U.S. SENATE News:
Retiring Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico delivered a speech Thursday Dec. 13, reflecting on his 30-year tenure in the U.S. Senate and thanking those who supported him throughout the years. He wanted to share that speech with his constituents:
In 1981, in his first inaugural address, President Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
I came to the Senate two years later in 1983 with the firm belief that in most cases his statement was wrong.
I believed then and I believe now that the federal government can be a constructive force for good; in protecting and maintaining the civil liberties of all Americans, in maintaining and strengthening our economy, in protecting our environment and in helping Americans live productive and fulfilling lives.
As I look back over the last 30 years, many of the arguments that have consumed our time here in the Senate, whether on questions of spending or taxes or regulation or fiscal policy, have divided between those who saw government as the problem and those who believed that it could and should be a constructive force for helping the American people deal with problems. I consider myself, furthermore, in the second camp – firmly in the second camp.
In each of the major areas of national concern I’d like to be able to report progress for the country, since I arrived in the Senate. Unfortunately, the record of progress is not so clear. In many areas we have made progress, but there are also instances where we have lost more ground than we have gained. And as issues continue to be reconsidered, I’m reminded of the well-known statement that “success is never permanent in Washington.”
As regards our Nation’s security from foreign aggression, the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union were clearly the most positive developments that we have seen in the last 30 years.
If the end of the cold war was the most positive national security development that I’ve witnessed since coming to the Senate, the invasion of Iraq to bring about regime change in that country was the biggest national security blunder. That blunder cost our nation dearly in servicemen and women killed and injured and in resources that should have been used to strengthen our economy here at home.
Last month I was stopped by a woman in northern New Mexico who thanked me for my service in the Senate and particularly for my vote against granting President Bush authority to take our country into that war.
The nation’s fiscal policy is very much the focus of the Senate’s attention in these final weeks of the 112th congress. And on this issue, again, we have made one step forward during the time I’ve been in the Senate but, unfortunately, we’ve taken two steps back.
I arrived in the Senate in January of 1983 – a period of large deficits compared to anything the country had experienced for several decades. And those large deficits grew and persisted through the Reagan presidency.
In 1990, the democratically controlled congress and President George H. W. Bush made a significant step towards reining in the deficits with the Reconciliation Act of 1990. That law created the statutory PAYGO requirement. It also increased marginal rates for the wealthiest Americans, and I was proud to support the measure.
In 1993, another major step was taken when, at the urging of President Clinton, Congress enacted the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of that year, 1993. Again, that measure both raised taxes and constrained spending. It was denounced by many here in the Senate as sure to throw the economy into recession.
In fact, just the opposite occurred, and the economy prospered. As a result of these policy changes and the strong economy of the 1990’s, we enjoyed a period of balanced budgets and even surpluses in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Unfortunately, those surpluses were not to continue. President George W. Bush urged Congress to cut taxes and Congress was all too willing to oblige. And though I didn’t support the 2001 or 2003 tax cuts, they were passed.
At about the same time that we were cutting taxes more than we could afford, we were also going to war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and adding a new drug benefit to Medicare. No provision was made to raise revenue or cut spending elsewhere to pay for any of these mammoth undertakings. And of course the cost of health care, both the cost to government and to families and businesses to purchase private insurance, continued to grow at too rapid a pace.
The result was a return to large deficits and, of course, those large deficits grew substantially larger because of the recession that began in December of 2007.
Today we’re trying to strengthen our economy while at the same time trying to reduce projected deficits. That long-term deficit reduction will once again require higher taxes and also new constraints on spending, and I hope that even in these final days of this 112th Congress we can reach agreement to proceed.
In the long-standing fight to provide Americans with access to affordable health care, we have seen significant progress.
In 1997 we enacted the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which resulted in nearly 8 million American children obtaining access to health care.
And of course, in 2010, we adopted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This unfairly maligned legislation has the promise of moving us much closer to the goal of universal health care, and I am proud to have worked with my colleagues in the Senate in writing that legislation and seeing it enacted.
Now that the election is behind us, I hope the efforts to repeal that legislation is at an end. I hope the two parties can find ways to improve the legislation with a particular focus on better controlling the growth in the cost of health care.
In addressing the various energy challenges facing the country, again, there’s progress to report.
In 2005 and 2007, Congress enacted major energy bills. Those bills moved us toward a better and more comprehensive national energy policy. Those bills promoted an adequate and more diverse supply of energy. They increased the efficiency and effectiveness of how we use energy in our economy. They promoted strong market reforms and consumer protections for electricity, and they struck a balance between meeting our energy goals and lessening environmental impacts of energy, including overall greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result of that balanced approach, we have arrested what had been an increasing dependence on foreign oil, coupled with technological advances that have opened new sources of supply. We’re headed to greater levels of energy independence than we had thought possible, even as recently as seven years ago.
The bipartisan consensus that allowed us to enact those bills has, unfortunately, eluded us in the current Congress. I hope that in future Congresses there will reemerge a recognition that climate change is a reality, that our policies to meet our energy needs must also deal responsibly with environmental issues, including the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
As regards our nation’s policy on education, the good news is that we seem to have moved past the period where the Republican nominee for President announces a commitment to eliminating the federal Department of Education.
President Clinton deserves great credit for making the support particularly of higher education a priority of his presidency. President George W. Bush deserves credit for making a serious effort to preserve and improve elementary-secondary education.
Although that effort has not succeeded, as many of us who supported it had hoped, I remain persuaded that the federal government needs to persist in trying to play a constructive role in improving education in this country.
The states and local school districts deserve credit for developing and adopting the common core standards. I hope that future congresses will strongly support the steps and the funding needed to upgrade student performance by implementing those standards. President Obama and his administration have demonstrated their strong commitment to this goal.
In addition to these areas of concern that I’ve mentioned, we have seen some progress in maintaining and advancing the science and engineering in this country. We successfully found ways to better integrate the strengths of our defense laboratories through technology transfer and partnering.
We’ve also seen some important increases in funding for research, particularly in support of the life sciences. And that growth has stagnated in recent years. It needs to continue and be replenished. But as we continue that support, we must also recognize the need to do more to support research and development in the physical sciences and in engineering.
One significant advance I was proud to support was the establishment of ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy in the Department of Energy. That effort to identify and fund breakthrough science and engineering initiatives to meet our energy challenges holds great promise for our nation and for the entire world.
We’ve also seen progress in providing increased protection for public lands. One particular bill in that area was the Omnibus Public Lands Bill that was passed in 2009.It added wilderness protection to over 2 million acres, it designates 1,100 miles of wild and scenic rivers, added more than 2,800 miles to the national trail system, and I was proud to be part of the effort to enact that legislation.
Finally, I’ll make a few comments on the way that we in the Congress conduct our own business. Any fair assessment has to conclude that in this area we have lost ground in the last two decades. Public opinion of the performance of Congress is at an all-time low, and it is not hard to see why. I’ll mention three obvious ways in which the functioning of Congress has worsened.
First is the willingness of some in Congress to shut down the government. In 1995 we saw the leadership of the House of Representatives demonstrate that they considered refusing to fund the government as an acceptable bargaining ploy in their efforts to prevail in disputes with President Clinton and Democrats on spending issues.
Since 1995, that threat to withhold appropriations has been made several more times, and as we saw then, shutting down the government is harmful, wasteful to Americans. I hope this irresponsible threat will soon be viewed as unacceptable.
A second way the malfunctioning of Congress became clear is when in August of 2011 – just less than 18 months ago – the Republican leadership in Congress determined that another tool at their disposal was the ability to refuse to increase the debt ceiling. By doing so, they could deny the Secretary of Treasury the authority to borrow money to meet the obligations that the government had already undertaken.
To my knowledge, this was the first time the Congressional leadership of one of our major parties had stated their willingness to see our nation default on its debt.
This threat to force a default on the obligations of the federal government resulted in the sequester of government spending, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 1. It also resulted in a downgrading of U.S. debt by one of the leading credit rating agencies.
We now hear renewed threats to use the so-called “leverage” as a way to demand cuts in Medicare and in social security. Once again, I believe this is an irresponsible action. I hope Congress will get beyond it.
But of course a third way in which the functioning of the Senate – not the full Congress, but the Senate – has worsened is the abuse of Senate rules allowing unlimited debate or filibusters. As the Senate currently operates, the threat of filibuster is used routinely to obstruct the Senate from doing its business, even when the issue before the Senate is relatively uncontroversial. Many times following a delay caused by obstruction, an overwhelming number of Senators will vote for the legislation or the nomination, which the Senate has been delayed in considering.
I strongly encourage my colleagues to make the necessary changes in Senate rules to limit the ability of one or a few Senators to obstruct the Senate from doing its regular business. My colleague, Senator Udall, is here on the floor with me. He’s been a leader in this effort to get these rules changed, and I commend him for that.
So the record of our progress both as a country and as a congress over the last 30 years has been mixed. There’s progress to report. I’ve mentioned some of that. There are also many missteps and failures that we need to acknowledge.
My conclusion remains that many of our challenges as a nation can only be met with the help of a strong and effective national government. There are times when the actions of the government are more a problem than a solution, but there are many more occasions where enlightened action by the government is important and even essential.
I consider it an honor and a privilege to have represented the people of New Mexico in the Senate for the last 30 years. I thank the people of my state for their confidence in electing me and supporting me during the time I have served here. I thank the very capable and committed men and women who have worked on my staff both in Washington and in New Mexico during these 30 years.
And I thank all my colleagues here in the Senate for their friendship and help to me during this period.
Of course I thank my wife, Anne and our son John and his wife Marlene for their support that allowed me to serve in the Senate.
To all my friends and colleagues who will be here in the next Congress and in future Congresses, I hope you can find the common ground necessary for our country to effectively move forward and meet its challenges. The endeavor is a worthy one and I wish you every success.
United States Senator