Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) : Senate Responsibility

Posted on July 20, 2012

Mr. President, earlier this year I came to the floor with a group of Republican and Democratic Senators to congratulate the majority leader, Senator Reid, and the Republican leader, Senator McConnell, as well as the leaders of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Inouye and Senator Cochran.  The reason for the congratulations was this:  They said they were going to do their best to bring all of the appropriations bills to the floor and pass them. That may not seem like such a monumental pledge or promise, but it, in fact, is, because only twice since the year 2000 has the Senate gone through the whole process of bringing all 12 appropriations bills to the Senate floor and enacting them in time for the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1.

 

Why is that so important?  Well, we are in the midst of a fiscal crisis.  We are borrowing 42 cents out of every dollar we spend.  One way to deal with that is through the appropriations process.  That is our first constitutional responsibility.  Judges judge; we appropriate.  That is the first thing we do.  We have control of the people's money.  The appropriations bills I am talking about, the 12 of them together, constitute a pretty big number.  More than a third -- 38 percent -- of all the dollars we spend in the Federal Government go through those 12 bills.  It used to be a lot more.

 

So when the majority leader and the Republican leader said, Yes, we are going to do our best to bring all of those appropriations bills to the floor, I thought the Senate had taken an important step in functioning the way the American people expect the Senate to function.  The American people expect us to get about the serious business of this country so that, in the words of the Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, we can show the people we recognize that we are really one budget agreement away from reasserting America's preeminence in the world.  We have that within our power.

 

The economy of the country, the economy of other countries depends, to a great extent, on our ability to govern ourselves properly.  So I was very encouraged when the majority leader and the Republican leader said, Yes, we are going to do our best to bring all 12 of those bills to the floor.

 

I regret to say I am equally disappointed that the majority leader suddenly announced last week he won't bring any appropriations bills to the floor.  The reasons he gives are very puzzling to me. 

 

First he says, Well, the House is using a different number than the Senate.  What is so new about that?  That is why we have the House and the Senate. They are one kind of body and we are another kind.  They have their opinion; we have ours.  We vote on our opinions.  Then we have a procedure called the conference in which we come together and we get a result.  We have had so few conferences lately that maybe some people have forgotten we do that, but we have a way to do it.

 

Then the majority leader said, Well, they in the House violated the Budget Control Act.  The Budget Control Act was simply something we agreed on -- I voted for it -- to try to put some limits on the growth of discretionary spending in the budget.  If we stick to that over the next 10 years, the discretionary spending -- not the two-thirds of the budget that is entitlement spending but this one-third we are talking about -- will only grow at an little bit more than the rate of inflation.  If our whole budget grew at that rate, we wouldn't have a fiscal problem.

 

Those aren't good reasons.  We have a way to reconcile our differences.  The Budget Control Act is only limits.  The Senate actually has exceeded those limits, according to my colleague Senator Corker, already three times in this year.  So there is no excuse whatsoever for not bringing up appropriations bills on the floor of the Senate.

 

If we think the Solyndra loan was a bad idea that is the place to take it out.  Or, if we want to spend more money for national defense, that is the place to put it in. Or if we think we are wasting money on national parks or too much government land, that is the place to take it out. 

 

Are those bills ready to come to the floor?  Yes, they are.  In the Senate, we have been doing our job in our committees.  Let me be exactly right about this, but I believe we have nine of our appropriations bills that are ready to come to the floor, that we are ready to go to work on right now.  The House of Representatives has already passed 11 of the 12 appropriations bill through committee and 6 of those have been passed by the House. 

 

So this month, we could be debating any of those appropriations bills.  We could have amendment after amendment after amendment.  We could reduce our spending.  We could increase our spending.  We could say to the American people:  We are doing our job.

 

That brings me to my second disappointment. 

 

I was greatly encouraged this year -- and a lot of the credit goes to Senators on the Democratic side as well as some on our side -- who are saying: Wait a minute.  We are grownups.  We recognize we are political accidents.  We have been given the great privilege of representing the people of our State and swearing an oath to our Constitution of the United States so we can help lead this country.  So we want to go to work.  We want to go to work. 

 

What does the Senate do?  Well, the Senate brings bills up through committee, it brings bills to the floor, and then, as the late Senator Byrd used to say, almost any amendment comes to the floor and we debate it and we vote on it, and then we either pass the bill or we don't pass the bill.  That is what the Senate does.

 

We on our side have been saying to the majority leader:  Mr. Majority Leader, let us offer our amendments.  Don't silence the voices of the people in our States that we represent.  So he has been allowing that to happen more.  Of course, he has the procedural ability to stop that.  The Senator from Michigan said:  Let's try just having relevant amendments, so we said:  OK, let's try that.  So we began to make some progress.

 

There was a dispute over district judges.  We resolved that.  We have been confirming them.  The Postal Service bill, the farm bill, the FDA bill, the highway bill -- these are all important pieces of legislation that affect almost every American family, and what did we do?  They went through committee; they had the expertise of the members who work on those committees; they came to the floor; we had a lot of amendments, we voted on them, and they were passed by the Senate.  In other words, we did what we should do.

 

I thought we were on a lot better track until the last 2 or 3 weeks.  Suddenly, what has happened?  Suddenly, all that ends.  We revert to political exercises -- little bills of no real importance compared to the bills we should be debating.  We have a jobs bill, the DISCLOSE Act, and the bill we are about to go to that the Senator from Michigan is proposing.  The problem with those bills is they have not been through committee.  They are not going to pass the House.  Everybody knows that. 

 

So we are wasting our time at a time when we could be debating all of the appropriations bills of the U.S. Government.  At a time when the U.S. Government is borrowing 42 cents out of every dollar we are spending, we are not even going to do our job and consider appropriations bills on the floor and amend them.  What will the whole world think?  What will our constituents think about our ability to govern ourselves if we can't pass -- even consider -- an appropriations bill in the U.S. Senate? 

 

On top of that, we haven't had a budget for over 1,000 days.  I remember when Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, came back and met with a group of Senators.  She came back from Iraq early after their government was formed and she said, They can't even get a budget over there in Iraq.  Senators looked around at each other, and here we have been a Republic for a long time and we can't get one, either.  So I am very disappointed by the fact that after such a promising surge of activity that was bipartisan and that got results, we have suddenly reverted back to forgetting that we have a way to deal with our differences.

 

It is not because we don't have anything to do.  Where is the cybersecurity bill?  Where is the Defense authorization bill?  Where are the appropriations bills?  They are all ready to be considered, at a time when we are in a fiscal crisis, looking at a fiscal cliff which, if we don't solve, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board yesterday, it will plunge us into a recession in the first 6 months of 2013.  Those are the stakes we are playing with.

 

There is also a third area in which I must express my severe disappointment. 

 

We worked hard at the beginning of this Congress to accommodate a number of Senators who felt we needed changes in the rules, and we made some changes.  But we preserved the Senate's integrity as a different sort of institution -- as a place the where party that has 51 votes doesn't run over anybody else. 

 

Alexis de Tocqueville said the two greatest problems he foresaw with the American democracy -- this was back in the 1830s -- were, No. 1, Russia; and No. 2, the tyranny of the majority.  Well, the Senate, as Senator Byrd used to so eloquently say, is the single most important institution in our country, to protect minority rights and minority points of view.  Sometimes we are in the minority on this side, and we will notice there are some fewer desks.  Then after an election, maybe more people vote for Democrats and they come in and they pick up the desks and they move them over to that side.  Whichever side is in the minority in the Senate still has rights, and those aren't just the rights of the Senators themselves, those are their rights to speak the voices of Tennessee or Maryland or Nevada or New York or Kentucky.  It is those voices that need to be heard on the floor of the Senate.  And when we can't debate, when we can't offer amendments and we can't vote, those voices are silenced.

 

So to my great surprise, the majority leader -- and as I said, I came to the floor more than once to compliment him for this -- said at the beginning of this Congress that he wouldn't seek to change the rules of the Senate except according to the regular order -- except according to the rules of the Senate which say we have to have 67 votes.  That is what the rules say.  We agreed on that.  What that meant was we needed a change in behavior, not a change in the rules, to show that the Senate could function.

 

Last night on television, apparently the majority leader said that in the next Congress -- he had changed his mind and that if he is the majority leader, he will seek to change the rules of the Senate by 51 votes.  That will destroy the Senate.  That will make it no different than the House. 

 

I would say to my friends on the other side, if they want to make the Senate like the House where a freight train can run through it with 51 votes, they might not like it so well when the freight train is the tea party express, which it could be.  Republicans could be in control of the Senate after this session.  Republicans could have a President, and then where would ObamaCare be?  Where will a whole series of things be?  There will be a great many Senators on the other side who will say, Wait a minute, let's slow down the train. Let's think about what we are doing. 

 

That was the original intention of the Founders of this country.  The House is majoritarian and 51 votes control.  A freight train can run through it day in and day out.  But when it gets to the Senate we stop and think and minority rights are protected.  As a result of that, usually that forces us to have a supermajority -- 60, 65, or 70 votes -- in order to do anything big, such as the time when finally the civil rights bill was enacted in the 1960s.  Senator Russell, who led the debate against the Civil Rights Act, filibustered it.  He was finally defeated.  He flew home to Georgia and said, It is now the law of the land; we support it.  That is why President Johnson wrote the bill in the office of the Republican leader, even though the President was a Democrat. 

 

He wanted bipartisan support. 

 

President Johnson knew he had the votes in the 1960s to pass the Civil Rights Act without Republican support, but he had the bill written in the office of Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader.  I remember I was a young aide at that time.  The Senators were in there and the aides were in there.  Pretty soon everyone was invested in it.  When it passed, as I said, Senator Russell went home to Georgia and said, it is the law of the land.  We have to support it.

 

Now we are coming up on what the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board has called the fiscal cliff.  This is a convergence of big issues ranging from the debt ceiling to how we pay doctors to the spiraling, out-of-control entitlements we have, to the need for a simplified Tax Code, to the need for lower rates.  We have been working on this in various ways across party lines for several months.

 

There is a growing consensus that the time to act is after the election.  It will require Presidential leadership, whether it is newly inaugurated President Obama or a new President Romney, and our job will be to see that the newly inaugurated President succeeds, whether he is a Republican President or a Democratic President, because if he does, then our country succeeds. 

 

What are the stakes?  The Foreign Minister of Australia, Bob Carr, put it very well when he said in a speech here -- and he is a great friend of the United States and I have known him for 25 years -- he said:  The United States is one budget agreement away from reasserting its global preeminence -- one budget deal away from reasserting our global preeminence. 

 

But if we cannot even bring up an appropriations bill to debate it, to amend it, to vote on it, and to pass it, if we suddenly are dealing with bills that have not gone to committee that are nothing more than a political exercise, if we are sitting around in the Senate with nothing to do of significance -- and there is only one person who can bring up issues here; that is, the majority leader -- how is that going to convey to the American people we are capable of governing ourselves?  I think it sends a clear message that we are failing to do that. 

 

So having expressed my disappointment, I wish to express my respect for the majority leader and to say again how much I appreciated the efforts he made at the beginning of the Congress to say we would not change the rules of this institution, except according to the rules, and the effort he said he would make at the beginning of this year to bring up the appropriations bills and the efforts he has made to allow more amendments on a whole series of bills this year and say:  Can we not go back to that, even though this is a Presidential election year?

 

The stakes are too high.  As far as voting on amendments, that is why we are here.  Why would you join the Grand Ole Opry if you do not want to sing?  That is why we are here.  We are here to express the views of ourselves and the people we represent to make sure their voice is heard, and then we are here to get results. 

 

I hope my record is a pretty good record of working to get results.  I sometimes say to my friends -- they will say:  You are being bipartisan.  I am not interested in being bipartisan.  I am interested in results. 

 

I learned in the public schools of Maryville, TN, how to count, and I know it takes 60 votes to get results.  So anything important we do is going to require Democrats and Republicans.  We are going to need a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, not 51 or 53 or 54, no matter who is in charge next year.  We are going to need a coalition of 60 or 65 or 70 who will come around some of the most difficult issues we have had to face in terms of tax reform, in terms of deficit reduction, in terms of reining in entitlements -- a whole series of issues.  We are going to have to remember our pledge to the Constitution that we take at the beginning of each 6-year term, and we are going to have to honor that pledge. 

 

That is the Senate I hope to see.  That is the Senate I am working to create.  I wish to create an environment in which the Democratic leader and the Republican leader can succeed on big issues in helping us put together results on the serious problems.  I wish to make the Australian Foreign Minister -- a great friend of the United States -- I wish to show him we can answer his question and that we realize, just like he does, that we are one budget agreement away from reasserting America's global preeminence and that we in the Senate are perfectly capable of doing it. 

 

By not bringing up appropriations bills, by reverting to political exercises, by leaving off the table many amendments that need debate, and by even suggesting we would change the nature of the Senate so a freight train could run through it with 51 votes, none of that encourages confidence in the ability of the United States to govern that I think exists. 

 

I know my colleagues pretty well.  I work hard with people on both sides.  I respect them all and their opinions and I do not question their motives.  It is my personal judgment that 80, 85 percent of us on both sides of the aisle want a result on the big fiscal issues and on every other big issue that comes here, and I would like to do my best to create an environment in which that could happen. 

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