Bob Costa forwards. Well worth the read.
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America’s Enduring Promise
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Chairman of the House Budget Committee
The 2012 Whittington Lecture, Georgetown University
April 26, 2012
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you so much for hosting this event. The challenges our country faces right now are complex and can be daunting, and the need for well-informed public discourse has rarely been greater.
That’s why this lecture series is such a moving tribute to the memory of Leslie Whittington. This policy dialogue elevates our debates, and I am truly honored that you’ve asked me to participate this year.
It is a pleasure to speak at Georgetown, America’s first Catholic university and one of over 3,700 Jesuit educational institutions around the world serving over 2.5 million students.
The Society of Jesus has a well-earned reputation for educational excellence, and I am grateful for the opportunity to join in conversation with you today.
I suppose some of you don’t know about the Methodist who went to heaven and met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter gave him a tour, and they began by walking down a long hallway till they came to a door. They heard lots of laughter and singing, and the Methodist asked St. Peter, “What’s behind the door?” St. Peter said, “Oh, that’s the Presbyterians.”
A little later they came to another door where they could hear singing, praises and music. “What’s there?” he asked. “Oh, that’s the Baptists,” said St. Peter.
Further down the hall there was still another door. But just before they reached it, St. Peter warned the Methodist to be very, very quiet. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” St. Peter said, “that’s the Catholics. And they think they’re the only ones up here!”
I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts . . . not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church. Of course there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this.
The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it. What I have to say about the social doctrine of the Church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding to the problems of the day.
Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.
The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are “living at the expense of future generations” and “living in untruth.”
We in this country still have a window of time before a debt-fueled economic crisis becomes inevitable. We can still take control before our own needy suffer the fate of Greece. How we do this is a question for prudential judgment, about which people of good will can differ.
If there was ever a time for serious but respectful discussion, among Catholics as well as those who don’t share our faith, that time is now.
As I go around Southern Wisconsin and visit with Americans across the country explaining that our debt is on track to cripple the economy – and showing people charts and graphs to back it up – they often ask, is it too late to save America from a diminished future? Is the American Experiment over?
It’s a difficult question. It’s one that gives me pause. Frankly, it’s one that keeps me up at night.
But the honest answer is the one I’m about to give to you: Nobody ever got rich betting against the United States of America, and I’m not about to start.
Time and again, when America has been put to the test, when it has looked like the era of American exceptionalism was coming to a close… we got back up. We brushed ourselves off. And we got back to work – rebuilding our country, advancing our society, and moving the boundaries of opportunity ever forward.
Churchill put it best: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing – but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”
Well, we have exhausted the other possibilities. After four straight trillion-dollar deficits, and very little economic progress to show for it, I think we know what doesn’t work.
We also have a growing consensus around the ideas that will work. But we lack willing partners at the highest levels to lead us, to unite us, and to address our defining challenge.
The President did not cause the crisis we face. Years of empty promises from both political parties brought us to this moment. But regrettably, this President is unwilling to advance credible solutions to the problem.
He has broken the promise he made during his last campaign to help us, quote, “rediscover our bonds to each other and get out of this constant, petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.”
He does not seem to understand that he can’t promote the common good by setting class against class, or group against group.
The divisive politics of the last three years have not only undermined social solidarity, they have brought progress and reform to a standstill at the very time when America is desperate for solutions to the coming crisis.
Today, we face a fundamental challenge to the American way of life – a gathering storm, whose primary manifestation is the shadow of our ever-growing national debt… and whose most troubling consequence is ever-shrinking opportunity for Americans young and old.
This shadow hangs over young people, who face a struggling economy and the rising probability of greater turmoil ahead. More than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed in this economy.
This shadow hangs over seniors, who have been lied to about their retirement security.
And it hangs over parents. We wonder if we will be the first generation in American history to leave our children with fewer opportunities and a less prosperous nation than the one we inherited.
This storm has already hit Europe – where millions are enduring the painful consequences of empty promises turning into broken promises. But for too many in Washington, instead of learning from Europe’s mistakes, we are repeating them.
Our descent down this path was accelerated four years ago, when poor decisions and bad policies from Wall Street to Washington resulted in a crisis that squandered the nation’s savings and crippled our economy.
What we needed then were policies to strengthen the foundations of our free-enterprise economy.
What we got was the opposite.
We needed a single-minded focus on restoring economic growth: After the immediate panic in late 2008 subsided, we needed to restore real accountability in the financial sector and just clean up the mess.
We needed to restore the principle that those who seek to reap the gains in our economy also bear the full risk of the losses.
We needed policies to control our debt trajectory so that families and businesses were not threatened by the shadow of an ever-rising debt.
Instead, the White House and the last Congress enacted an agenda that made matters worse.
They misspent hundreds of billions of dollars on politically connected boondoggles.
Then, when the country’s number one priority remained getting the economy back on track, the White House and the last Congress made their number one priority a massive, unwanted expansion of the government’s role in health care.
They even tried to impose a costly increase in energy prices in the middle of a recession.
And their idea of Wall Street reform? A blank check for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a new law that provided more protection and preferential treatment for the big banks, and gave more power to the same regulators who failed to see the last crisis coming.
Their reliance on government’s heavy hand with more borrowing, more spending, and unprecedented interventions into the private sector were not just bad policy.
They created tremendous uncertainty for businesses and families, as job losses continued to mount.
We needed solutions to restore the American Idea – an opportunity society, in which government’s role is not to rig the rules and aim for equal outcomes, but – in the words of Abraham Lincoln – “to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all,” so that all may have an equal opportunity to rise and freely pursue their happiness.
Instead, the White House and the last Congress exploited a crisis to advance a government-centered society – a massively expanded role for the federal government in our lives, higher spending to support this expanded role, and higher taxes to support the higher spending.
Higher borrowing, too. In three and a half years, debt held by the public has grown by roughly $4.5 trillion – a 70 percent increase.
As bad as this is, our debt is projected to get much worse, spiraling out of control in the years ahead.
This bleak outlook is paralyzing economic growth today. Investors, businesses and families look at the size of the debt and they hold back, for fear that America is heading for a diminished future.
And should that future arrive, it would mean real pain for all Americans. Much higher interest rates would make it harder for families to buy homes, students to go to college, and businesses to expand and create jobs.
But it would mean more than economic pain for you and me. If we remain on this path, bond markets in a state of panic will turn on us, threatening to end the American Idea.
Forced austerity – broken promises and sacrifices imposed from abroad – would put an end to that most fundamental of American aspirations… that in this land we are responsible for our own destiny… that on this continent we might forever be free from foreign powers who would impose their limits on our dreams for ourselves and our children.
If our generation fails to meet its defining challenge, we would see America surrender her independence to the army of foreign creditors who now own roughly half of our public debt.
It pains me to say this, but the President’s policies will guarantee that outcome if we don’t turn this around soon.
The good news is, there is a better approach – a budget, passed by the House of Representatives, that would lift the debt and free the nation from the constraints of ever-expanding government.
If enacted, this budget would promote economic growth and opportunity starting today, with bold reforms to the tax code and a credible, principled plan to prevent a debt crisis from ever happening.
The President is clearly threatened by this alternative vision.
He is hoping to win the next election by attacking our good-faith effort to secure opportunity for the next generation.
The President is not only wrong on the policy, but he’s wrong on the politics as well.
Americans resent being told what kind of car to drive and what kind of light bulb to use – and they certainly don’t think bureaucrats in Washington should be empowered to dictate their personal health care decisions.
A hallmark of the President’s government-centered agenda is that policy after policy takes from hardworking Americans and gives to politically connected companies and privileged special interests. Our budget calls this what it is – corporate welfare. And we propose to end it.
As we end welfare for those who don’t need it, we strengthen welfare programs for those who do. Government safety-net programs have been stretched to the breaking point in recent years, failing the very citizens who need help the most.
These aren’t just practical questions. These questions have moral implications as well. And since we meet today at America’s first Catholic university, I feel it’s important to discuss how, as a Catholic in public life, my own personal thinking on these issues has been guided by my understanding of the Church’s social teaching.
Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.
Look at the results of the government-centered approach to the war on poverty. One in six Americans are in poverty today – the highest rate in a generation. In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We need a better approach.
To me, this approach should be based on the twin virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity – virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.
Government is one word for things we do together. But it is not the only word.
We are a nation that prides itself on looking out for one another – and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.
Instead, our budget builds on the historic welfare reforms of the 1990s – reforms proven to work. We aim to empower state and local governments, communities, and individuals – those closest to the problem. And we aim to promote opportunity and upward mobility by strengthening job training programs, to help those who have fallen on hard times.
My mentor, Jack Kemp, used to say, “You can’t help America’s poor by making America poor.”
This President’s failed economic policies have driven poverty rates to record highs, and the mountain of new debt he’s helped create, much of it borrowed from China or simply printed by the Federal Reserve, has made America poorer.
Those unwilling to lift the debt are complicit in our acceleration toward a debt crisis, in which the poor would be hurt the first and the worst.
Our budget lifts the debt, fosters a growing economy, and ensures that government programs make good on their important promises.
Instead of letting our critical health and retirement programs go bankrupt, our budget saves and strengthens them so they can fulfill their missions in the 21st Century.
The President likes to talk about Medicare. We welcome the debate. We need this debate.
What the President won’t tell you is that he’s already changed Medicare forever. His new health care law puts a board of 15 unelected bureaucrats in charge of cutting Medicare.
We should never turn the fate of our parents and grandparents over to an unaccountable board and let it make decisions that could deny them access to their care.
My mom relies on Medicare. We owe her and all of our seniors a better program – a program they can count on.
Our budget keeps the protections that have made Medicare a guaranteed promise for seniors throughout the years. It makes no changes for those in or near retirement.
And in order to save Medicare for future generations, we propose to put 50 million seniors, not 15 unaccountable bureaucrats, in charge of their personal health care decisions.
Our budget empowers seniors to choose the coverage that works best for them from a list of plans that are required to offer at least the same benefits as traditional Medicare.
It sets up a financial support system designed to guarantee that they can always afford coverage.
And it says that if a senior wants to choose the traditional Medicare plan, then she should have that right.
Our idea is to force insurance companies to compete against each other to better serve seniors, with more help for the poor and the sick and less help for the wealthy – or, as the President calls it, “Social Darwinism.”
Of course, we disagree with that characterization. Our plan offers the best way to guarantee quality, affordable health care for all of our nation’s seniors for generations to come.
The President also likes to talk about taxes. We welcome the debate. We need this debate.
The President remains committed to taking more and more from the paychecks of working Americans – not to pay down the debt, but rather to chase ever-higher government spending.
We believe there is a better way forward. A world-class tax code should be fair, simple and competitive. The U.S. code fails on all three counts.
We propose a total overhaul of the code. We lower rates across the board. But revenue goes up every year under our budget, because we propose to close those special-interest loopholes that go primarily to the well-connected and the well-off.
When we lower tax rates by closing special-interest loopholes, we’re saying we in Washington don’t need to micromanage people’s decisions through the tax code.
Let people keep more of their hard-earned dollars. Let them decide how to spend it.
The Path to Prosperity budget passed the House earlier this spring. The Senate has gone another year without a budget, and the President has hunkered down into campaign mode.
People are right to look at how polarized our politics have become and wonder if we’ll ever fix this mess.
The political class feeds the pessimism. The voices of cynicism have given up on American renewal. They say America’s time for leading the world has passed, and our most important task is now to manage the nation’s decline.
I reject such defeatism. America has been here before. We didn’t give up then, and we won’t give up now.
Maybe the cynics don’t remember 1980 – another moment when so many in Washington had given up on the American people.
As Ronald Reagan put it, “They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities.”
But America did something that we as a people are famous for – we refused to listen to our “betters.”
We voted for a man, but more than that, we voted for an idea – the idea that if we took power from bureaucrats and returned it to the people, that Americans working together could restore the principles of American exceptionalism and build a future they and their children could be proud of.
These principles are not exclusive to one party. The patient-centered Medicare reforms and pro-growth tax reforms we have advanced in the House have a long history of bipartisan support.
Medicare reforms based on choice and competition have their roots in the Clinton administration’s bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare.
And in recent years, I’ve worked with Democrats to advance these same kinds of reforms.
Tax reforms based on lowering rates and closing loopholes go back to the Reagan administration, when Democrats served as the congressional co-sponsors of the landmark 1986 tax reform law.
More recently, the chairmen of President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission put forward a plan for lower rates and a broader base as the best means to simplify the tax code and spur economic growth.
It makes sense that these ideas have attracted leaders in both parties. Patient-centered Medicare offers the only guarantee that Medicare can keep its promise to seniors for generations to come.
And pro-growth tax reform, by lowering rates for all Americans while closing loopholes that primarily benefit the well off, can eliminate unfairness in the tax code and ensure a level playing field for all.
The coalition for reform must attract Americans from all walks of life. But progress will require the removal of certain partisan roadblocks: a flawed health care law that must be replaced, and an insistence from some in Washington on tax hikes and tax gimmicks instead of tax reform.
Only with the right leadership in place can we move forward with ideas that renew the American promise of leaving our children a stronger nation than the one our parents left us.
Look, it is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract. But that is exactly where we are today.
One approach gives more power to unelected bureaucrats, takes more from hard-working taxpayers to fuel the expansion of government, and commits our nation to a future of debt and decline. This approach is proving unworkable – in Congress, in our courts, and in our communities.
This path fails to do justice to either subsidiarity or solidarity. It dissolves the common good of society, and dishonors the dignity of the human person.
Our budget offers a better path, consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith.
We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families, and to communities.
We draw inspiration from the Founders’ belief that all people are born with a God-given right to human flourishing.
Protecting this equal right of all persons is required for solidarity – trusting citizens, not nameless government officials, to determine what is in their best interests, and to make the right choices about the future of our country.
The choice before us could not be more clear: Continuing down the path we’re on would mean becoming the first generation to break faith with the American legacy of leaving the next generation with more prosperity and greater opportunities than our parents left us.
If there’s one thing you hear me say today, hear this: This will not be our destiny.
Americans won’t stand for a shrunken vision of our future.
We will get back on a path to prosperity.
It is not too late to get this right.