Search Form
First, enter a politician or zip code
Now, choose a category

Public Statements

FDA Food Safety Modernization Act--Motion to Proceed

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. BURRIS. Madam President, as you know, one of the first duties delegated to freshman Senators is the high honor of presiding over the Senate. I remember the very first time I sat where you are sitting now, Madam President. Throughout my time as a Member of this august body, I have had the opportunity to spend more than 200 hours in the Presiding Officer's chair and have earned two Golden Gavels. I also had the honor of delivering our first President's--President George Washington's--Farewell Address on his birthday of this year to this august body.

From the chair, I have had the opportunity to listen to the words of my colleagues and reflect upon the great debate that unfolds each and every day--as it has always done throughout our Nation's history--in this, the greatest deliberative body in the world.

We come to this Chamber from every State in the Union--Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. Each of us carries the solemn responsibility of giving voice to the concerns of those we represent. Although we do not always agree, as the debate on this floor will often show, I am always struck by the passion that drives each and every Senator to stand in this singular place in the world and to speak their mind. It is this passion that will always define this Chamber for me. For all the weight of history--for all the great and eloquent sentiments that have been expressed by our forefathers--on a fundamental level this remains a very human place.

We stand today, as the Members of this body have done frequently throughout our great Republic's history, at a critical moment. Partisanship and obstructionism threaten to somewhat paralyze this great institution. But it is a testament to the inherent wisdom and durability of the Senate--of the rules and the tradition that govern this institution--that even in the face of great discord we have had the high privilege of serving in the most productive Congress in generations.

Despite our many differences, I believe the men and women who make up this Senate remain its greatest strength. It has been the honor of my lifetime to once again represent the people of Illinois and to do so in the Senate. First, as a cabinet member for our Governor, as the Illinois State comptroller, and as Illinois attorney general, the people of my State placed in me a sacred trust and one that throughout my 30 years in public service I made into my life's work: to serve the people of my State to the very best of my ability.

In my younger years, shortly after graduating from law school at Howard University, not far from where we stand today, I was turned off by a city with far too much government. I headed to Chicago, convinced that I would not return to this city unless I could be an effective and meaningful part of the solution to the many challenges we face and dreaming of a time I might come back to Washington as a Senator or as Vice President of the United States.

That dream took longer to achieve than I could have imagined that day, but in a towering testament to the vibrancy of the American dream, that day came. After decades of experience in the executive branch of Illinois government, I was sworn in as a Senator for Illinois, and this became my first introduction to serving as a legislator. It was the steepest of learning curves, but with the warm assistance of my Senate colleagues, the steady support of my loving family, and the dedication of my tireless staff, I could not be more proud of what we have been able to accomplish together.

To my family, my friends, and my staff I owe the deepest thanks. My wife Berlean has always been by my side, and I will always be grateful beyond words for her constant support. My son, Roland II and his wife Marty, and my daughter Rolanda are the pride and joy of my life. Of course, they were just here yesterday, my two grandchildren, Roland Theodore and Ian Alexander, to whom I dedicate my service and for whom I have the greatest hopes and even greater expectations.

To my friends and supporters from Chicago to Centralia, I will never forget your smiles and your kind words during even the most difficult of times. To my staff, in DC and those in Springfield, Moline and Carbondale, you have been some of the most dedicated, talented, and professional individuals with whom I ever had the privilege to serve. From the front office staff assistants and interns answering the endless ringing telephones, to my circle of senior advisers who gave me wise and thoughtful counsel throughout, my team has been indispensable to me, and they have all served the people of Illinois with distinction. I am deeply grateful for their service.

Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that the complete list of my staff be printed in the Record following my remarks.


Mr. BURRIS. Thank you, Madam President.

I wish to extend a special word of gratitude to my old friend who is sitting right there, the Sergeant at Arms, Terry Gainer; the Secretary of the Senate, Nancy Erickson; the secretary for the majority--where did she go--Lula Davis; for their many kindnesses, and a thank-you to the Senate Chaplain, Dr. Barry Black, for his counsel and prayers during my time here.

I also wish to acknowledge my fellow freshman Senators: Senators Begich, Bennett, Franken, Gillibrand; the Presiding Officer, the North Carolinian, Senator Hagan; as well as Senators Merkley, Shaheen, Mark Udall, Tom Udall, Mark Warner, and our just departed Senator Kaufman from Delaware. They are tremendous individuals possessing incredible talents and have been a very supportive group for me. Thank you, my freshman colleagues.

In a broader sense I wish to also thank all of those who serve under this hallowed dome with quiet and often unheralded dignity and duty. The Senate floor staff, you all do a heck of a job--the maintenance crews, the elevator operators, the Capitol Police, the Senate train drivers, the dining room servers, and the scores of others whose hard and important work ensures the smooth and constant operations of the business that takes place within our Capitol.

As I stand to address this Chamber for the last time, I cannot help but reflect on the unlikely path that led me to this point and upon the challenges we continue to face. When I first came to the Senate nearly 2 years ago, our Nation was only days away from inaugurating an African-American man from Chicago as the 44th President of the United States of America. It was a national milestone I never thought I would ever live to see, an incredible moment that speaks volumes about the progress our country has made even in my lifetime.

As a child, I knew the injustice of segregation. When I was only about 15 years old, I helped integrate the swimming pool in my hometown of Centralia, IL. Although that incident drove me to pursue a life of public service--dedicating myself to the goals of becoming both a lawyer and a statewide elected official--there was never any guarantee that such a path would be open to me. There were no people of color in elected office in those days, especially not in Illinois and not in Centralia, and there was no path to follow. So I knew from the start that I would have to blaze a trail.

Despite the lack of established role models, my parents provided nothing but support and encouragement. They nurtured my dreams and helped me develop the skills to achieve them. In the end, they and my older brother Earl, who is now deceased, and my sister Doris, God bless her, who is still living, were the only role models I needed. The values they instilled in me--of hard work, determination, and unwavering dedication to principle--have guided me throughout my life, and the same values have driven me to take an interest in the next generation.

It is that focus on the future that drives all of our legislative energy, to constantly improve the quality of life for the generations to come.

Not too many generations ago, my family roots told a different story. I stand in this Chamber as the great-grandson of a man who was born into slavery, in an era when this Senate debated whether he and others like him were worthy of freedom and equal treatment under the law. Yet today I stand among my colleagues on the Senate floor, a Member of the highest body of lawmakers in this land. In some ways, this is a remarkable testament to our Nation's ability to correct the wrongs of generations past, to move always toward that ``more perfect Union.''

However, in other ways, it is a solemn reminder of how far we still have yet to go. In a country as progressive and diverse as any on this planet, I am today the only Black American Member of this Senate. Aside from myself, I can

count the number of Blacks who have served in this body on the fingers of a single hand: Blanche K. Bruce, Hiram Revels; Edward Brooke, the last from Illinois, Carol Moseley-Braun, and our President, Barack Obama.

Throughout 220 years of Senate history and 111 Congresses, only six Black Americans have been able to serve. This is troubling in its own right. But when the 112th Congress is sworn in this coming January, there will not be a single Black American taking the oath of office in this Chamber.

This is simply unacceptable. We can and we will and we must do better. In this regard, and in others, our political process has proven less successful and less representative than it ought to be. Although I have never allowed my race to define me, in a sense it has meant that my constituency as a Senator has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Illinois.

Letters, e-mails, and telephone calls have poured in to my office from Black Americans from all across the country, and at times, as I have tried to bring their voices to this Chamber, I have acutely felt the absence of any other Black person to represent them.

Our government hardly resembles the diverse country it was elected to represent. Partisan bickering has driven moderates out of both parties and made principled compromise more difficult for those who remain. Too often our politics seem to have become a zero-sum game. It is easy for people to believe that the best argument or the plainest truth would not necessarily win the day anymore. In such a destructive political environment, people are often left wondering who will speak up for them. And the media certainly isn't blameless. News outlets which could play a critical role in educating the American public with facts too often bow to ratings or quick sales and, in the process, end up choosing to pursue the entertainment value of conflict over thoughtful analysis.

This is the harsh reality we face.

America just can not afford this any longer. We should check these notions at the cloakroom door.

This is a critical moment.

So I believe it's the responsibility of everyone in this chamber to take ownership of this process once again, to demonstrate leadership, and pledge a return to more responsible rhetoric, and more responsive government.

What we face is a test--not only of our willingness to meet the challenges we face, but of the democratic institutions designed to cope with these challenges.

Here in the U.S. Senate, this question is paramount.

Have our destructive politics left this great body locked in a stalemate--unable to move forward, because of the petty obstructionism that has taken root?

Or can this Chamber be made to address these problems once again? Can it be redeemed, by the good people who serve here?

I have confidence that it can.

It will require the concerted effort of all one hundred Senators to overcome the partisanship that has paralyzed this chamber, and the obstructionist tactics that have become the rule rather than the exception.

Colleagues, this is the moment to summon the strength of our convictions, and fight for what we believe in.

This is the hour for principled leadership, originating right here in the U.S. Senate.

But even as we look to the future and debate the agenda for the upcoming year, I must note with regret that my time here is nearly at an end.

Serving as a Member of this body, alongside so many fine colleagues who have become good friends, has been the honor of a lifetime.

Together we have achieved passage of the most ambitious legislative agenda since the Great Depression. And a great deal of the credit for our success is owed to Leader Harry Reid.

And I am proud of every vote I cast in the name of the people of Illinois, and proud of the more than the 60 bills I sponsored and over 300 I have cosponsored.

In the 22 months I have been a Member of the Senate, I have advocated for comprehensive health care reform designed to meet the goals of a public option, and fought to address health care disparities that separate minority communities from the population as a whole; pushed for redirection of subsidized funds that made $68 billion available for new Pell grants and extended new opportunities for minority students to attend historically Black colleges and universities, and predominantly Black Institutions; stood up for minority-owned businesses, and made sure they will have equal opportunity to share in America's renewed prosperity as our economy continues to recover; worked hard to extend unemployment insurance, improve access to COBRA benefits, and create jobs for the people of Illinois and across the country; voted for the sweeping stimulus package that brought this country back from the brink of economic disaster and started us on the road to recovery; introduced legislation that would improve transparency and accountability as stimulus dollars are spent, so the American people can keep their elected officials honest; cosponsored legislation to repeal the military's discriminatory don't ask, don't tell policy, so all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines can serve openly and had a press conference on that.

I say to my colleagues, don't filibuster that issue. We need all of our individuals to have an opportunity to serve in the military service, regardless of their sexual orientation. Don't be surprised if I come back for that vote. I am from Chicago, and I will vote twice.

I supported major credit card reforms, to prevent credit card companies from abusing their customers; fought for equal pay and benefits for women, to cut down on workplace discrimination; fought for additional impact aid funding, to shore up federal support for school districts that serve military communities and other Federal activities; honored the accomplishments of pioneers like Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely, the first African American to serve as a flag officer in the Navy, and the Montford Marines, the first African-American Marine division; supported the Matthew Shepard Act, which will help make sure those who target people based on sexual orientation, race, or other factors are brought to justice; raised my voice on behalf of Main Street, and all those who have been left behind in our continuing economic recovery, so that everyone can share in the benefits; introduced legislation calling for the Department of the Interior to study a historic site called New Philadelphia, IL--the first settlement founded by a freed African-American slave--for its preservation as part of the National Park system.

I hope, as a legacy to Burris, that someday that legislation will pass.

I raised awareness of youth violence, which threatens our children and tears our inner cities apart--and must be stopped; fought for veterans' benefits, including the implementation of the new GI bill, so we can honor the service of those who defend our freedom.

And now, as we ready to close the books on the one hundred and eleventh Congress and the long and significant chapter of legislative accomplishment, it is time for a new class of Senators to join this fight.

I am deeply grateful to my friends on both sides of the aisle for the passion they bring to their work every day.

I have witnessed it from the Presiding Officer's chair--and have had the privilege not only to watch the debate but to take part.

But now it is time for me to find new ways to serve.

This is the arena where great ideas are put to the test, on a national stage. This is where our identity is forged anew, every day, and where our principles are challenged.

It is the heart of our democratic process. And although there will be few easy solutions for the problems we face, I will never forget the courage and patriotism that I have seen from countless citizens of Illinois and America over the course of my time here.

This is a trying time for our Nation. But as long as the American people have the wisdom to elect leaders like the ones I have come to know in this Chamber--and as long as this Senate remains true to the people we serve -- I will never lose faith in our ability to overcome these challenges together.

These are my parting remarks from this body. I treat this as an opportunity of a lifetime, and I treat this with great respect and dignity for all of those I have worked with and have come to know in this body.

With that, I thank the Chair, I thank all my colleagues, and I yield the floor for the final time. God bless you all. Thank you.


Skip to top

Help us stay free for all your Fellow Americans

Just $5 from everyone reading this would do it.

Back to top