Opening Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden; Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education; Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation; and Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture at a Town Hall Meeting


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VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: (Cheers, extended applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. We're delighted to be here -- all of us. Thank you very much, folks. You're very kind.

As you can see, I brought the A team with me, Paul.

I -- Fritz (sp), I just noticed one thing. When we walked out of here -- out here, everyone was standing. And when Senator Klobuchar spoke, everyone remained standing. (Laughter.) Soon as Paul came on, they sat down. (Laughter.) I was literally going to turn to my staff and say, "Why don't these people have seats?" (Laughter.)

I just want you to know, in 37 years in the Senate, no audience ever stood for me. (Laughter.) I don't -- they got it -- that's the only reason I ever thought about running for governor. When a governor comes out, even if they're lousy, you have to stand for them. (Laughter.) (And ?) -- know what I mean? Senators -- but I tell you what, this is a powerful lady behind me here, folks -- (cheers, applause) -- a powerful lady.

I'm not going to repeat the introductions. You're going to see the first team here in a minute. Let me tell you what I plan on doing, with your permission. We're anxious to get to questions. I have a few opening comments to make, but we're anxious to get to questions. When we do, I think you're going to find President Obama and I have assembled one of the finest Cabinets that any president and any administration has put together. So I'm going to ask -- and I say ahead of time -- my colleagues to chime in, particularly if the questions fall in the arena that is their jurisdiction.

We also have -- we just confirmed a new secretary of Commerce, but we have with us today -- and he's out in the audience -- Rick Wade. And Rick, when it comes to questions on commerce, don't you hesitate to come around and jump in too, okay? Because he's been essentially the acting secretary up to now.

It's great to be back in Minnesota, and it's great to feel the energy among all of you and the CEO of this company. And it hasn't waned a bit, that energy, since I was last here.

We are -- we're standing here today under the roof of a true American success story, a story about a company that, amid all the economic turmoil, all the downturn, has, in fact, been able to not shut down but raise up, able to have -- add to your ranks another hundred employees last year and, as my grandfather would say, with the grace of God and the goodwill of neighbors, is going to add a lot more employees. You added a hundred in 2008, and you have a growing backlog, as -- as Paul indicated.

And you're going to hear from our secretary of Commerce, who will tell you just how much we plan on investing quickly, this year, over $8 billion in transit. So all you folks -- would those folks representing the transit authorities who were introduced stand up for a second, if they're here? (Applause.)

Now, they can tell you -- they can tell you they want these buses, but they can't buy them if the transit authority doesn't have any -- any money. And each of their cities mentioned, I know, like every other city, is having a tough time right now. And they know they need these buses. They know they need them not only to deal with the energy crisis; they know they need -- to deal with -- them -- with greenhouse gases.

They know they need to deal with them to, in fact, save billions of dollars of not having to pave more lanes of highway, et cetera, in places that aren't needed. But they're not going to be able to do it. They wouldn't be able to do it this year in this economy were it not for the fact of some of the things that you're going to hear from the secretary of Transportation.

You know, New Flyer are pioneers here. You're a model, in my view, for other businesses looking to do what they can do not just to get through this tough climate, but you're going full speed ahead and hopefully are going to be the first ones down the road, the new road of prosperity, which will come.

You are -- this company is an example of the future. We want to invest not just in getting people jobs right now. What we want to do in addition to that is lay a foundation for the 21st century, lay a foundation in areas that are going to allow us to grow in ways that will allow us to continue to lead not only in America but lead the world in new technologies and new capabilities.

And so this is an opportunity. Barack -- the president often says, you know, out of every calamity comes an opportunity. Well, there's a great opportunity here while we're dealing with this urgent need we have.

But because of the recession, local governments, as I mentioned, are having trouble. They're having trouble across the country. They're slashing their budgets. They're cutting back on workforce. They're cutting back on needed spending. And that's why the recovery act is providing the help to local governments, as I said, including $8 billion specifically to local governments to fund their mass transit systems, in other words, to buy the buses you're going to make, hopefully allowing all those cities that expressed an interest -- it's not a question of whether they want your buses. They've already indicated they want them. They put a foot in. They've said, "We want to buy this bus. We're telling you ahead of time." And what we're going to do is help them have the money to be able to do what they need to do.

Now, Senator -- (applause) -- Senator Klobuchar is an incredibly effective senator. And Fritz, for a first-time senator, man, she hit the ground running. And everyone's learned not to say no -- at least if they say no, say it from a distance -- to Amy. (Laughter.) I was kidding her.

One of the most effective senators in the Senate is Barbara Mikulski. This is a sweet Barbara Mikulski. (Laughter.) You get it both ways. You get hit in both sides.

But, look, Amy's been a leader in getting transportation funding for this area, along with Jim Oberstar, who is a nice asset to have in this state -- (laughter, applause) -- a nice asset to have.

So ladies and gentlemen, your state is better off for the people you have fighting for you in Washington. And we're anxious for you to round out the team, by the way, you know. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) No state should have only one senator, particularly small states like Delaware. (Laughter.)

And finally, I want to say again how much I appreciate the friendship and counsel of Fritz Mondale. As Fritz knows, when I first got to the Senate, things weren't so great for me personally. And Fritz and Joan and Hubert, who I never called Hubert -- I always called him the boss -- and Muriel Humphrey were four of the people that kept me in the Senate. And I'll never forget it, Fritz.

And the first person to call me when I got nominated was Fritz.

He said, "What in the hell are you" -- no, he didn't say that. (Laughter.) He did -- he didn't that. He didn't say it. (Chuckles.)

And the first person to come and see me -- he came to see me, and I said, "I'll come to you." He said, "No, no, I'll come in." Came in to see me right after being elected -- it was Fritz. And I've sought his counsel then. I continue to seek his counsel, and I appreciate it a great deal, Fritz. (Cheers, applause.)

I -- no -- no one's been more helpful for me as I get -- got ready to sit behind that desk. And I appreciate -- all that you've done, not just for me but what you continue to do for the country, what you continue to do for the administration.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Vice President Mondale is there's always more to understand. there's always more to do, and there's always a new way of looking at the world, and that it's smart to keep your eyes open and listen.

And that's why we're here today. We are here to listen. Our eyes are open. We're here to hear. We're here to -- what's on your mind. We're here to think -- hear what you think we should be doing over the next four years to help, which is the measure of success for our administration. You've heard us say it before. We will measure our success, whether it's four or eight years, based on one thing: whether or not we've been able to raise the standard of living for middle-class people. That is the measure of success.

And we've got to get this nation growing again. And the way to get it growing again and meet that measure is to have this middle class task force to focus on the things that really matter to middle- class people: retirement security; cost and availability of college; new jobs, green jobs that pay well, improve our environment and can't be shipped overseas; a tax structure that's fair to middle-class taxpayers; health care, child care and elder care, but overall, health care for all.

But in the meantime, that's -- when this middle class task force was up, the president asked me right off the bat would I head up this task force. And that's why I'm -- one of the few times, Fritz, I've been -- I've been -- and these -- these folks have been incredibly cooperative -- not often a vice president gets to call Cabinet meetings. But we call them regularly, call them regularly. They're all in the deal. They're all in the deal here. They run the show, not me. But we meet every week, and/or with their representatives, to find out what within their agencies, what within their secretaries, what is it that they're looking to that deals with these problems that are going to affect middle-class people.

But in the meantime, things turned out to be a lot worse than anybody thought they were going to be in terms of the economy. So we had to get to work equally quickly just digging ourselves out of a very, very deep hole or, put another way, getting a very long ladder to get us out of a very deep hole that we've been dug into over the last eight years or maybe longer.

And that's why we put in place some pretty bold policies. Bold policies are always subject to criticism, or they wouldn't be bold. We decided we had to stimulate the economy, to create and/or keep 3.5 million jobs, to get credit flowing again, to get the financial industry, as distasteful -- it is, to help some of the people who caused the very problem, to get it back moving, so credit begins to throw (sic) through the veins of the commerce of this country again; so small store owners, so small folks, people can go out and borrow the money to keep inventory on the shelf, keep the hardware store open, to keep the local restaurant open, to be able -- ensure that they can send their kid -- not will they get to go to college -- how many of you out there who have a child in college now are sitting thinking: What are we going to tell Mary about maybe we can't send her back next semester? What about it? It's not just my high school child, am I going to get him there. Even those who got there -- pretty hard to stay there, because credit has been seized up.

We decided we had to deal with home foreclosures that have skyrocketed in the face of the subprime mortgage debacle. And a lot of you get frustrated -- and I don't blame you -- because you had your mortgage for a long time, and we're out there helping people that just got a mortgage that are going under. But guess what? A couple of foreclosure signs go up on your block: Your property values, they plummet, as they have here -- not plummet; they've gone down in Minnesota. They've gone down in Delaware. They've gone down all over America.

And we also did one other thing. We decided we had to lay out a budget -- an honest budget. We haven't had honesty in budgeting for a long time. So we laid out a budget -- no malarkey, lay it out straight. You all probably don't even know it, but the last eight years every budget submitted, they submitted no money for the war in Iraq, no money for the war in Afghanistan, no money for natural disasters -- knowing it was there. So they'd hide it, and come back with, quote, "a supplemental budget," after the fact, and say, by the way, we need another $180 billion, and then another $220 billion.

It's hard to do what we did, but the president insisted on it. He laid out a budget that said, "This is what it's going to cost this year. And we're even going to factor in the cost of natural disasters that haven't happened, but we know they happen every year."

So ladies and gentlemen, we laid out a budget. And in that budget, we laid a new foundation for economic growth in the 21st century. You can't grow this economy without taking care of health care. You can't grow this economy in the 21st century without an energy policy. You can't grow this economy without a better educated public than we have today. And you can't grow this economy with a budget deficit that is ad infinitum into the future, unless you impose tough budget disciplines.

None of this was easy. And here's what happened. What happened was these two efforts -- the Middle Class Task Force, which was set up first, all of a sudden gets merged with another responsibility I've been given, and that is to chair this effort to wisely spend over $780 billion, account for it with transparency and accountability.

So today, there may be a little bit of confusion, because some of you are going to ask us questions, if my experience is correct, about the middle class, but some of you are going to ask questions about the immediacy -- the immediacy of the needs that we have, and what our stimulus package is doing.

These two efforts overlap, so they've made my responsibilities for the Middle Class Task Force and implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act merge. We've built into this Recovery Act -- which we're going to talk about in a second -- those things that will create and maintain jobs, but also, as I said earlier, hopefully, lay a firm foundation for a new economy -- a new economy in the 21st century here.

We create 3 (million) to 4 million jobs. We double renewable generating capacity for renewable energy over the next three years, enough to power an additional 6 million American homes. We build 3,000 miles of new transmission lines, a new superhighway of electricity connecting renewable energy sources -- out in the Plains, through wind, for example -- with the major municipalities. You can't do it now. It doesn't get there.

We undertake the largest weatherization program in history.

Why? Because it saves billions of gallons, over time, of oil. It reduces our dependence. It creates jobs that are jobs that can't be exported that are here at home. We're doing that for 2 million homes.

We computerize America's health care records, reducing medical errors, saving lives and in the process saving tens of billions of dollars. We upgrade thousands of schools, which Secretary Duncan will talk about. We renovate and modernize.

Our largest investment is an increase in our nation's roads, bridges, mass transit, the largest investment since General Eisenhower, President Eisenhower, announced the Interstate Highway System. And we cut taxes on 95 percent of the workers in America.

We give you your renewable tax credit, refundable tax credit, of $400 for individuals, $800 for married couples. We expand the Earned Income Tax. We provide $2,500 in what we call American Opportunity Tax Credits, to help pay for college, and tax credits for first-time homebuyers to purchase homes.

Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to make sure that what has happened, in the last expansion, does not happen again. And I'll conclude with this. You see, there used to be a basic deal we had in America. And the deal worked really well from 1947 to around 1972. And the way it worked was, we said, as productivity increases, the people who caused it to increase, all of you, would share in the benefits.

Yet productivity increased by 20 percent, because of you all, 20 percent between 2001 and 2008. But you didn't get anywhere near 20 percent of that growth. You saw these god-awful salaries. You saw middle income -- the middle-class, middle-income people. They didn't get a 20 percent increase. They actually had their earnings fall $2,000 over those eight years.

Well, folks, we're not only going to survive this current recession. The purpose of the Middle Class Task Force is that we come roaring out of this, when we do, that the people who brought us out of it, the people who pay the taxes, the people who work every day, get up and put one foot in front of the other, the people who do their job, that they benefit from the expansion.

That's why we have the Middle Class Task Force. And that's why my colleagues in the Cabinet are here today. And that's why we have taken the time. We also know that there's more we have to do. But we won't go into all that now.

The reason we're here is, we're hear to listen, hear your questions. We have laid out a pretty detailed plan. You may think some of it can be improved on. You don't like some of it; let us know.

You may have other ideas. Or just, and I say just, it's not just, tell us your stories. Tell us what it is you need. Tell us. Tell us what you're facing, because that's the best way, the best way, we can decide how to move on from here.

Ladies and gentlemen, the most valuable thing I ever found, when I was a United States senator for 36 years, part of a 37th year, was holding town meetings. These people tell you what's on their mind. And you learn more there than you learn by sitting down with a lot of experts who are really good folks. But you learn more.

So ladies and gentlemen, why don't we get started on this conversation, as soon as I introduce each of my colleagues?

Each of you -- in what order; start with you, Gov.

Our secretary of Agriculture, the former governor of the great State of Iowa, has a few comments to make. (Applause.)

SEC. VILSACK: Mr. Vice President, thanks very much for the opportunity to be here today.

And Senator, it's great to be in your great state.

This is a state that obviously welcomes and appreciates rural folk. Sixty five million Americans live in rural America. And the Recovery and Reinvestment Act the vice president talked about speaks directly to the needs of rural Americans.

In this state alone, we have just recently invested 7-1/2 million dollars in loans for farmers, 50 percent of them to beginning farmers, farmers who are just getting started.

I know I'm in dairy area. I know that because the senator told me that several times on the plane. (Laughter.) I know that because Chairman Peterson has told me that several times. And I can just assure you that we are well aware of the stress that the dairy farmers in this area and the country are going through. We hope to be able to announce by the end of this week some relief for those dairy farmers. We are very, very sensitive to the struggles of that industry. And I'm here today to tell you that we're going to be helping you this week. (Applause.)


SEC. LAHOOD: Well, thank you --

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: He's got all the money. (Laughter.)

SEC. LAHOOD: Hello, everybody. Thank you all for being here. I want to thank the vice president for inviting me to be a part of his team, and the president to be a part of his team to help America get back to work.

We at the Department of Transportation are really working with transit districts all over the country to get the $8 billion that we've been allocated in the recovery plan out the door into your hands and into the hands of those that are going to be buying buses and really providing the kind of transportation that now has become the transportation of choice for many, many Americans.

You all know that when gasoline prices went up, people got out of their automobiles, got onto buses like we see here, and light rail and other forms of transportation, and they liked it because it was convenient, because it was comfortable and because it was on time. And even when gasoline prices have come down now to around $2 a gallon or below, people are still riding buses. And thank goodness for the fact that all the folks at this facility that manufacture comfortable buses, people realize now that getting on a bus is a good way to get around their community. (Applause.)

We at the Department of Transportation were provided $8 billion for transit, and we're working directly with transit district around the country to make sure that they have the resources they need to provide new buses in communities if that's what they want, to provide money for facilities if they need a bus garage or if they need other facilities, the money could be used for that, and no match. I mean, the money comes directly to the transit district.

So this is a good bill. And it is a bill that I believe -- with the highway money that will be used, $28 billion that we're working with highway folks on, the transit money $8 billion, airport money $1.5 billion, $8 billion put in directly by the president for high- speed rail because he knew the vice president had a real interest in high-speed rail. And between the two of them, we're going to have high-speed rail in America and for the first time become the model. (Applause.)

And let me just conclude by saying this. All of this is very transparent. Any of you as taxpayers could go on right now, any time, today, tonight, 24/7, and find out where the money's being spent. This is hard-earned taxpayer money. It's a lot of money, more money than the department has ever had for these programs in a short period of time.

And we feel a great responsibility to the president, the vice president and the taxpayers to make sure the money's being spent correctly. Very simple. Click on. Find out where your money's being spent, what states, what projects. And eventually we'll have statistics up there that will talk about how many people will go to work -- on highways, on working in facilities like this to build buses, and also to build runways at airports. Very, very good information to make sure taxpayers know their money is being well spent.

So I say to all of you, thank you for being here today.

This recovery plan, I really believe, will put people back to work in good-paying jobs this spring, summer, and fall, and this is a classic example of it. So thank you, St. Cloud, and thank you Flyer, for letting us be here today. (Applause.)

Thank you, Mr. Vice President.

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Secretary Duncan. And by the way, this guy can play some basketball. (Laughter.)

SEC. DUNCAN: Thank you so much, Vice President, for all of your leadership. And we're thrilled to be here.

This is a state that values its children and this is a state that values public education a great deal, and so I want to thank you for that tremendous commitment. Graduation rates are going up. Gaps in achievement are going down. All the trends are going the right way. And I know how hard that work is. I want to thank you for that extraordinary commitment.

We think as a country we have a chance to get dramatically better. And thanks to the vice president's leadership, thanks to the president, thanks to Congress, we have unprecedented resources, a hundred billion dollars coming into education. And we think for all the progress -- (applause) -- we think for all the progress we're seeing, we have a long way to go. And I fundamentally believe the only way we get to a better economy is we educate our way to a better economy, and we're prepared to do that.

There are three areas in which we want to concentrate. A huge focus on early childhood education -- we're going to invest $5 billion in early childhood education. I'm convinced that might be the best money we spend. The more we help our children early and help them get to kindergarten ready to read and ready to learn the better they're going to do.

From K to 12, we want to get dramatically better. We know all the challenges with No Child Left Behind. I lived on the other side of law for seven and a half years. We know it wasn't fair. We know it wasn't funded. There's very significant money coming in, billions of dollars to dramatically improve what we're doing there, over $1.1 billion coming to this state to really significantly improve outcomes and continue to drive up those graduation rates.

And then finally on the higher ed side that the vice president talked about, over $32 billion going into increased financial aid. And parents are hurting. We worry a lot about all these hardworking students trying to go to college who might not have the opportunity. We're trying to dramatically increase access, increase Pell Grants, increase the tuition tax credits for the middle class, increase Perkins loans so that every hardworking child who wants to go on to higher ed, two year universities -- (applause) -- four year, trade school, whatever it might be, whatever those aspirations are, we want to support this.

So going forward, an extraordinary opportunity. The obvious question is when is the money coming. The money's coming in the next 30 days, coming very, very fast. We'll get money out to the states.

We cannot see class size skyrocket. I worry a lot about that. A huge amount of the stimulus money can be used to save teacher jobs. We want to keep moving forward. We don't want to take a step backwards. We have to keep our teachers teaching. We have to keep our students learning. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Secretary Donovan of Housing and Urban Affairs.

SEC. DONOVAN: Thank you, Vice President.

I want to talk to you today about three quick things that we're doing at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help the middle class as part of this task force. First of all, I announced yesterday with my colleague Secretary LaHood that we are going to be forming a new partnership to try to join up the work that we're doing on the transportation front with the housing front.

And you might say, well, what difference does that make to the middle class? But think about the fact that today, for the average working middle class family, housing and transportation make up almost 60 percent of every single paycheck, almost 60 percent. And so we've got to work together -- not only each of us alone, but together -- to make sure we can bring down those bills for the average family.

Think about if we can help local communities build more housing near transit. What do we do? We raise the demand for these buses built here, increase orders -- very important.

Think about Northstar, nearby. Develop housing nearby, what does that do? Bring down transportation costs, give you more time with your families: key areas that we can work together in partnership to help the middle class.

Second thing that we can do: I don't need to tell you that homeownership is the key part of the American dream. Middle-class families -- still the most important asset, even in the difficult times that we have today, for middle-class families around the country. So we have to do -- really take strong action. We've done that. We've done that quickly. As the vice president said earlier, we've been bold.

Two key things that we're doing: We are acting to lower interest rates. That will benefit every American family. This morning, long- term interest rates were below 5 percent for the first time in generations. And how does that help? The average American family -- and remember, these are families that are paying their bills, that have good credit, that can go refinance. How does that help them? Average family, 1500 (dollars) to $2000 a year. Over the life of a 30-year mortgage, you're talking about up to $60,000 in savings, just from today's low interest rates. I'd encourage all of you -- many people aren't aware where interest rates are today. Go out, look to refinance. Let's put money back into this system, get this economy back.

But we also have to help the -- that -- families and the communities that are struggling. You heard the vice president say it very eloquently. If we can't deal with the foreclosure problem, we can't help get this economy back on track.

And so we're doing two things about that. We're going to stop foreclosures, bring them down substantially. We think we can help up to 7 to 9 million families through our housing plan to stop those foreclosures. At the same time, we're putting money into communities where we can make sure that the effects of foreclosures -- you heard the vice president talk about, don't bring down neighboring property values.

Even if you're paying your mortgage, you're on time, if you've got foreclosures in your community -- going to bring your house value down. Our plan will help to preserve about $6,000 in everybody's -- surrounding homes in communities where there are foreclosures.

Today, the president is in California announcing over $700 million to help communities deal with the impacts of foreclosures. Within 10 days of coming into office, we released $55 million to Minnesota for exactly that purpose. We also announced -- (applause) -- that's right. (Applause continues.)

The president is also announcing today a new website available for those who want to go in, find out if they're eligible for our plan: makinghomeaffordable -- got -- dot gov.

Last thing I want to say is, investing in housing is also about creating jobs. And that's what this recovery act does. Over $13 billion invested in housing, most of it to go to renovate and retrofit homes; good jobs, local jobs that are created by that. We're acting fast. Under the leadership of the vice president, 75 percent of that money went out within one week of the bill being signed; $135 million allocated to Minnesota alone, within the first week of the bill being signed. And we're helping to create jobs -- green jobs through that as well.

Last thing, we -- when we were at the last Middle Class Task Force, the vice president talked about a factory very similar to this one, making energy-efficient windows; because of the recovery bill, able to save 250 jobs in that plant, just based on the investments of the recovery bill. It's a -- something we want to replicate all over the country.

Thanks for having us here today. It's great to be with you. (Applause.)

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Thank you very much.