Yesterday, I joined a majority of my colleagues in approving a bipartisan agreement that, if passed by the Senate, will end months of budget wrangling and avoid a government shutdown over the next two years. This bill was the result of extensive discussions between Democratic and Republican budget negotiators from the House and Senate and it offers some welcome relief from the gridlock and dysfunction that sadly have become a hallmark of Washington.
We’ve long known that the sequester’s indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts are an irresponsible and inefficient way to budget. In fact, sequestration has been so damaging to our economy that even some Republicans are now calling for its repeal. In a first step in this direction, the proposed budget compromise rolls back $63 billion in cuts that would have taken effect over the next two years and provides more flexibility for federal agencies struggling with the $85 billion of sequestration cuts that remain in place. This holds the promise that important programs like Head Start can be preserved over the next couple of years. The agreement also avoids harmful cuts to earned benefit programs that serve children, seniors, and the disabled.
There are certainly components of the deal that gave me pause. I was disappointed that federal employees took another hit in this package, which finances some of the sequester relief by cutting $6 billion from pension benefits for people who choose public service in the future. For the last few years, our dedicated public servants have been used as a deficit reduction piggy bank, contributing more than $114 billion in savings through pay freezes and increased pension contributions. It is unfair to repeatedly target federal employees and I believe there were better ways to raise an equivalent amount of revenue.
I was also very disappointed about a number of priorities that were not included in the bill. Republican opposition to extending long term unemployment benefits will have an immediate and detrimental impact on 1.3 million job-seekers who will lose their benefits on December 28th. Though the job market has been improving, the economy is still not working as it should for average Americans. The damage will continue over the first half of next year when benefits will be cut off for an additional 1.9 million people looking for work. I plan to join many of my colleagues in urging that we retroactively restore these unemployment benefits in January.
The agreement is also silent on the critical investments that are necessary to get our country back on track. Our roads, public transit and water infrastructure are in desperate need of repair. Our commitment to education, research and scientific innovation is inadequate. These investments create jobs and there are responsible ways to pay for them. For starters, we should eliminate corporate subsidies for the oil and gas industry. In addition, our tax code is littered with special interest loopholes for the Wall Street crowd and those should be repealed.
Unfortunately, big money campaign donors and high powered lobbyists relentlessly defend these loopholes. Until we reform the way our political campaigns are financed
so that every-day Americans have a real voice that can be heard in the policy-making process, these abuses will continue.
There is so much more work to be done. But in a year of frustrating political gridlock and partisan bickering, even modest progress is welcome. My hope is that this agreement will set the stage for additional cooperation on some of the tremendous challenges we face in the coming year.
Happy holidays to you and yours!