Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - Tennessee House of Representatives

Posted on April 5, 2007

It’s been a little over two decades since I made my last State of the State address in these chambers. And I’ve not come back to the House floor or the Senate floor since then, I don’t think, except maybe once. So I especially appreciate the invitation to be here today and my chance to show some respect for you and the work you do. The first thing I’d like to say is I have a lot more respect for the difficulty of being a legislator now that I am one. All governors probably ought to be forced to be a legislator first and then things might work a little more easily. Number two I wanted to say something about the eight years I spent working here with what was then a Democratic majority in the legislature. And finally I want to say just a word about some work I’m doing in Washington that I hope helps our state because its goal is to strengthen state governments. But let me talk about those eight years for just a moment. My view in Washington after being there four years is that we’ve got some big problems to solve—bigger than any one party can solve. In the United States Senate, you can’t pass anything unless you can get 60 votes of consensus. But especially now, with Iraq, and terrorism, and universal health care and immigration, we can go down a long list of issues that are too big for one party to solve. I believe we need more leaders in Washington who are willing to work across party lines to solve big problems. One way to do that is to borrow the words of a late friend of mine and of many of yours, Alex Haley, who used to say “Find the good and praise it” – those six words. Take for example the fuss about the firing of United States attorneys in Washington D.C. that we read about everyday. I think the Republicans were guilty of excessive partisanship in the firings and that the Democrats are guilty of some excessive partisanship in the response. I don’t have to look too far to find a different good to praise about United States attorneys. Nearly 30 years ago I received a telephone call one morning from a United States attorney. His name was Hal Hardin. He was a Democrat appointed by President Carter. He asked me to take office three days early to prevent the incumbent governor from releasing prisoners under circumstances that the FBI did not like. He was assisted in that by another Democrat, William Leech, the state Attorney General. The entire Democratic leadership of the state capital showed up at my early swearing-in. And Ned McWherter, who was then the speaker, said, “We’re Tennesseans first.” I’d like to see a few more people in Washington D.C. borrow Ned McWherter’s idea and say, “We are Americans first.” I can well remember back then – and Jimmy Naifeh was the majority leader at that time – a reporter came up to Speaker McWherter and said, “Well Mr. Speaker what are you going to do with this new, young Republican governor?” And the speaker said, “I’m going to help him, because if he succeeds our state succeeds.” We did that for eight years. That’s the way we worked together. We had our politics at election time. But we built the best four-lane highway system in the country. We brought in the auto industry. We began to pay teachers more for teaching well. And the people appreciated it. And the state moved ahead. I’m trying to export some of that to Washington D.C. It’s not that easy. Senator Joe Lieberman and I have started a breakfast on Tuesday mornings for Republicans and Democrats. We don’t have that many opportunities to work across the aisle. But we’ve had 12 to 40 members at each of those breakfasts. That’s a lot of senators at one time. We do well to get six for Tony Blair if he comes to Washington D.C. And just last Tuesday we sat around the table and talked about how to get every single American affordable health care insurance and try to get the Republicans to say the words “universal access” and get the Democrats to say the words “private markets” and if we can, well, then we can do it. But those are the kinds of problems we need to solve and those are the kinds of things we need to do. I think the election last November, the national election, was as much about the conduct of business in Washington as it was about the conduct of the war in Iraq. And I think Washington would do a lot better if we exported to Washington some of that bipartisan working together on big issues that I had the privilege to be a part of during the eight years that I was governor of Tennessee. Now here is the last thing I’d like to say. Nothing used to make me madder as governor, and I’ll bet you’re the same way, than to have some Washington politician come up with some big idea, pass a law, hold a press conference, take credit for it, and send the bill to the governor, the legislature or the county commission. That’s called an unfunded federal mandate. And usually that same politician would be back at the Lincoln Day dinner or the Jackson Day dinner taking credit for local control. Well, Governor Bredesen called me early in my term as senator about legislation about internet access tax. And my young staff said, “Oh, you can’t block that because that’s a tax.” I said, “Now wait a minute. It’s up to the state legislature and the governor how they’re going to pay the bills in Tennessee. I mean, they may want to tax income, they may want to tax food, they may have to tax internet access.” But we should not have an unfunded mandate from Washington D.C. that tells you how to do your business on paying the bills in Tennessee. And working with some former governors who are in the United States Senate, we blocked that, and created a moratorium so you can continue to make decisions. Here is a second example. Governor Bredesen and you have been working hard to try to figure out how to deal with the growth of Medicaid. I was struggling with that 20 years ago, too. You’re struggling with it even more today. The reason tuition rates are going up in Tennessee is because Medicaid grows so much that there’s not enough money left for higher education. And one reason TennCare grows so much is because of federal court consent decrees that can’t be changed. Tennessee is still operating under federal court consent decrees that were made in the early times when I was governor. That was over 25 years ago. So I introduced, with Mark Pryor, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, legislation to make it easier for governors and state legislatures to change federal court consent decrees so you can make your own decisions about how to spend the taxpayers’ money. And then finally, I think probably the worst piece of legislation passed by the United States Senate in the last four years has been something called “Real ID.” They stuck it into an Iraq supplemental appropriations bill, and I opposed it, and said that it was the wrong thing to do. It was a national identification card and it’ll turn drivers license examining officers into CIA agents. The only kind of person that could have passed that was a congressman who’d never been into a drivers license examining office and stood in line and waited to get their drivers license. It’s the wrong way to do it. That’s another unfunded federal mandate that could run into the billions of dollars nationally, and into hundreds of millions of dollars in Tennessee. Perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve been paid my first four years is by a Washington insider who said to me while I was trying to stop some unfunded federal mandate, “The problem with Lamar is he hasn’t gotten over being governor.” And what I would say to you is when I get over being governor is when you ought to bring me home. Because my job is to put the practices of Tennessee into D.C., not the other way around. I respect what you do. I feel privileged to serve in the United States Senate. I enjoy working with your leaders and with you and with the governor. I hope you will call on me. I respect the work of the Tennessee legislature. Thank you very much for giving me the privilege of joining you this morning.