TOPICS > Politics

The Democratic Response

February 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Good evening. I’m Dick Gephardt from Missouri, Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I’m Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, the Democratic leader in the Senate.

Tonight, our nation’s Capitol was filled with hope as our new president spoke to Congress, for the first time, about his priorities for America. Now, we’d like to take a few minutes to speak to the American people: to those we are fortunate to represent in South Dakota and Missouri and across America, the hard-working Americans who deserve a booming and vibrant economy, the seniors who seek security in retirement after a lifetime of hard work. We want to speak to the teachers and students who are striving to master the ideas of the new century in crowded classrooms built in the last century and to all Americans who want to know that in the halls of our government, their voices are heard and their priorities matter. We believe, as they do, that America’s prosperity must work for all Americans.

When President Bush proposes ideas that bring us closer to that goal — like his literacy initiative, or increases in military pay — we will work with him, and work hard, to turn those ideas into laws. When he makes proposals with which we disagree, we will work with him to find common ground. But when he insists on proposals that threaten the prosperity of all Americans, or that harm Social Security or Medicare, we will fight, and fight hard, to put the interests of working families first.

Tonight we begin a debate that will profoundly effect the strength of America’s working families for years, perhaps generations, to come. The prosperity you have built these last eight years has given us all a chance to live better lives at every age. But this opportunity will be squandered if we repeat the mistakes of a generation ago.

In 1981, Dick and I sat in the House Chamber when another new president talked to the American people about stimulating our economy. The words spoken that evening were strikingly similar to the message we heard tonight. We were promised that if we gave huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, the benefits would trickle down, deficits would disappear and the economy would flourish.

Congress supported that experiment. It was a huge mistake. As President Bush’s own Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill said recently, it put America, “in a ditch that was horrendous.” Deficits skyrocketed. The national debt quadrupled. High interest rates choked American industries. Unemployment soared. Working families struggled to meet their mortgages, pay for health care and save for college.

It took us 18 years, four acts of Congress, and a lot of hard work by the American people to get out of that ditch. But working together, we turned record Deficits into record surpluses. Freed from the dead weight of Deficits, you did what Americans do best. You worked hard, and you created the longest economic expansion in history.

Now America has a choice. What shall we do with the blessings of our new prosperity? Our first priority must be to continue paying down the trillions of dollars in federal debt Washington ran up in the 1980s. We can’t just pass this debt onto our children, not when we have the ability to pay it off.

By paying down the debt, we’ll also keep Interest rates low, which will mean real savings for every American family. We agree with the president. We want a significant tax cut this year. But we want a different kind: a tax cut that is part of a responsible budget, that lets us pay off the debt and invest in America’s future, one that is fair to all Americans.

President Bush’s plan doesn’t do those things.

Think about your own family budget. Imagine you hadn’t saved for your retirement, you owed money on your credit cards and you couldn’t afford health insurance. Then you’re told you might get some extra money sometime down the road. What would you do? Under the president’s approach, you would immediately spend that money — money you might never see — without taking care of your debts, your medical bills or your retirement. You wouldn’t do that, and neither should we. But that’s exactly what the president proposed tonight.

Let’s take a closer look. First, the president’s tax plan is far more expensive than the $1.6 trillion he claims. When you add interest on the debt and other hidden costs, the true cost of the president’s tax cut is well over $2 trillion. It will consume nearly all of the available surplus, at the expense of prescription drug coverage, education, defense and other critical priorities.

Even worse, instead of strengthening Social Security and Medicare, the president’s plan actually takes money from both programs. That is irresponsible and it’s wrong. Worse still, the president’s plan depends far too heavily on a 10-year budget estimate, which is no more reliable than a 10-year weather forecast. And there’s no room for error.

Nobody’s crystal ball is that good. Just ask Texas. Two years ago, using rosy forecasts, then-Governor Bush signed a budget that cut taxes by $1.8 billion. But his budget projections were wrong. Today Texas. faces a serious budget shortfall. If his budget predictions now are as faulty as they were then, his tax cut would bring back huge Deficits, increase the national debt, and put our economy back in the ditch.

Finally, the president’s plan is deeply unfair to middle-income Americans. The wealthiest 1 percent, people who make an average of over $900,000 a year, get 43 percent of the president’s tax cut. The president also wants to eliminate the estate tax for the wealthiest of the wealthy. Democrats want to make it easier for you to pass family farms and small businesses onto the next generation, and our estate tax plan does that. But the president’s proposal provides so much to America’s wealthiest families that they themselves are calling it a mistake. Bill Gates Sr., Warren Buffett, members of the Rockefeller family have said it gives so much to so few that it will force tax increases, or cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other essential programs. They’re right. And the president’s estate tax cut is only part of the reason.

Let us be clear: All Americans deserve a tax cut. But surely, the wealthiest among us should not get it at the expense of working families. There’s a better way.

REP. GEPHARDT: Democrats have a different plan, a balanced plan that treats the national budget the way you treat your household budget. Our plan provides $900 billion in tax cuts for all Americans. Our plan protects every dollar of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. It strengthens Medicare and adds an affordable prescription Drug benefit, so seniors don’t have to choose between food and medicine. It strengthens Social Security rather than subjecting it to a volatile stock market, so that it will be there, not only for the baby boomers, but for their children and their grandchildren.

Our plan enables us to keep paying down the national debt, the debt we ran up in the ’80s, so we can keep Interest rates low and keep our economy growing. And it invests in the future of our country, by making sure every child can get an excellent Education at a first-rate public school.

The president touched on many of these goals tonight, but we can’t accomplish any of them if we spend the entire surplus on the president’s tax cut. If what the president said tonight sounded too good to be true, it probably is.

Education is one of our highest priorities, and we believe that strengthening public schools is one of our greatest challenges. The president has made Education an important part of his agenda, and in this he has our support. We have our differences with his plan. Like most Americans, we do not support spending public money for private school vouchers, and we will never support a reduction in the federal commitment to under-served children and communities. We will work with the president to increase literacy, demand accountability, and improve every public school. But with tax cuts consuming almost all of the projected surplus, he cannot possibly keep his commitment to leave no child behind.

Millions of seniors depend on Social Security and Medicare, and we have a responsibility to preserve and protect them. We made promises. We need to keep them. The president said he is dedicated to preserving Social Security and Medicare We take him at his word. But the president’s plan threatens these critical programs. His plan fails to set aside the resources Social Security and Medicare will need in the future and uses them instead to pay for his tax cut.

All seniors need prescription Drug coverage. Democrats believe we should use part of the surplus to provide a reliable, affordable Medicare prescription Drug benefit for all seniors. The president has a different approach. His plan excludes millions of middle-income seniors who don’t have prescription coverage and need it.

We want to work with the president to solve the prescription Drug problem the right way. But we can’t add a Medicare prescription Drug benefit, we can’t improve public schools, we can’t address any of our highest priorities if the president does not scale back the excesses of his tax plan.

President Bush’s numbers just don’t add up; ours do. His plan leaves no money for anything except tax cuts; ours does. Our plan is better. It invests in the greatest needs and highest priorities of our country.

The conversation we begin tonight is more than a struggle over this year’s budget; it’s really about our future. It is about the most important decisions this generation of Americans will make for a very long time to come.

Our country is strong. But we can make it stronger, by fighting for stronger families with a higher minimum wage, a patients’ bill of rights, safer schools, safer streets and a cleaner environment; by fighting for a stronger economy with a budget that extends the greatest economic expansion in American history; by fighting for a stronger democracy with real campaign finance reform and a renewed commitment to fair and modern elections.

The challenge of writing a budget that is fair and responsible is considerable, but we face other challenges just as great.

All across America, too many people have lost faith in the fundamental principle of democracy: the principle of one person, one vote. We must act to restore their confidence. We should not leave this session of Congress without reforming our election process. Our democracy depends on it.

In addition, too many in Washington, and too many Americans, have lost faith in the possibility of principled compromise. With Congress so closely divided, some would say that finding common ground is simply impossible. We refuse to believe that. We are determined to steer our country on a more productive course.

We recognize that the president campaigned on an agenda. So did we. Where our agendas coincide, let us make quick progress for the people. Where our agendas differ, we ask the president to demonstrate his leadership by reaching out for the benefit of all Americans. If he extends his hand, we will grasp it. Tonight, we extend ours.

The things that are most meaningful in our lives often require real effort to meet others halfway: business partnerships, friendships, marriages. It’s the same with our democracy. We can do what the people sent us here to do if the president is willing to join us in the middle.

We believe that making America better is the greatest work of all. It is to that task that we pledge ourselves tonight.