“Right now, the plan around here is basically to just to start shoveling money out of a helicopter – and the most important debate is whether or not Republicans or Democrats get to shovel the money first. This is a bad idea… We don’t need a policy where Washington, D.C., handpicks winners and losers… As long as Congress is debating spending... I’m going to be fighting to make sure that we give more than half of it to our governors to distribute.”
Senator Sasse's floor speech is available here or by clicking the image above.
Tonight, as the United States Senate considers massive economic legislation to address the coronavirus fallout, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse slammed Washington-driven, industry-by-industry bailouts and called instead for more than half of economic relief spending to be administered by the 50 state Governors.
"Right now, the plan around here is basically to just to start shoveling money out of a helicopter – and the most important debate is whether or not Republicans or Democrats get to shovel the money first. This is a bad idea,” Sasse said of the House bill’s approach. “We don’t need a policy where Washington, D.C., handpicks winners and losers. There's no one here in this chamber that's actually competent to do that. We are indeed in a period of extraordinary uncertainty, but no politician actually knows what happens next week, let alone six months from now and humility would require us to admit that a bit more… Main Street is going to be the place where lots of the pain is ultimately shouldered from this crisis. And when Wall Street needs something, Wall Street hires K Street and Congress is told by K Street what they want and that's usually what ends up in the bill. When Main Street needs something they drive to Lincoln, they drive to Indianapolis and Nashville, and Columbus, and Albany, and Sacramento… As long as Congress is debating spending... I’m going to be fighting to make sure that we give more than half of it to our governors to distribute."
Sasse’s full remarks are available here and found below:
We are in the midst of two crises at once— one health-related and one economic.
I tend to think that the prudent path forward on the health front is — that even as we “hope for the best,” we should continue “planning for the worst.”
If this nasty disease continues to ramp in roughly the same proportions as it has in Italy and Spain, it would overwhelm our hospitals. So, I think that the social distancing recommendations from the President and from the CDC over the last four days are a prudent course of action.
At the same time, we’re also in the midst of a genuine economic crisis. Lots of moms and dads are worried that they might be laid off, and lots of small businesses are evaluating whether they are going to be able to make payroll and whether they're still going to be in business months down the line. They’re scared — and DC needs act a lot more urgently than we usually do.
But — and this is an important but – just saying we need to act urgently is not a substitute for actually having good ideas and actually advancing good policies. There is a herd mentality around this building right now where a lot of normally smart people are literally saying things like "the most important thing is to be fast," even if the ideas that are being advocated for aren’t ready for prime-time and can't really withstand the scrutiny of debate.
That’s really dumb. It’s a Ready-Fire-Aim approach.
We do indeed need to work fast, but working fast is no substitute for working smart.
Again, I agree that this virus (and the strategy necessary to contain it) are producing some of the worst economic upheavals we've seen in a generation. And further, we need to be preparing for these unexpected economic hardships to last for six months or even longer.
But that fact is a reason to prepare – it is not a reason to panic.
It is a reason to debate hard and fast but still to debate what good policy looks like– it is not a reason to allow garbage policies to get by because someone simply says, "No, no. We have to go faster. You can't ask questions about the policy."
Over the next 48 to 72 hours, this body will be making some crucial decisions about somewhere between one and four spending packages. I agree with the President that this is an unprecedented economic situation -- and the federal government at the health level obviously has a fundamentally crucial role to play in helping us get through this pandemic which recognizes no borders or boundaries. And thus, the federal government is going to have to spend real money. (And as the third or fourth most conservative member of the Senate by voting record, that's not language I use a lot – saying that, “We are going to have to spend real significant amounts of money” – but that is clearly true in this moment.) But saying that we have to spend real money is not the same as saying we should spend like idiots.
Unfortunately, D.C. so far has been handling our responsibilities exactly as a lot of voters feared. Right now, the proposal on the table – which has just come over from the House of Representatives -- is for Washington, D.C., to pull out its checkbook (which is really your checkbook), and start firing.
If you’re an industry with a good lobbying team, you're told to line up at the door of the Treasury Department and get in line because bailout after bailout is probably in the offing.
Right now, the plan around here is basically to just to start shoveling money out of a helicopter – and the most important debate is whether or not Republicans or Democrats get to shovel the money first.
This is a bad idea. And, Washington should know better because 12 years ago something just like this was tried and the consequences were really significant and lasting. They're still with us. I want to be clear: I am not talking primarily about the total price tag. The price tag matters, but the thing that I am trying to debate today is whether or not we're going to spend the American people's money wisely or foolishly - and we're not having a lot of debate about that. We're hearing a lot of people saying the only important question is whether or not we can we act fast enough. If you act fast but you spend money that's ineffective, you didn't effectively act fast.
The Congress 12 years ago shoveled lots and lots of money into supposedly shovel ready projects which still can't be found today. A trillion dollars of spending and you go to your governor and you go to your state legislature and you go to your business roundtables and you try to find people who know where the trillion dollars of shovel ready project money went, I challenge you, that's not an easy thing to achieve. It also - more than just the spending and the debt though - it also produced serious backlashes of national political moments on both the right and the left. The Occupy Wall Street movement, some of which became the Bernie Sanders constituency, and the Tea Party were both spawned out of 2008-'09 are still with us in lots of ways that are not ultimately constructive for our body politic.
We don't need a policy where Washington D.C. hand picks winners and losers. There's no one here in this chamber that's actually competent to do that. We are indeed in a period of extraordinary uncertainty, but no politician actually knows what happens next week, let alone six months from now and humility would require us to admit that a bit more.
The proposal currently on the table from Speaker Nancy Pelosi is to blow through a massive amount of money on a policy core that isn't actually well thought out. When you ask hard questions about the bill that's come over from the House, there's nobody who actually defends it as really good, well-thought-out policy. And that's why the first version of their bill passed so urgently last week at 120 pages, last night required over 90 pages, or right at 90 pages, of technical corrections.
Think about that, imagine your kid does homework and you say you wrote a 12-page essay and after you turn it in you say nine of the 12 pages actually have to be thrown away and rewritten. That's what happened last night in the House of Representatives. They tried to pass a 90-page fix to a 120-page bill that was supposedly really urgent last week. And oh, by the way, when you talk to the architects of that legislation in private, when the cameras aren't rolling and you ask them hard questions about how their policy actually works, everybody starts pointing at everyone else, and a lot of people admit that the bill might actually accelerate layoffs from small businesses.
Think about that, the reason this first bill - if it ends up remaining independent rather than being bundled with the other ideas that are coming down the road in the form of industry specific bailouts. This first bill, which is supposed to slow the pace of layoffs from small business, when you ask questions about it, the architects of the bill will admit to you in private that it might actually accelerate the pace of layoffs from small business.
Nonetheless, despite admitting that today's version of the Rube Goldberg policy might have the opposite of its intended effect, the main answer you get is we have to go very, very fast. This is wildly irresponsible what's happening here. Once the first couple hundred billion dollars of money is gone, that means that there is less money left for the next round of stimulus and action and recovery and relief that's required.
But besides money, it also means that there is less public trust left. There are going to be more rainy days ahead in the coming weeks and months, and there is not a lot of grassroots American trust in the wisdom or the work ethic of this institution.
Simply screaming that we should go faster is not a substitute for debating and advocating for the actual policy. We have many politicians pretending right now that they know how to centrally plan rifle shot bailouts industry by industry. It's not true and even they don't believe it.
This is a game of pretend. "Hurry up and look busy. If you're not sure what to do, just spend more of the people's money but do it faster." That's not good policy. That's not good stewardship of our responsibility. The Senate is supposed to exist to calm down the passions that lead the House to move fast and write policy that's bad enough that 120-page bill requires 90 pages of technical fixes.
The Senate's actual job in our bicameral constitutional structure is to ask hard questions of legislation just like this.
Where's the good news? We don't have to mindlessly go down this path again. We can do better than this. We can affirm the policy goal that we do need to help get resources to the people who need them, but we can also make smarter, more responsible, less risky decisions right now that will provide a lifeline to people in need, but will also leave room for further action in the future, hopefully, as we know more in the coming days and weeks.
So, here's an alternate idea: instead of D.C. pretending it's omnicompetent, let's admit that a complex situation like what is actually happening in the small business environment in all 50 of our states will actually require differentiated solutions. And let's be sure we're accurately naming the problem here - because I'm not talking now about the public health issues like speeding the development of a coronavirus vaccine where D.C. obviously needs to maintain a lead role - but I'm talking here precisely about the economic problem of the next 90 days.
What is that economic problem? The question before us is how do we minimize the number of layoffs and how do we minimize the number of small business bankruptcies that are looming across our country?
How do we make sure that more families can keep putting bread on the table rather than becoming long term dependencies on the state? We should be laser-focused on what the question is that we're actually debating in this chamber this week, and that is the question over the next 90 days, are there policy steps we can take to minimize the number of bankruptcies and layoffs that are going to affect American families so painfully?
Well here's some needed truths: The feds don't know the precise answer because there isn't a single precise answer. The answers, plural, are gonna vary across our continent sized nation of 325 million souls. and if we pretend that we have a one-size-fits-all solution for this problem, or if we pretend that D.C. can be fair going industry-by-industry with rifle targeted bailouts we're going to screw up badly.
The lobbyists are going to dominate the day - not the public interest. Again, I am open to spending in this moment, but that isn't an excuse for failing to spend well. We need to spend the people's money well. We need to steward our callings with humility and we need to spend much better than this current House bill does.
So, let's take the money that's being proposed and let's direct more than half of all of it to our governors so that they might distribute it to families and small businesses.
I trust Pete Ricketts - who's my governor - I trust Pete Ricketts a heck of a lot more than I trust Nancy Pelosi. Part of it is that Pete and I have more aligned political philosophies, but that's not really the point. The real reason I trust Pete Ricketts on this ground at this moment is the same reason that I think Senator Feinstein would trust Gavin Newsom more at this moment, and that is that my governor is on the ground with his 1.9 million people.
He's not off in D.C. looking out across the 325-million-person nation as if our problems are undifferentiated and as if the solutions can be one-size-fits-al. That is not going to work. That is going to waste the vast majority of the people's resources. We have 50 different states with 50 different sets of circumstances and needs.
Californians have needs that Nebraskans don't in this moment and vice versa. We can get money to the governors quickly and they can distribute it in ways that will best help their people. The House's one-size-fits-all approach, this nationalized leave policy in this first bundled bill is going to cause a lot of people to fall through the cracks. And why is it that different industries and different sized firms are treated so radically differently? It's because of who was last in the Speaker's office lobbying about the bill as they cobbled together the first 120 pages that needed 90 pages of corrections. The Rube Goldberg bill is going to create a handful of politically connected winners, but it's going to create a whole lot more economic losers.
Part of these relief packages will need to come from DC in targeted ways. I admit that. Part of this is going to need to come from DC, but the idea that all of it can or that all of it should is arrogant. It is wrong and it will be ineffective. Our governors know their states and their people. Our governors know how to build public private partnerships. Congress doesn't. Our governors know so much better than we do what their workforce needs were before the corona virus struck and what their workforce needs are going to be in late Q3 or in Q4 when hopefully the economy is humming again.
Simply put, our governors know how to target this money much more efficiently than we do so that much more of that money will make its way to Main Street. Lots of governors have led well in the past three weeks. I've mentioned my Governor Pete Ricketts and how his strong leadership has been laying the groundwork to help shield our state from some of the worst ravages of this virus. Likewise, I would recognize Governor DeWine in Ohio as showing strong leadership on what it looks like to put facts front and center.
What we need right now at the state, at the local, and at the federal levels is not just any action, we need responsible, effective, defensible action. This is not a time for Washington to go on an anything goes spending spree. It's not an opportunity for Washington's connected insiders to exploit personal relationships, to put their pet projects first on things that they wouldn't have been able to get past if it weren't a time of crisis. We don't have to go down that path. Instead, we can more efficiently and more wisely spend the people's resources. We can give our states and our governors the lead in making sure that the majority of the money, the majority of the resources get where they're most needed. We can help families and businesses keep afloat during this storm by admitting that 50 laboratories of democracy are going to be more effective than a rifle shot approach from Washington. We can create room for further action, but we can also acknowledge that the particular needs are going to evolve in the coming weeks.
We need less instant certainty and more humility in this building. We should not pretend that the only government is the federal government. Congress should eat more humble pie.
There is a reason why even the least popular governor in America is more popular than almost everyone who works in this chamber. There's a reason for that. And the main reason is that while members of Congress spend lots of our time playing pundit, sadly, governors actually lead -- they manage budgets, they make decisions, they lead in departments, they engage their community and the actual private sector, not just hired lobbyists who work for the private sector. They're physically on the ground with the people that they serve. That means they know a thing or two about the businesses in their community.
It means they know a thing or two about the industries that are rising and falling in their cities and in their rural areas. They have a kind of decentralized knowledge about this crisis and what was needed at this moment that people in Washington, D.C. lack.
Cable news is focused on Wall Street. But here's the deal: Main Street is going to be the place where lots of the pain is ultimately shouldered from this crisis. And when Wall Street needs something, Wall Street hires K Street and Congress is told by K Street what they want and that's usually what ends up in the bill. When Main Street needs something they drive to Lincoln, they drive to Indianapolis and Nashville, and Columbus, and Albany, and Sacramento. And the granular understanding of their particular problems is almost always more nuanced than is understood here.
That's why as long as Congress is debating the spending this week, I'm going to be fighting to make sure that we give more than half of all this money to our governors to distribute. They know how to spend this money better than this D.C. centric House of Representatives bill. That's the way we can actually get this done and our help our people grit through this time of unprecedented economic uncertainty.