Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Presidential Speeches and Health Care Reform

Posted on September 8, 2009

Mr. President, we have two speeches by the President of the United States today and tomorrow. The speech today is to the schoolchildren of America, and the one tomorrow night is to us--to a joint session of Congress and to the country. For the last several days, there has been a small uproar about the President's speech to schoolchildren. In some ways, that is very understandable. The country is very wary right now of more Washington takeovers. We have seen takeovers of banks and insurance companies and car companies and student loans and even farm ponds and health care, and all of a sudden some people may have thought the President was intending to take over the classrooms of America as well. That was compounded by the fact that the early lesson plans--probably drawn up by someone either in the White House or the Department of Education--made the speech seem more about the President than about the children and inviting the children to help the President fulfill his goal of the way he wants to transform America. Well, all that has been changed. The lesson plan has been altered. The President has released a copy of his speech. I read it this morning in Tennessee on my way coming up. It is a good speech. It is about the importance of studying and education. It is about how the President grew up, which is an inspiring story, as is the case with almost all of our Presidents. So I am glad the President has spoken to the schoolchildren of this country. Of course, the President of the United States ought to be able to speak to the schoolchildren of America. President Reagan did it. Not long after he was elected, he talked about how our country was founded. When I was Education Secretary in 1991, the first President Bush did it. He talked primarily about drugs, with a warning about the dangers of drug use. Presidents should speak to our students, but, of course, parents and teachers should decide whether the children hear the speech and in what context they hear it. Tomorrow night, when the President addresses the country, no one has to listen to him, except those of us, perhaps, who volunteered to serve in the Congress. We will be here. Millions will listen out of respect to the office, but some could turn off their televisions, some could just read about it, some could listen to the commentators talk about it, and some could watch it on the Web. Children have a different situation. They are captive in their classrooms and they are inexperienced, so we rely on parents and teachers to use their good judgment to decide whether any speech is appropriate for children to hear and in what context. If I were a teacher, I would jump at the chance to take advantage of this speech. I believe I would put up a picture of Reagan and one of FDR and one of Abraham Lincoln, and I would talk about the Presidency and I would talk about how he is the agenda setter and how the President's election--this President and other Presidents--represents the unique American characteristic that anything is possible for any American of any background. I would point out that there is a Congress as well and the Congress often disagrees with the President. And then I would put up a picture of the leader of North Korea, and I would say: There is the dear leader of North Korea. If you criticize him, you go to jail. If you criticize the President of the United States, you have a constitutional right to do that. I believe we need more teaching of U.S. history and civics in our classrooms so our children can grow up to learn what it means to be an American. The lowest scores high school seniors have in America are not in math, they are not in science, they are in U.S. history. So we ought to take advantage of opportunities for children to learn about history and about civics, but parents and teachers ought to be in charge of it. They should decide in what context it is done, and I hope a great many have taken advantage of that and will take advantage of that. There is a second speech, tomorrow night, which the country is looking forward to, and that is about health care. Here are my hopes for that speech. First, respectfully, I would say to the President, I hope he says: My fellow Americans, let's start over. It is obvious we need health care reform, but it is also obvious that most Americans, or at least a majority, aren't comfortable with the direction in which we are going. So since this affects 17 or 18 percent of our economy, since it affects the 250 million Americans who have health insurance, let's start over. This has gone from being an issue to being something personal, or as we say in Tennessee, they have gone from preaching to meddling. That is why at the town meetings, which would normally attract 30 people, we have had a thousand people show up, because their health is at issue and they want to know what is going on. So it is a very healthy thing for people to show up and ask questions, and I hope that the President has heard the American people and that we start over. Next, I hope the President says: We will start with cost--the cost to you, Mr. and Miss American, the cost to your government. Health care costs too much for you to buy your policy, and it is about to bankrupt the government unless we do something about it. So that is where we will start. Third, I hope the President will say: One of the lessons I think we have learned--not just during the last several months while I have been President--if I were President Obama--but in President Bush's time and before that is that we don't do comprehensive very well. We found that out in immigration. We had a bipartisan effort here on immigration. We tried hard to solve a problem only the Congress can solve, and we failed. By the time it came up for a vote, it just fell around our necks. We have tried it with health care. We have tried to bite off the whole thing at once, and I think it is more than we can chew. We have been trying it with economy-wide cap and trade for climate change, and it looks as if we are biting off more than we can chew there as well. That should be no big surprise. This is a huge country--300 million people--an economy that produces 25 percent of all the wealth in the world, so diverse that if we were to put ourselves all in one room, it would explode, which is why it is such a good reason we have such a big country. So I hope the President will say we don't do comprehensive well. We have heard the American people, so let's see if we can agree on a few things. Let's go step by step in the right direction, which is one good way to get where you want to go--step by step to re-earn the trust of the American people, starting with health care. I can think of some things on which I believe we have bipartisan agreement in the Senate which would make a difference: Small business health insurance--allow small businesses to pool their resources. It has been estimated that you could offer insurance to a million more workers at a lower cost. That is one thing. Make it possible for people not to lose their insurance. If they are able to buy insurance, make it possible for them to buy insurance if they have a preexisting health condition--we could probably do that. Allow people to buy insurance across State lines. The Presiding Officer and I were both Governors. We are jealously protective of States' responsibilities and rights. But maybe we need to allow insurance to be bought more often across State lines to make it available to more people and less expensive. Junk lawsuits against doctors--that increases the cost of health care from 1 percent to 10 percent, depending on whom you believe. But we could take that step. It is an important step in the right direction. As far as those who are uninsured, about 20 percent of those who are uninsured are already eligible for existing programs. We could see if we could find ways to help them sign up for programs that already exist. Step by step in the right direction will help us get where we need to go in health care. Step by step will re-earn the trust of the American people. Fourth, I would hope the President would say: Let's do this in a bipartisan way. There is some talk of just ramming this through the Senate with a bare majority of votes. I hope that doesn't happen. It would be bad for the country and it would be bad for the majority party, if I may say so. The reason it would be bad for the country is it would be a bad bill. The way our rules work, the Parliamentarian, who is a very wise individual, would end up writing the health care bill because he would have to make all these decisions about what was germane and about what fit in the bill. For example, he might have to say: Well, you can't put a provision about preexisting conditions in the bill under the Senate rules. All you can vote on is whether to raise taxes or cut Medicare. Now, that would be a very unappetizing vote, I would think, for many Members of the Senate, and it would be a very bad health care bill, which would cause me to think that such an unappetizing vote would be bad medicine for those who insisted on ramming it through. But it would be bad medicine for another reason. It would be thumbing our nose at the people of America who have been trying to say to us over the last several weeks: Whoa. Slow down. This is my health care you are talking about. Let's make sure we do this right. Start over, and let's take it step by step. Health care is not the only issue. Health care is the entry into a larger issue, which is too many takeovers, too much debt, too many czars, and the American people would like for us to settle down and deal with this issue. Some of the people have said over the last few weeks that the American people didn't know what they were talking about; that they thought there weren't any real issues out there. I am afraid that is wrong. When you have the Mayo Clinic and the Democratic Governors and the Congressional Budget Office telling you that you are headed in the wrong direction, maybe you are. When you read about a new trillion-dollar debt added to a debt that is already going to double in the next 4 or 5 years, maybe you are going in the wrong direction. When the New York Times editorial says the new program is going to be paid for about half by cuts in Medicare, that is a serious issue for the 40 million people on Medicare. There are 177 million people with employer insurance, and they worry they might lose that employer insurance. People are worried that they might be dumped, if they are low-income, into a government program that already exists called Medicaid, which 40 percent of the doctors won't serve because they are underpaid, or they are worried they might be dumped into a new government program, if they are middle income, and they might not want to be dumped into a government program. There is worry, especially among older Americans, because someone might say: You are 70 years old and you can't have a hip replacement. And there are employers who in a recession aren't interested in paying more of an employer tax. And the Democratic Governors and the Republican Governors have said: Don't send us more costs for Medicaid or we won't be able to afford it here. We will have to raise taxes. And Federal taxes would go up. Those are real issues. Those aren't made-up issues. Those are all part of the bills that are making their way through Congress, and that is why people are saying: Whoa. Finally, I hope President Obama will say: I am the President. I am the agenda setter. I am going to take charge of this debate. The President and his team are very smart. We admire them very much. But in some ways, it reminds me of a Harvard Law Review meeting, with everyone sitting around the room thinking of very bright ideas and nobody getting anything done. When you are dealing with a big and complex issue such as health care, the President needs to clear the decks, set the agenda, tell us what to do, and sit down with the Democratic leader and the Republican leader and say: What can we do? And then the President, I respectfully suggest, needs to say--as President Eisenhower did half a century ago when he said, ``I shall go to Korea''--that health care is the issue. I am the President, here is what I think we should do, and I am going to stay on this issue until it is done. Now, a Governor knows--and most Presidents know--that if they say that and do that and stick to it for as long as it takes, they can very usually wear everybody else out. The President may not get exactly what he wants. Of course, he probably won't. But there might be improvements to the bill. When the Democratic majority in Tennessee used to improve my proposals, I could either attack them or say: You have improved my proposals. I usually said: You have improved my proposals, gave them credit, and went on to the next issue. So people all over America are alarmed, some are even scared about Washington takeovers, debt doubling and tripling, and I suggest the right course for us is for the President to say: Let's start over with health care. Let's go step by step to re-earn the trust of the American people. Careful steps in the right direction are a very good way to get where we want to go, and I hope he tells us exactly what those steps should be.