Mr. President, I rise to speak in support of amendment No. 3302, the bipartisan task force for responsible fiscal action, offered by my colleagues Senator Conrad and Senator Gregg. I was an early sponsor of this amendment from the beginning, from when I first came to the Senate. I wish to thank them for their leadership on this issue.
Under the previous administration, we saw the debt of the United States double. They were handed a budget surplus, and they turned it into an enormous budget deficit. Over the next 8 years, sadly, with no work, if we do nothing, it is projected to double again. Long-term projections vary, but it is clear this course is not the course we wish to take. Despite years of talk from both parties, little progress has been made, which is why I believe that to ensure the Nation's future economic security, we need to establish a budget commission dedicated to examining this problem in detail and coming up with recommendations to address the long-term fiscal challenges of the country.
I don't want to have just a study that sits on a shelf. The American people deserve better than that. That is why I believe it is important to have a statutory commission with an up-or-down vote on the recommendations of the commission. It has worked before for Social Security. I believe it will work here.
I appreciate the administration's work on this. The proposal they have made to have a Presidential-appointed commission obviously is a viable alternative. But I think the better alternative is this one, and that is why I urge my colleagues to vote for it.
We can no longer afford to hide our heads in the sand, hoping the fiscal outlook will correct itself. We need to make changes, and we need to act now in order to keep our debt from spiraling permanently out of control. Difficult fiscal decisions have been put off for too long. We need to make tough decisions now because we are spending too much, and the path we are on is unsustainable.
This was, of course, made more difficult by the economic crisis we faced last fall. On a bipartisan basis we had to do something to make sure we shored up the credit markets to make sure we ensured financial stability for our country. We had to invest in America and invest in jobs with targeted investments. But now we cannot keep going on this course.
Gross debt is likely to exceed 100 percent of GDP within the next few years, nearing levels not seen since the end of World War II. Each citizen's share of today's debt is more than $38,000. The prior administration, as I noted, ran up the Federal debt to the point where today we are forced to spend over 8 percent of our budget simply to pay interest on the Federal debt.
In 2008, American taxpayers paid more than $250 billion to our creditors in interest payments alone. That is money we are sending to other countries instead of spending it in the United States.
The more we spend to service our debts, the less we have for infrastructure investments, health care, energy innovation, and other priorities that are so important to the American people.
The threat our debt poses to the economic security of the United States cannot be ignored. As this economic crisis has shown, credit can dry up overnight. With almost 70 percent of our Nation's debt financed by foreign countries and investors, our government literally could not pay its bills without the help of China, our biggest creditor.
If faith in the American economy were to falter and foreign countries stopped extending credit, we would be faced with a host of bad choices. Even without another crisis, many of these programs are on the path to insolvency, and economic growth cannot make up the difference. These are issues that must be addressed. That is why it is so important we step back and look at the long term, focus on this debt, at the same time knowing we have to have a safety net for the people of this country.
If we look at the health care bill, we will see what we will come up with now as we look at changes to that bill. It actually saved--the Senate bill--$130 billion on the deficit in the first 10 years, $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years. That clearly has to be a piece of this reform as we look at the cost to the American people--how we can deliver health care more efficiently.
I believe it is time to change the way Washington works when it comes to our long-term fiscal outlook. It is not about being a Democrat; it is not about being a Republican; it is not about being an Independent; it is about guaranteeing we get something done for the people of this country.
This bipartisan fiscal task force provides a path to restoring our financial stability by creating a bipartisan commission to study our spending and make recommendations to effectively reduce that spending.
When I first heard about this idea, I was at one of our bipartisan breakfasts. I had just arrived in Washington, and I thought: Why would we need a commission to do this? Why can't the people in this body just do this? I have realized a few things over the years. One, we have not seen that kind of improvement. Two, we have not been able to get that kind of bipartisan work going that I have seen. Three, we have this idea of a commission that has worked in the past.
So after being here for about a year, I decided: Do you know what. This is not a bad idea. You can have experts work on this. You can come up with some ideas on a bipartisan basis for reducing spending, for bringing down our deficit, for bringing down the debt. I have decided this is the way to go because right now there is no movement on this matter at all in this body or in the House.
This is how this task force would work. First, it would be comprised of 18 members from both political parties, 10 Democrats and 8 Republicans. Fourteen of the eighteen task force members would have to agree to report the recommendations to ensure that the recommendations the task force makes to Congress have bipartisan support.
In order to fast-track the process, there is a set timeframe under which the task force would make recommendations and a set timeframe for ensuring that Congress would give them an up-or-down vote.
This task force would not be used to force legislation through Congress. It would just force Congress to come to the table and make a decision.
Let me address one final point. Some are arguing that projections for the near term are so bleak that any talk of deficit and debt reduction should be sidelined. I disagree. Everyone knows that when times are good, it becomes much harder to tighten the purse strings. This crisis has brought the issue of the deficit to the forefront. The people of this country know it. They know they have to watch their own checkbook, They know they have to balance their own checkbook, and they want to see Washington working on this issue.
They understand we have had an economic crisis. They did not cause this crisis. People on Wall Street making bad decisions, people in government allowing some things like subprime mortgages to go through--there are a lot of people who can be blamed. But they understand we not only have to work on the short-term issue of investment in our country, and transportation, and that we had to do something to shore up the financial crisis so that our whole financial system would not go down the tube--it is hard to swallow; when people think about it, they get that--but they also want to know the people who represent them are working on this debt for the long term, that we have a plan, that we are doing something to chisel away at this deficit to bring it down.
That is what they expect from us. They do not want to send all this money in interest to China. They want to be spending it in the United States of America on roads and bridges, on their kids, on their families, on their kids' education, on their houses. That is where they want to be spending this money, not on interest over in China.
So I urge my colleagues to vote for this bill. I understand it will most likely coming up next week. I think it is a very important effort going forward. I commend the White House, the economic team, for the work they have done with the group of us who has been working on this bill and trying to get this through. I think it is very important, not just for this year but for the generations to come. It is time to look past the next election to the next generation.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.