Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On the Bipartisan Budget Act

In what I hope is a sign of things to come, today, I expect the Senate to pass the Bipartisan Budget Act. The result of the long awaited budget conference -- one that had long been requested by Chairwoman Murray but never agreed to by Senate Republicans – the agreement has found some common ground and reflects a shared commitment to work for the American people, something in short supply in Congress these days.

The budget deal we are considering today is a true compromise. I believe it would be difficult to find any Member of Congress who fully embraces every aspect of this agreement. In spite of that, there is broad, bipartisan support for the bill, as evidenced by the overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House late last week, and the bipartisan vote by which cloture was invoked here in the Senate. There is bipartisan support for the overall goal of ending this manufactured budget stalemate that we currently face.

The Bipartisan Budget Act will provide us with the our topline spending levels for the remainder of this fiscal year and next, and, most importantly, will prevent the full force of a second round of sequestration’s indiscriminate and devastating cuts. This is welcome news for nearly every American who has seen how devastating the sequester has been for their communities, and for those who have anxiously awaited a second round of deeper, more painful cuts. With agencies facing budgets that just simply could not meet their basic obligations to the public and to the Nation’s priorities, and with their coffers to insulate programs and prevent furloughs and layoffs exhausted, allowing the sequester to lengthen and deepen truly would have been debilitating and would have stunted our ongoing economic recovery.

While this is not the budget I would have written, and while it is paid for in a number of ways with which I simply disagree, we are at a juncture at which we cannot allow the goal of perfection to bring on another body blow to the Nation and to our economy. One thing I have heard clearly from Vermonters is that we must replace the sequester. While not perfect, this deal will in fact save jobs, reduce unnecessary furloughs, and will not prioritize defense spending at the cost of our education and housing programs as so many other budget proposals have in the past.

I was proud to support a Senate budget and Senate appropriations bills that would fully replace sequestration by closing corporate tax loopholes and making responsible cuts. I am disappointed that this deal does not more closely follow the framework or provide the funding levels supported earlier by the Senate. As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I welcome the fact that this deal will mean that we will be able to get back to the work of passing annual appropriations bills through regular order, ending the practice of putting these budget decisions on autopilot through continuing resolutions. The annual appropriations process provides us with the opportunity to make much needed adjustments to agency priorities and budgets. This budget also allows a return to regular order while keeping the promises we have made to seniors.  It protects Social Security and Medicare benefits from the harmful cuts included in the earlier Ryan Budget.

But there certainly are areas in which this deal is lacking. I had hoped any budget agreement we considered would include an extension of unemployment insurance that will end later this month for 1.3 million Americans. It is disappointing that it does not. Unemployment insurance is a vital component of our ongoing recovery and a lifeline to millions of Americans as they search for work in this challenging economy.

I hope the bipartisan spirit that is the basis of this agreement can continue into the new year, and I hope that when the Senate, early in the new year, considers legislation to restore this lifeline of unemployment insurance, Senators and Representatives will support an extension.

Unfortunately my disappointment is not reserved only for what was not included in the deal, but also for ways this budget pays to replace sequestration. 

A provision included in this agreement could negatively impact not-for-profit student loan servicers around the country by removing $3.1 billion in mandatory funding and the requirement that the Department of Education work with these organizations to service direct, Federal loans. The nonprofit Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) has been servicing Federal loans and chalking up high borrower satisfaction rates while doing this work. I appreciate Chairwoman Murray’s clarification that this provision is not aimed at ending existing contracts like VSAC’s, but I am concerned that the funding used to service these loans will now need to be found elsewhere. Our discretionary budget is stretched thin as it is, and this provision will arrive on the doorstep of an already overburdened Education Department.   

Even though we have reduced the deficit by $2.4 trillion since the start of Fiscal Year 2011, with nearly three-quarters of that deficit reduction coming from $1.8 trillion in spending, there is ongoing pressure to find additional ways to put money toward deficit reduction. It concerns me that this budget proposal will devote $23 billion toward deficit reduction -- barely a drop in the bucket of the larger picture -- by forcing those who have served in our military, future Federal employees, and airline passengers -- but not the airlines -- to pay for it. 

Under this proposal, many active duty military retirees are targeted for Federal spending cuts by a reduction to their cost of living adjustment until they reach age 62. This is a bait-and-switch maneuver that will cost them thousands of dollars in compensation that they were promised and have earned -- many of them, while bravely serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. That just doesn’t sit right with me. This provision, which saves only $6 billion, is set to be phased in over several years until full implementation in 2017. Unfortunately, these pension reforms will not be grandfathered in for military retirees, as will be done for Federal employees – the only positive component of the measure addressing Federal worker pensions in this legislation. It is my hope that the delay of its application will give Congress the time to responsibly replace the savings from these changes to military retiree compensation.

I am disappointed that the only deal that could receive bipartisan support does not ask oil companies to sacrifice their tax breaks, but instead asks for sacrifices from our military retirees and hardworking Federal workforce. And instead of closing tax loopholes benefitting private jet owners and companies hiding profits overseas, we are forced to find savings through cuts to our conservation programs.

I have always believed that getting our fiscal house in order must go hand in hand with policies that promote economic growth, create jobs and strengthen the middle class. Without this deal, sequestration would bring to a halt economic growth and threaten to undo the progress we have made. Further sequestration undoubtedly would increase furloughs and eliminate jobs. Sequestration would devastate housing programs keeping roofs over families this winter, and gut programs supporting the education of our children, lifesaving technology for law enforcers, and services for crime victims. Sequestration is a blunt, harmful and mindless instrument.  The Bipartisan Budget Act, while not perfect, is the lifeline we need to prevent that bleak sequestration future from becoming a reality.

It is time for us to move beyond these manufactured budget crises and focus on the many remaining challenges that matter most to the American people.  

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