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Statement by Senator Tom Harkin on the Rebuild America Act

WASHINGTON--Today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, spoke on the floor of the Senate about the Rebuild America Act, a bill he introduced to create good jobs, strengthen the economy, and rebuild America's middle class.

Below is the full text of the speech, as prepared for delivery:

"Mr. President: As Chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, I’ve come to the Senate floor on a number of occasions over the last year to express my concern about the distressed state of the American middle class. I do so again today in order to share with my colleagues my ideas for how we can rebuild the American middle class and make our economy work for those who work for a living.

"Over the past year, while Washington has been gripped by fear of budget deficits, I gave speech after speech here in the Senate pointing out an even more serious deficit -- the deficit of vision in Washington, our failure to confront the current economic crisis with the boldness that earlier generations of Americans summoned in times of national challenge.

"By this economic crisis, I don’t just mean the current economic downturn. Instead, I’m referring to the economic trends over the last 30 to 40 years that have resulted in a shrinking middle class, rising inequality, a weakened economy, and a sense that the American Dream is slipping away. Mr. President, this is the fundamental challenge facing our nation today: rebuilding the American middle class.

"Altogether, I now have chaired five HELP Committee hearings on the crisis of the middle class. Last year, my state staff visited all 99 counties in Iowa to gain greater insight into the challenges facing working Americans. During these events I have heard from a diverse array of Americans including economists, employers, union members, community college students, and everyday hardworking middle class families.

"Not surprisingly, we found that more and more people are struggling just to make ends meet.  Their jobs are insecure, their savings and pensions have shrunk, and they see an economic system that is rigged in favor of the very rich and powerful.

"At a hearing last June, I invited Amanda Greubel, a social worker in her local Iowa school district, to share her story with the HELP Committee. During her testimony, she defined what it means to be in the middle class in this way:

'My husband and I didn’t have dreams of great wealth.  We never expected to have summer homes or expensive cars or vacations on the Riviera.  We chose careers that inspire us, knowing that we would never make six-figure salaries.  All we have ever wanted is security and a little comfort . . . to know that our bills are paid, our needs are met, that we can have a getaway every now and then, that our children can pursue higher education without the burden of student-loan debt, and that someday we can retire and enjoy our final years together in the way we choose….When I think back over our adult lives, it strikes me that we did everything we were always told to do in order to have the American dream …We did everything that all the experts said we should do, and yet still we're struggling.  When you work as hard as we have and still sometimes scrape for the necessities, it really gets you down.'

"Unfortunately, those of us in Washington haven’t listened enough to people like Amanda.

"People like Amanda don’t feel this way because of factors like “globalization” and “technology change.” Indeed, harnessing those developments has helped to make the U.S. economy the envy of the world. Instead, the crisis of the middle class can be traced largely to unwise policy choices made right here in Washington.   

"For starters, for the last three decades, too many here in Washington have bought into the failed economic doctrine that says if we give more and more to the very wealthy and to the largest corporations, then prosperity will somehow trickle-down to the rest of us. That idea has utterly failed to work for the American people.

"It’s time we got back to policies that are premised on how our economy really works. A strong, vibrant middle class with money in their pockets to spend drives the economy forward because very simply, businesses won’t make things if they don’t have any customers. As Nick Hanauer, a very successful private sector investor put it in a recent Business Week column: “Rich businesspeople like me don’t create jobs. Middle-class consumers do, and when they thrive, U.S. businesses grow and profit.”

"So what is the best way forward?  Instead of the slash-and-burn approaches of the past year and the failed economic doctrine of the last few decades, we need a way forward that rebuilds the middle class by reflecting the hopes and can-do spirit of the American people – people like Amanda Greubel.

"To meet the great challenge of our day – restoring and revitalizing the middle class – I recently introduced sweeping legislation called the Rebuild America Act. This legislation provides comprehensive solutions to rebuilding the American middle class. Some will say it is too bold, too ambitious. I disagree.  The sweep of this legislation is commensurate with the extraordinary challenge that it addresses. The bill aims to rebuild the middle class in four broad ways: creating jobs, investing in the future, helping families, and bringing balance back into the economy. Let me touch briefly on those principles.

"One, we need to create jobs for all Americans, including for groups of Americans, such as people with disabilities, who have been especially hard hit by the recent recession. With the official unemployment rate over 8% and some unofficial measures as high as 17%, the middle class will continue to lose ground. When jobs are scarce, workers don’t have the leverage to demand fair treatment, paychecks stop growing – or start falling – and even people who are fortunate enough to have a job become fearful of losing it.  People have less discretionary money in their pockets or the confidence to spend it.  In the absence of robust consumer demand, businesses chose not to expand or invest.

"Two – we must invest in our future. Not only will investing in our infrastructure help create badly need jobs in the short term, these investments will lay the groundwork for sustained economic growth in the long term. My bill tackles this challenge head on by providing for robust new investments in America’s infrastructure, including roads and bridges, energy efficiency systems, public schools, and in our manufacturing. In addition, by helping prepare great teachers and providing better pathways to good jobs for workers, the bill will ensure that current and future workers have the education and skills they need to be successful. 

"Three – we need to do more to help middle class families succeed. Mr. President, it’s time for us in Washington to wake up to the harsh reality that middle class families have been living in for the last few decades. Unfortunately, the programs and policies that helped create the middle class have been either intentionally discarded or have fallen victim to neglect.   For example, the real value of the minimum wage has declined for the last four decades, dragging down all workers’ paychecks.  Workers have seen basic rights – such as the right to organize and the right to overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act – eroded by misguided regulations, bad court decisions, and years of lax enforcement.

"Four – it is essential that we put balance back into the economy through a balanced tax system that will help to reduce our deficit and get our fiscal house in order over the longer term. To do so, among other provisions, the bill includes a tax on Wall Street trades – often called a financial transaction tax – at just three cents per $100 in trade value, which will raise $350 billion over 10 years. In addition, the bill requires high-income taxpayers to pay their fair share. Restoring balance and fairness to the tax code is critical to the success of our economy and our middle class.

"In broad strokes, that is the Rebuild American Act.

"Mr. President, over the last few years, the American people have heard from too many politicians and talking heads that our country is broke, and that we can no longer afford the investments that make for a strong middle class. This is false.  The United States of America remains a wealthy nation – the wealthiest in history.  We have the highest per capita income of any major country.  So one might ask:  If we’re so rich, how come we’re so broke?  The problem is that – because of actions, or inaction, on the part of government – America’s wealth has not been spread among our people in a reasonable way.

"There can be no sustainable economic recovery and no sustained return to fiscal balance without the recovery of the middle class.  This is exactly the aim of the Rebuild America Act.  It is comprehensive.  It is ambitious.  And it rises to the challenge of our time.  I urge my colleagues to join me in advancing this legislation, and in restoring the American middle class."