Center for American Progress Action

Sen. John Kerry Speaks About Political Gridlock at CAP Action

Sen. John Kerry Speaks About Political Gridlock at CAP Action

Senator Urges Need to Restore a Sense of Purpose

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) delivered an address at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on political gridlock and how it affects America's leadership.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, delivered an address at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on January 11, 2011, on political gridlock, the urgent need to restore a sense of purpose and civility to the U.S. political process, and the global economic consequences of the breakdown in Washington.

At the top of his remarks, Kerry addressed the tragedy this weekend in Tucson and the discussion that’s ensued about the state of our political discourse.

The full text of his speech, as prepared, is below:

Someone might ask why, with our country mourning, we are here this morning continuing to talk about the business of the country. But the truth is that is what Gabrielle Giffords was doing—talking about the business of the country. And the truth is, talking about the business of our country is more urgent than ever.

John and I considered postponing this speech, which had been planned for some time. But serious times call for serious discussions. And after some reflection, both of us felt that not only should this speech not be postponed, but that, in fact, it was imperative to give it.

So obviously, as we gather here this morning, last weekend’s unspeakable tragedy is at the forefront of all of our minds. Our thoughts are with Congresswoman Giffords and the families of all the victims. We pray for her full recovery, even as a nation mourns the loss of innocent life in such a senseless act.

All of us struggle to understand this horrific event. There is much we still don’t know about what happened and why. But here’s what we do know without any question: On Saturday, a public servant went to meet with her constituents in the best tradition of our democracy, and while out, just doing her job, Congresswoman Giffords was shot down. Today she’s fighting for her life, and six people lost their lives in this senseless assault not just on them, but, in its calculated planning for assassination, an assault on our democracy itself.

Eerily, I heard this weekend’s news while in Sudan, representing our country in our collective effort to help a people who have endured unspeakable violence and who are trying to make a fresh start through their democracy. Yet as I stood beside those Africans who have lost loved ones in pursuit of the democratic values we Americans so proudly export to the world, there was an unavoidable clash with the events unfolding in Tucson—a dramatic underscoring of the work that must be done to revitalize our own democracy here at home.

Many observers have already reduced this tragedy to simple questions of whether overheated rhetoric is to blame, or one partisan group or another. And surely today many pundits and politicians are measuring their words a little more carefully and thinking a little more about what they’re saying. But in the weeks and months ahead, the real issue we need to confront isn’t just what role divisive political rhetoric may have played on Saturday—but it’s the violence divisive, overly simplistic dialogue does to our democracy every day.

In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy, Speaker Boehner was right to suspend the House’s usual business; the question now is whether we’re all going to suspend and then end business as usual in the U.S. Capitol. Because even before this event shook us out of our partisan routine, it should have been clear that on bedrock questions of civility and consensus—discourse and democracy—the whole endeavor of building a politics of national purpose—the big question wasn’t whose rhetoric was right or wrong, but whether our political conversation was worthy of the confidence and trust of the American people.

Millions of Americans know we can do better than we’ve done these last bitter years—because our history has proven it time and again.

When the Soviets sent the first satellite in history into orbit half a century ago, leaders from both parties rose with a sense of common purpose and resolved that never again would the United States fall behind anyone, anywhere. President Kennedy summoned our nation to reach the great and audacious goal "before [the] decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."

There were no partisan divisions that blocked the way. With daring and unflagging determination we moved immediately to unprecedented levels of investment in science and technology, engineering, and R&D—and only 12 years after Sputnik, two Americans humbly took mankind’s first steps on the moon.

Back then—just as today—our leaders, Democrat and Republican, had deep disagreements on many issues, but back then, they shared an even deeper commitment to stand together for the strength and success of our country. For them, at that turning point, politics stopped not just at the ocean’s edge, but at the edge of the atmosphere. For them, American Exceptionalism wasn’t just a slogan; they knew that America is exceptional not because we say we are, but because we do exceptional things.

As I first said last month, we as a people face another Sputnik moment today. And the great question is whether we will meet this moment as Americans did so boldly five decades ago. The decisions we make—or fail to make—in this decade on new energy sources, on education, infrastructure, technology, and research, all of which are going to produce the jobs of the future, and our decisions on deficits and entitlements will without doubt determine whether the United States will continue to lead the world—or be left to follow in the wake of others, on the way to decline, less prosperous in our own land and less secure in the world.

Some will question how in the world this could be possible—America less prosperous? America on the decline? They forget that exceptionalism for America has never been an automatic fact—a birthright on autopilot—but an inheritance of opportunity to be renewed and revitalized by each generation.

So, let me share some facts with you. Right now, other developed and developing countries are making far-reaching choices to reshape their economies and move forward in a new and very different global era. But instead of us responding as Americans have in the past, the frustrating reality is that our American political system is increasingly paralyzed and Balkanized into a patchwork of narrow interests that have driven the larger “national good” far from the national dialogue altogether. Increasingly, overheated ideology and partisan infighting leave us less able to address or even comprehend the decisive nature and scale of the challenges that will decide our whole future.

The fact is, our strength at home determines our strength in the world. And other countries are constantly taking our measure, sizing us up, watching our politics, measuring our gridlock.

On issue after issue, enduring consensus has been frayed or shredded by lust for power cloaked in partisan games. Health care’s individual mandate? Guess what—it started as a Republican idea—a pro-business idea—because rising insurance costs leave big holes in profits. Cap and trade? Guess again—another Republican idea based on market principles and, with bipartisanship, successfully implemented by President George Herbert Walker Bush, now denounced as ideological heresy. And energy independence? For 40 years, every president since Richard Nixon has recognized that foreign oil imports are America’s Achilles heel. But whenever we’ve had a chance to act, we’ve been blocked by entrenched influence and the siren call of short-term interest instead of achieving long-term success.

Even as we were clawing our way to the ratification of START Treaty last month, I noted that far more ambitious treaties had previously been ratified by votes of 90 or 95 to zero. I joked that in this Senate, in this hyperpartisan Washington, 67 might be the new 95. I’m proud that in the end we sent a signal to the world that in American foreign policy, however uphill the slog and improbable the victory, partisan politics can still stop at the water’s edge. But the fact remains that it was closer than it ever should have been.

All of this underscores the current danger to our country in ways that go far beyond that single debate and highlight a host of other issues that demand and deserve common resolve, not constant suspicion and division. If treaties ratified almost unanimously yesterday get just 71 votes today, what’s the forecast for other decisive endeavors that once would have commanded 79 votes in the Senate? We can’t afford for the old 79 to become the new 49, dooming our national will to unbreakable gridlock. Because in the 21st century where choices and consequences come at us so much faster than ever before, the price of Senate inaction isn’t just that we will stand still; it isn’t just that America will fall behind; it’s that we will stay behind as we cede the best possibilities of this young century to others who are more disciplined.

Just think about an issue as simple and fundamental as building and investing in America—an issue that was once so clearly bipartisan. The Republican Mayor of New York City Fiorello LaGuardia famously said: “There’s no Republican or Democratic way to clean the streets.” Well, for decades there was no Democratic or Republican way to build roads and bridges and airports. The building of America was every American’s job. This wasn’t narrow pork; it was a national priority. But today, we’re still living off and wearing out the infrastructure put in place by Republicans and Democrats together, starting with President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. We didn’t build it; our parents and grandparents did. Now partisan paralysis has kept us from renewing that inheritance even as it decays from neglect. And the question is: What are we building for our children and our future generations?

Reliable, modern infrastructure isn’t a luxury. It’s the lifeblood of our economy—the key to connecting our markets, moving products and people, generating and sustaining millions of jobs for American workers, to not wasting hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of gallons of gas on clogged highways.

In the face of global competition, our growth and exports are directly tied to the modernity of our infrastructure. As we invest too little and our competitors invest more and more, the harder and harder it will be to catch up—and the more and more attractive those countries will be for future investments.

In 2009 China spent an estimated $350 billion on infrastructure—9 percent of its GDP. Europe’s infrastructure bank financed $350 billion in projects across the continent from 2005 to 2009, modernizing seaports, expanding airports and high-speed rail lines, and reconfiguring city centers. Brazil invested more than $240 billion in infrastructure in the past three years alone, with an additional $340 billion planned over the next three years.

And what about us? Well, we know that Americans have always been builders. We built a transcontinental railroad. We built an interstate highway system. We built the rockets that let us explore the farthest edge of the solar system and beyond. But as a result of our political gridlock and attention to the short term, that’s not what we’re doing today.

For too long we’ve underbuilt and underinvested, and too much of what we have done has been uninformed by any long-term strategic plan. In 2008 it was estimated that we had to make an annual investment of $250 billion for the next 50 years to legitimately meet our transportation needs. Right now, we aren’t even close to that. Right now, we are as many miles away from it as we ought to be building to get there.

Other countries are doing what we ought to do. They’re racing ahead because they created infrastructure banks to build a new future, but we’ve yet to build a new consensus for our own national infrastructure bank to make Americans the world’s builders again—and to keep our country the leader in the new world economy.

Imagine the possibilities that would come from this endeavor—financing projects from high-speed rail to air and sea ports, all with the expectation of being repaid, lending directly to economically viable initiatives of both national and regional significance, without political influence, run in an open and transparent manner by experienced professionals with meaningful congressional oversight. That is an indispensable strategy for prosperity and a legitimate vision that Americans could embrace. And if we offer America the leadership it deserves, it ought to be an undoubted opportunity and necessity for bipartisanship.

It’s not just infrastructure where we must rebuild our sense of great national purpose: Virtually every measure shows that we’re falling behind. Today the United States is ranked 10th in global competitiveness among the G-20 countries. America is now 12th worldwide in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a college degree, trailing, among others, Russia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Israel. This year investors have pulled $74 billion out of domestic stock funds and put $42 billion into foreign stock funds. High-profile multinational companies including Applied Materials and IBM are already opening major R&D centers in China. And as we look to the Googles of the future, it is increasingly possible that they will be founded by students from Tianjin University, rather than MIT or Stanford.

We need to face up these new challenges—not just as individuals or separate interests, but as a nation with a national purpose. The world of the next generation will change too rapidly for political parties to focus too narrowly on the next election. And the 21st century can be another American century—but only if we restore a larger sense of responsibility and replace the clattering cacophony of the perpetual campaign with a wider discussion of what is best for our country. For the last months we’ve watched the news and read the campaign literature and heard a lot the sound bites. We’ve heard politicians say they won’t become a part of Washington. That say they’re for small government, lower taxes, and more freedom. But what do they really mean?

Do they want a government too limited to have invented the Internet, now a vital part of our commerce and communications? A government too small to give America’s auto industry and all its workers a second chance to fight for their survival? Taxes too low to invest in the research that creates jobs and industries and fills the Treasury with the revenue that educates our children, cures disease, and defends our country? We have to get past slogans and sound bites, reason together, and talk in real terms about how America can do its best.

If we are going to balance the budget and create jobs, we can’t pretend that we can do it by just eliminating earmarks and government waste. We have to look at the plain facts of how we did it before, and by the way, you don’t have to look far. In the early 1990s, our economy was faltering because deficits and debt were freezing capital. We had to send a signal to the market that we were capable of being fiscally responsible. We did just that and as result we saw the longest economic expansion in history, created more than 22 million jobs, and generated unprecedented wealth in America, with every income bracket rising. But we did it by making tough choices. The Clinton economic plan committed the country to a path of discipline that helped unleash the productive potential of the American people. We invested in the workforce, in research, in development. We helped new industries. Then, working with Republicans, we came up with a budget framework that put our nation on track to be debt free by 2012 for the first time since Andrew Jackson’s administration.

How we got off track is a story that doesn’t require retelling. But the truth of how we generated the 1990s economic boom does need to be told. We didn’t just cut our way to a balanced budget; we grew our way there.

And nothing played a more important role than the fact that we developed a $1 trillion technology market with 1 billion users. Today we’re staring another economic opportunity of extraordinary proportions right in the face—and so far we’re doing precious little about it. The current energy economy is a $6 trillion market with 4 billion users (and the possibility of growing to 9 billion in the next 30 years) and the fastest growing segment of that is green energy—projected at $2.3 trillion in 2020. Yet, as of today, without different policy decisions by us, most of this investment will be in Asia and not the United States. Two years ago, China accounted for just 5 percent of the world’s solar panel production. Now it boasts the world’s largest solar panel manufacturing industry, exporting about 95 percent of its production to countries including the United States. We invented the technology but China is reaping the rewards.

China’s government is poised to outspend the United States 3-to-1 on public clean energy projects over the next several years. They have installed 36 percent of the global market share in wind energy in 2009 and surpassed the United States as the fastest growing market. Deutsche Bank’s Kevin Parker, who manages $7 billion in climate change-related investments, calls the United States “asleep at the wheel on climate change … [and] on the industrial revolution taking place in the energy industry." Because of political uncertainty and inaction in this country, he’s now focusing Deutsche Bank’s “green” investment dollars more and more on opportunities in China and Western Europe, where governments provide a more positive environment. Today only $45 million of the $7 billion green investments fund that Deutsche Bank manages is from the United States. Simply put, because we are asleep, the investments are going elsewhere.

Now is the moment for America to reach for the brass energy ring—to go for the moon here on earth by building our new energy future—and, in doing so, create millions of steady, higher-paying jobs at every level of the economy. Make no mistake: Jobs that produce energy in America are jobs that stay in America. The amount of work to be done here is just stunning. It is the work of many lifetimes. And it must begin now. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but instead of coming together to meet the defining test of a new energy economy and our future, we’re now leaving a political season in which too many candidates promised not to work with the other party. And this in the wake of a Senate session that started for Republicans with a PowerPoint presentation pronouncing, and I quote, "the purpose of the majority is to pass their agenda, the purpose of the minority is to become the majority."

It’s no secret that I’m a convinced Democrat. And I know it’s better to be in the majority than in the minority. And I don’t want anyone to come to the Senate, check their beliefs at the door, and "go Washington." Neither did the Founding Fathers. And certainly no one’s elected to the Senate promising to join an exclusive club—or to forget where they came from. But the truth is some of the most fiercely independent, plain-talking, direct, and determined partisans I’ve ever known in the Senate have also been the ones who tackled the toughest issues, finding common ground with people they disagreed with on damn near everything else.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a New York liberal. Alan Simpson was a Wyoming conservative. But they could sit down and talk and debate and disagree about deficits, debts, and entitlements and somehow, someway, they could shape a way forward. And they did it in a way that enlisted liberals like Bill Bradley, moderates like Jack Heinz, and conservatives like John Danforth because they knew that certain issues were just too important to be lost in partisan squabbling.

And you couldn’t find three more proudly partisan and ideologically distinct politicians than Ronald Reagan, Tip O’Neill, and Bob Dole. But they found a way to put politics aside and save Social Security for a generation rather than saving it for misuse as a cudgel in the next campaign. They didn’t capitulate; they compromised. And, speaking of backroom deals, they agreed not to let either party demagogue the issue against the incumbents who cast the tough votes to pass the bill. Now, if you’ve got to have a backroom deal, that’s the kind to have.

Folks, you won’t find a Republican today who would dare criticize Ronald Reagan. Last week, when the candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee had their debate, Grover Norquist asked each of them to name their favorite Republican other than Ronald Reagan. He said he had to add that caveat so everyone didn’t give the same answer. But we’d all be better off if some of these Republicans remembered that Ronald Reagan worked across the aisle to solve big problems. And we’d all be better off if Grover Norquist thought of that Ronald Reagan before he announced that "bipartisanship is just another word for date rape."

That’s the difference today. Ideology isn’t new to the American political arena and ideology isn’t unhealthy. The biggest breakthroughs in American politics have been brokered not by a mushy middle or by splitting the difference but by people who had a pretty healthy sense of ideology. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch were a powerful team precisely because they didn’t agree on that much and they spent a lot of time fighting each other—and so the Senate leaned in and listened on those occasions when somehow this ultimate odd couple found things they were willing to fight for together.

Sometimes, as John Kennedy once said, “party asks too much.” Sometimes, party leaders also ask too much, especially if they exploit the rules of the U.S. Senate for the sole purpose of denying a president a second term. But that is what we have witnessed the last two years; Republicans nearly unanimous in opposition to almost every proposal by the president and almost every proposal by Democratic colleagues. The extraordinary measure of a filibuster has become an ordinary expedient. Today it’s possible for 41 senators representing only about one-tenth of the American population to bring the Senate to a standstill.

Certainly, I believe the filibuster has its rightful place. I used it to stop drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge because I believed that was in our national interest—and 60 or more senators should be required to speak up on such an irrevocable decision. But we have reached the point where the filibuster is being invoked by the minority not necessarily because of a difference over policy, but as a political tool to undermine the presidency.

Consider this: In the entire 19th century, including the struggle against slavery, fewer than two dozen filibusters were mounted. Between 1933 and the coming of World War II, it was attempted only twice. During the Eisenhower administration, twice. During John Kennedy’s presidency, four times—and then eight during Lyndon Johnson’s push for civil rights and voting rights bills. By the time Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan occupied the White House, there were about 20 filibusters a year.

But in the 110th Congress of 2007-08, there were a record 112 cloture votes. And in the 111th Congress, there were 136, one of which even delayed a vote to authorize funding for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps during a time of war. That’s not how the Founders intended the Senate to work—and that’s not how our country can afford the Senate not to work.

Chris Dodd said it best in his farewell address just a few weeks ago—a speech the Republican Leader called one of the most important in the history of the chamber. Chris sounded a warning: “What will determine whether this institution works or not, what has always determined whether we will fulfill the Framers’ highest hopes or justify the cynics’ worst fears, is not the Senate rules, the calendar, or the media. It is whether each of the one hundred Senators can work together.”

That was a speech that needed to be heard. But the question now isn’t whether it was heard; it’s whether we really listened to it. Because when it comes to the economy, our country really does need 100 senators who face the facts and find a way to work not just on their side, but side by side.

No one runs for the Senate arguing that the United States should have one-fifth of its foreign debt held by China. No winning candidate has ever suggested that the United States should trail Poland in education. Or that Germany should invent the next Google or develop the cutting-edge new clean energy industries. No one has ever gone into a debate pledging that Indian workers should hold the jobs of the future, not American workers.

There’s a bipartisan consensus just waiting to lift our country and our future if senators are willing to sit down and forge it and make it real. If we’re willing to stop talking past each other, to stop substituting sound bites for substance. If we’re willing finally to pull ourselves out of an ideological cement of our own mixing.

We will no doubt continue to be frustrated and angry from time to time, but I believe that more often than not, we can rise to the common ground of great national purpose. Surely we can agree and act to realize the goal set by the president who called his fellow citizens to meet that earlier Sputnik moment—an America "that is not first if, not first but, but first period."

So, in this time of crisis and mourning, in this time of challenge and opportunity, we need to commit to reaching across the aisle, as colleagues did before us, to unite to do the exceptional things that will keep America exceptional for generations to come.

For more on this event see the event page.

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