Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): On Innovation

Posted on June 8, 2012

It was a pleasure to hear the Senator from Minnesota speak on the farm bill.  I congratulate Senator Roberts and Senator Stabenow for their hard work, as well as the Senator from Minnesota.  I would like to take 10 minutes to speak on a related matter. 


American agriculture is an area where we lead the world with innovation.  I want to talk about innovation of a different type, and I want to refer specifically to a May 20 column in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman that caught my attention. 


I ask unanimous consent that following my remarks, Mr. Friedman's column be printed in the Record. 


Mr. Friedman said he had just returned from Seattle, where he saw a stunning amount of innovation.  He said it filled him both with exhilaration and with dread.  The question is, Is the United States prepared to deal with the innovation we may be seeing around the world over the next decade? 


Yesterday I heard Robert Zoellick, the retiring President of the World Bank, brief a number of us about the problems we are going to have at the end of the year and whether the U.S. Congress and President can rise to the challenge of governing so we can show the rest of the world we are capable of that.  Mr. Zoellick says he travels a lot -- that is an understatement given his reputation and the jobs he’s held over the last 20 years -- and he said that two-thirds of global growth over the last 10 years has come from developing countries and that advanced countries, such as Japan, and Europe and, to some extent, the United States have been stagnant or drifting.  Mr. Friedman's column says that we should try to remember the things that made us great and preserve as many of those as we can.  He said we need a plan, and then he suggested what he called a magic combination:  No. 1, immigration of high-IQ risk-takers, as he called them; No. 2, government-funded research; and No. 3, cutting-edge higher education.  That was the plan.  That was the magic combination.


He said: 

        This is not a call to ignore hard budget choices we have to make.  It's a call to make sure that we give education, immigration and research their proper place in the discussion.


My purpose as a Senator, as a Republican Senator, is to say that I believe he is exactly right.  No.1, I believe that is the right plan -- or at least the beginning of it;  No. 2, I believe there is more going on in the direction that he recommended than most people know; and No. 3, I believe that finishing the work on what needs to be done to implement the plan he outlined is perfectly obvious and well within our grasp.  Let's take the ideas one by one.


First, the idea, as he called it, of immigration of high-IQ risk-takers -- we call this "pin the green card on the STEM graduate."  This idea is supported, I would judge, by most Members of the Senate.  Each year 50,000 of the brightest students in the world are attracted to our great universities’ graduate programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and then each year we send 17,000 of those graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics back home.  We make them go home so they can create jobs in the countries they came from rather than in the United States.


A number of us have introduced legislation to change that.  It came from a recommendation from legislation called America COMPETES, which passed first in 2007 and was reauthorized in 2010. This was legislation sponsored by the Democratic and Republican leaders that had 35 Republican sponsors and 35 Democratic sponsors, and it included the 20 things a distinguished group told us we should do as a Congress to help America compete in the next generation.  We have done two-thirds of them.  One of the priorities was to double the federal funding for general scientific research over 10 years, and we’ve made some good progress in that direction.


Part of the unfinished agenda is the idea in America COMPETES of pinning a green card on the science, technology, engineering, and management graduate.  There are at least six proposals before the Senate today -- one sponsored by Senator Coons and myself, one by Senator Cornyn, one by Senator Coons and Senator Rubio, another by Senators Warner and Moran.  Senators Coons, Rubio, Warner, and Moran have another one.  Senator Bennet has yet another one.  Many of us say:  Let's go ahead and pin the green card on the high-IQ risk-taker and let those men and women create jobs here in the United States when they graduate. 


What should we do about it?  Stop insisting that we need to pass every single aspect of the immigration law at one time and go ahead and pass this one bill; realize that we can do some things better in the Senate step by step.


The second idea, advanced research -- it is hard to think of a major innovation in the biology or sciences that doesn't have some aspect -- has not had some support from government-sponsored research since World War II.  The National Academy of Sciences tells us that half our economic growth since World War II has come from these technological advances.  Maybe one of the best examples is unconventional gas -- we call it shale gas.  It has been around for a century.  A lot of people have been trying to do it, but even Mitchell Energy, the people who stuck it out in advanced shale gas, said it couldn't have happened without the Department of Energy and it could not have happened without the invention of 3-D drilling from Sandia National Laboratory. 


Yesterday I visited with the head of what we call ARPA-E.  Most of us know about a little organization called DARPA, which has been around for 50 years in the Department of Defense.  Out of it has come such things as the Internet, stealth technology -- a whole series of major innovations that affect the lives of people every day.  So the idea was, let's try that in the Department of Energy.  That came out of America COMPETES as well. ARPA-E takes promising ideas, brings them into the government, funds them for 3 years, and then spits them out again into the marketplace to see if they can survive.  In other words, it is the kind of government-applied research that most of us can support.  It had the support of 35 Democrats and 35 Republicans. 


Yesterday I was briefed on just three of their innovations. 


One company has doubled the density of a battery, a lithium battery.  That means an electric car, for example, could go twice as far with a battery or it could go the same distance with a battery that costs half as much and weighs half as much.


A second idea was a laser drill for geothermal.  The laser drilling precedes the normal drill and can do remarkable things, which will probably make a massive difference in exploration for oil and gas over time. 


Then a third, which I would describe as the holy grail of energy advanced research, is the idea of taking carbon, such as that which comes from coal plants, and turning it into something that can be used commercially.  Think of the difference that could make for our country if we were able to find a way to do that. 


There is a promising way to do that in ARPA-E, which is to take what they call “bugs,” a biologic solution, apply it to electrodes, and turn it into oil.  So this may work or it may not work in a commercial sense, but this is the kind of amazing research they are doing. 


What do we do about that?  I would suggest that all we have to do is double clean energy research, a sort of Manhattan Project for these kinds of ideas, and pay for it by reducing the permanent subsidies for other energy programs, whether they are Big Oil or Big Wind.


Finally, the third idea of Mr. Friedman is one I have talked about for years, and that has to do with the effect of Medicaid mandates on public higher education.  He puts it this way, that the State governments “medicate, educate, and incarcerate.”  The courts tell the States they have to spend this much on prisons, and we in the Federal Government tell the States they have to spend this much on Medicaid.  There is nothing left for education, and the various orders to States today are ruining public higher education by driving up tuition, driving up loans, and hurting what I believe is America's secret weapon in our technological future. 


What to do about that?  End the Medicaid mandates.  Let the Governors and legislators decide how to spend money.  I guarantee if they do, they will come closer than when I was Governor of Tennessee and we paid 70 percent of the cost of a student's education and the student paid 30 percent.

Today it is the reverse.  The State pays 30 percent and the student pays 70 percent. 


The students are protesting at the University of California because the State has cut $1 billion from what is probably the greatest public university in the world over the last 3 or 4 years.  They probably have no idea the reason for that is Medicaid mandates from Washington that soak up the money that otherwise would go to keep tuition low and the quality high at the University of California.      My purpose in coming to the Senate floor is simply to say, first, that I think Mr. Friedman is right.  He is right on the money. Second, I think more is going on than meets eye; and, third, finishing the job is well within our grasp. 


We can pass the green card bill and pin the green card on the STEM graduate.  There are six different versions before us in the Senate.  We can double energy research and pay for it by reducing wasteful subsidies, and we can end Medicaid mandates and give our colleges and universities and community colleges a chance to prosper again and create the kind of future we want.  That is the plan for the kind of innovation we need in America. 


I salute Mr. Friedman for suggesting it, but I hope the rest of the country will recognize that in all three cases the Senate is headed in exactly that direction with legislation that we have already passed or introduced.  I hope that on both sides of the aisle we will work together to finish the job.  


# # #