Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on the State of the Union Address

Posted on January 29, 2008

Thank you. Last night the president spoke to the nation in the State of the Union address. It is one of the great traditions of American government. One of the most interesting parts of the spectator sport is to watch and see who stands up on which issue when the president talks or whom is sitting by whom. It is well watched across our country. And it is a sign of respect to the presidency as an institution that it is so. The president was in a good mood. It was his eighth such address. He was reflective, but he was decisive. He looked ahead; he talked about the issues facing our country. He did his job, and he challenged us to do ours. The president devoted a good deal of time to the progress of the war in Iraq, and we devoted a good deal of time today to making sure that we have a strong system of intelligence to protect ourselves from terrorists. So I would like to comment on what the president talked about at home. Because a great deal of what President Bush said last night was that as important as our role is in the world, as important as the long-term fight against terrorism is, that we have work to do at home and we need to roll up our sleeves and get busy. This is a presidential year. Many of the pundits are saying, some politicians, even, well, the Congress will get nothing done. We Republicans believe that there's no excuse for taking a year off. If there's no excuse for taking a year off, given the number of serious issues facing our country, and let me mention a few that the president discussed last night. To begin with, the American economy, the president acknowledged that as strong as our economy is, 52-months of growing jobs, it's taken a downward turn. And we need to take appropriate action to help it continue to produce more jobs. That means steps that are temporary, targeted, and that grow the economy and not the government. The president has agreed with the speaker of the House and the Republican leader of the House on a simple package that is aimed to do just that, rebates for individuals, most of whom pay taxes, and incentives to small businesses to create new jobs. It's a simple idea. Mr. President, speaking as one senator, I don't believe we can afford to let this economic growth package, which should pass the House today, we shouldn't let it become a Christmas tree in the Senate for everyone's favorite idea for spending taxpayer dollars. I have some ideas. I think every member of the Senate has some ideas. But maybe we should recognize that the American people would like to see us act and act promptly and act decisively. Someone has said, well, the Senate wishes to speak on the issue. And I know very well that none of us is guilty, usually, of having an unexpressed thought. We love to speak. But one way for us to speak is to say to the House of Representatives, Madam Speaker, and to the House itself, we agree with you. We think your package is simple, temporary, targeted, and a good idea. And to the president, Mr. President, each of us might have written the package a little differently, but we agree with you. And we're ready to pass it before the end of next week. I would like to write it differently, but I like the idea that it goes mostly to taxpayers, that it's family friendly, that it gives incentives to small business, that it temporarily helps with housing. I believe, Mr. President, it is important for our government, particularly at this moment to send a strong message that we will take the action appropriate to keep the economy strong. And that we are capable of functioning as a government and work in bipartisan ways to deal with real issues. The American people are tired of petty politics. They're tired of playpen politics on the Senate floor. They don't believe they elected us to stick our fingers in the eyes of the Democrats or the Democrats to stick their finger in our eyes. We have a good example of our leadership working together with the president, and as one senator, my recommendation is that we support what the president and the House of Representatives have done or are about to do. The president said that we should get to work this year to make sure that every American can have access to health care insurance. At our Republican conference last week, that was the first item on our agenda and I believe it's fair for me to say that virtually every single Republican senator believes that every American should be insured and is ready to go to work this year to help make that possible. The president talked about his plan which he talked about last year, to redo our tax code so that dollars would be available to American families to buy at least a basic health care policy that they wouldn't lose when they change jobs. We had a number on this side, Senator Byrd, Senator Corker, Senator Coburn, for example, Senator Bennett who authored a bill with Senator Wyden that has wide bipartisan support. We believe we should start this year to help make sure that every American is insured. Runaway federal spending, the president talked about controlling entitlement spending. This is an issue that is beginning to get the country's attention, and it should have the country's attention. It certainly has mine. What do we mean by entitlement spending? We mean that 40% of the budget is Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and it goes up automatically every year. … Entitlement spending and interest on the debt is 60% of every dollar we spend here. Another 20% is defense, the war, and other necessary actions to defend ourselves, and 19% is everything else. The everything else, Mr. President, was flat last year. The Congressional Budget Office says that the everything else, that's parks, and roads, and many of the things that Americans believe the government ought to be doing, that's going to go up at about 2% over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Our defense goes up 3% and entitlement spending goes up 7% or 8%. Senator Gregg and Senator Conrad have pointed out to us – they're the heads of our Budget Committee – that we're pretty soon going to be faced with an absolutely impossible situation that will require massive cuts in benefits, massive tax increases, and the net worth of this great country will not be able to pay and that every year we wait, we risk another problem. The president said, do something about it. He challenged us to do it, and Senator Gregg and Senator Conrad have a proposal to do that. Mr. President, we should act on it this year. That's not all there is to holding down spending. The president mentioned earmarks. There are too many earmarks. They're not as transparent as they ought to be. That is a smaller part of the budget. It is our constitutional responsibility to -- to deal with -- with earmarks, but we should do that ourselves, we should begin that this year. We could pass a two-year budget plan, such as Senator Domenici and Senator Lieberman and Senator Feingold have proposed, Senator Sessions, Senator Isakson, that would give oversight to repeal rules and regulations every other year. Senator Hutchison, Senator Bingaman have been leaders, as well as many others here, on keeping good jobs from going overseas. We passed the America COMPETES Act last year. The president challenged us to fund it this year. He's right about that. And, finally, Mr. President, President Bush mentioned something last night that is close to my heart. He called it the Pell Grants for Kids. I remember being in a visit with him a couple of years ago with him, and he said we have to do something about inner city children who can't afford to go to good schools. Why don't we have a Pell grant for kids? I said, Mr. President, I just had a hearing on that idea last month. He looked at me and said, I thought it was my idea. I said, Mr. President, it is your idea. Any idea that the president has is his idea, but he had it before anyone suggested it to him. The idea is very simple. We take this brilliant idea that Congress has invented over the last 50 years of giving money directly to college students, which they can spend at any institution of education of their choice, public, private, nonprofit, Catholic, University of Tennessee, Notre Dame, as long as it is accredited, they can go there and it especially helps those with less money and let's try that with the poorest children. 16 years ago, when I was education secretary, the first President Bush proposed a G.I. Bill for kids, much the same idea. It was the largest provision in his budget. A half billion dollars that year to give poor kids access to some of the same educational opportunities that others had. I have proposed in a Pell Grant for Kids version that we give every child $500, every child in the middle and low-income children, that's 60% of them all, $500 for after-school programs or other programs. The president has advanced the idea. So, Mr. President, President Bush has painted a strong agenda for America this year. He has said let's give a boost to the economy, let's begin to give every American health insurance, let's control entitlement spending, let's fund programs to keep good jobs here, and let's give poor children an opportunity to go to more of the better schools. He has challenged us to go to work, we're ready to go to work, we're ready to get results, which means working across the aisle in a bipartisan way. ###