Lee Takes Budget Deal Concerns to Senate Floor

Thursday, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) spoke on the Senate Floor regarding concerns about the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.

Senator Lee’s remarks can be viewed here, and the text as prepared for delivery is available below.

Mr./Madam President,

The budget deal before the Senate today is not just a horrible piece of legislation undeserving of this chamber’s support. It also represents the last gasping breath of a disgraced bipartisan beltway establishment on the verge of collapse.  

The bill is the product of an unfair, dysfunctional, and undemocratic process – a process that is virtually indistinguishable from what we promised the American people a G.O.P.-controlled Congress would bring to an end.

We made that promise because negotiating legislation behind closed doors, without input from the majority of members, and then rushing it through to final passage, without debate or opportunity for amendments, violates of our party’s core principles.

It also inevitably leads to bad policy. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 is a case in point.

This bill would suspend the debt limit for 17 months and increase government spending beyond its already unsustainable levels. And it would do so while failing to make any reforms that would put us on a path toward fiscal sustainability.

Many proponents of the budget deal challenge this claim. They say, while the bill isn’t perfect, it does include some meaningful entitlement reforms.

The sales pitch we hear most often alleges that this budget deal will save the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund from insolvency. But we’re never told exactly how the bill would do this.

That’s because, as always, the devil is in the details.

Mr./Madam President, I rise today to discuss these very details – details that prove this budget deal’s so-called “entitlement reforms” are nothing of the sort.

At best, they are well-intentioned but ineffectual tweaks to a program that desperately needs a fundamental, structural overhaul.

At worst, they are accounting gimmicks unbecoming of the United States Congress.

According to the Social Security Trustees, the Social Security Disability Insurance program – or SSDI – is scheduled to run out of money in 2016. Which means that, without serious reform, disability benefits would be slashed, across the board, by nearly 20 percent. 

Under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, the bankruptcy deadline of SSDI would be pushed off for an additional 6 years, until 2022.

But here’s the kicker: it would do so by raiding the Social Security Trust Fund, to the tune of $150 billion.

That’s right: our grand, bipartisan solution to the impending insolvency of our nation’s largest disability insurance program amounts to stealing $150 billion from our nation’s largest retirement insurance program.

And this isn’t the only phony pay-for in this budget deal. There are others that simply move around money from elsewhere in the federal budget, like the Crime Victims Fund and the Asset Forfeiture Fund.

There are also new heavy-handed, bureaucratic instruments that purport to implement cost-savings in Medicaid reimbursements, but really only impose misguided price controls on the generic drug industry.

Only in Washington, D.C. could something so deceptive and ineffectual – something so unfair to America’s seniors and future generations – be considered a “reform.”

Now, to be fair, there are a couple of sound entitlement reforms in this budget deal that deserve to be commended.

First, there is a provision that would correct a design error in the Social Security program that amounts to an unfair and wasteful loophole. Fixing this would save a significant amount of money over a 75-year window.

There are also measures that would increase the penalties for fraud, create new pilot programs, and prohibit doctors with felonies from submitting medical evidence.

But these minor changes don’t even come close to putting SSDI on a path toward fiscal sustainability and sanity. And they represent only a tiny fraction of the sensible reform proposals put forth by our conference.

Many of my colleagues – like Senator Lankford and Senator Cotton – have already spoken, or will soon speak, on this floor about the long list of structural reform ideas that are still sitting on the sidelines of this debate. I’d like to take a moment to touch on just a few of them.

Senator Coats has a proposal that would protect the SSDI Trust Fund from being drawn down by fugitive felons illegally receiving disability benefits.

Senator Hatch has put forth a plan that would prevent an individual from receiving both unemployment insurance and disability insurance simultaneously, ensuring that SSDI funds remain focused on their intended population.

I also have a proposal that would expand the footprint of private disability insurance, which I intend to file as an amendment to this bill.  

And that’s not all. My friends Senator Cotton and Senator Lankford have their own proposals. And there has been an equal amount of policy innovation by our colleagues in the House of Representatives. 

They’re all commonsense ideas that would bring us much closer to real SSDI reform than what’s found in this budget deal.

But you won’t hear much about them in this debate – because there won’t be any real debate on the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015… no amendments; a fast-approaching deadline; and, in the end, a take-it-or-leave-it choice, forced upon us with our backs up against a cliff.

This isn’t how Congress is supposed to operate.

This isn’t how we promised the country we would conduct the American people’s business if given control of the House and Senate.

We should be the party of ideas. But we won’t be, so long as we continue to tolerate a legislative process that stifles our most innovative proposals from getting a fair hearing.

We should be the party of reform. But we won’t be, so long as individual senators are blocked from offering amendments to legislation.

We should be the party of fiscal sanity and responsible governance. But we won’t be, so long as we continue to govern by crisis and cliff, delaying the inevitable, while working only three days a week.

We should be the party that looks out for the most vulnerable among us. But we won’t be, so long as we lack the courage to enact the structural reforms that our retirement and disability insurance programs need to survive for generations to come.

Mr./Madam President, we can be all of these things. I know we can.

But it’s going to take hard work; a fair, open, and inclusive legislative process; and all the policy innovation we can muster.

It’s going to take something more – something better – than this budget deal.

I yield the floor.