Hatch: Positives Outweigh Negatives in Budget Deal that Preserves Defense Capabilities

Lawmakers are considering a budget deal this week that would reform entitlements, repeal an integral Obamacare provision, avoid default, and fund the military, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah’s senior senator, argues that conservatives should support it.  

In a floor speech on the deal, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee argued that the deal would circumvent economic upheaval. “While I may not like parts of this deal very much, there are other things that I like much less, including political brinksmanship on important matters and election-year posturing on complicated issues,” Sen. Hatch said. “For example, our defense and military leaders have made clear that spending levels under the Budget Control Act are not enough to meet the challenges our nation faces on the world stage. Between the threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and our newly-prolonged troop presence in Afghanistan, now is not the time to underfund our military.”

The complete speech, as prepared for delivery, is below:

Mr. President, I rise today to speak in support of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, the legislation that passed in the House last night and that I expect we’ll be voting on soon here in the Senate.            

Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the past few weeks is aware of the controversy surrounding this legislation.  However, while the bill is likely no one’s idea of an ideal path forward, I believe the controversy stems more from political considerations than from policy or substance. 

Let me say one thing up front:  I don’t love this legislation.  If we were living in the United States of Orrin Hatch, this bill would look very, very different. 

But, while I may not like parts of this deal very much, there are other things that I like much less, including political brinksmanship on important matters and election-year posturing on complicated issues.

This budget deal, while far from perfect, will help eliminate several hurdles that must be overcome in the near term, and hopefully allow Congress to function and actually govern over the next year.  

That said, there are some very important provisions in this bill that I think will be counted as wins for good government and will help us address some important issues.  So, I’d like to take a few minutes and talk about some of the specifics of this legislation and why I believe these provisions are important.

First, as we all know, the bill would suspend the statutory debt limit through mid-March of 2017.  I’ve heard a number of my colleagues decry this provision, arguing that any increase in the debt limit should be accompanied by fiscal reforms.  And, on that count, my colleagues are right.

Mr. President, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many members of this chamber who have spent more time than I have talking about our nation’s debt and calling for reforms.  I’ve spoken extensively about the need to rein in our broken entitlement programs – which are the main drivers of our debt — and, unlike most members of Congress, I have actually come up with specific proposals that would help stave off the growing entitlement crisis. 

On top of that, as the chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the debt limit, I have repeatedly called on the Obama Administration to do what past administrations have done, which is to use debt-limit increases as opportunities to reexamine our fiscal situation and work with Congress to find a path toward reforms that will improve our fiscal outlook.

Unfortunately, these calls – and similar calls made by other leaders in Congress – have largely gone ignored as the administration refuses to even consider fiscal changes in the context of a debt-limit increase.

I am as frustrated as anyone here by the refusal of this administration to even engage on this issue.  However, the President’s refusal to be reasonable and to do his job when it comes to our debt is no excuse for Congress failing to do its job and prevent a default. 

I know that some of my colleagues either don’t believe a default would be that bad or that the result of hitting the debt limit could even be classified as a default.  I won’t delve into the semantics of the issue – I’ll just say that hitting the debt limit would prevent the government from meeting a large number of its obligations and nothing good – and many things that are bad — will come from that result.  No reasonable person would dispute that. 

In addition, I don’t think any reasonable person wants to see Congress push up against debt-limit deadlines multiple times throughout 2016.  Mixing a looming possibility of default with election-year posturing – and I’m talking about posturing on both sides of the aisle, by the way – is, in my view, a recipe for disaster.

So, the budget bill will suspend the debt limit and spare Congress and the American people the spectacle of ticking debt clocks in the middle of an election season.  Once again, this isn’t my preferred result, but it is much, much better than the alternative. 

In addition to raising the debt limit, the bill would extend the life of the Social Security Disability Insurance – or SSDI – Trust Fund through a temporary reallocation of resources from the retirement trust fund into the DI program.   As we all know, the SSDI trust fund is set to be exhausted sometime late next year, which would lead to benefit cuts of around 20 percent for disabled Americans. 

Right now, beneficiaries in the disability program face enormous uncertainty and that will only get worse between now and the end of 2016 if Congress fails to act.  I have been urging action on this issue for quite some time now, and have put forward a number of proposals to reform various aspects of the disability insurance program. 

Sadly, despite many calls for bipartisan cooperation the administration has decided to remain silent, aside from a very simple and overly broad reallocation proposal.      

Nonetheless, this budget bill will, as I mentioned, provide an inter-fund reallocation that will add an additional six years of viability to the SSDI trust fund, preventing benefit cuts to disabled American workers and removing the current uncertainty.            

But, that’s not all.  

The bill would also put in place reforms to the SSDI program, including some of the proposals that I put forward earlier this year and reflecting a great deal of work between Chairman Paul Ryan of the House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Sam Johnson – who chairs the Social Security Subcommittee – and myself.   Our work led to a number of features of the budget bill’s treatment of SSDI that will help combat fraud in the program, make it easier for those who can and desire to return to work to be able to do so, and improve the overall administration and integrity of the disability program.          

Mr. President, as I said before, this is not the budget bill that I would have written, and I think there are a number of other ways to improve the SSDI program and Social Security more generally.  However, nothing in this bill prevents us from continuing to work to continue to develop and refine ideas and come up with additional improvements.  Given the unsustainability of the Social Security system generally, we will have to continue to work on reforms to ensure these programs are available to future generations.  

For now, we must be realistic: If we don’t act now to prevent next year’s benefit cuts, we will create a cliff that will occur right in the middle of an election campaign when fundamental reforms to an entitlement program will be virtually impossible.  Instead of a real debate over the future of this important program, we’d see accusations lobbed back and forth about which side is responsible for the impending benefit cuts. 

Why would anyone want that, Mr. President?  What good would it accomplish? 

I’d also like to remind my colleagues that the SSDI reforms in this budget bill represent the most significant changes to any Social Security program since 1983 – more than three decades ago.  That is nothing to sneeze at. 

So, while critics may be right that these changes aren’t the only type of long-term fixes the SSDI program needs, they should not, by any means, be overlooked.   

While we’re on the subject of entitlements, I also want to point out that this budget bill will avert an unprecedented and large increase in Medicare Part B premiums for millions of elderly Americans.  Under the law, there is a complicated interplay between the Social Security and Medicare programs where, under what is called the “hold harmless” rule, the majority of Medicare beneficiaries cannot see a premium increase greater than their cost-of-living adjustment under Social Security.  However, due to very low inflation, there will be no cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security in 2016, meaning there can be no premium increases for the majority Medicare Part B participants.  This means that the full amount of what the Medicare system needs to collect in Part B premiums for next year will be charged to the nearly 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries who do not have their premiums deducted their Social Security payments.

Long story short, absent some kind of action, more than a quarter of all Medicare Part B beneficiaries will see their premiums go up by as much as 52 percent in 2016.  The legislation before us will prevent this increase, once again allowing Congress to avoid a contentious fight and preventing many seniors from becoming pawns in the unending liberal political gamesmanship and demagoguery.  Most importantly, it would do so in a responsible manner.

In addition to sparing our country some needless political fights over Social Security and Medicare, this bill would also repeal the employer auto-enrollment requirement under the so-called Affordable Care Act.  This provision, once implemented, would require large employers to automatically enroll new employees in health insurance plans, putting the burden on employees who prefer alternative plans to opt-out.  This provision, like many provisions of Obamacare, never made sense and ultimately had few champions outside left-leaning think tanks that continually advocate for the government to “nudge” citizens into what some technocrats believe are preferred outcomes by removing certain non-preferred choices.  

So, with this legislation, we have bipartisan agreement on the need to remove at least part – and not an insignificant part – of Obamacare.  Obviously, we need to do more, but, in my view, any acknowledgment from my friends on the other side that any part of the President’s health law doesn’t work is good progress. 

Finally, and, for many, most significantly, the bipartisan budget legislation would partially lift the budget caps established under Budget Control Act, both for domestic spending priorities and national defense.  And, while very few people in Congress or elsewhere are big fans of the sequester threat, it did result in really the only legitimate, measurable spending cuts we’ve seen in quite some time, and is especially noteworthy given the current administration’s seemingly insatiable desire for more debt-fueled spending. 

I sympathize with my colleagues who might be hesitant to lift those spending caps.  However, I think we need to keep a few things in mind. 

First, the increase in the spending baseline under the bill is fully offset.  And, while not all of the offsets are ideal, it’s important that the spending-cap relief will not result in increased debt or a tax hike.  In that sense, the spending caps, even with the relief included in this bill, continue to be successful.

Second, lifting the spending caps will help us ensure our military is properly funded.  Many members of Congress, particularly on the Republican side, have expressed concern regarding the impact of the spending caps on our men and women in uniform and our overall military readiness.

Make no mistake, these are dangerous times. 

American generals and military officials have made clear that the spending levels under the Budget Control Act are not enough to meet the challenges our nation faces on the world stage.  Between the threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and our newly-prolonged troop presence in Afghanistan, now is not the time to underfund our military. 

We need to be sure our troops have all the resources they need to succeed. 

As we know, President Obama has conditioned any budget-cap relief for defense on similar relief for other domestic spending programs.  And, while I agree with many of my colleagues that this represents an odd set of priorities for a Commander-in-Chief, we should not let the President’s refusal to do right by our military lead us to do the same. 

In addition to criticisms of the substance of the bill – some of which I agree with – I’ve also heard complaints about the process that led us here.  And, on that front as well, I share some of my colleagues’ concerns.

It certainly would have been better to move this legislation through regular order, including committee consideration and an open amendment process.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d assume that almost everyone involved would prefer to see legislation of this magnitude move through the House and Senate in a more deliberative process and a longer timetable. 

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, that is not what happened.  

However, much of the time, effective government is about the art of doing what’s doable.  Though Republicans control both chambers of Congress, there is a Democrat in the White House and enough Democrats in the Senate to sustain a filibuster.

That’s just a fact. 

If we want to get anything done around here, we cannot demand perfection, nor can we operate in a zero-sum environment where every victory for the other side – however minor – is considered a loss for yours. 

I get that there are some who sincerely and truthfully believe that compromise inherently means failure.  And, I know that there are others with different agendas in mind that lead them to oppose anything resembling a concession to the other side, no matter what their side may get in return.   

But, I’ve been around here long enough to know that such an approach doesn’t often yield satisfactory results.  If you’re going to wait for that perfect bill to come around, my experience has taught me that you’re likely to wait a very, very long time. 

Mr. President, the budget bill before us is far from perfect.  But, as the saying goes, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Under the circumstances, I believe this bill needs to pass so that we can solve these problems, remove many dangerous obstacles that are directly in front of us, and give ourselves a chance to govern effectively without the cliffs, crises, and deadlines that all too frequently dictate what we do around here.

For these reasons, I plan to vote yes on this legislation, and I urge my colleagues to do the same.