Senator Leahy Speaks On Senate Floor About The Budget Stalemate, And The House’s Slashing Cuts To The SNAP Food Aid Program

Today we are voting on the nomination of Todd Hughes to fill a judicial vacancy on the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  This vote marks an important milestone:  If confirmed, Mr. Hughes will be the first openly gay judge to serve on a Federal appellate court in our Nation’s history.  I am proud that the Senate is finally taking an historic step to break down another barrier and increase diversity on our Federal bench.  I ask that the full text of my statement be placed in the Record.

I want to now speak about another important matter.   It feels like Groundhog Day once again in Congress, as we find ourselves in a funding crisis manufactured by a small, partisan faction.  This group continues to turn their backs to reality and is instead insisting on their “my way or the highway” ultimatums to the rest of the country, which is preventing a bipartisan solution on a funding bill and leading us again to the brink of a government shutdown.  Though this crisis is again artificial and manufactured for political posturing, its effects – even its effects on the American people as we all again must anticipate a shutdown – are just as real as they are avoidable.  The American public rightly is weary and wary of this brinksmanship and of one Made In Congress manufactured crisis after another.  This artificially induced uncertainty is harmful as well to our American economy, which is still tentatively regaining its footing after the great recession.

The issue that is preventing even a temporary spending bill from making it to the President’s desk is the Affordable Care Act.  Unfortunately, ever since its enactment, many Republicans in Congress have been determined to derail the law and prevent its implementation.  Instead of doing the people’s business – like enacting routine budget measures before the end of the fiscal year – the House has voted more than 40 times this year alone to defund this landmark law.  They have no interest in fixing problems or making it better – only in blowing it up.  Even though the President has promised to veto a bill that includes this provision and the Senate has voted down similar measures in the past, the law’s opponents perceive this short-term spending bill as an opportunity to hold the rest of America and all government activities hostage to their ideological demands. 

Let’s think about what defunding and repealing the Affordable Care Act would really mean:  Our country would return to a time when insurance companies could deny coverage because of a preexisting health condition.  Benefits would be stripped for those who get sick.  And seniors would pay more for prescription drugs.  Tens of millions Americans are currently without health insurance, but the health insurance marketplaces opening next month will provide access for these Americans to obtain coverage.  And while we often hear that this is a “job-killing” bill that is adding trillions of dollars to our deficit, that rhetoric could not be farther from the truth.  Repealing the Affordable Care Act would actually add to our deficit, because the reforms we put in place more than three years ago are designed to save health care costs in the long run. 

Beyond that damage, the House continuing resolution also would drastically affect current Medicare beneficiaries.  The House bill would eliminate free wellness visits, which this year alone have helped 16.5 million seniors gain access to quality preventative care.  The House’s short-sighted CR would also stop Medicare prescription drug coverage and discounts known as the “donut hole” forcing seniors to pay more out-of-pocket for their prescription drugs.  And sadly, seniors are not the only ones who would be harmed by this cynical House legislation.  Community Health Centers, which provide necessary care to our rural communities across the Nation and especially in Vermont, would be hit with a 60 percent reduction in Federal funding.  Lifesaving nurse visitation programs to help low-income mothers carry healthy babies to term would be eliminated, and more than 92,000 individuals who currently have coverage under the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program would be dropped.  The list goes on.

The ill-conceived short term spending bill passed by the House last week is not the only bill approved by the other body that would deal firm blows to the most vulnerable in our country.  After refusing to bring a Farm Bill to the House Floor that would garner enough bipartisan votes to pass – as the Senate did – House leaders took the unprecedented step earlier this summer of splitting food assistance from the other essential programs in supported by the Farm Bill.  After months of delay, last week the House voted on a separate nutrition title, which only moves us farther away from enacting a Farm Bill before the programs expire on September 30.  This latest lurching maneuver means even more uncertainty for farmers.

Instead of standing with the millions of Americans who are still struggling to put food on the table, it is regrettable and inexcusable that House Republicans are turning to slashing essential nutrition help for struggling Americans.  Ensuring that these programs can continue to serve Vermonters and all Americans in need is a key part of enacting a strong Farm Bill for this country.   It is a reality recognized by the Senate-passed Farm Bill. 

The House cuts SNAP benefits by levels 10 times as high as the bipartisan Senate bill and twice as high as the House’s original bill.  These cuts would mean that each year, an average of three million people will be kicked off food assistance -- even those making as little as $2500 per year.  What’s worse, this bill will mean hundreds of thousands of children will lose access to school meals.  That is shameful, mean spirited and short sighted.   We should be doing everything in our power to make sure no child in America goes hungry.  We all know that teaching a hungry child is impossible, and these children could be are our future leaders, doctors or teachers.  Instead, House Republicans are making it more difficult for these children and their families to access food. 

If that were not enough, the House Republicans also assert with their bill that three months of benefits every three years is plenty of time for out-of-work Americans to find a job that pays well enough to feed a family.  Unfortunately, when there is only one job for every three unemployed workers, simply telling out-of-work Americans to “get a job” is easier said than done.  Times of high unemployment are the very reasons we have food assistance, and despite the heated rhetoric, our food stamp program is working as intended.  The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that SNAP costs will fall over the next several years as the economy improves. 

This kind of bumper sticker politics, appealing to our worst instincts, is churlish, it is childish, and it is irresponsible.  This low road has also been rejected by Republican leaders like former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.   In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times last week, former Senators Tom Daschle and Bob Dole note that “we are a country with ample resources, especially the plentiful supply of food produced by our farms.  As Americans, we have always used this abundance to help those who are hungry.”  And as they point out, we must stop playing politics with food assistance and do right by those families who face hunger every day.  I could not agree more.     

The House-passed CR and the House’s so-called Farm Bill will only worsen the gridlock that has crippled the Senate since our return from the August recess.  We are elected not to grandstand but to legislate.  We were not elected to make government less efficient and even unable to make the most basic decisions that the American people elect us to make.  The American people want problems solved, now, with fair solutions, and through the give-and-take of our representative government.  I have not given up hope that reasonableness will prevail, starting with the spending measure we will consider this week and send back to the House, without the hyper-partisan, bumper-sticker policy riders.  There is still time to show the American people that we know why we were sent here and that Congress can still do the work of the Nation.  

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