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Public Statements

National Conference of State Legislatures

Location: Louisville, KY

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell made the following remarks Monday before the National Conference of State Legislatures:

Thank you, and welcome to Louisville. We're all happy to have you here. I think the restaurant owners are pretty happy too. I hope you'll take some time to explore the city and enjoy everything it has to offer. It's a great town.

Speaker Pelosi had to travel a lot farther to get here than I did, so I also want to thank her for coming. It's a privilege for Louisville to host the National Conference of State Legislatures' this year, and it's a privilege to host the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

You know, some people look at Washington and wonder why the lawmakers up there can't just get along. And if any of you happen to be in that camp, let me reassure you we all get along just fine. But there's a big difference between getting along and agreeing on the issues. And the fact is, the two parties have very different views on most of the major issues. And it's important for lawmakers to be candid about those differences. It's good for public discourse, it's good for democracy, and it's good for voters, because people should know exactly who they're voting for.

So this morning I'd like to explain the Republican approach to some of the issues we've faced over the past year and a half in Washington, why we've done what we've done, and why I think our approach to these issues has been better for the states and for the country as a whole.

I'll start with the differences.

One fundamental difference between the parties in Washington, in my view, is the apparent belief by some that Washington knows best -- that distant bureaucrats and lawmakers inside the Beltway have a better grasp of what ails people out here in places like Louisville than you do, and that they have a right to impose their prescriptions on people whether they like it or not.

Now, that may sound like an oversimplification, but it happens to be the chief complaint I get from constituents when I'm here at home: they think Washington doesn't care what they think. And if you look at the approach some in Washington have taken over the past year and a half, it's easy to see why. From the Stimulus to health care to the financial regulatory bill, Kentuckians and a lot of other people out there asked for one thing, and they got another.

A number of significant, far-reaching pieces of legislation have been rushed through Congress on a party-line vote in the teeth of public opposition and, as we saw with health care, even in the face of widespread public outrage.

So there's a serious and sustained disconnect between some in Washington and the rest of the country on issues that have a major impact on people's lives.

And it doesn't appear to be getting any better. As many Americans awakened to our debt crisis, the President proposed a budget that would double the national debt in five years and triple it in 10. As they worried about the jobs crisis, they watched the administration pass a trillion dollar stimulus bill that hasn't kept us from losing another two and a half million jobs. As Americans worried about the rising cost of health care, Washington handed them a health care bill that no one believes will actually lower the cost or improve the quality of care. Even the government's own experts say we'll end up spending more.

None of these bills has done or is expected to do any of the things we were told they would. But I'll tell you one thing they all do: they centralize more power in Washington -- and add more burdens out here. No wonder Americans have a growing sense that they serve Washington, not the other way around. And no wonder they're upset; because it wasn't meant to be this way.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that the states created the federal government, not the other way around. Leave aside for a moment the debate about the exact meaning of the 10th Amendment and the doctrine of enumerated powers. People may argue about these things. But one thing we can all agree on is that over the past year and a half, Washington has assumed vast new powers that make life more difficult, not less, for states and individuals.

We all read a lot about the separation of powers in our civics classes in high school. But when we've reached the point in this republic or ours when the federal government in Washington is pushing states already on the edge of bankruptcy with job-killing taxes, mandates, and regulations, it's time we start hearing about separating Washington from the things that are done better by the states.

This is why Republicans have fought these Washington-driven solutions tooth and nail -- not just because they cost too much, but because they take more power away from you and the people you are elected to serve.

For years, states have allowed the federal government to tighten its grip and extend its reach into their affairs. I get it: nobody wants to say no to free money. The problem is, none of it's really free. Every dollar comes with a condition and a caveat. Every free gift whittles away a little at the freedom states and individuals have to make their own decisions.

The best example of this is the recently-passed health care bill. Republicans were willing to work on commonsense solutions that would lower costs. But when the debate about costs turned into proposals to raise taxes and to cut Medicare -- all to expand the government -- Republicans opposed it. It's our view that bureaucrats in Washington have no right to force anybody to buy health insurance. It's our view that states shouldn't be forced to put millions of new people into Medicaid, particularly when state budgets can't afford these mandates.

Here in Kentucky, the impact of this bill will be severe. The new health care law will force 350,000 Kentuckians into Medicaid at a time when the state is already struggling to afford the beneficiaries it currently serves. Once fully implemented, one in four Kentuckians will get their care through a program that was originally created to help the poor and which is already on the verge of bankruptcy. Nationwide, 33 states will see their Medicaid enrollment jump by 30 percent or more because of this bill, even as more authority for setting rules and benefits is transferred -- not to Frankfort, Sacramento or Albany -- but to Washington.

So while the President and Democrat leaders in Washington patted each other on the back for passing the health care bill, the states were left to wonder how they could afford it. Washington doesn't have that problem. It doesn't have to balance its budget like most of you do.

When it came to achieving their long-desired goal of universal health care, Democrats in Washington simply wrote the law, raised taxes, slashed Medicare, and sent a hefty bill to you too. And you know as well as I do that writing a law that guarantees coverage to folks on Medicaid doesn't necessarily mean that they'll actually receive care. That's the clear lesson from all the other governments that have gone in the direction of government-run health care.

You know, the pundits in Washington like to think that Republicans only ever oppose things for two reasons: either we're mean-spirited, or we think it'll help us in the next election. It doesn't seem to occur to them that Washington doesn't have a very good track record of tackling big problems.

I mean, what about the government's response to the Gulf oil spill or the impact of the trillion dollar Stimulus bill makes you want to give more power to Washington? What about the financial meltdown would make you want to give more power to the same regulators who missed it the first time? And yet that's exactly how Washington operates these days. Problem after problem goes unmet. Crises spread. Meanwhile, Washington gets bigger and accrues more power.

The pundits can't seem to imagine that we would have opposed these bills because we actually don't trust Washington to get them right. It doesn't seem to occur to them that we've got 50 other legislative bodies in this country that might have some good ideas themselves. All of us benefit when the states are able to perform their traditional role as laboratories of Democracy.

We saw what this looked like with the historic welfare reforms that passed in 1996 -- one of the great bipartisan achievements of this generation.

Successful welfare reforms didn't originate from a backroom deal in Washington.

They were the result of enterprising governors and legislators who were sick of a status quo that trapped generations in poverty in Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere. A decade later, all of the doom and gloom of the Washington naysayers who said it could not be done were proven wrong.

A massive entitlement was reformed, and millions of Americans saw a path out of dependency.

It isn't just a good idea for states to be empowered in this way. It's critical if we hope to solve the many challenges we face. States have led the way in the past by providing innovative solutions. We shouldn't inhibit them from providing those same models now.

Here's how the two leaders of the Utah Senate and the Utah House of Representatives put it in an op-ed in the Washington Post: "We don't believe," they wrote, "that 535 members of Congress and the president can educate our children, provide, our health care, pave our roads and protect our environment as well as the nation's 8,000 state legislators and tens of thousands of local officials."

It's hard to argue with that.

It's time to take a stand for federalism.

The issue here isn't simply who's in control. Increasingly, it's also a question of who's accountable.

The more states are dependent on Washington, the harder it is for voters to figure out who to hold accountable when programs don't work, needs aren't met, or red tape and regulation hold them back.

This is what federalism is all about -- creating clear lines of authority close enough to the people so the public can actually say, with Jefferson, that our government does in fact derive its powers from the consent of the governed.

The fact is, that's becoming harder and harder to say. As more federal dollars flow into the states, accountability flows out. And it's tough to reverse that trend.

Consider this: During the Kennedy Administration, according to one study, federal funds as a percentage of state expenditures stood at 12.9%. By the middle of the Carter Administration the percentage had doubled. President Reagan promised to do something about this trend of greater federal control, and he actually had some success in reversing the trend. By 1987, the percentage of federal funds as a percentage of state expenditures had dropped to just 25%. But the trend toward greater federal spending as a percentage of state expenditures has only soared in the opposite direction since then -- and it's getting worse.

USA Today recently reported that for the first time, the federal government is now biggest single source of revenue for state and local governments -- more than state income tax, more than sales tax, more than property tax.

I don't need to tell you that all these funds come at a steep price in the form of lost independence and flexibility. And this growing dependency on Uncle Sam means something else for states as well. As states accept more money from Washington, their own fiscal condition becomes inextricably tied up with the federal government. Our irresponsibility becomes your problem.

This makes it harder for states to implement innovative fiscal solutions that work for them, and it threatens to keep them down when they might otherwise be doing just fine on their own.

The good news is this: all across the country people are awakening to the dangers of centralizing more and more power in Washington. We saw it in the health care rallies last summer. And increasingly we're even seeing it in state legislatures. I noticed, for example, that your sister organization, the Council of State Governments, recently passed a resolution affirming states' sovereignty under the 10th Amendment. And a number of other states have passed resolutions asserting states rights. According to the Council, upwards of 40 states have now introduced either resolutions or new legislation seeking to curb federal mandates and the assumption of powers

People are tired of being pushed around by Washington, and state lawmakers from both parties are getting tired of it too. We heard from a lot of them during the health care debate. They don't like the unfunded mandates. They don't like the regulations. They don't like having to answer to Washington instead of their constituents. Meanwhile, ordinary Americans continue to stand up and speak out, even if the response they get from Democrats in Washington is to sit down and shut up.

For a lot of Americans, the debate over health care was a turning point.

Opposition is still fierce. More than 20 states are challenging the bill. We'll see what the courts say. My own view is that the federal government in Washington has no right to force the American people to buy health insurance against their will. And it has no right to act as if money is no object when states have to balance the books, and the massive federal debt is being passed to our children.

That's why I've helped lead the charge in Washington against continued deficit spending. And that's why I've voted in the past for a balanced budget amendment. As Margaret Thatcher once put it, at some point you simply run out of other people's money. For the sake of our children, we can't afford to get to that point.

I know it's become fashionable in some quarters to refer to Republicans as the Party of No. But if we regularly voted for things we opposed, we wouldn't be worth much. The American people wouldn't have anywhere to turn if the party in power gets carried away. And it's clear to me at least that most Americans now believe the party in power got carried away.

Republicans could have gone along with the crowd and gotten behind the government-driven solutions that Democrats have proposed to virtually every problem we face. Instead, we took principled stands against that approach.

As a result, most people came around to our point of view, particularly on spending, health care, and debt. Now they're coming around on the danger of centralizing too much power in Washington.

Toward the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a friend in which summed up his view of the states and their relationship to the federal government. Let me read just one part of it.

"The states," Jefferson wrote, "can best govern our home concerns, and the General Government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore, to see maintained that wholesome distribution of powers established by the constitution for the limitation of both; and never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold as at the market."

This doesn't have to be a Republican issue.

The dangers of ceding too much control to Washington is something I know everybody in this room, Democrat or Republican, can appreciate and understand.

And on this most important issue for the states, I assure you that Republicans are fighting for you in Washington.

Thank you.

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