WASHINGTON, DC - House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (MD) today discussed the ramifications of the historic 2008 election and the agenda for the incoming 111th Congress at the National Press Club. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“All Americans, and people around the globe, have recognized the magnitude of what happened in this Country on November 4th. As I watched Barack Obama celebrating with more than a hundred thousand in Chicago, and tens of millions across our Nation, I had a sense that America was filled with a new hope and sense of confidence in our ability to meet our challenges successfully. It was, as President Bush recognized, ‘a triumph of the American story.’
“Our challenge is ensuring that we live up to the possibility of that day, and the promise of this moment in history.
“With that opportunity in mind, I want to talk, as House Majority Leader, about the shape of the new Congress and its work in the new year.
“First, let me say a word about the opposition. George Orwell recognized that the difference between majority and minority is less a question of seats than of psychology. The majority, he wrote, ‘is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?’ whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.’
“That is now the Republicans’ strongest temptation—the unchecked chance to criticize. Republicans may choose to emphasize disagreement and practice obstruction, especially when so many are blaming the media, blaming moderates, blaming everyone but themselves for what happened on November 4th.
“But we know what happened: over the last eight years, Republicans had an unprecedented opportunity to put their philosophy into effect, and it was weighed, and measured, and found sorely wanting. Some conservatives understand that already. As the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru put it, ‘What we have seen over the last two election cycles, it should be emphasized, was not the rejection of one or another faction of the Republican party, but of the party itself.’
“In the immediate future, with no governing responsibility and with the moderate Republican virtually extinct, the other party is likely to move towards a narrow agenda, even further away from the centrist and independent voters who sustained its majorities.
“But that would not simply be damaging to the future of the Republican Party—it would be dangerous for our Country. Our Country needs a loyal opposition to work constructively on legislation, to challenge Democratic arguments and hold us to account. Our Country needs Republican leaders in the tradition of Bob Michel, Everett Dirksen, and Howard Baker: conservatives who are strong in their principles, but who would rather help shape legislation for the common good than reflexively obstruct it for partisan positioning.
“At the same time, we should remember that minorities don’t win elections. Majorities lose them. Majorities lose elections when they pursue partisanship to the exclusion of common-sense compromise and accomplishment.
“So we must remember where our majority came from. We did not just make full-blown ideological converts of the other half of the country. What we did do—and this in itself was a huge accomplishment—was convince majority-making independents that we will govern responsibly at a time of national crisis.
“The 33 to 36 new Members of Congress coming to Washington to swell our side of the aisle are pragmatic, not dogmatic. They were elected on promises of bipartisanship and fiscal discipline. They were elected, quite simply, to solve problems, not further politicize Washington.
“Democrats won in every region of the Country, and our nominee for President won more than 50% of the vote. For the first time in decades, we are true national majority party—and if we want to stay that way, we must govern like one.
“We cannot practice the politics of division in our own ranks. We must welcome debate and use regular order to build consensus. As Speaker Pelosi has said, we intend to govern from the middle—not the muddled middle, but the principled, consensus-creating middle that has marked our country’s progress.
“And as we seek agreement on our side of the aisle, we will continue to reach out to Republicans to build common ground on the challenges confronting our Country. That is not simply a promise for the future: It is what we did in the last Congress, when over 70% of the major pieces of legislation passed the House with more than 50 Republican votes. It is what we did when we passed an economic stimulus, raised the minimum wage, and created a new GI bill for our troops.
“In the next Congress, our first focus must be on efforts to restore the health of our economy. They will include funding to create jobs by rebuilding our worn-down infrastructure—the roads, bridges, pipes, and tracks that serve our communities and our commerce. In addition, we must ensure that all of our people have access to broadband connections.
“Economic recovery will also mean helping hard-pressed states with federal Medicaid assistance, so that workers who have lost their jobs and their health insurance will still have access to healthcare. Conditions also warrant temporarily increasing food stamp benefits and extending unemployment insurance. Those measures do not just help those who are hurting most—economists consider them some of the most efficient kinds of stimulus.
“We will continue to be committed to the principle of pay-as-you-go. The reality, however, is that recovery legislation will raise the deficit in the short term. Fiscal hawk that I am, I still believe that that is the right course, because a wide consensus of economists tells us that deficit spending is both the way out of a recession like this one and the way to prevent even more catastrophic decline.
“In the long run, fiscal responsibility can and must be the watchword of our majority. For eight years, the Administration lived by the proposition summed up by Vice President Cheney, when he said: ‘Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.’ Businesses and consumers pursued that siren song to the brink of financial destruction—and some, of course, have gone over that brink. We are now experiencing the stark, painful reality that debt does, indeed, matter.
“I have always believed that fiscal responsibility is, at heart, a moral proposition: it means that we do not indebt our children to finance our own immediate demands and desires. It means that we must pay for what we buy. But more than that, we must buy the right things.
“Wise investments will grow our economy, guard our national security, and protect the health of our people. Smart spending can help us get back to long-term fiscal health. Spending wisely today can save us money tomorrow. That is why our country needs far-reaching proposals, even in this recession. In the broad sense, fiscal responsibility should be at the core of our entire governing philosophy.
“On energy, for instance, a fiscally responsible strategy must invest in new technologies to bring the price of energy down in the long term—because there is nothing more shortsighted than acting as if our foreign oil addiction is a problem only when gas costs more than $3 a gallon, or only during an oil shortage, or only over the summer. Ending that addiction would halt what T. Boone Pickens rightly calls the greatest transfer of wealth in human history—from America to the petro-states of the Middle East.
“Our energy policy should also include long-term investment to modernize our national grid. If we fail to match 21st-century energy technology with 21st-century distribution capability, we will waste energy and money every day.
“On global warming, too, inaction will cost us greatly and is not an option. The latest research from the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the total cost of global warming—from impacts like hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs, and water costs—will be as high as 3.6 percent of gross domestic product. The longer we wait to act on emissions, the more painful—and expensive—the consequences will be.
“When it comes to defense, one of our most pressing priorities is rebuilding our armed forces, which have been worn down by years of war. Failing to restore readiness will jeopardize our security in the short term; but financing it with even more debt will threaten our ability to support a world-class military in the long term. That is why we must help phase out wasteful spending that contributes little to our Nation’s safety. As a senior Pentagon advisory group wrote, we ‘cannot reset the current force, modernize and transform…at the same time. Choices must be made.’ We must be prepared to make those choices, confident that wise defense spending is the best security.
“On healthcare, fiscal responsibility will mean investing in information technology to help make our healthcare system more efficient. It will mean supporting efforts to ground medical decisions in statistics and empirical data, as the odd bedfellows John Kerry and Newt Gingrich argued in a recent piece in the New York Times.
“And it will mean expanding access, because the hugely inefficient way in which America pays for healthcare is harming businesses’ productivity and imposing huge costs on them during a recession. As Kerry and Gingrich point out, ‘the United States spends more than twice as much per capita on health care compared to almost every other country in the world—and with worse health quality than most industrialized nations.’ From that perspective, the most wasteful alternative is doing nothing.
“Healthcare is an urgent priority, and we must move on it with dispatch. But doing it right will be far more important than doing it within an arbitrary timeframe. A consensus of the American people on the ‘how’ of healthcare is critical to our success.
“Finally, we have a window to truly set our fiscal house in order, ensuring the public and the markets that even as we make necessary investments today, we are prepared for the years to come. A key priority in the next Congress must be entitlement reform.
“But the term itself is a bit misleading. When it comes to healthcare, we can no longer think of entitlement reform and expanded access as two separate issues. We will never be able to cut the cost of Medicare and Medicaid as long as they are serving unhealthy patients—as long as they are the first consistent source of insurance for tens of millions of Americans. But even with expanded access to healthcare, and even with savings on Medicare and Medicaid, we will still have to make tough choices on entitlements. The longer we put those choices off, the more our priorities and possibilities will be constrained, year after year. So let us face those choices sooner rather than later.
“On Social Security, the path of reform is, relatively speaking, more easily defined, but we will need a bipartisan consensus to move forward. But, now that privatization is essentially off the table, such a consensus is, I hope, possible. Helping to reform Social Security would be an excellent way for Republicans to demonstrate that they are serious about working toward solutions that are politically doable and fiscally responsible, not just ideologically defining.
“As I have said, governing as a national majority does not mean simply setting modest, middling goals. It means ambitious goals, pursued thoughtfully, with time taken to win arguments and build the agreement that has so far eluded us. As our next President said in Grant Park: ‘While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.’
“Now our work is to turn from promise to progress, from speeches to statute. We will take counsel from every part of our party, from our Republican colleagues, and from the White House—and we will then work to make concrete the change that America has chosen.
“Four years ago, the last time a party won control of the Presidency and the Congress, President Bush reflected on his victory and said: ‘We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the elections.’
“But that was an incomplete observation. We know what happens to a party that thinks it’s only accountable once—because no election delivers a blank check. In truth, elections give us something subtler: a chance to earn the confidence of the people we serve; a chance to build on our vision for this country, brick by brick; an accountability moment that comes again and again. That is what elections give us: opportunity to effect change.
“In partnership with the American people, and with all of our colleagues in the Congress, we will embrace this opportunity—this chance for a Nation renewed and reaffirmed.”