrifice. If we ask that of the poorest in America and of working families, we can ask no less of members of congress and those who are well off in this great nation.