Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: “Presidential Leadership and Fixing the Debt”

January 23, 2013 - January 23, 2013

Here is my question.  We have arrived at a time when we have a newly elected President who has had a fine inaugural day.  He has an agenda that he wants to follow which he announced in his inaugural address.  It is not an agenda that most of us on this side agree with, but he has an agenda that he wants to follow in his second term, all of which would ensure -- in his eyes -- his legacy as a President. 

But isn't there one thing that in order to get to that agenda -- or any other thing -- he and we have to do, and that is to address the debt?  Isn't the very best time -- isn't the very best time to do something difficult, something nobody wants to talk about, something that is hard -- the best time to do that is at a time when we have a divided government, a Democratic President, a Republican House, and 30 or 40 or 50 of us Senators on both sides of the aisle who have been saying for 2 years that we are ready to fix the debt? 

Isn't this an opportunity now?  Not just because it is a divided government, but because the House of Representatives today may very well create a 2-month or 3-month window during which we can address all of these issues if we had Presidential leadership? 

Mr. McCONNELL.  I say to my friend from Tennessee, it is counterintuitive.  But one could argue that a divided government -- which we have had more often than not since World War II -- has produced four of the most significant accomplishments for our country in modern times. 

In the Reagan administration, President Reagan and Tip O'Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, agreed to raise the age for Social Security to save Social Security for another generation.  Reagan and Tip O'Neill did the last comprehensive tax reform. 

Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress did welfare reform, arguably the most important piece of social legislation in recent times.  And Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress actually balanced the budgets in the late 1990s.

My friend from Tennessee is correct.  Divided government actually is the perfect time -- some would argue even the only time -- we can do tough things, hard- to-explain things that need to be done to save the country.  So I hate to miss the opportunity presented by a divided government to tackle the transcendent issue of our times. 

The President talked about a lot of things, and that is all interesting, but it had nothing to do with fixing the country.  Until we fix this problem, we will not have the kind of country for our children and our grandchildren that our parents left behind for us. 

Mr. ALEXANDER.  Madam President, I wonder if I might pose one more question to the Republican leader after making a short statement. 

I came to this body as a young lawyer-legislative aide to Senator Howard Baker a long time ago, in 1967.  I remember very well Senator Baker's story about how the civil rights bill of 1968 was passed.  I have discussed this with the Republican leader before.  He knows that era as well or better than I do. 

But there was a time when Senator Baker said he was in Everett Dirksen's office -- he is the man who had the job that Senator McConnell now has.  He was the Republican leader then.  He said he heard the telephone ring.  He heard only one end of the conversation, but Senator Dirksen was saying:  No, Mr. President, I cannot come down and have a drink with you tonight.  I did that last night, and Luella is very unhappy with me.  And that was the conversation.

About 30 minutes later there was a rustle out in the outer office of the Republican leader's office -- the very office that Senator McConnell now holds.  Two beagles, followed by the President of the United States, came in.  Lyndon Johnson, the President, said to the Republican leader:  Everett, if you won't have a drink with me, I am down here to have one with you.  And they disappeared in the back room for 45 minutes. 

The point of all that is not their socializing.  The point was it was in that very office, the Republican leader's office, that in 1968, the next year, the civil rights bill was written and enacted.  Lyndon Johnson got the credit for that in history but Everett Dirksen made it possible, and there were at that time many more Democrats in the Senate than Republicans.

What I want to say to Senator McConnell, the Republican leader, the question I want to ask him, is this.  He has seen the U.S. Senate and Presidency for the last number of years.  He has seen many relationships between the President and leaders of the opposite party.  He knows how this place works.  My sense of the Republican leader and of the large majority of us is that we wish to see a result.  We wish to see a result on this very tough issue of saving Social Security, saving Medicare, saving Medicaid, saving these programs on which seniors depend.  I wonder if the Republican leader would agree with me that despite the fact that we engage every day in political matters, that we have big differences of opinions, that on this issue, without Presidential leadership, we cannot get a result and that there are a lot of us on both sides of the aisle who are ready to work with the President to fix the debt? 

Mr. McCONNELL.  I say to my friend from Tennessee -- in many ways it is a statement of the obvious but a lot of people forget it -- there is only 1 person in America out of 307 million Americans who can sign something into law and only 1 person in America who can deliver the members of his party to support an agreement that he makes.  The only way to get an outcome on the biggest issue of our time is with Presidential leadership.  So it was disappointing to see scant reference in the State of the Union.  Of course that is just one speech and I have not given up hoping that this President can make solving the transcendent issue of our time one of his premier accomplishments. 

The point I think the Senator from Tennessee and I are making this morning is there are potential partners on this side of the aisle to make this happen.  I hope we will not lose this opportunity once again to deal with the biggest issue in the country. 

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore.  The Senator from Tennessee. 

Mr. ALEXANDER.  I thank the Senator from Kentucky for extending his time on the floor.  On my own I wish to continue that line of thinking a little bit.

It is traditional that when we have a new President, a newly inaugurated President, that he has a pretty good opportunity to get what he asks; that it is a time of maximum leverage, it is a time to do important things, it is a time to do difficult things, it is a time to do things that otherwise might not get done.

Presidents are defined by their skills -- their communication skills, their electoral ability -- but they are also defined by their capacity over a period of years to identify the hard issues that are important to our country and cause people, as the President said in his address day before yesterday, to work together to solve those problems.  Now the problem is whether you want to raise taxes on the guy down the street with the biggest house.  That is not so hard to do.  The problem is to spend money that you do not have -- because you can do it; that is not so hard to do.  If the problem is to address a disaster to help people who are in desperate shape, there might be some debate about whether it is really a disaster or not but it is not hard to do because in the end it is going to happen.  What Presidents are remembered for is dealing with important, difficult crises.

President Clinton is remembered for a number of things but one of the things he did was challenge the conventional thinking in his own party to deal with welfare reform.  It would not have happened if he had not done it.  It would not have happened if he had not done it because a Republican could not have made the argument.  A President's job, according to George Reedy, the former press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, is three things:  One is to see an urgent need, two is to develop a strategy to meet the need, and the third is to persuade at least half the people he is right.

President Nixon in the early 1960s went to China.  That seems like ancient history but that was straight against the core of the Republican Party at that time.  That was something that was inconceivable for a Republican President to do, given the history of mainland China and Taiwan, as they were both called.

There have been many times in our history when Presidents have had to do the hard work.  President George H.W. Bush made a budget agreement which may have caused him to lose the election in 1992 because it angered a number of Republicans.  But it also helped balance the budget and gave us a period of time in the 1990s when that budget agreement plus a good economy gave us an actual surplus of funding.

I sense that there is at the White House a feeling, two things I wish to disabuse the White House of.  The first is that the budget problem is not a real problem.  I cannot believe people at the White House think that.  Everybody knows it is.  Senator McConnell gave a very good explanation of what was going on there.  But let me say it this way:  In 2025, according to the Congressional Budget Office, every dollar of taxes we collect will go to pay for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the debt, and there is nothing left for national defense, National Laboratories, Pell grants for education, highways, or the investments that we need to make in research to grow this country.  It all goes for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the interest on debt, every single penny we collect.  And that is only 12 years away.  That is not me talking.  That is the Congressional Budget Office saying that.  The Medicare trustees have said that in 2024 years the Medicare Program will not have enough money to pay all of its bills.  Whose bills?  Bills of seniors, bills of Tennesseans, many of whom are literally counting the days until they are old enough to be eligible for Medicare so they can pay their medical bills.  It would be a tragedy if that day arrived and there were not enough money to pay the bills.  But the Medicare trustees, who by law are supposed to tell us these things, say that day will come in 2024.  It is just 11 years away and that is the day for people already on Medicare and people who are going to be on Medicare.

Medicaid, which is a program for lower income Americans, is an important program.  As Governor, I dealt with it in my State.  But when I was Governor, it was 8 percent of the State budget.  Today it is 26 percent of the State budget.  It is soaking up almost every dollar that would go to higher education.  As a result, students around the country are wondering:  Why are my tuition fees going up?  It is because of Washington's Medicaid Program requiring States to make decisions that soak up money that otherwise would be used to fund education.

In our State of Tennessee, 30 years ago the State paid 70 percent of the cost of going to the University of Tennessee.  Today it pays 30.  And Medicaid is the chief culprit. Everyone knows this.  The President's own debt commission has told him this and suggested a way to deal with it.  Forty or fifty of us on both sides of the aisle have been working together, meeting together, having dinner together, writing bills together, trying to come up with plans to do it.  Senator Corker, my colleague from Tennessee, has developed a bill on which I am his prime cosponsor which says we have found a way to strengthen Medicare and other entitlements by reducing the growth in spending.  We understand this.

We passed a Budget Control Act a couple of years ago.  People said they didn't like it.  It was not so bad because it took 38 percent of the budget, which is all of our discretionary spending -- including national defense, national parks, national labs – and said it will go up at about the rate of inflation.  This is before we get to the so-called sequester.  But what about the rest of the budget?  That is the automatic stuff we do not even vote on:  Medicare, entitlements, all this?  It is going up at about three to four times the rate of inflation.  It is going to bankrupt these programs.  Seniors will not be able to have their medical bills paid and the country will be bankrupt.  That is no overstatement.  The former Comptroller of the Currency says that.  President Clinton says this is an urgent problem.  The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says the national debt is the single biggest threat to our national security.  Why are we not dealing with it?  I think we are not dealing with it, A, because it is hard to do; B, because on both sides of the aisle we have not been effective in dealing with it before. 

I remember when we had an all-Republican cast of characters here in town -- President Bush, a Republican majority -- we tried to reduce the growth of Medicare and we could not get the votes to do that. 

This is not easy to do, but Robert Merry, who wrote a book about President Polk, had lunch with some of us yesterday, made this statement:  "In America's history every crisis has been solved by Presidential leadership or not at all."

Whether it was Lincoln in the Civil War or Reagan and Tip O'Neill or Nixon to China or Clinton on welfare reform -- we can all identify the crises.  But it takes Presidential leadership to do it.  It takes that to do it.

I was a Governor, which is much smaller potatoes.  If I sat around waiting for the State legislature, with all respect, to come up with a road program we would still be driving on dirt roads.  They were waiting for the Governor to do it.  That is how our system works.

I wonder if the President thinks that the debt is not a problem?  I cannot imagine anybody at the White House thinks that.  This is a problem.  If the President does not address it during his two terms he will be remembered by history as failing to do that.  His legacy may be a failure to address financial matters that put this country on a road to bankruptcy.  Or, if he were to do it, if he were to provide the leadership, he would be -- as the Australian Foreign Minister has said, "America is one budget agreement away from reasserting its global preeminence."  Why wouldn't President Obama want to be known as the President who caused America to reassert its global preeminence by dealing with a budget agreement during the first 3 months of his term and then he can get on with his agenda, about which we can argue?  That leaves me with only one thought:  That the President thinks we don't want to do it.  We do want to do it and it is a misunderstanding if he thinks that. 

I know the Republican leader would not mind me saying he is a wily, clever tactician who knows the Senate as well as anyone here.  But if you look carefully, when we got down to the last few days of the year and needed an agreement on taxes, the Republican leader was in the middle of the agreement.  When we needed an agreement to try to avoid default on the debt, the Republican leader was the one who was in the middle of doing that. 

I think if the White House thinks that the Republican leader or we on the Republican side do not want to fix the debt, they are badly misunderstanding where we are and who we are.  I do not know how we can say it more clearly.  We have written bills that do it.  We have held dinners to talk about it.  We have made public statements with Democrats, 30 or 40 of us at a time, saying we support Simpson-Bowles, we support Domenici-Rivlin, or we support this or we support that.  What is missing?  Two words:  Presidential leadership.  This is not a partisan comment.  It just does not work unless the President lays out his plan. 

Some say the President does not want to lay out his plan.  He has to lay out his plan.  He is the President.  We are just legislators. 

Senator Corker and I have put out our plan.  Who pays attention to that?  Madam President, $1 trillion in reductions and a $1 trillion increase in the debt ceiling -- it is out there.  That is not going to work.  However, if President Obama, with his skills, calls together Simpson and Bowles or his advisers and says:  Here is my plan to save Medicare, here is my plan to save Medicaid, here is my plan to fix the debt, and I want bipartisan support to do that, he will get it.  At first, because it is a difficult issue, everybody will say:  Oh, no, we can't do it that way.  We need to sit down, talk, and come up with a result.  I think the Republican leader has shown he is prepared and willing to do that.  He has said it and done it on other issues.  I don't know what else the rest of us can do to show that.  

What I am trying to respectfully say today, as much as anything, to the President of the United States is congratulations on your inauguration.  I was there.  I was proud to participate in it and have the opportunity to speak for a minute and a half about why we celebrate for the 57th time the inauguration of an American President.  We celebrate it because our country is distinguished from most other countries in the world by the peaceful transition or reaffirmation of the largest amount of power in the world.  We have our political contests, and then we have the restraint to respect the results. 

After winning the election, it is important, first, to get the fiscal house in order.  The time to do it is while we have a divided government.  The time to do it is while the President is at the peak of his popularity.  The time to do it is while the House of Representatives -- the Republican House -- has created a window of 2 or 3 months to deal with all the fiscal issues.  The time to do it is after 2 years of discussion with Republicans and Democrats in a bipartisan way about the need to fix the debt and the importance of it for the country. 

My hope is that as the President and his advisers look at the Senate, they see, No. 1, a willingness to solve the problem of fixing the debt in a bipartisan way.  I get the feeling they don't believe that about us.  I don't know what else we can do to cause them to believe that.  There is not the same kind of comfortable, back-and-forth relationship there should be.  I have heard some people say:  Well, the Johnson-Dirksen days are ancient history.  That was a long time ago.  However, human nature doesn't change.  Human nature doesn't change in 50 years, 100 years, or 500 years. 

There is plenty of good will across the aisle and on this side of the aisle, at the beginning of this term, to work with a newly inaugurated President and say: Mr. President, we are ready to fix the debt.  Provide us the leadership.  No great crisis is ever solved without Presidential leadership in the United States.  You are the President; you are the only one who can lay out the plan.  We will then consider it, amend it, argue about it, change it, and pass it.  After that, we can get onto the President's agenda, about which we will have a difference of opinion, but he will go down in history as the man who was willing to do something hard within his own party, which was to fix the debt and save the programs seniors depend upon to pay their medical bills.

I hope I can say that in the spirit of someone who participated in the inauguration and admires the President's considerable abilities.  I hope he and his advisers stop, take a look, and say:  Maybe we were wrong.  Maybe this is the time to do it.  Maybe we are the only ones who can do it, so let's make a proposal and get started.