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Sen. Franken's Floor Speech on Sequestration

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

U.S. Senator Al Franken
(as prepared for delivery)

M. President, on March 19, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Minnesota's tribal school districts were making plans to cut the school year short, increase class sizes, and let staff vacancies go unfilled. The White Earth reservation is planning to consolidate its 6th, 7th, and 8th grades into a single class starting in the fall. This is happening because of the sequester.

On April 11, WDAZ Channel 8 reported that special education programs in our state were going to be hit by a $90 million cut. This is particularly painful in the Crookston school district, where 20% of students benefit from special education programing. This is happening because of the sequester.

On April 17, Minnesota Public Radio reported that budget cuts were affecting our court system. Across the country, access to public defenders-a constitutionally guaranteed right-is becoming more difficult. This is happening because of the sequester.

And it's not just happening in Minnesota - it's happening around the country. To take just two examples from the many I could cite from every state in the nation: on March 13, the AP reported that an Indiana Head Start program was forced to use a random drawing to determine which 36 kids would be cut from their program. And on March 31, the Portland Press Herald in Maine reported that a local Meals on Wheels program, which had never before turned away a senior in need, was now using a waiting list, and reducing the number of meals delivered to existing participants.

Then, on April 25, the Senate passed a bill to allow the Department of Transportation to shift funds from one account to another, therefore exempting DOT from the strict across-the-board cuts mandated by the sequester. The funding shift was needed to prevent the furlough of air traffic controllers, which was beginning to cause a significant inconvenience to American travelers, and could have harmful effects on our economy. The House passed the bill the next day and it has now been enacted into law.

I am pleased that American travelers were spared this inconvenience. But as the reports I just cited from Minnesota and elsewhere suggest, there are a lot of people suffering needlessly because of the sequester and a case-by-case approach isn't the right way to handle the effects of the sequester.

The sequester was, in fact, designed to affect every government function equally-with just a few exceptions - and the extreme, across-the-board nature of these cuts is the very definition of a thoughtless approach to deficit reduction. The sequester was designed to be replaced, and that's what we have to do. Just as the sequester affects every government function equally, our response to the sequester should be complete and inclusive - not piecemeal. We must replace the entire sequester with a mix of new revenues and smarter, targeted cuts that do not inflict needless pain on those who can least bear it and that do not harm our ongoing, fragile economic recovery.

There are both moral and economic consequences of allowing the sequester to continue. As Hubert Humphrey said, "the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped." If we ignore the effects of sequester cuts on the voiceless, and address only the sequester cuts that are most visible - in the form of longer lines at the airport, for example-we will have failed that moral test.

In April, I received a letter from a family service worker with Head Start from Onamia, Minnesota. She wrote, "The families I work with have no idea what it means to have trillions of dollars cut from the budget; they are trying hard to keep $10 in their pockets or checkbook. . . these cuts will be particularly catastrophic to the poor children and families we serve. . . Congress and the Administration need to act quickly to restore fiscal stability and maintain funding for our at-risk children. Our nation's budget simply cannot be balanced on the backs of poor children."

And here is a letter I received in March from a mother in Hoffman, a rural community in west central Minnesota. She wrote, "My heart was saddened today when I learned that due to a sequester my 4 year old daughter's Head Start program was to end 2 weeks ahead of schedule, that 2 of her amazing teachers will be looking for work come April 30th and her head teacher will be having to take on a 2nd job to compensate for a pay cut she took to continue with the program. Our Head Start program is an amazing program. My daughter has benefited from this program in ways a mother can only dream of and only a classroom environment can provide. The fear that it maybe not be there for her next year sickens me. We may not have the numbers that are looked at when these kinds of decisions are made, but our program is one of a kind with teachers that are so special they deserve awards. My daughter wants them to come to her birthday party. The people making these decisions need to actually go to the class rooms, see what goes on. Visit again and see the difference this program and these women are making in these kids' lives.
The decision makers need to see what it is they are choosing to take away from these young people. I will be writing a letter to all my local reps, and I'm committed to send them letters once a week until my pleas are heard and our government stops taking money and the education that comes with that from our rural schools!"

That is a story from a mother, based on her experience with her daughter. And economists agree. Studies have demonstrated that high quality early education can produce up to $16 in benefits for every dollar in federal investment. This return on investment comes from the long-term savings associated with a reduced need for special education, improved health outcomes, higher rates of high school and college graduation, decreased dependence on welfare programs, increased workforce productivity, and lower incarceration rates for those who've received a high-quality early education.

Here's a letter from Columbia Heights, Minnesota. "As someone who has worked with seniors my entire career and now volunteers to deliver meals on wheels, I would encourage your support of this program and discourage cuts. This program is one that allows seniors and disabled adults to remain in their own home and still receive proper nutrition. For many it is also the only contact they may have with someone during any given day. While providing a service it is also a means to check on these individuals' well-being. By eliminating or making significant cuts to this program we would be turning our backs on many of our citizens."

I am sure that every member of the Senate has received similar letters - letters begging us to protect funding that assists poor children and the elderly in their own communities. And it's not just Head Start and Meals on Wheels. It's so many critical programs. HUD estimates that sequester cuts could result in over 100,000 formerly homeless people, including veterans, being removed from their housing and shelter programs, putting them back at risk for homelessness. USDA estimates that it will result in 600,000 fewer participants in WIC, the nutrition program for mothers and their children.

Replacing the sequester is just the right thing to do. The sequester is a perfect example of the moral test of government Hubert Humphrey talked about, and replacing it is the only conceivable response to it we can have as Americans.

But apart from failing to protect our most vulnerable, the sequester cuts also do direct harm to our economy, and prevent us from making the critical investments in education, infrastructure, and innovation that have always been what's made America great and prosperous.

As Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a letter to Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski about the effects of the sequester, "Education is the last place to be reducing our investment as the nation continues to climb out of the recent recession and to prepare all of its citizens to meet the challenges created by global economic competitiveness in the 21st century. Indeed, I can assure you that our economic competitors are increasing, not decreasing, their investments in education, and we can ill afford to fall behind as a consequence of indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts that would be required by sequestration."

Secretary Duncan goes on to explain that sequester will create particular hardships for recipients of Impact Aid, which include schools that serve Native American students and children of military families.

In addition to investing in education, we should be building up and repairing our nation's infrastructure. Cuts to the Economic Development Administration will hinder the ability to leverage private sector resources to support infrastructure projects that spur local job creation-likely resulting in 1,000 fewer jobs created nationwide. The Department of Interior was warned that the sequester will delay high priority dam safety modifications.

Finally, America has always been at the cutting edge of global technologies. But the sequester cuts may change that. Cuts to the National Institute of Standards and Technology will force NIST [pronounced "Nist"] to end its work on the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which helps small manufacturers innovate in their business practices and develop market growth at home and abroad. The Department of Energy is the operator of 10 world-class national laboratories that specialize in developing advanced commercial technologies. DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency has achieved several remarkable breakthroughs in recent years-doubling the energy density of lithium batteries, increasing the capacity of high-power transistors, engineering microbes that can turn hydrogen and carbon dioxide into transportation fuel. Sequester cuts are going to slow and curb our nation's progress toward a 21st century energy sector.

Not only does the sequester fail to invest in the things that make America great, the sequester is also costing the government more money for the same product in the long run. There are certain weapons systems that DoD knows it needs and will purchase in the future. However, because of sequestration, they have cancelled the contract order for the time being. As a result, the manufacturer has shut down that production line and possibly terminated jobs. Restarting that process is expensive, and those costs are ultimately passed on to us, the government.

I urge my colleagues to rethink the current strategy of addressing the sequester crisis-by-crisis, whatever is on the front page of the news. It ultimately isn't equitable-it disadvantages our nation's most vulnerable. It is harming our economy. In February, CBO's Doug Elmendorf testified that the effects of sequestration would reduce employment by 750,000 jobs this year-that is the opposite direction we need our jobs numbers going during an economic recovery. And I have not even been able to touch on the risk the defense sequester poses to our military readiness in my remarks today. The bottom line is that we need to address every facet of the sequester, together, with a mix of new revenues and smarter, targeted cuts. We should meet every new, highly visible consequence of the sequester with the same response: it is more evidence that we need to replace the entire sequester.

Democrats put forward a plan to do just that for the most immediate consequences of the sequester. It was a mix of new revenues and targeted cuts to replace the first year of sequestration, and it garnered a majority in the Senate. But because a majority is not enough to pass legislation in the Senate, when the minority chooses to obstruct, that plan failed to pass.

What we have passed in the Senate is a budget that proposes to replace the entire sequester in a balanced way that also would spare the most vulnerable pain and would protect our economic recovery and our economic future. That is the kind of approach we need to take.

I hope that in the days ahead we can begin a dialogue to fix this problem, so that kids in Minnesota, and the kids in Indiana and around the country can return to Head Start; so that the seniors in Maine can get off the Meals on Wheels waiting list; and so that Minnesota's tribal school districts can finish out the school year as scheduled. When you hear about the next highly visible problem that the sequester has caused, you should think about all the problems the sequester has caused. That is what I will be doing. And what it means is that we need to fix the problem in a comprehensive, and balanced, way. I stand ready to work with my colleagues to achieve that comprehensive, balanced, fix for the sequester. Thank you.


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