Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On The Need To Reach A New Two-Year Budget Agreement

While it was only two short weeks ago that we finished the Fiscal Year 2019 Appropriations bills, there is no rest for the weary on the Senate Appropriations Committee.  I come to the Floor today to talk about the need to reach a new two-year budget deal so that the Appropriations Committee can begin its work in earnest on the Fiscal Year 2020 bills.  

Unless we get a budget deal, sequestration returns in Fiscal Year 2020, necessitating steep cuts in programs that invest in America and support working families. 

Absent a budget agreement, the law requires that we cut $71 billion from defense programs in the next fiscal year.  That would result in a 10 percent cut in funding to support our troops and invest in military readiness.  The law also requires we cut $55 billion from non-defense programs in the next fiscal year – a 9 percent cut.  This means less investment in infrastructure, education, housing, and agriculture programs.  It means less money for veterans’ health care, protecting our environment, or combatting the opioid epidemic.  These cuts are not just hypothetical.  They affect real people and real families. 

More troubling is that these cuts will come at time when we face significant cost increases in important programs that we have no control over.  For example, we need to increase funding for the decennial Census by $4 billion in order to carry out our constitutional responsibilities to conduct the 2020 Census. 

We also must provide significant increases to adequately fund veterans’ health care.  The VA Mission Act, which provides additional private care options for veterans, becomes effective in June of 2019.  It will cost at least an additional $3 billion, and estimates could climb significantly higher.  This is on top of the $3 billion increase for VA Medical Care we have already enacted through an advance appropriation. 

We will also need an additional $1 billion to ensure an estimated 5 million people who receive affordable housing assistance can remain in their homes.  In addition to these increased costs, we expect to lose nearly $4 billion in receipts and cost-savings in other programs compared to this year.  Taken together, that means we have $15 billion dollars right off the bat that we must account for above this year’s levels, and no doubt, there will be many other increases we must address.  This presents a daunting picture. 

We must begin negotiating a two-year budget deal now to address these realities.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend it will fix itself, and the Appropriations Committee cannot responsibly do its job in the absence of cap levels that allow us to meet the needs of the American people.  

This budget deal must be based on parity – equal treatment for defense and non-defense programs.  We need to invest on both sides of the ledger if we are to create a strong national defense, a strong economy, and a healthy citizenry.  I ask unanimous consent to include in the record a letter to all Senators received yesterday from over 300 retired admirals and generals who agree with this premise.  They are part of a coalition called “Mission: Readiness, a Council for a Strong America” and they call on Congress to negotiate balanced investments in both defense and non-defense programs.  They write, “As members of Mission: Readiness, we recognize the fact that the strength of the military – and our Nation – is dependent on the strength of our people. “ 

Unfortunately, if press reports are accurate, the President is planning to send up a budget on March 11th that not only fails to provide a constructive path forward, but will be dead on arrival.  If press reports are accurate, the President will yet again propose deep cuts to non-defense programs, even though Congress has rejected these cuts for the last two fiscal years. 

He will also propose large increases for defense programs that he will pay for using a budget gimmick that his own Acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney used to rail against when he was in Congress – moving large portions of the defense base budget into the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) account, which does not count against the budget caps. 

This is not a recipe for success.  OCO is meant for costs associated with military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.  It is to address crises overseas.  And it is to support our men and women deployed and in harm’s way.  The OCO account should not be used as a slush fund to pay for the everyday operations of the Department of Defense, and avoid a real debate on the budget caps. 

To suggest that we should move billions from the base defense budget into OCO at a time when the President is actively reducing our troop presence overseas reveals this for the disingenuous move that it is. 

I came across a letter written by then-Congressman Mick Mulvaney in March of 2014 that is strikingly relevant today. Congressman Mulvaney led a letter signed by numerous members opposing a $10 billion increase in OCO, calling it a “misuse” of funds and an attempt to “circumvent the caps” for things unrelated to overseas combat at a time when war operations were “winding down.”  He opposed the gimmick and argued for greater transparency and discipline in the budget process.  Now, we are told the President may propose an increase of $105 billion – more than doubling current OCO funding.    

This is not the way forward.  We need to have an honest conversation about our needs as a nation.  We need to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work to set new caps that allow us to invest in the programs that strengthen our military, grow our economy, improve our infrastructure, and build the future of America.  We should not use a budget gimmick to frustrate that debate.   

I am ready to have those conversations so that we can move forward with the Fiscal Year 2020 Appropriations bills and get the work done that the American people sent us here to do.  I urge leadership on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress to begin these negotiations now.

Another issue that we must take up with urgency is a disaster package.  In the last two years, we have had the deadliest disaster seasons in recent memories: Hurricanes Michael, Florence, Irma, and Maria, the California wildfires, volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, and typhoons in the Pacific.  These communities, states, and territories need our help.  When Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in 2011, I found out firsthand how devastating natural disasters can be.  Roads washed away, towns and villages were cut off from vital services, and people’s homes were destroyed.  At these trying times it is critical that the federal government provides assistance to help them recover. 

Given the urgent needs, I was disappointed we were not able to reach agreement to include a disaster package in the final Fiscal Year 2019 minibus that we passed just two weeks ago.  We were so close to an agreement on a package that would address the needs of all impacted communities, when the process broke down over the President’s insistence that we eliminate disaster assistance for Puerto Rico. 

Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated Puerto Rico, destroying the island’s homes and infrastructure, and causing the deaths of an estimated 2,975 people.  It was one of the deadliest hurricanes our country has ever seen.  While Congress provided Puerto Rico with assistance in past disaster bills, they still have unaddressed needs that must be met. 

Many people still live in temporary housing.  Roads, bridges, and communities, still need to be rebuilt.  And one of the largest infrastructure projects to be undertaken on the island, rebuilding Puerto Rico’s energy grid, needs additional assistance.  Most importantly, absent supplemental assistance, we estimate that 140,000 Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, will lose nutrition assistance at the end of March.   

This is the United States of America.  We are supposed take care of all of our citizens when there is a crisis, not pick and choose based on whom we are politically aligned. 

Last month the House passed H.R. 268, a comprehensive disaster package that would provide over $14 billion dollars to help all states and territories impacted by recent disasters recover and rebuild.  I worked closely with the House on this bill and believe it will address the needs of all disaster-impacted communities.  On Tuesday, Senators Perdue, Jones and others introduced a similar, but not identical, bill.  I plan to review that bill carefully, but want to thank them for their leadership in bringing this issue back to the forefront of the Senate.  

I am committed to working with Chairman Shelby, and with House Appropriators, on a package that can pass both chambers and that addresses the needs of all states and territories hit by recent disasters.  I urge Senator McConnell to commit to bringing this to the floor as soon as possible.  

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