Washington, DC—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the following remarks today before a gathering of the National Urban League’s annual legislative conference:
“Thank you, Mayor Morial, for your leadership. Thank you to all of the state affiliates, not just for being here today, but for the work you do every day to make our cities, neighborhoods, and communities stronger. And special thanks to Raymond Clarke, Executive Director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Urban League.
“Mayor Morial has said on more than one occasion that this is a pivotal time for our country, and I agree. We are five years into a war in Iraq that has now taken 3,974 American lives at last count, wounded 30,000 more, and costs our country $12 billion every month – all borrowed from future generations. That is $400 million yesterday, tomorrow and tomorrow. $17 million every hour of every day.
“We are seven years into the Bush economy that has cost our economy $3 trillion, favored the wealthy over the working, and turned a record budget surplus into a record deficit. And we are two and a half years past Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and still thousands of Gulf Coast residents are struggling to reassemble the strewn and tattered pieces of their lives. It is more than fair to say that these past years have not been easy for those who seek to strengthen America’s urban neighborhoods and communities of color.
“Your work is deeply appreciated by the Democratic party. We share your goals and values. This time is pivotal, as Mayor Morial has said, because we are beginning to make progress and there is great hope of more to come.
“I understand just today, The State of Black America 2008 was released. I also know that in your Opportunity Compact, you speak of the opportunity to thrive, to earn, to own and to prosper. Since Democrats won the majority in Congress, we have made tangible progress on every one of those goals.
“To address the crisis of infant mortality – a tragedy that befalls black families at twice the rate of white families — we provided training and funds for newborn wellness programs. To prepare children for school, we passed a major expansion of Head Start and invested in K-12 teacher preparation programs. To honor the principle that the price of tuition should never stand between a deserving student and a good education, we passed the largest expansion of student financial aid since the G.I. bill, increased the maximum Pell Grant, and improved the financial aid process.
“You speak of the opportunity to earn, and we hear you. Not only are wages shrinking for many Americans in the Bush economy, but we are paying more than ever for every day items like groceries, heating our homes and filling our gas tanks. That means if you are a minimum wage earner, you might spend the first hours of your work day just earning back the cost of your commute. Democrats passed the first increase in the minimum wage for the first time in ten long years. That’s not going to make anyone rich, but it will help the most vulnerable in our work force get by.
“But our country’s economic crisis goes well beyond minimum-wage earners. Everyone is feeling the pain. We have short-term solutions to the problem, like the economic stimulus bill we recently passed that will put up to $600 in your pockets. But Democrats also know that an extra $600 isn’t nearly enough to fix our country’s long-term economic challenges.
“I can tell you from years of experience that short term band-aid solutions are a lot easier to pass. But we’ve focused as well on a competitiveness bill we passed last year, which will increase America’s investment in research and strengthen science, math, technology and engineering education – so that our students will have the skills to compete in the global marketplace.
“We recognize the importance of small businesses to our economy, and their growing importance in the African-American community, so we passed legislation to provide a wide variety of tax incentives to help small businesses grow – with special help for those located in the Gulf Coast.
“We passed an energy bill that invests in renewable energy sources that will reduce the scourge of pollution that plagues our cities and urban communities – and reduce our dependence on foreign tyrants, just because they control the oil supply.
“And we also realize that our economic future depends on whether we commit to make the unexciting but critical investments in our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
“We have made real progress. But I don’t come here to boast, because there is so much more to do. On issues ranging from Medicare to energy reform to the war in Iraq, Republicans have blocked, obstructed, filibustered us at every turn. Time and time again, they have chosen the side of Bush, the side of the status quo, over the side of change and progress for the American people.
“I want to give you one illuminating example that is happening right now on another of your guiding principles, housing. Housing is the eye of the economic storm, and no community is feeling the pain worse than the African American community. We know, for example, that African Americans are most likely to fall victim to predatory lending, and that African Americans are more than three times as likely as white homeowners to be burdened by subprime loans.
“Yet, the Bush Administration’s answer to the foreclosure crisis was to create a voluntary program that encourages banks to negotiate and restructure loans for at-risk homeowners. We learned on Tuesday that this voluntary program has helped a very small number of homeowners. If it helped even one family keep their home, that would be worthwhile. But the President’s voluntary approach is just a drop in the bucket. We need to do a whole lot more.
“That’s why Democrats introduced a comprehensive housing stimulus plan. Without getting too far into the weeds, our plan:
- Increases pre-foreclosure counseling;
- Expands refinancing opportunities;
- Helps families avoid foreclosure in the future by improving honesty and transparency during the loan process;
- Amends the bankruptcy code to allow home loans to be modified by a judge under very strict guideline; and
- provides funds so that the highest-need communities, particularly in urban areas, can purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed properties;
“We understand that in many cases, blame for bad loans is shared by banks and borrowers. Our plan is not a bailout for reckless speculators or people who acted irresponsibly. But for as many as 700,000 responsible homeowners who need assistance, our plan gives them a chance to make their payments and keep their homes.
“It is instructive to look at how the Republicans responded. They said that they were uncomfortable with some aspects of our plan. I publicly promised them the opportunity to offer amendments, which would allow for a fair debate and vote on the bill. They never offered their amendments, but instead refused to allow the bill to be debated. They took their fight off the Senate floor and straight to the TV cameras by introducing what they called an alternate proposal.
“I have told you what the Democratic proposal included. What did the Republican plan include? Tort reform and extending the Bush tax cuts. Neither of these have a thing to do with the housing crisis. Neither will help struggling families and neighborhoods. In fact, the Bush economic policies, which cost our country $3 trillion, mostly with giveaways to big business and the wealthy, had a lot to do with causing the housing crisis to begin with.
“I have gone to the Senate floor day after day to say to the Republicans: America needs this bill. If there are parts you don’t like, offer amendments. We will debate our plan fairly and openly. It doesn’t get more reasonable than that. We continue to wait for Republicans to come to the table. They are trying to score political points, but they are playing politics with people’s lives.
“These are the challenges we face. Before Democrats gained the majority, many of the accomplishments we’ve had would never have seen the light of day. But every day is a struggle.
“I know that the Urban League is nonpartisan, but our cities and African-American communities will have a hard time doing better than treading water until we have a new President and more Members of Congress who are willing to join us in these fights. Until then, we will continue to fight hard and celebrate the victories we are able to achieve. I am hopeful and confident that when we meet again next year, there will be a sea change in Washington, and our principles will earn the attention and support they deserve.”