As a former member of the House Budget Committee, I am keenly aware that we cannot keep borrowing our way to a better future. We must take decisive action to reduce our federal deficit. However, we must also continue to make targeted investments to spur economic growth and combat high unemployment. Rhode Islanders are still looking for jobs, but they are also looking for a government they can trust to live within its fiscal means.
I continue to work with my colleagues to bring our deficit under control. As a result of our efforts the deficit is now at its lowest level in six years. In Fiscal Year 2014, the deficit fell to 2.8% of gross domestic product, its lowest level since the start of the recession. I supported the American Taxpayer Relief Act, which was signed into law by President Obama on January 2, 2013. The law protects Americans making less than $400,000 a year from future tax increases, providing the middle class and our nation’s small businesses the additional certainty needed to grow and prosper. The legislation also included an extension of the child tax credit, the earned income tax credit, unemployment benefits, and a permanent fix of the Alternative Minimum Tax so it will not hit middle-class families. The bill will raise $620 billion in revenue over the next ten years on top of the $1.7 trillion dollars in spending cuts the President has already signed into law since 2012, including through the Budget Control Act.
Any attempts at deficit reduction should be fair, balanced and involve shared sacrifice, and I will not support a plan that unfairly burdens low and middle-income families. Economists agree that we will only achieve fiscal balance through a combination of spending cuts and revenue measures. According to the Office of Management and Budget, total tax expenditures are a little over $1 trillion a year, almost equal to total discretionary spending for FY13 ($1.1 trillion). It’s clear that we cannot fix our budget through cutting alone; we must make tough decisions on both the spending and revenue side of the ledger.
We must also honor the debts we have incurred as a result of previous spending decisions by raising the nation’s statutory debt limit. On too many occasions, lawmakers in Congress have used the threat of financial default as political leverage. In 2011, the political brinksmanship surrounding budget negotiations almost led to a default on our financial obligations, resulting in a downgrade of the U.S. debt rating for the first time in 70 years. We are a nation that pays its bills, and providing an appropriate increase in the statutory debt limit is imperative to ensure we inject certainty into global financial markets.
Due to the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to reach agreement in 2011, we are still operating under the precarious policy known as sequestration, which requires automatic, arbitrary and across-the-board budget cuts. In Rhode Island, the anticipated impacts of sequestration included $2.4 million in funding cuts for primary and secondary education, approximately 5,000 civilian Department of Defense employees furloughed, and a loss of about $1.3 million in funding for clean air and water. The most painful effects of sequestration were mitigated by a bipartisan budget agreement that restored $63.2 billion in spending authority for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. However, without further congressional action, the full impacts of sequestration will return in 2016. Democrats have repeatedly offered a responsible, balanced alternative to fund the government and end the devastating cuts of the sequester with a mix of spending reductions and revenue measures to reduce the deficit in a responsible way. Regrettably, House Republicans have repeatedly refused Democratic requests to allow a vote on this proposal.
In December 2014 Congress passed legislation to keep our agencies funded through fiscal year 2015, with the exception of funds for the Department of Homeland Security, which expire in February. The 2015 omnibus funding agreement was in many ways a solid bill. Regrettably, the work was eclipsed by toxic and extraneous provisions added at the last minute that could harm retirees, put taxpayer dollars at risk, and allow a privileged few to exercise even more influence over our elections.
The 2015 omnibus agreement included funding for investments to our infrastructure, the National Institutes of Health, Ebola response efforts, spinal cord injury research, Virginia-class submarines, and numerous other initiatives and programs that are important for national defense and economic development. I was glad to vote for past bipartisan budget agreements, which restored some of the economic certainty we need to boost growth and job creation. I was equally disappointed that I was unable to support this year’s bill due to the extraneous last-minute provisions included which could seriously undermine our efforts to restore the economic certainty we need to keep our economy growing and our businesses hiring.
I will continue my effort to end the sequester, and work with my colleagues on measures that will grow the economy and provide for investments in education, military readiness, research, public safety, infrastructure, and the health of our country.
Finally, we should not impose fiscal austerity at the risk of our economic recovery, or cut just for the sake of cutting. We have a serious budget deficit, but we also have a significant jobs deficit. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the nation. This is completely unacceptable and does not represent the true potential of our great state. I will continue to work diligently to ensure that the federal government funds programs that help Rhode Islanders heat their homes, put food on their tables, and send their children to college.
Our budgets reflect our values and our priorities. We must continue to prioritize immediate investments in education, infrastructure, biomedical research and clean energy that will strengthen our recovery, while seeking a balanced approach to deficit reduction over the long term so we can return to a strong and prosperous economy.