February 01, 2023

VIDEO: Van Hollen Delivers Floor Speech on the Debt Limit

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate urging immediate action to raise the debt ceiling in order to honor the federal government’s financial obligations and prevent unnecessary economic devastation for Americans. Below are Senator Van Hollen’s remarks, which can also be viewed here

U.S. SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.):  Mr. President, let me begin with a simple statement which I hope every Senator in this body agrees with: that the United States of America pays its bills on time. We have since our nation was founded. We never default on our debts. We always pay what we owe. We honor our financial obligations to all Americans and all those who invest in the American economy. And because we pay our bills on time, the United States has earned a reputation as a reliable, credible, and trustworthy partner around the world. And that helps every single American and our entire economy.

Now, as everybody in this chamber knows, in order to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States, we have to raise the debt ceiling. And this is not about new spending. This is about paying the bills that are already due and already owing under the laws that we've already passed in this country – and have already been signed by presidents of both parties.

When Donald Trump was President of the United States, Republicans voted with Democrats to raise the debt limit three times. And the United States Congress has raised the debt limit a total of 78 times since 1960 under both Democratic and Republican presidents. And if the government of the United States had failed to raise the debt ceiling in the past, we would have faced an economic catastrophe.

Think about it this way, Mr. President, you wouldn't just wake up one day and decide not to make your mortgage payment – or not to make your car payment. You pay what you owe. It's as simple as that. And you know that if you were to wake up one morning and say you're not paying your mortgage or you're not paying your car payment, you will face consequences. You don't pay your mortgage, you could have your home foreclosed on. You don't pay your car payments, your car can be repossessed. The same logic applies to the United States government, but the consequences are not confined to just one individual or one homeowner or one car owner.

If the United States fails to pay its bills on time, every American – everyone inside this room and everyone outside this room – will suffer the consequences. We're not talking about risking foreclosure on one house or losing one car. We're talking about the economy of our country grinding to a halt. If the United States stops paying our bills, our economy takes a nosedive. It’s as simple as that.

And when I talk to my colleagues here on the Senate floor, both Republicans and Democrats, they agree it’s a no-brainer. You pay what you owe. You raise the debt ceiling. You don't default. It’s common sense. The fact is, I was listening just the other day to Republican Leader, Senator McConnell, who said, ‘America must never default on its debt.’ He said that a few days ago. I agree.

But across on the other side of the Capitol in the House of Representatives, Speaker McCarthy and the new majority, composed of some very right-wing and extreme members, are taking their orders from former President Donald Trump. The same Donald Trump who as President signed three debt limit increases into law. Now, he wants Republicans to use the debt limit as a club against President Biden. House Republicans are stalling our efforts right now to pay our bills on time – even though they know, just as Senator McConnell knows, just as every Senator here knows, that failing to do so would result in chaos and calamity for the country.

It's a threat, Madame President, designed to force the rest of the United States Congress into enacting an extreme right-wing agenda. So, let's be very clear. Here's what House Republicans are saying – they're saying: you do what we want or else we'll tank the American economy. I think anybody hearing that proposition would recognize it for what it is – a form of economic terrorism. But, MAGA Republicans are holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage to impose their agenda on the American people.

They've decided to politicize what should be a nonpartisan issue because Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate have voted for programs to require us to raise the debt ceiling in the past. In fact, I think it would be important to know that we would not be here at this time on the Senate floor, having hit the debt ceiling and trying to work to make sure we avoid actually going over the cliff, we would not be here if it was not for the tax cuts that were passed during the Trump Administration. We would not be here at this particular moment. And in fact, 25% of the total national debt was accumulated during the Trump Administration. Twenty-five percent of the debt, the total debt of the United States, during the Trump Administration.

Now, I want to be clear – I am not saying this is all Republican debt. But it’s certainly not all Democratic debt. This is the debt of the country. This is the debt owed by Uncle Sam.

And what does the Constitution of the United States tell us about how we treat America's debt? Well, there's the 14th Amendment to the Constitution right here. And what it says, ‘the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for the payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.’ Fourteenth Amendment passed shortly after the Civil War. And it's crystal clear that the obligation to pay America's debts is not a Democratic obligation – it is not a Republican obligation – it's an American obligation. And beyond being the right thing to do, it's in the Constitution of the United States. It's a national duty and a constitutional duty.

So, as I listen to Speaker McCarthy and his Republican House colleagues, they want us to ignore the 14th Amendment. They want to impose their reckless policies on the rest of us under threat of us doing what they want us to do.

So, I do want to be clear about what the consequences of this would be. I've talked in general terms about economic catastrophe. Here's what it would mean. It would mean seniors going without Social Security benefits. It can mean troops going for weeks or even months without pay – the men and women in uniform who are out there protecting our country. Medicare – Medicare may not be able to cover the cost of a doctor's visit. Those are just some of the governmental functions that could come to a grinding halt if we don't pay our debts on time. And we don't know the full extent of what would happen because, as I said, we've never been there before. This is unchartered territory.

Economists estimate a very dire toll. Three million jobs lost. One hundred and thirty thousand dollars added to the cost of your average 30-year mortgage. I want everyone to hear that. The mortgage costs for homeowners would go up. And, of course, as the mortgage cost for homeowners goes up, the value for everyone who's already got a house also goes down. Retirement accounts in freefall. Skyrocketing borrowing costs on car loans. And we'd be hit by this catastrophe just as we're recovering from the economic hit we took during the pandemic, and it would trigger an increase in costs just as we're beginning to turn the corner on inflation.

So, why would anyone do this? Right? Why would someone threaten to do this? And I've been listening very carefully to Speaker McCarthy and Republicans in the House, and they say that they want to reduce the deficit and the national debt. That's what they say. But this is one of those situations where you always say, watch what they do, not what they say. And the reality is, Republicans, through their action and their records, they don't care about the deficit and the debt. That is not their priority.

Because if they really cared about the deficit and the debt, they would not have passed the 2017 Trump Tax Cuts without a plan to pay for it. A tax cut, by the way, which disproportionately benefited the very, very rich and big, multinational corporations. Because that tax cut – that giveaway to the very wealthy and big corporations – it increased the deficit by $2 trillion over ten years – added to our national debt. As I said, we wouldn't even be here today at this point in time but for the fact that Republicans increased the deficit by $2 trillion. And, by the way, that's not my estimate – that $2 trillion. That's from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

And if Republicans really cared about reducing the deficit and debt, they could have joined us just last year when we closed a number of loopholes for big corporations – a measure that reduces the deficit by $238 billion over the next ten years. That's something Democrats did. We didn't have a single Republican vote here in the Senate or the House for that. And if Republicans really cared about reducing the deficit and debt, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would not, as one of their very first measures, have passed a law to slash the funding that the IRS desperately needs to enforce the law against wealthy tax cheats.

Let me say that again. They cut the monies that the IRS needs to enforce current tax law against very wealthy Americans and big corporations who are not paying what they owe today. They're getting away with cheating on their taxes, and Republicans cut the money that the IRS needs to go after them. And this is very explicitly, as the Secretary of Treasury said, talking about Americans who earn more than $400,000 every year, including lots of multi-millionaires and billionaires in the country.

So, when you say the IRS can no longer have the funds to go after wealthy tax cheats, what happens? You collect less revenue from very wealthy people. And what happens when you collect less revenue from very wealthy people? You increase the deficit. And, in fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that the action the House already took would increase the deficit by over $114 billion. This from the Republicans in the House who are now threatening the United States not pay its bills, claiming that they care about the deficit and debt – when one of the very first actions they took was to increase it. So that's just not the case. I mean, their actions indicate they don't care about the deficit.

What's it really about? So what Republicans are really after is attacking critical investments that support the American people and have helped strengthen our country. As one Republican strategist, Grover Norquist, once said, it's about shrinking the government down to the size where you can, ‘drown it in the bathtub.’ And this House Republican majority is desperate to cut and decimate programs that Americans need and that our future requires.

So, for example, they want to cut some of the new initiatives we undertook to supercharge American innovation. We passed legislation, the CHIPS and Science Act, designed to maintain our technological edge over China and others. They want to cut it. They want to roll back investments that we made that are already bringing more high-tech manufacturing jobs back to the United States. We want to “in-shore” those manufacturing jobs. They want to continue to offshore those good jobs.

They want to cut investments we're making in clean energy that will help us fight the climate crisis, strengthen the American workforce, and yes, also help us better compete around the globe where China has a huge head start when it comes to things like electric batteries.

They want to cut Pell Grants that help millions of Americans pursue a college degree.

They want to cut investments we're finally making to modernize our national infrastructure, something that was very bipartisan here in the United States Senate. That's important for our roads, our bridges, our transit systems, our ports, our airports. They want to cut it.

And some are talking about cutting Medicare and Social Security. So that's just a partial list of what House Republicans are threatening to do, and they're saying that if we don't all agree to that, they're not going to allow the United States to pay its bills on time.

So, Madame President, the bottom line here is when you look at the Republican playbook, it's cutting investments that are important to the American people and important to the success of our country, while pushing for more tax cuts for the super wealthy. This is not a new movie. This is a rerun. This is trickle-down economics, and it's the same old playbook, and here they go again.

But here's the thing, Madame President, we've been here before. Some of us were here when this threat was last made. I vividly remember the year 2011. It was another moment when Republicans were fresh after winning a majority in the House of Representatives. I was in the House at the time. And then, as now, Republicans said they really cared about the deficit and the debt. And then, as now, they threatened that they wouldn't pay the bills on time. They wouldn't vote to pay the bills of the country on time.

And I remember back then that we sat down with them in good faith. President Obama tapped Vice President Biden to lead the budget negotiations, and a small bipartisan and bicameral group of us were selected to try to hammer out a plan. I was part of those discussions. They took place just off the floor here down the hall, less than 15 yards. And we worked week after week after week. We negotiated and negotiated to try to hammer out an agreement. But here's what became very clear. The Republican objective then, as now, was not to reduce the deficit and the debt. The Republican objective was simply to cut investments in important areas. They didn't want to raise one penny, not one dime, to reduce the deficit or debt by closing tax breaks for very wealthy people. That was then. That's the same story today.

So, if you look at the list of things they did back then – no cutting tax breaks for the wealthy, cutting important programs, including Medicare was very much part of their agenda, cutting Medicare at the time – and we got very close to tripping over the final cliff of the debt ceiling. Like today, we'd already hit the debt ceiling and the Treasury Department was taking extraordinary measures to prevent us from actually defaulting on our debts.

In fact, we got so close to actually not paying our bills on time that S&P downgraded America's credit for the first time in our history. They said: you're getting very close to the fact where creditors of the United States aren't going to anymore support, they’re not going to buy U.S. Bonds. And in fact interest rates began to creep up just because of that, we got so close to the cliff. We came very close to going over that waterfall and crashing the economy. And so many of us learned a valuable lesson back then. I learned it, and I know that then-Vice President, now-President Biden learned it. And that is, you don't negotiate over whether or not the United States pays its bills on time. Because all of us, Democrats and Republicans alike, have an obligation, a responsibility, to do that.

But we also learned something I want to be equally clear about. We're not against negotiating about the budget. We're happy to sit down any time with Republican colleagues in the Senate or the House to negotiate all aspects of the budget. We can talk about spending levels. We can talk about revenue levels. In fact, we have a budget process here. If Speaker McCarthy and his colleagues want to do this under the regular process and do it in a bipartisan way, they have to pass a budget resolution. They outline where they want to make cuts – I don't expect them to outline any proposed increases in revenue – but that's the place they would do that. And then we'll have a debate. I serve on the Senate Budget Committee. I would look forward to that. I do look forward to that. I serve on the Appropriations Committee where we decide on expenditures. That's the forum for negotiation. Democrats are for negotiating on the budget. We welcome that.

And then the American people would see exactly what everyone's budget priorities are. They would see that Republicans want to protect tax breaks for the very wealthy, while they want to cut investments that are very important to middle America. They would see all that during the budget process. But they want to short-circuit that process. They instead want to say that they're not going to vote to pay our bills on time unless we all agree to their radical agenda. And so, we're saying: we're happy to negotiate. Let's have a budget negotiation. But the negotiation isn't you get everything you want in exchange for Democrats joining you to vote to pay our bills on time. We didn't do that when President Trump was in office. As I said, we voted three times to raise the debt limit. We didn't say: you've got to accept all of our proposed efforts to get rid of tax breaks for the very wealthy. And yet what they're saying is, that we've got to accept their approach to deep cuts to important investments in order for them to do what all of us have an obligation under the Constitution to do, which is pay our bills on time.

So, Madame President, I hope all of us will do the simple thing mandated in the Constitution as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, as Americans – let's pay our bills on time. Let's not crash our economy. But, yes, as part of the normal budget process, let's have a conversation about spending and about revenue, but don't do it while at the same time you're saying you're not going to let the United States pay our bills on time.

As I said in the opening of my remarks, we've always paid our bills on time. If you don't do it, really bad things happen to all Americans. So, let's get that done, and then let's have our conversation about budget priorities.

Madame President, I yield the floor.