Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on "An Amendment to Stop Unfunded Federal Mandates on Local Communities"

Posted on May 13, 2008

Mr. President, this is an amendment to the pending legislation which would give the mayors and chief administrative officers of cities and States the opportunity to opt out if they conclude that this law would be, in their circumstances, contrary to the best interest of public safety, No. 1, or would result in an increase in local taxes or a decrease in the level of public safety or other municipal service. In other words, if this legislation amounted to an unfunded Federal mandate, it would not be effective. Let me speak to the unfunded mandate aspect of this legislation and its interference with the perogative of States. Those are two different ideas and two very important ideas in the American fabric. Let me begin by saying we are talking about some of the most honored men and women in our country -- firefighters, policemen, and other public safety workers. That is true in Tennessee as well. We have over 700 fire departments, and we were grateful for the heroism of firefighters everywhere on 9/11. Local fire fighters in Tennessee and across the Southeast were among the first on the scene after the deadly tornadoes earlier this year. We are deeply grateful for that. Charles Martinez from Maryville, my hometown, was named Tennessee firefighter of the year in 2004 for giving his kidney to a fellow firefighter. We deeply admire him for that. In 2006, Lieutenant Terrance Andrews of Chattanooga was named Tennessee firefighter of the year for his dramatic rescue during a house fire in which he pulled the security bars away from a window to save Virginia Humphrey. Ms. Humphrey was injured and spent some time in a hospital, but she fully recovered. I admire Lieutenant Terrance Andrews' bravery. Another example, firefighter Shane Daughetee of the Highway 58 Volunteer Fire Department in Chattanooga died in the line of duty in January of last year when he was trying to rescue a family. We mourn Shane Daughetee's death and admire the bravery of that individual. All of us admire and respect the bravery of firefighters and other public safety employees in all our communities. But that is not what this legislation is about. A better name for this bill would be the "Washington knows best unfunded mandate act." In the name of some of the men and women we respect the most, our firefighters, policemen, and others, we are about to commit two of Washington's worst and most flagrant sins. That is, No. 1, to take away from States and communities their right to decide their own labor relations, what they ought to be; and, No. 2, to pass an expensive piece of legislation, make it sound good, take credit for it, and then send the bill home to mayors, Governors, and local officials who will have to either raise taxes or cut services to deal with it. It is an unfunded mandate in that sense. Current Supreme Court law suggests that the tenth amendment permits the Federal Government to require State compliance with the general regulatory scheme but does not permit the Federal government to require States in their sovereign capacities to regulate their own citizens. The argument made by the distinguished Senator from New Jersey basically boiled down to this: We have it in New Jersey, so we are going to make Tennessee have it. We have decided in New Jersey that it is a good idea, so I am going to fly to Washington and impose it on Tennessee, Georgia, Wyoming, and all 21 States which have different laws. This is not a new subject. We haven't been waiting a long time to discuss this. We debated and discussed this law every year I was Governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, which is where it is supposed to be discussed, because we are discussing the labor relations of the State of Tennessee. It was discussed almost every year in the 1990s and rejected by the legislature of Tennessee in an entire series of years. I have here the years in which it was considered and rejected by our State. Tennessee considered this specific question in both the State House and the State Senate which, I might add, are majority Democratic during all of this time. In 1997, Tennessee said: We prefer to have a law in Tennessee that provides that mayors and local officials deal directly with public safety employees such as firefighters and police officers. We believe that is the best way to encourage public safety, to have strong communities, and to provide the best labor-management relationship in our State. The State legislature said that in 1997. The Democratic State legislature said it again in 1999. They said it again in 2001, 2003, and 2005. In our State of Tennessee, we will grant that a different rule might be good for New Jersey, but we have decided over the last two or three decades that way is not good for our State. What are we talking about here? What we are saying in this Federal law -- which will be imposed, as the Senator from Wyoming has said, on every State, but in 21 States like ours, it overturns our law -- is basically that a mayor is required to recognize a union leader, if he or she wants to sit down and talk instead of with the policemen and firemen and other public safety employees about pay, benefits, and work rules. It takes away the State’s decision that says we believe it is better for the mayor to deal directly with those employees. I don't know what that will do to improve working conditions or cooperation or the public safety, but I am confident it will coerce hundreds of thousands of local policemen and firemen to pay union dues and fatten those treasuries. This bill is saying what is good for New Jersey, what is good for Massachusetts, is good for Tennessee. What I am saying is we have 90 towns in Tennessee that will be forced to change how they deal with their public employees, because someone in New Jersey or someone in Massachusetts or other States thinks that is what we ought to do. Not only does Washington know best, according to the advocates of this legislation, but also that Washington knows best how to spend our money. Because what are these discussions about? They are discussions about towns such as Pulaski, 7,800 people; Mumford, 5,000 people; Dyersburg, 17,000; Alcoa, 7,700; my hometown of Maryville, 23,000. Let me take Maryville as an example. We have good schools there. My father ran for the school board after World War II with a ticket of men and women who said: We will take all the money we have and we are going to focus on having great schools. So in that blue-collar town where at the time most of the people worked for the Alcoa plant, middle-income community, lower middle income, by and large, we slowly built up a culture of very good schools. About 75 percent, if I remember the figure correctly, of the local tax dollars go to make those schools superior. They win academic scores year in and year out. What we are saying to Maryville is: OK, the Senator from New Jersey and the Senator from Massachusetts have a better idea for you folks in Maryville. We are going to impose on you a different way of dealing with your policemen and firemen. As a result, some labor union leader from Massachusetts and New Jersey may come into Maryville and say: Instead of spending 75 percent of your money to make schools better, we want you to do this, that, or the other about public safety and reduce spending on schools and increase spending for salaries of public safety people. One could make that argument. But so far, the people in my hometown have said: We would rather not do it that way. We would rather make education our priority. We think we have a super police force. We are very proud of them. But we like the way we are doing things. The same in Sweetwater and Erwin and Bolivar and Rockwood and Church Hill and Millersville. Ninety of our towns in Tennessee would suddenly be doing things the New Jersey way, the New York way. If we wanted to do things the New Jersey way, we would move to New Jersey. We would move to Massachusetts. We would move to New York. Those are wonderful States, but we don't choose to live there. We like to do things our way, and we have always been able to. We don't have a chance to do that just out of common sense. Common sense would suggest that a big, complex country of 300 million people, where people come from all over the world and freedom and liberty are our values, that we allow people as much as possible to do things in different ways, so long as they meet with certain constitutional rights. Senator Byrd likes for us to carry around in our pockets the Constitution to which we took an oath to honor. It says in amendment X: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. In other words, it says that in the United States of America -- it might not be true in some other countries -- unless the Constitution says the Federal Government shall do it, the States do it. And so the States have been doing it. We don't say in this country if New Jersey does it and the Senator from New Jersey thinks it is a good idea to do it in Tennessee, make Tennessee do it. That is not the way we do things. So I don't believe this legislation is constitutional, among other things. Let me also say that as a former Governor, I am trying to make a temperate speech about this legislation, because I feel so strongly about it. But as a former Governor, when I was sitting there in Nashville, nothing made me madder than to look up to Washington and see some Congressman -- and I will have to say, sometimes they were Republicans and sometimes they were Democrats -- who flew to Washington and got smarter than they were when they were back in the small towns in which they grew up. They would say in Washington: I have a great idea. They would pass it into law and hold a press conference and take credit for it, and then they would send the bill to me, the Governor. Then what would happen? The next week that same Congressman, if it was a Republican, would be home in Knoxville making a Lincoln day speech bragging about local control, and the Democrat would be in Nashville making a Jackson day speech bragging about local control, and I would be paying the bill. That is not right. That is called an unfunded Federal mandate. The American people don't like it. I will tell you how much they don't like it. I was one of those Senators -- there are a lot of us -- who felt a calling to run for the Presidency of the United States a few years ago in the middle of the 1990s. I didn't make it. My preacher brother-in-law said it was a reverse calling and that I should be doing something else for the people. So I am here. But I remember in 1994, 1995, and 1996, there was a strong resentment in this country toward being told what to do from Washington, DC. People had had it up to here. The Republicans seized on that. I remember Newt Gingrich and a lot of Republican candidates for Congress standing on the Capitol steps and saying: No more unfunded mandates. They put it in something they called a Contract with America. And the first piece of legislation that was passed by the new Republican Congress, elected overwhelmingly by the people, S. 1, was the no unfunded Federal mandate act. That was S. 1. We are not going to pass unfunded mandates anymore. If we are going to pass something, we are going to pay for it. This legislation doesn't pay for it. It might tell Erwin and Maryville and Alcoa and Pulaski and 90 other towns in Tennessee what they need to pay firefighters and policemen. It might tell them what to pay them or create an environment that creates a higher salary, perhaps, or a bigger benefit, but it doesn't pay the bill. Now, the Republican Congress said in 1994: No more unfunded mandates. If we break our promise, throw us out. In fact, the people have, and I think part of the reason is because some Republicans forgot about no unfunded Federal mandates. So I urge my colleagues to recognize that to impose upon a State -- as different as Tennessee might be from New Jersey; as different as Wyoming might be from Georgia -- we do not need the same rules and regulations. We are capable in our hometowns of making a good decision about how to have good labor relations, or how to deal directly with our volunteer firemen. We have over 700 fire departments in Tennessee -- 700 -- and lots of different ways of dealing with them. We do not need anybody from New Jersey or Massachusetts or somewhere else telling us how we should deal with them. This is an ominous trend. Tennessee is also a right-to-work State. Now, I know this legislation has a little section that says this does not interfere with right to work. Well, I wonder about that. Maybe this legislation by itself does not in its explicit terms. But if the Federal Government can say, in New Jersey, in New York, and other States: We have a union shop -- in other words, employees do not have the opportunity to make a choice about whether to join a union -- why cannot they say: It is good for New Jersey; let's have it in Tennessee? It is not a very big step. Or if New Jersey or some other -- I am not just picking on New Jersey, but their Senator was here saying if this is good for them, it would be good for us -- State might say: We do not see any need for the secret ballot in union elections. Let's just let employees sign cards. It makes it a lot easier to organize, and if it is good for New Jersey or New York or California, it is good for Tennessee. A lot of people moved to Tennessee because they prefer our level of taxes. They prefer the right to work. They prefer the relations we have between employers and employees. I imagine the auto industry, which is now one-third of our manufacturing jobs in Tennessee, is there because we have a different labor environment than in some other parts of the country. Now, that does not mean we do not have union workers. We have a lot of union workers. In fact, in the mid-1980s, a lot of people paid attention to our State because here came the Nissan plant, which even today is nonunion, and it is the largest, most efficient automobile plant in North America, making 500,000 or 600,000 cars and trucks a year. Right next door, 15 miles away, is General Motors' Saturn plant. When General Motors came, the United Auto Workers came, and they are a partnership. Both plants are successful. There has been some shifting and changing at the General Motors plant, but it is back on track. So we have both plants there: one where employees are required to join the union, one where people have a choice to join the union. We like it that way, and I think they like it that way. Now, we are the third or fourth largest State in suppliers. They seem to like it that way. So why would we do it the way some other State does it, especially if we figured out a better way to do it, in our opinion. Particularly in the United States of America where we have a 10th amendment to the Constitution, we believe in federalism, and we are a decentralized society. So I am very worried about this piece of legislation. I think it is bad for Tennessee. It is bad for our labor-management relations. We have enough common sense in our State -- with our Democratic Governor, our Democratic House of Representatives, our Republican State senate now -- to make these decisions for ourselves. Why do we need U.S. Senators telling us this? Then, when we get in the majority, we might say: What is good for us in Tennessee is good for New Jersey, and change their law; or what is good for us in Tennessee is good for New York, and change their law. We don't care about New Jersey's law. As long as we follow the constitutional rights of the people of the United States, we would like to settle things. I come from the mountains of Tennessee. My great-grandfather was asked about his politics. He said: I am a Republican. I fought with the Union and I vote like I shot. The reason we were unionists and Republicans in the Civil War -- and still today -- was because we did not want the Federal Government telling us what to do. This is an extreme example of serious meddling. One last example, and then I will stop. The argument is, if we can only force all these 90 Tennessee communities to collectively bargain, that will improve public safety. Well, how do we know that? Is New Jersey and New York safer than Tennessee? Do we know that for sure? Or let's take the one example in Tennessee where we have required communities to collectively bargain, and that is with teachers. The unit is an arm of the National Education Association. I have had some pretty important disagreements with my friends in the Tennessee education association over the last 25 years about what is good for education. For example, I thought it would be a good idea to reward outstanding teaching, pay teachers more for teaching well. Twenty-five years ago, our State became the first State to do so. We created a career ladder system, and we raised taxes in order to offer every single teacher a 70-percent pay increase on the State's share. Ten thousand teachers went up that ladder. Guess who the No. 1 opponent to that was. The teacher's union. Not Albert Shanker and the American Federation of Teachers, but the National Education Association. I am not criticizing them. They are very open about that. They do not like the idea of paying teachers more for teaching well. I think to improve education we should. So does that really improve education in Tennessee to require that collective bargaining? Another example: I notice a lot of teachers were worried about being sued by parents. I think that is not right. Why not offer teachers the same liability insurance the State provides to State employees? The Tennessee Education Association raised its dues to defeat my proposal because they offer liability insurance. Did that improve education in Tennessee? Or charter schools? I think charter schools are a good idea, public charter schools that leave teachers free to make their own decisions about the kids who are there. But the teachers union disagreed. That is a legitimate difference of opinion. But I think I am right. They think I am wrong. But does that improve Tennessee's schools to have them there? Choices for parents: I think the best thing to do in Nashville, for example, where schools are having a very difficult time, might be to ask all the parents where they would like to send their kids to school and see if we could do it. Give them their first, second, and third choice to see if we could probably supply that. The teachers union is opposed to that. Everyone, when we were bringing in the auto industry to Tennessee, bringing in the Nissan plant -- the first time we had ever had those jobs, which raised our family incomes -- I wanted to build a road out to the plant with State dollars, and the teachers union objected because they wanted me to give the money to the teachers. I thought that was short-sighted because if we improved the tax base, we would have the money to improve education. So there are differences of opinion about what would improve education, and there are differences of opinion about what would improve public safety. We like our opinions in Tennessee. That is why we do not like this bill. So I will be seeking a vote on my amendment when the appropriate time comes. I would urge my colleagues, you may be right about your own home State. Maybe it is better to require all your communities to collectively bargain. Maybe that improves safety in New Jersey or New York or somewhere else. But in Tennessee, we have considered it almost every year for the last 25 years, and we have decided a different way. We believe States ought to have the right to decide what their own labor relations ought to be. We do not believe it is a right of the Federal Government to impose unfunded mandates on us and cause us to pay our extra bills at a time when the Governor is laying off people in our State because there are not enough tax dollars coming in. This is the grossest sort of interference to the sovereignty of our State. We have a strong bipartisan opinion about this in Tennessee. That is why I am so vigorously opposed to this piece of legislation. It should be called the Washington Knows Best Unfunded Mandate Act. I am going seek to amend it. I am going to do my best to defeat it.