Remarks by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) at the Congressional City Conference of the League of Cities

By:  Joe Biden, Jr.
Date: March 13, 2007
Location: Washington, DC

Remarks by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) at the Congressional City Conference of the League of Cities

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SEN. BIDEN: Thank you very much. I told Senator Dodd I would clean up for him. (Laughter.) You just heard from one of the truly, truly good senators. This is a guy, Chris Dodd, who not only is right on the issues, but he knows how it's done. When Chris Dodd makes a commitment, he keeps a commitment. We're all in public life. You know how rare that's getting to be. So I'm happy to associate myself with Chris Dodd. You heard from a great guy.

Ladies and gentlemen, before I begin I want to recognize parochially the Delaware delegations here, but I want to recognize -- I don't know where he is -- sort of the dean, the dean of the League of Cities in my state, the first African-American mayor ever elected to any city in my state, a former military man, a guy who has continued to lead, Mayor George Wright.

George, are you here? Where are you? (Applause.) Anyway, okay. This guy's forgotten more about this organization than most people learn.

Kathleen, thank you very much for the invitation and the introduction.

Let me get right to it, folks.

I know you're going to hear from an awful lot of us today, and I think that is good. I know I don't have to all of us, so I think it's good. But I think it's good in the sense that we are moving the issues that you live with every day finally back up on the agenda for debate. That's what this is all about -- changing the public dialogue.

Ladies and Gentlemen, whether you're Democrats or Republicans, and I know you're both, assembled in this room, as a former county councilman, as someone who has worked with the League, which is a separate organization, obviously, for my entire career in the United States Senate, I don't think there is going to be much disagreement with what I'm about to say. We've been dug into a fairly deep hole over the last little bit. Americans are more uncertain about their future, in my view, than they have been in the last 50 years. And American people are looking, I think, for someone with depth and breadth of knowledge in national security issues who they can trust not only to deal with what might be left over in terms of the war in Iraq, but what everybody knows is going to be a difficult decade ahead, even if tomorrow we could wave a wand and the situation in Iraq was totally cleared up. America is more isolated than it has been any time in my lifetime.

And so the fact of the matter is that it seems to me as I stand before you again this year, and I've had the privilege of speaking to you almost every year, no one knows better than those of you assembled, and I'm not being gratuitous nor am I being solicitous to you local officials, no one knows better than you, because every single day you confront it, that in your attempt to deliver services and vital needs to the people -- we in Washington are insulated. They know where you live. You're there. You're in the street.

You know they talk to you about health care. They talk to you about safe neighborhoods. They talk to you about jobs when the plants close. And they talk to you about the need for a good education.

And ladies and gentlemen, it seems to me -- every four years, the American people put out an application for their next president. And every year, the job description changes slightly in terms of what is needed and what the American people are looking for. In my experience, in my observation, not only in my home state but in many of your states, what I've observed is, the job description reads, wanted: someone to restore America's place in the world.

Wanted: someone to reinvigorate the middle class again. Because the middle class is getting battered, and we are isolated.

But in order to deal with either of these two issues, it's necessary that we regain our flexibility and our credibility in order to be able to deal with them, our credibility internationally and our flexibility here at home to deal with the problems you face every single day. And I know I am ofttimes referenced as, quote, "Being this new foreign policy expert." Well, you all know the deal. A(n) expert's anyone from out of town with a briefcase. (Laughter.)

I don't have a briefcase, but I have a very firm view that in order for us to get about the problems of restoring our place in the world and restoring the middle class and putting you in a position to be able to deliver the services that you know are needed, there's sort of a big boulder sitting in the middle of the road. It's called Iraq. Our children and grandchildren will write about this period and be able to say with certainty there were things equally as important and more important than Iraq. But nothing -- nothing that presents as much of an impediment for us today (but which ?) deals with the problems of the world and the problems of our neighborhoods.

So, ladies and gentlemen, the first order of business is what do we do about Iraq -- a war we were taken to unnecessarily, without letting the weapons inspectors do their job, without enough troops, without the right equipment when we sent our troops or without the adequate care for the troops we have taken home; but most of all, a war we went to without a plan -- without a plan, any plan at all. And the price of that failure can be measured at least in three ways.

The most graphic is the blood we have shed -- 2,233 (sic) dead. I was in this very room two weeks ago speaking to NATO, and the number was 3,173. Today, it's 3,233. It continues to climb. Over 23,000 wounded.

Those of you men and women who are veterans of other wars know the casualty rate. The good news is we're saving thousands of people, troops who would have died in the battlefield 20 years ago, and we have more severe head injuries, more amputees on a per capita basis than any war we've fought since the civil war. Over a trillion dollars this war is going to cost us, according to the Nobel laureate Stiglitz -- economics -- it may cost as much as two trillion at the end. And the truth of the matter is we're irresponsible here in Washington; we're not paying for it. We're passing it onto my children and my grandchildren to pay for it.

But maybe, maybe the unspoken cost is the inability to attend to the needs of our neighborhoods. Ladies and gentlemen, this war must end. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, while leaving Iraq may be a necessity, it is not a plan. In Washington you've observed us as you've come year after year engaging ofttimes in false debates, debates with false choices. We continue that on Iraq. On one side we hear, "Continue the failing course, just put more into it." On the other side we hear voices in Washington that say in both parties, "Leave now and hope for the best." Neither answer answers the critical two-word question that history will judge us by: Then what? That's the question you must ask all of us here when we tell you what we think should be done in Iraq. If you do what I say, the question is: Then what?

Ladies and gentlemen, we need a plan. We need a plan for what we leave behind so we don't trade a dictator for chaos. Everyone agrees, every single person, from the president to Joe Biden to everyone in the Congress, that there is no military solution to Iraq. How many times have you heard that? And everybody says there's a need for a political solution.

I'm going to say something that reveals my naivete as well as my judgment. Ladies and gentlemen, the only person -- not because I'm the smartest guy on the block, but some argue because I am reckless in laying out what I think we should do -- I'm the only person in either party that's laid out a specific political solution, not generic, specific. Without boring you with the detail, go on my website, joebiden.com. Others have offered in both parties, including the president, ideas -- escalate to give breathing room. Breathing room for what? Cap troops to stop the escalation, then what? Benchmarks, conditional and non-conditional, then what? What is the political solution?

They'll allow us to leave Iraq with our interests in tact. My son's a captain in the National Guard. His unit has not gone yet. They may, I don't know. I'm concerned about that, but I'm equally concerned that depending on how we leave we're not put in a position where I send back my grandson or my granddaughter. That's equally as important. (Applause.)

So, ladies and gentlemen, I believe I have a plan that meets the test of "Then what?" The good news is that it's been embraced by an increasing number of foreign policy experts, military people and civilian people. It's referred to -- and you've read a lot about it; it's been banged around and it's been dissected internationally and nationally -- it's called the Biden-Gelb plan. And it has three essential pieces to it. And the pieces are born out of our experience and our knowledge of history. Whenever there's been a self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence, there's never been a circumstance in history where it has ended other than one of four ways:

The parties physically expire; one wins. We cannot afford that, for fear of that war metastasizing into the region.

The second option is an empire to occupy -- the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, the British Empire. We are not an empire. We have no desire to occupy.

The third option is a dictator. Wouldn't that be the ultimate irony? Seriously, think about it. It's equally as likely an option. Wouldn't that be the ultimate irony if we traded one dictator for another?

But there's a fourth option, and it's the only one remaining and the one I've been pushing for a long time. It's called federalism. You must give the parties breathing room. If you want Iraq to stay together, you must give them breathing room within that state.

That's not just born of a historical analysis. It's been my extensive experience in the Balkans. I'm the one who is both given praise and derided for convincing President Clinton to go to war in the Balkans.

We went to war in the Balkans. For the last 10 years, NATO has had, on average, over 20,000 troops there, including American troops. Not one American troop has died being shot in anger. We've ended the genocide. The self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence from Vlad the Impaler to Milosevic has ended.

How did we do it? How did we do it? We did it with a thing called the Dayton peace accords.

What did we do? We gave each of the parties breathing room in their own space, with a loosely federated government.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have to give breathing room to the Sunnis, the Shi'a and Kurds in their own regions, with control over their own local police, with control over the fabric of their daily lives -- marriage, education, religion, the very things they're killing each other over.

We have to have a central government that has loosely federated responsibilities -- border, currencies, the army.

We have to guarantee, as the constitution promises, the Sunnis a fair share of the oil. Oil should be the thing that binds this country together, not divides it.

And we have to begin to draw down our troops, forcing the Iraqi leaders to reach a political settlement.

But most of all, ladies and gentlemen, we have to make Iraq the world's problem, not just ours. The world's problem. By that I mean were I your president today -- and I called for this well over a year ago -- I would call for the Security Council of the United Nations and the Permanent Five to call for a conference on Iraq, where the major powers -- including Germany, which is not part of the Permanent Five; the major Islamic nations, from Malaysia, from Indonesia to India, Pakistan and Egypt -- would be part of this deal, whereby we would agree upon the political solution that their constitution calls for and impose from the world pressure upon the Iranians, the Turks, the Saudis and the Syrians to abide by that arrangement because it's in their own naked self-interest.

This is doable, ladies and gentlemen. But escalating this war is not an answer; it's a tragic mistake. And here's what the mistake results in:

We're going to spend $100 billion this year in Iraq. One hundred billion. Add to that just one small sliver of the tax cut for those people whose average income is $1.47 million a year; that tax cut averages over the next 10 years $85 billion a year.

Imagine, imagine what we could do for our people if we were able to redirect $185 billion in expenditures -- to homeland security, law enforcement, health care, education, community development. Imagine. Imagine what we could do.

For $26 billion, we can provide health care for all of the 9 million children in America who are uninsured. Bang. For $26 billion.

Education. For $14 billion, we can for the first time fund No Child Left Behind so we don't leave our children and school districts behind, that land on your doorstep, on your lap. (Applause.)

Immigration. For $2 billion a year, we can close ranks along the 6,000-mile border between Mexico, the United States, Canada and the United States with real border security that the federal government should shoulder. Let me ask you all a question. Just raise your hand. How many of you, in your prison systems, how many of you, in your systems in terms of impact on your police forces are dealing with illegal immigration? Raise your hand. Who's paying for that? You all are paying for that. If that's not a federal responsibility, I don't know what is a federal responsibility.

Ladies and gentlemen, for $8 billion, we could double the Community Development Block Grants, allowing you to build sound communities, invest in development and infrastructure. The infrastructure of this country is the very thing that's going to carry our economic growth, and it's being neglected in the extreme.

Ladies and gentlemen, for $2 billion, we could do what my friend from Connecticut was just talking about. We could deal with housing, fully fund Section 8 Voucher Programs for public housing and operation and capital funds. We could restore and expand HOPE VI Program, revitalizing depressed housing areas.

And for a mere billion dollars a year under the Biden COP Program, we could add 50,000 more cops, as my bill calls for. We could provide them with the equipment they need. We could give you the flexibility relating to overtime and equipment.

For $2.1 billion, which is cost of what we incentivize ExxonMobil to go drill for oil, as if they need it with a $36.5 billion profit last year -- that's absurd; by the way, that's the energy bill -- $2.1 billion to incentivize the oil companies. As my grandmother would say, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been two weeks since my last confession." Let me tell you something, that's needed about as much as I need to carry this podium back to my office. (Laughter.) But, ladies and gentlemen, for $2.1 billion, we can fully fund the Biden crime bill, including the Byrne grants, including COPS, including the ENTIRE -- ENTIRE crime bill. And what happens when you had that crime bill? For eight years in a row, violent crime declined every single year, and it declined at a very time when the economy was down and those in the crime-committing years were growing. It works.

My dad used to have used to have an expression.

He used to say, don't tell me what you value; show me your budget and I'll tell you what you value. Show me your budget and I'll tell you what you value. (Applause.)

Next time someone tells you the Crime Bill doesn't work, call me, but -- don't even have to do that. Just get the Brookings study that was just recently released. Our Crime Bill, when we were funding it, saved the taxpayers billions of dollars.

Let me give you one example. For every dollar vested in the COPS program, society gets back between $6 and $12 in eliminating cost to victims, the courts and the prison system. This is a good investment. There's room in the budget for the COPS program; there's room in the budget for burn grants; there's room in the budget for drug treatment. We've just got to get our priorities straight.

And ladies and gentlemen, we're debating homeland security. For $10 billion, we can in fact implement every single solitary recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which has not been, emphasize, has not been, almost criminally not been implemented. The 30 largest cities in America today -- well over 26 of them have no interoperability to be able to communicate. What happens with another Katrina? What happens -- God forbid -- with another 9/11? The ability of the police departments to communicate with the National Guard and the military during an emergency does not exist in most of your cities.

In the Senate this week, we should finish this legislation, but it's going to be hard to get it by the president. And we should also pay for it. We should pay for it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'll give you one little example and get out of your hair. My local folks -- and I listen to my towns; I listen to my cities -- they point out to me when -- any of you from North Dakota? You remember when that 90-ton gas tanker -- I mean that chlorine gas tanker -- leaked and you had to evacuate a couple of your cities, small towns?

Do you know what I did? I went to the NRI, the Naval Research Institute. And I said, what would happen if in fact somebody put C2 underneath one of those tankers as it's going through a major metropolitan area, and it exploded? Go on my website and you'll see the results.

You know what they said? Up to 100,000 Americans would die. You hear me now -- one chlorine gas tanker. So I asked a question: Why can't we reroute them around the major population centers making it a great target? Well, they said the cost is too much. The cost is too much.

So I have a little bill we're going to vote on this afternoon, after my first amendment was denied. My amendment takes the decisions out of the hands of the private rail companies, and gives it to the Department of Homeland Security so they can work with you.

You can pick up the phone and say, "We've got a problem." Why should the rail companies be making that decision, knowing what is available to terrorists? And this is not "Alice in Wonderland" stuff. This is real. This is real.

Ladies and gentlemen, you all know the score, because you're right there, as that old trite expression goes, where the rubber meets the road. You all get it. Until we have a sound foreign policy that ends this war and a sound tax policy that helps local communities, we can't seriously address many of the issues, from infrastructure to crime.

As I said, my dad used to say, "Show me your budget, I'll tell you what you value." So regardless of your politics, there's not a single woman or man in here, I would dare say, who doesn't share the fundamental and indispensable goal of both the political parties, and that is to pass on to our children a community better than we inherited. Ask yourself the rhetorical question: Based on our priorities today, are we likely to do that? Are we likely to pass on to our children a town, a neighborhood, a community better than we inherited?

So I say to you, when your critics as you go up on the Hill to ask for help, when they tell you, "We can't afford it," ask them what they think we can afford. Ask them whether or not it's more important to rebuild a firehouse in Baghdad or down along the Gulf Coast. Ask them whether or not people making in the top 1 percent, who are just as patriotic as poor folks, ask them whether or not it's a higher priority for that tax cut -- which costs $600 billion -- whether that is more important than restoring your city to have potable water, have a police department that can function.

Ladies and gentlemen, we can afford all this. This is not Democrat or Republican. This is about America's priorities. In answer to the question are we going to leave the neighborhood better for our kids than we found it, we can, we will and we should, and the American people are ready to do it. And I pledge to you my support to help you to deliver those services.

Thank you all very much. (Applause.) Thank you very much.