Meeting Challenges: A Way Forward for Congress
Remarks of U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (as prepared for delivery) National Press Club, January 23, 2009
"Thank you, Donna. I also want to thank John Donnelly of Congressional Quarterly for inviting me here today. I'm delighted to be here, and I'm honored to be joined by such a distinguished group of reporters.
"For more than a century, the National Press Club has served a vital national purpose as a forum for newsmakers and those who cover them. A free press is essential to our Democracy. And today I thought I'd come over here to look for some free press.
"This past Tuesday, millions of Americans who are old enough to remember past inaugurations were reminded of one of the great hallmarks of our republic, and millions of young people experienced for the first time the rejuvenating effect of the peaceful transfer of power. Of all our civic rituals, few elicit the same feelings of national pride at home or more admiration abroad.
"But the inauguration of President Obama was somehow different, and not only because we were moved at seeing an African American take the oath of office from the steps of a building built by slaves. This year's inauguration was different because this year's election was different.
"For the first time in awhile, America has a president who isn't viewed by most people as an overly polarizing figure. Americans are intrigued by President Obama's promise of post-partisanship. And this afternoon I'd like to share some of my thoughts on the possibility of a new era of cooperation.
"As others have noted, the President does not govern alone. He can't sign a bill Congress hasn't already passed. He can't spend money Congress hasn't appropriated. If President Obama's promise of post-partisanship is to be realized, he'll first need some cooperation from Congress.
"And so, in the spirit of overcoming divisions, let me start out by saying that I agree with President Obama's assertion on Tuesday that many of today's problems are simply too great for us to pass over in the interest of protecting narrow interests. The normal constituencies must be widened.
"On issue after issue, members of both parties have too often fallen into the habit of asking narrow interest groups what they think should be done about something before thinking about what the average American thinks should be done.
"This is how a group like CodePink could end up having so much influence in a national debate about the conduct of a war. This is why a prominent labor leader thinks he can tell a reporter that he expects payback' from Democrats for the support he gave them during last year's elections. And this is how vulgar insults hurled from overcaffeinated activists can suddenly pass for legitimate political discourse.
"When these things happen, it's easy to see why cynicism about government persists.
"And it's easy to see why something needs to change.
"Both sides are guilty. Republicans need to reevaluate the way decisions are made in Washington, and so do Democrats. But one thing is clear: every decision cannot be made based on a political calculation because the usual interest groups so seldom agree.
"President Obama seems to understand this. His campaign was based on the notion that ordinary Americans would have a seat at the table in his administration. And broadening the old constituencies is, as he has suggested, one sure way to uphold that pledge.
"Once we do this, there are many issues on which we can cooperate. President Obama mentioned several of them on the campaign trail: reducing the national debt, increasing energy independence, and lowering taxes. There are others. But achieving any one of them will be impossible without cooperation between both parties in Congress and between Congress and the White House.
"Now, I realize that if you told most people Mitch McConnell was down at the National Press Club hoping for bipartisanship, they'd tell you that's like an insurance agent hoping for an earthquake. Most people don't exactly view me as the Mr. Rogers of the Senate. But, respectfully, I think reporters too often confuse being conservative with being partisan. And while my voting record clearly reflects my core values, it also reflects a long commitment to working with others.
"Senator Feinstein has been my closest collaborator in fighting human rights abuses in Burma. For years, I worked alongside Senator Dodd on the Senate Rules Committee, where we teamed up to pass the Help America Vote Act. And more recently, I took a lead role in brokering a bipartisan financial rescue plan just a few weeks before my own reelection bid in November.
"I fought for the rescue package because I thought the country needed it, even though my party could have done without it and I ended up paying for my efforts. Soon after the deal was struck, one of the very people who had sat at the negotiating table with me ended up running ads against me on that very issue. He saw that it made me vulnerable back home, and tried to capitalize on it politically, which I certainly didn't expect. But these are the risks that politicians have to take from time to time in order to achieve something worthwhile. And it's a risk I was willing to take.
"There was, of course, a time when working on a bipartisan basis to achieve big things for the nation didn't mean exposing oneself to attack ads by one's own colleagues. For years, the Senate was a place where real friendships across party lines were common. One thinks of the breakfast meetings between Mike Mansfield and George Aiken; or Jim Eastland and Gaylord Nelson men as far apart ideologically as you could find spending time together after a long day's work. My Senate mentor, John Sherman Cooper, had a close relationship with President Kennedy.
"These friendships were always good for the Senate, and occasionally they paid major dividends for the whole country. One of the great examples of this in the modern era is the Social Security fix of 1983, brokered by Pat Moynihan and Bob Dole. And it's an example we could learn a lot from today.
"As Moynihan later recalled it, the genesis of that particular achievement came on the morning of January 3, 1983. Dole had published an op-ed piece in that day's edition of the New York Times' in which he said that Republicans were eager to accomplish big things in the coming year.
"He cited Social Security as a case in point, arguing that the looming insolvency of Social Security should overwhelm every other domestic priority. By accelerating already-scheduled taxes and reducing future benefit increases, Dole said, Social Security could be made solvent for decades.
"At some point later in the day, Moynihan approached Dole on the Senate floor. If Dole really thought Social Security could be saved, he said, why not try to do it together? Well, 13 days later, an agreement was reached, and the Social Security crisis had passed.
"Twenty years later, Bob Dole could say that he had been the longest serving Republican Leader in history and the Republican nominee for president of the United States. But when a reporter asked him what he considered his proudest accomplishments in a lifetime of public service, the first thing that came to mind was the Social Security fix of 1983. Dole explained it this way: Those things that are lasting are bipartisan. If you don't have a consensus, it's not going to last.'
"This kind of bipartisan consensus has been increasingly rare in recent years, and the nation has suffered as a result. We saw this four years ago, when President Bush, newly re-elected and with expanded Republican majorities in Congress, had the courage to put Social Security reform on the agenda. When he asked for bipartisan help, not one Democrat in Congress stepped forward. Every single one of them turned his or her back, reflexively choosing politics over governing and the nation lost out on an opportunity to fix a crucial program in desperate need of reform.
"Today, Democrats have substantial majorities in the Senate and the House. They control the White House. And now Democrats assume responsibility for a number of pressing problems including the one they refused to face in 2005. The problem with entitlement spending has not gone away.
"On Social Security in particular, the situation is increasingly dire: in 1950, 16 workers paid for every one person who received Social Security benefits. Today, it's about 3 workers per beneficiary. And within 10 years times, more money will be coming out of the Social Security fund than going in.
"Looking at entitlements in general, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs will soon consume about twice the percentage of the federal budget they did four decades ago. If we don't rein this spending in, soon we'll have only have a fraction left for things like defense, roads, bridges, and special ed. And this is not a problem that raising taxes will solve. In order to meet all our current entitlement promises, we'd have to extract $495,000 from every American household.
"The expansion of entitlement spending is a looming crisis that has been overlooked for too long. And with control of the White House and big majorities in Congress, Democrats now owe it to the American people to put their power to work on this vital issue. And here's my pledge: If they do so, they can expect more cooperation from Republicans than the last President received from them.
"President Obama has said he wants to tackle the entitlements crisis. But in order to succeed, he'll have to continue to reject the hyper partisanship that exists in some quarters of Congress. And he will have to engage Republicans on the merits of our ideas.
"The good news is that most people think ideas should be assessed on their merits, not on the senator or the president who proposes them. Our new President seems to think the same thing. And as Senate Republican Leader, I also pledge to make this is a firm principle in my dealings with the Obama Administration.
"President Obama's campaign reminded many in Washington, including many Republicans, of the aspirations that the Americans people have about their government. People want their leaders to work together to solve problems, not to set traps. The challenge now is for both parties to cooperate, not just in word but in deed.
"In all this, politics will have its place. But at this moment, achieving big things for the country is where my ambitions lie. Voters from both parties think Washington is broken. And that's a shame. But if both parties have helped create this cynical view of government, then both parties will have to work to correct it. And we can start, once the current debate over the Stimulus is through, by working to reform Social Security and Medicare.
"In this and in other efforts, there will be disagreements. But they can be principled disagreements, and the result of principled disagreement is often principled cooperation. The result won't satisfy everyone. As Bob Dole said of the 1983 Social Security fix, No one got everything, and everyone got something.'
"But many of the domestic problems we face are simply too great to kick the can down the road any longer. We need to summon the courage to act on issues that are of grave concern to our nation's future. And the long-term sustainability of entitlements is one of them.
"As Republicans look for common ground in this and other areas where legislative progress can be made, some will no doubt accuse us of compromise. But those who do so will be confusing compromise with cooperation. And anyone who belittles cooperation resigns him or herself to a state of permanent legislative gridlock. And that is simply no longer acceptable to the American people.
"President Obama has shown himself to be a man of legislative ambition. He reaffirmed this on Tuesday when he called on the country to recognize collective failures, and when he called on politicians to step up to the unpleasant tasks and seek first the interests of the whole.
"Make no mistake: Some of our new President's proposals will be met with strong, principled resistance from me and from others. But many of his ambitions show real potential for bipartisan cooperation. And if we see sensible, bipartisan proposals, Republicans will choose bipartisan solutions over partisan failures every time.
"Thank you very much."