Speeches & Floor Statements

Senate floor speech: "The sequester represents 'a colossal failure' of presidential leadership"

Posted on March 5, 2013

We remember President Lyndon Johnson's courage and skill in passing the Civil Rights Act.  We remember President Nixon going to China.  We remember President Carter and the Panama Canal treaties.  We remember President Reagan fixing Social Security and George H.W. Bush balancing the budget by raising taxes.  We remember President Clinton and welfare reform.  We remember President George W. Bush tackling immigration reform.  If the history books were written today, we would remember President Obama for the sequester. 

This is unique in history.  This is not the way our Presidents usually conduct themselves.  Here we have a policy that was designed to be the worst possible policy, and that may be what our talented, intelligent current President is remembered for.

He is remembered for it because it comes from a process he recommended, he signed into law, that he has known about for the last year, that he has done nothing about except to campaign around the country blaming others for it over the last month, and he seems determined to keep it in law. 

Now, for what reason could this be possible? 

Well, let's go back to why the President agreed to the sequester.  He agreed to it in 2011 after suggesting the process from which it came in order to get $2.2 trillion in spending reductions so he could get a debt ceiling increase that lasted through the election.  And he did it, for the second reason, because he did not want to go against his own party's constituency in tackling the biggest problem our country faces -- the biggest problem according to the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the biggest problem according to the President's own debt commission -- the out-of-control automatic spending increases that are in the Federal budget.

So we are left today with a sequester -- automatic spending decreases which are the result of the automatic spending increases in entitlements the President is unwilling to confront.  We are slashing the part of the budget that is basically under control.  It is growing at about the rate of inflation.  I am talking about national defense, national parks, National Laboratories, Pell grants, and cancer research.  All that is growing at about the rate of inflation.  We are slashing that part of the budget because the President does not want to challenge his own party on the part of the budget that is out of control, growing at two or three times the rate of inflation:  Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other entitlements. 

This is not how our Presidents usually have acted when confronted with a great crisis.  When President Johnson dealt with civil rights, he knew he would be terribly unpopular in Texas and throughout the South.  When President Nixon went to China, he knew Republican conservatives would be angry with him.  President Carter enraged many Americans by his support for the Panama Canal Treaty.  President Reagan made many seniors unhappy when he fixed Social Security.  George H.W. Bush probably lost the 1992 election when he raised taxes to balance the budget.  Bill Clinton was pilloried by his own party when he worked with Republicans to reform welfare.  George W. Bush made many radio talk show hosts very unhappy when he tried to change our immigration laws. 

Why did they do it?  They did it because they were the President of the United States, and that is what presidents do.

Robert Merry, a biographer of President James K. Polk, told me recently that every great crisis in our country has been solved by presidential leadership or not at all.  Every great crisis in American history has been solved by presidential leadership or not at all.  Yet this president seems determined not to exercise that sort of presidential leadership.  So his presidential leadership is a colossal failure, first, because he will not respect this Congress and work with it in a way to get results that all of the presidents I just mentioned did.

The New York Times had a very interesting story this Sunday about how President Woodrow Wilson would come down to the President's Room right off the Senate and sit there three days a week with the door open, and he got almost everything he proposed passed, until he went over the heads of Congress around the country about the League of Nations and lost. 

Or Senator Howard Baker used to tell the story of how, when Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, would not go down to the White House and have a drink with President Johnson in 1967, President Johnson showed up with his beagles in the Republican leader's office and said:  Everett, if you won't come have a drink with me, I am here to have a drink with you. 

I am not here to advocate having drinks, but I am here to suggest that when they disappeared into the back room together for 45 minutes, that played a big role in writing the Civil Rights Act of 1968 because it was written in Everett Dirksen's Republican leader office right down the hall, at the request of the Democratic President of the United States. 

And Senator Harkin -- I do not think he will mind me telling the story about the afternoon 20 years ago when he was in his office and he got a telephone call from President George H.W. Bush's office.  Would he come down with a few other Congressmen?  The President was there for the afternoon.  Mrs. Bush was in Texas.  They spent an hour together, and the President showed them around.  On the way out, Senator Harkin said to President Bush: Mr. President, I don't want to turn this into a business meeting, but one of your staff members is slowing down the Americans with Disabilities bill.  That conversation, Senator Harkin says, changed things at the White House and helped that bill to pass. 

Or Tip O'Neill, going into the Democratic Caucus in the 1980s and being criticized by his fellow caucus members:  Why are you spending so much time with Ronald Reagan?  Why are you fixing Social Security?  He said:  Because I like him.  Because I like him. 

Technology has changed a lot.  But human nature has not.  And relationships are essential in the Senate, in the White House, in politics, in church, in business, and all of our Presidents have known that you need to show respect to the people with whom you work if you are going to solve difficult problems.  That is why I am disappointed by our talented President's unwillingness to work with Congress.  There is no reaching out. 

It was 18 months before he had his first meeting with the Republican leader one on one.  He has known for a year the sequester was coming, but there was no meeting with the Republican or Democratic leaders that I know about until the day it started.  It is breaking news when the President makes a telephone call to a Senate leader.  And then the President spends his time running around the country taunting and heckling the Members of Congress that he is supposed to work with to get a result.  What kind of leadership is that? 

I started in 1969 working in congressional relations for a President of the United States.  I have worked with or for eight.  I have never seen anything like it in my life. 

I have been a governor.  That is small potatoes compared to being a president.  I know that.  But I worked with a Democratic legislature, and I guarantee you, if I had taunted them and heckled them and criticized them, I never would have gotten anything passed to improve roads or schools or get the auto industry into Tennessee.  Instead, I would meet with them regularly.  I would listen to them.  I would change my proposals based on what they had to say.  I would know they had to go back into their caucuses and still survive.  I did not think about ever putting them in an awkward position when we were trying to get something done.  I tried to put them in a position to make it easier to get something done.  I changed my ideas and I could get a result.  During elections we tried to beat each other.  Between elections we sought to govern. 

This is all made worse by the Democratic leadership of the Senate deliberately bringing business to a halt – we have a fiscal crisis, we have not had a budget in 4 years, we did not even pass any appropriations bills last year, there is little respect for committee work, and he has used the gag rule 70 times to cut off amendments from the Republican side of the aisle. 

For example, last week, we had several options on our side -- I think there were some on the other side -- to make the sequester go down a little bit easier, to make it make more common sense, and what did we end up doing?  We were here all week, and we ended up voting on two proposals.  They were procedural votes, and everybody knew they were political posturing not designed to pass.  Why did we not just put it on the floor?  There are 100 of us here.

We are all grownups.  We worked hard to get here.  We have ideas.  We might have improved the sequester.  We had time to do it.  But the Democratic leadership did not allow us to bring it up.  So we end up with deliberately bad policy becoming law. 

It is not too late.  There are things the President and we can still do.  We could spread the pain across the whole budget.  We could spread it across part of the budget.  We could give the President more flexibility in making decisions.  Or the President could come to us with his plan, this month, for dealing with the biggest problem facing our country:  the out-of-control mandatory spending.  He could do what Presidents Johnson and Nixon and Carter and Bush did before him.  He could confront it, go against the grain of his party, work with Members of both sides, and get a result.  It is not that hard to do.  Senator Corker and I have a proposal to do it.  There is the Domenici-Rivlin proposal to do it.  There is the Ryan-Wyden proposal to do it. 

When part of the budget is growing at two to three times inflation and the rest is growing at about the rate of inflation, it is obvious which part we need to work on. 

It may be the President does not like some of us.  Well, President Eisenhower had that same feeling about Members of Congress.  Someone asked him:  Then how do you get along with them?  He said:  I look first at the office.  I respect the office.  I do not think about the person who occupies the office.

There are real victims here.  In the short term with the sequester, there is cancer research, there are airline travelers, there are many people -- the president has let us know about this -- who are going to be hurt by this and be inconvenienced.  In the long term, if we do not deal with this No. 1 fiscal problem we have, the real victims will be seniors who will not have all of their hospital bills paid in 11 years because the Medicare trustees have told us Medicare will not be able to pay all of them – the Medicare Trust Fund will be out of money -- and young Americans will be forever destined to be the debt-paying generation because we and the President did not have the courage to face up to our responsibilities. 

So I would say, with respect, it is time for this President to show the kind of Presidential leadership that President Johnson did on civil rights, that President Nixon did on China, that President Carter did on the Panama Canal Treaty, that President Reagan did on Social Security, and that Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton and George W. Bush did.  Respect the other branches of government.  Confront your own party where necessary.  Listen to what both have to say and fashion a consensus that most of us can support. 

We are one budget agreement away from reasserting our global preeminence and getting the economy moving again.

As Robert Merry said:  Every great crisis is solved by Presidential leadership or not at all. 

It is time, Mr. President, for Presidential leadership.

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record the article in the New York Times, from Sunday, entitled "Wilson to Obama:  March Forth!"