Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- What Republicans Are For

Posted on January 21, 2010

Madam President, during our recent health care debate I heard a number of times from our friends on the other side of the aisle this question: What are Republicans for?  Well, they will wait a long time if they are waiting for the Republican leader, Senator McConnell, to roll into the Senate a wheelbarrow filled with a 2,700-page Republican comprehensive health care bill or, for that matter, a 1,200-page climate change bill, or a 900-page immigration bill.

If you have been listening carefully to the Senate debate, you will know that on health care, as well as on clean energy, debt reduction, and immigration, for example, Republicans have been offering the following alternative to 1,000-page bills: going step by step in the right direction to solve problems in a way that re-earns the trust of the American people.

Comprehensive immigration, comprehensive climate change, and comprehensive health care bills have been well intended, but the first two fell of their own weight, and health care, if enacted, would be a historic mistake for our country and a political kamikaze mission for Democrats.

What has united most Republicans against these three bills has not only been ideology but also that they were comprehensive. As George Will might write: "The Congress. Does. Not. Do. Comprehensive. Well.”

Two recent articles help explain the difference between the Democratic comprehensive approach and the Republican step-by-step approach.  The first, which appeared in the new journal, National Affairs, and was written by William Schambra of the Hudson Institute, explains the "sheer ambition" of President Obama's legislative agenda as the approach of what Mr. Schambra calls a "policy President."  Mr. Schambra says the President and most of his advisers have been trained at elite universities to govern by launching "a host of enormous initiatives all at once...formulating comprehensive policies aimed at giving large social systems-- and indeed society itself -- more rational and coherent forms of functions."

This is governing by taking big bites of several big apples and trying to swallow them all at once. In addition, according to Mr. Schambra, the most prominent organizational feature of the Obama administration is its reliance on "czars" -- more than the Romanovs, said one blogger -- to manage broad areas of policy. In this view, systemic problems of health care, of energy, of education, and of the environment simply can't be solved in pieces.

Analyzing the article, David Broder of the Washington Post wrote this: “Historically, that approach has not worked. The progressives failed to gain more than a brief ascendency and the Carter and Clinton presidencies were marked by striking policy failures.”  The reason for these failures, as Broder paraphrased Schambra, is that "this highly rational comprehensive approach fits uncomfortably with the Constitution, which apportions power among so many different players." Broder then adds this: “Democracy and representative government are a lot messier than the progressives and their heirs, including Obama, want to admit.”

James Q. Wilson, a scholar, writing in a memorial essay honoring Irving Kristol in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago, says the law of unintended consequences is what causes the failure of such comprehensive legislative schemes. Explains Wilson: “Launch a big project and you will almost surely discover that you have created many things you did not intend to create.”

Wilson also writes that neoconservatism, as Kristol originally conceived of it in the 1960s, was not an organized ideology or even necessarily conservative, but "a way of thinking about politics rather than a set of principles and rules....It would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics."

The skepticism of Schambra, Wilson, and Kristol toward grand legislative policy schemes helps to explain how the law of unintended consequences has made being a member of the so-called "party of no" a more responsible choice than being a member of the so-called party of "yes, we can" -- if these three recent comprehensive bills on health care, climate change, and immigration are the only choices.

Madam President, it is arrogant to imagine that 100 Senators are wise enough to reform comprehensively a health care system that constitutes 17 percent of the world's largest economy and affects 300 million Americans of disparate backgrounds and circumstances.

How can we be sure, for example, that one unintended consequence of spending $2.5 trillion more for health care over 10 years will not be higher costs and more debt? Won't new taxes be passed along to consumers, raising health insurance premiums and discouraging job growth? Won't charging insolvent States $25 billion over 3 years for a Medicaid expansion raise State taxes and college tuitions? Ask any Governor. And how can a Senator be so sure that some provision stuck in a 2,700-page partisan bill in secret meetings and voted on during a snowstorm at 1 a.m. will not come back around and slap him or her in the face, such as trying to explain why Nebraska got a cornhusker kickback to pay for its Medicaid expansion and my State did not?

James Q. Wilson also wrote in his essay that respect for the law of unintended consequences "is not an argument for doing nothing, but it is one, in my view, for doing things experimentally. Try your idea out in one place and see what happens before you inflict it on the whole country," he suggests.

If you will examine the Congressional Record, you will find that Republican Senators have been following Mr. Wilson's advice, proposing a step-by-step approach to confronting our Nation's challenges 173 different times during 2009. May I say that again? During 2009, Republican Senators, 173 different times on the floor of the Senate, have proposed a step-by-step approach toward health care and other of our Nation's challenges.

On health care, for example, we first suggested setting a clear goal; that is, reducing costs. Then we proposed the first six steps toward achieving that goal: No. 1, allowing small businesses to pool their resources to purchase health plans; No. 2, reducing junk lawsuits against doctors; No. 3, allowing the purchase of insurance across State lines; No. 4, expanding health savings accounts; No. 5, promoting wellness and prevention; and No. 6, taking steps to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse. We offered these six proposals in complete legislative text. It totaled 182 pages, all 6. The Democratic majority rejected all six of our proposals and ridiculed the approach, in part because our approach was not comprehensive.

Take another example. In July, all 40 Republican Senators announced agreement on 4 steps to produce low-cost, clean energy and create jobs: No. 1, create 100 new nuclear powerplants or at least the environment in which they could be built; No. 2, electrify half our cars and trucks; No. 3, explore offshore for natural gas and oil; and No. 4, double energy research and development for new forms of energy.

This step-by-step Republican clean energy plan is an alternative to the Kerry-Boxer national energy tax which would impose an economy-wide cap-and-trade scheme, driving jobs overseas looking for cheap energy and collecting hundreds of billions of dollars each year for a slush fund with which Congress can play.

Here is another example. In 2005, a bipartisan group of us in Congress asked the National Academies to identify the first 10 steps Congress should take to preserve America's competitive advantage in the world so we could keep growing jobs. The academies appointed a distinguished panel, including now-Secretary Chu, that recommended 20 such steps. Congress enacted two-thirds of them. The America COMPETES Act of 2007, as we call it, was far-reaching legislation, but it was fashioned step by step.

Another example. When I was Governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, my goal was to raise family incomes for what was then the third poorest State. As I went along, I found that the best way to move toward that goal was step by step -- some steps smaller, some steps larger -- such as changing banking laws, defending right-to-work policies, keeping debt and taxes low, recruiting Japanese industry, and then the auto industry, building four-lane highways so suppliers could get to the auto plants, and then a 10-step better schools program, 1 step of which made Tennessee the first State to pay teachers more for teaching well. I did not try to turn our whole State upside down all at once, but working with leaders in both parties, I did help it change and grow step by step. Within a few years, we were the fastest growing State in family incomes.

According to a recent survey by On Message Inc., 61 percent of Independents, 60 percent of ticket splitters, and 77 percent of Republicans answered yes to the following question: I would rather see Congress take a more thoughtful step-by-step approach focusing on commonsense reforms.

Human experience has always taught that enough small steps in the right direction is one good way to get you where you want to go and also a good way along the way to avoid many unexpected and unpleasant consequences.

Tuesday's election in Massachusetts is the latest reminder that the American people are tired of risky, comprehensive schemes featuring taxes, debt, and Washington takeovers, as well as lots of hidden and unexpected surprises. It is time to declare that the era of the 1,000-page bill is over or the era of the 2,000-page bill is over or the era of the 2,700-page bill is over. A wise approach would be to set a clear goal, such as reducing health care costs, take a few steps in that direction and then a few more so that we can start solving the country's problems in a way that reearns the trust of the American people.

Madam President, I ask unanimous to have printed in the Record an article from the Wall Street Journal of Monday, September 21, written by James Q. Wilson, an article by David Broder from the Washington Post of September 24, and an article from the magazine National Affairs written by William Schambra.