Monday, April 6, 2009

Senator Collins' address to Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs

Senator Collins was the guest lecturer at the biannual Goldfarb Lecture at Colby College on Sunday. The following is a transcript of her lecture, entitled "Policy Making at the Outset of the Obama Administration” :

There are many ways to measure the value of Bill Goldfarb’s generosity and commitment. This event, which brings together students, alumni, faculty, and the community, is one of the best measures.

I am honored to be here at Colby College. I feel a connection to this great bastion of liberal arts in part because of my strong family ties here. My great aunt, known to her fellow students as Clara Collins, graduated at the top of her class in 1914. I keep imaging what it must have been like for her, a girl of 17 in that era, to leave her hometown of Caribou on her own to travel by train to Colby, determined to get a college education. When times were tough and the money ran out, Clara left Colby for a year to work so that she could afford to return to complete her education.

While that is well before the time of all of you here tonight, you may know of her today due to the Clara Piper Professorship and Research Fund. This effort supports scholars in international relations and environmental studies and was established by her son, Wilson Piper, class of ’39, a life Colby trustee and a stalwart supporter of this outstanding college.

My Colby connection also extends to my work in the Senate. I have had several outstanding interns from Colby, and I would like to mention two here tonight. Sarah Whitfield and Megan Dean have served in my state offices and in Washington. Their drive, energy, and commitment exemplify the great Colby traditions of excellence and of service.

And, we have another connection. Colby College is not the only place known simply as “The Hill.” As it happens, I work at another one. So, from Capitol Hill to Mayflower Hill, I guess you could say it’s all downhill from here.

Interestingly, my workplace has a local newspaper named “The Hill,” much like yours here on campus. On January 27th, just one week after the inauguration of President Obama, the “Hill” in Washington ran a front-page story with this headline: “Democrats, Republicans Clash Over Meaning of Bipartisanship.”

The body of the story clearly states the real issue: too often, the meaning of bipartisanship doesn’t depend on your approach to governing, but on whether your party is in the majority or minority.

This sliding definition is not a good thing. Bipartisanship is a principle, and principles do not change according to circumstance. Just as we cannot claim the virtue of honesty if we tell the truth only when it is easy, we cannot call for bipartisanship but really mean that it requires the other side to give in.

I have been in both the majority and the minority. I have worked with Republican and Democratic presidents. I know that bipartisanship is more than a convenience, a nicety, or a clever political tactic. It is essential to solving the major challenges of our era and to restoring the public’s confidence in government.

At the time of President Obama’s inauguration, there was much commentary on the peaceful transfer of power after a heated and contentious campaign. This was nothing new in January of 2009, but it is always a marvel. It is a unifying thread that runs through our nation’s history. It is testament to the wisdom of the founders, to the quality of our candidates, and, above all, to the character of the American people.

These peaceful transitions rely upon a principle that is the foundation of American democratic institutions – that the valid concerns, beliefs, and solutions offered by one party will not be utterly dismissed should that party go from the majority to the minority. A candidate who wins with 53 percent of the vote will not succeed by ignoring or disrespecting the 47 percent of citizens who voted the other way. Our tradition of peaceful transitions usually ensures that political defeat does not mean political exile.

Unlike the European democracies, we don’t have a parliamentary system. We have representative government and a Constitution that ensures that Senate has a different role from the House.

The Senate rules, when followed and not circumvented, are intended to ensure that the rights of the minority are protected. That is why 60 votes are generally required to pass major legislation. It is why the Senate so often operates by unanimous consent on less controversial measures and reaches unanimous consent agreements to structure the debate and amendments on more significant bills.

The Founding Fathers intended for the Senate to protect the minority viewpoint as well as to be a check on the House. James Madison wrote in 1787 that the Senate is to proceed “with more coolness, with more system, and more wisdom, than the popular branch.” My colleagues are fond of a story about a discussion between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who was in France during the Constitutional Convention. Upon his return, Jefferson asked Washington why the Convention delegates had created a Senate. “Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?” asked Washington. “To cool it,” said Jefferson. “Even so,” responded Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

The cooling impact of bipartisanship is, therefore, much more common in the Senate than in the House due to the differences in their structures, rules, and traditions.

Given the question that Professor Maisel raised in his recent column, which I will discuss shortly, I want to make clear my view that bipartisanship is not just an end result measured by the roll-call vote. It is a process of accommodating minority views, of trying to achieve a consensus, of searching for common ground or at least common goals. The degree to which the minority voice is heard in crafting legislation is crucial. That involvement may not be as readily apparent as a vote tally, but it is essential if the vision of the Founding Fathers is to be realized.
Too often today, bipartisanship is mischaracterized as weakness, as simply going along to get along. Believe me, as one who has forged a reputation for bipartisanship during more than 12 years in the Senate, it is hard work and it takes a thick skin. It is far easier to stake out a position early on and refuse to budge than it is to dig into the issues and find some common ground.
At the heart of bipartisanship is a discipline that is at the heart of a Colby education – independent thinking.

In the Senate, independent thought means looking at issues and evaluating their merits rather than viewing every bill through a partisan political lens. It is a desire to actually get things done, to make progress, to put solving problems above personal credit or comfort. That doesn’t mean abandoning one’s principles, but it does mean not obstructing a bill simply to score political points. The result of independent thinking is that there will be times when I support the President’s proposals and times when I oppose them. I won’t be an automatic vote for either side.

My involvement in leading a successful bipartisan effort to craft an economic stimulus package to boost our troubled economy provides a timely example. Let me spend some time talking about why I decided to work with the President in writing the stimulus bill and how my involvement reflects the approach I take to governing.

Professor Maisel’s recent column on bipartisanship and the stimulus legislation offers a useful framework for this discussion. Professional Maisel raised two questions. First, he asked, can a process be considered bipartisan if it has the support of only three Republicans in the Senate and none in the House? Second, should the quality of legislation be judged by whether it receives bipartisan support?

Let me start with the first question, which has generated much debate. In the House, the process was indeed not bipartisan because Speaker Nancy Pelosi completely shut out the House Republican members. But in the Senate, that was not the case. Republican Senators were not shut out. Indeed, the final tally is somewhat misleading because it does not reflect the broader input from Republican Senators who influenced the content of the bill.

I led the effort to negotiate an improved Senate version of the stimulus legislation because I concluded both that the President was right that our economy needed a stimulus bill and that Speaker Pelosi was wrong in shutting out the Republicans, a process that resulted in a bloated bill festooned with unnecessary spending that had nothing to do with boosting the economy. I also strongly believed that the minority party should have a seat at the table.

My determination to craft and pass an economic recovery bill began with recognizing that the current economic crisis is the most severe since the Great Depression.

On Friday, yet another Maine mill, this one a blanket factory in Biddeford, announced that it was closing its doors. Every week brings another wave of layoffs and plant idlings in our State. Tracking the national statistics, Maine lost nearly 12,000 jobs in 2008, with roughly a quarter of those losses coming just in December. More recently, the national unemployment rate reached 8.5 percent, the highest in 25 years. According to the Federal Reserve, Americans lost more than $11 trillion in wealth last year. Many of us have seen our retirement accounts drop in value by 30 percent.

Behind every number is a hard-working employee out of a job, a family facing an uncertain future, and a community under stress. The collapse of the housing market, the unraveling of our nation’s financial institutions, and the evaporation of trillions of dollars that have been invested in the stock market and retirement funds have caused incalculable harm in every community. Across America, citizens have had to delay their retirement plans because they no longer have the nest egg for which they worked so hard.

And the repercussions go far beyond individual finances. The economic crisis stalls necessary improvements in infrastructure, from transportation to environmental protection. It threatens the existence of community hospitals and the opportunity for a college education for low-income students. It freezes business investments that would create much-needed jobs in our communities.

The wide-ranging negative consequences of the economic crisis require a comprehensive remedy, and I was convinced -- I am convinced -- that an economic stimulus bill needed to be part of the solution. But not just any stimulus bill would do. I was opposed to the House-passed bill and made clear that I would vote against it. That declaration, by the way, prompted the Democrats in the Senate to realize that they could not adopt the Pelosi approach in the Senate if they wanted to get a bill passed. Despite my opposition to the House bill, I felt that Congress had a responsibility to work together to achieve the right balance, the right size, and the right mix of tax relief and spending programs.

The House bill and the first version of the Senate economic stimulus bill were far too expensive and bloated with unnecessary spending for pet projects. The bills had become Christmas trees upon which members hang their favorite programs without regard to whether or not the spending belonged in an economic stimulus bill. While there was some spending that did not belong in ANY bill, some of the provisions were worthwhile, but should have had to compete in the regular appropriations process.

I needed a bipartisan team to tackle the legislation. So I joined forces with Senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska, and together we convened a group of about 20 Senators, centrists from both sides of the aisle.

We were determined to scrub the bill of unnecessary expenditures and boost its investment in infrastructure, a proven job creator. There were three questions that we applied:
Would it help boost our economy?
Would it create or save jobs?
Would it put money in the pockets of consumers?

Throughout the negotiations, the President was also deeply involved. He invited several of us for separate meetings with him at the White House. I have been to the Oval Office many times for meetings with President Bush and President Clinton, but this meeting was entirely different. For a half hour, it was just President Obama and I talking one-on-one about the bill.
I handed him a two-page list of my initial recommendations which totaled about $655 billion. He told me that he felt that a package of that size would be too small to “jolt” the economy and emphasized the depth of the economic crisis, but he did not dispute my assertion that the House bill was larded with wasteful, ineffective, costly spending. In response to his request that I work with his Administration, I told him of the bipartisan group of centrists Senators who were working to scrub the House bill.

Our group continued to negotiate and drafted an amendment known as the Collins-Nelson amendment that pared $110 billion from the bill bringing it to a total of $780 billion and making it far more targeted with robust investments in transportation infrastructure, which would put people to work, tax relief to help middle-income families, and funding for unfunded federal mandates that burden state and local governments. We got the compromise through the Senate.
Then the conference negotiations to resolve the differences between the House and the Senate bills began. They were extremely difficult and lasted deep into the night, day after day. They started with a completely inadequate offer by the Senate Democratic Leader that almost caused the negotiations to collapse and caused three of the Republican Senators who had been involved in the negotiations to walk away. Then the White House chief of staff became involved, and the negotiations become serious, albeit still extremely difficult.

In the end, we settled on a $787 billion bill that is about 36 percent tax cuts and 64 percent spending. It was endorsed by both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, something that is rare indeed.

As many of my Republican friends here tonight will attest, I have been criticized by some in my party for working with the President rather than just voting no so that a filibuster could kill the bill. “Just say no” is a wonderful slogan when it comes to using drugs, but it falls far short to being a solution to our current crisis.

The bill obviously is not what I would have written if I could have drafted the bill myself, but it represented essential progress on the road to recovery. Although far from perfect, the bill provides tax relief, creates jobs, and addresses the dire economic crisis our nation faces.
Although, in the end, the legislation gained only three Republican votes in the Senate, our version was developed with considerable minority input. There were six, not just three, Republican Senators who were deeply involved in the negotiations until the very last stage, as well as several others who called me throughout the conference negotiations to ask that I make sure certain provisions were included in the final bill.

So my answer to Sandy Maisel’s first question is yes, a bill can be considered bipartisan even if the roll call vote seems to suggest that it barely meets that threshold as long as Republicans are not shut out of the process as they were in the House.

On this issue, I believed that the President was on the right track, and so I worked closely with him. I will continue to support the president when I believe he is right. I have, and will, oppose him, however, when I believe he is wrong.
The most recent example of that opposition is the President’s budget. I voted against his budget because the drastic increases to the public debt it would bring are not sustainable and pose a threat to the basic health of our economy.

Throughout our nation’s history, each generation has made sacrifices to better the lives of the next generation. My fundamental concern with the President’s budget is that it would do the opposite. It asks the next generation – students, your generation -- to sacrifice for us.

The President’s budget projects deficits over the next decade of 9.3 TRILLION dollars. Now I have indicated that I believe spending more money this year and next to help turn around our economy makes sense, but this level of deficit spending, year after year, jeopardizes our long-term economic health and imposes an enormous burden on generations to come.
The President’s budget doubles the national debt in five years and nearly triples it in 10, creating more debt than under every president from George Washington to George W. Bush combined. By 2019, our debt would reach 82 percent of GDP, the highest level since World War II. This crushing debt would make our nation even more dependent on China for financing and threatens the value of our currency and our financial security.

I would not have devoted my life to public service if I did not believe that government has an important role to play in building a fair, just, and prosperous society. But I also recognize the dangers of too big a government, of excessive debt, and of crushing tax burdens.
Let me conclude by answering the second question posed by Professor Maisel: “Should the quality of legislation be judged by whether it receives bipartisan support?” Generally, my answer to question is also “yes.” In many cases, whether a bill receives support from both Democrats and Republicans is a pretty good barometer of its quality.” If a bill cannot attract a single vote from across the aisle, then it may well be of questionable merit, have been jammed through without careful consideration, or be an attempt to score partisan political points rather than crafted to address an issue.

I doubt that anyone in this room could turn to the person sitting next to you and find that you agree on every single political issue even if you are in the same political party. To expect members of the Senate to toe the party line rather than to exercise independent judgment guided by political principles is a recipe for gridlock and division at a time when our nation needs progress and unity.

The challenges facing our nation are great. We will meet these challenges only by embracing the traditions of mutual respect, compromise, and reconciliation that are the true definition of bipartisanship and the foundation of our uniquely American democracy.

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