John McCain photo

Address to the Economic Club of Memphis

April 16, 2007

Thank you for inviting me to talk with you about that great engine of opportunity and prosperity - the American economy. We live in a time when the success of our free market principles are the envy and model for societies whose economies had once achieved no more than the perpetuation of poverty and despair for the many and luxuries and power for a privileged few. We showed the world that power and wealth are the product of freedom and not the other way around - the freedom to pursue your aspirations, to seize your opportunities, to rise as far as your own industry and imagination will take you, to make a better life for your children than you inherited, and to build together a civilization for the ages, in which all people share in the promise and responsibilities of liberty.

Our government was conceived to protect our liberty in all its expressions, political, religious, and economic, and in many respects government provides services that are indispensable to us. But it was not intended to command our economy, or redirect its benefits to this or that interest group or subordinate its growth to the growth of government. Government's constitutional obligation to promote the general welfare did not empower it to assume the responsibilities of individuals but to protect our right to exercise those responsibilities without fear or favor, and to profit from the results. Government should never ask from American families more than is necessary to do the things they cannot do for themselves. It should spend money as wisely as they would, and exercise its responsibilities as competently as they exercise theirs.

When I came to Congress, Democrats were in the majority and they used government to make our choices for us. They took from us an ever greater share of our freedom and property to do the things American families and communities are better able to do for ourselves. They grew government for the sake of their own power, and used the American economy, the wonder of the world, to serve their ends not ours. They taxed it, regulated it, and injured it for the sake of partisan and parochial interests rather than liberate it, incentivize it and put it to work for all Americans.

When Republicans won a majority in Congress, we did so with the promise to restore to Americans their freedom and resources that had been wasted extravagantly, to mind our accounts as carefully as American families minded theirs, to govern less but govern better. And we did some good things. We reformed welfare, we lowered taxes, we began to repair our national defense, and for a time, thanks to a growing economy and peace, we managed to spend no more than we took in. But we left some big things undone because they were too hard and too politically risky.

Worst of all, we forgot who we were: tight-fisted stewards of the federal treasury who keep our priorities straight. We asked Americans to make us the governing party, and we rewarded them by becoming the party of government. As any new member of Congress quickly learns, there are really three parties in Congress: Republicans, Democrats and appropriators. And woe to the member who challenges the supremacy of the latter. No campaign promise, no political philosophy, no national priority is allowed to stand in the way of the prerogatives and priorities of the appropriations committees. When an appropriator says spend, we spend. We spend money on an indoor rainforest in the Midwest. We spend it to study the DNA of bears in Montana, without knowing whether we needed to solve a criminal case or a paternity suit. And we spend it to build a bridge to nowhere in Alaska. Such spending might come natural to Democrats, but Republicans promised an end to such extravagances. We promised not to take your money to play pork barrel politics. We promised to be a party of principle, not a party of entrenched political power.

Pork barrel politics balkanizes America into competing interests groups just as race-based or religion-based or class-based politics do. Congress is the national legislature, not a town council, not a state assembly, not a corporate boardroom. And it should be concerned with meeting national priorities, not fostering greater social divisions by squabbling over who gets the bigger piece of the federal pie at the cost of the national interest.

To illustrate how badly the problem skews our priorities look at the recent debate in Congress over the spending bill to support our troops in Iraq. Democratic leaders wanted to use the bill to force the President to withdraw our troops from Iraq by next year. But they didn't have the votes. Some Democrats wanted them withdrawn sooner and some worried, rightly I might add, that Congress should fund or not fund the war, but it shouldn't make tactical decisions that are best left to our generals in the field. To win their votes, Democratic leaders didn't persuade them of the merits of their proposal. They bought them. They took the lid off the pork barrel, and said to wavering members "help yourself, there's plenty more where that came from." They gave $7 million to research water quality on pig farms in Missouri; $24 million to sugar beet farmers; $74 million for peanut storage; $95 million to dairy producers and nearly $400 million for highway projects, two years after we passed a $244 billion highway bill.

This war is more important than a new highway overpass, a pig farm or a peanut barn. And most Americans, whether they support or oppose the war, expect their representatives to cast an honest vote on whether to fund it, and not use it as another excuse to waste their money.

The government spends more money today than ever before. Since Ronald Reagan left office, government spending adjusted for inflation has increased $2,500 for every man, woman and child in the country. Wasteful spending has gone from irresponsible to indefensible. And we're not spending it on programs that are any more effective than they were twenty years ago. My goodness, when disaster strikes the government isn't even ready to deliver drinking water to dehydrated babies or rescue the aged and infirm trapped in a hospital with no electricity. I promise, if I'm elected President I won't let Congress waste any more money on programs that aren't reviewed or that need to be reformed or abolished or on projects that serve no greater purpose than to deceive voters into re-electing their local Congressman.

I've fought against waste and pork barrel spending for years. It's often been a lonely fight, but a good one. I haven't won many of those votes, but I'm not tired of fighting. I'm tired of losing.

The presidency has many powers. One of the most useful is the veto pen. I believe the President should have the line item veto as 43 governors have, and I'll fight to get it. But I won't wait for it. Give me the pen, and I'll use it. I won't just talk about it, or threaten it, or use it once and put it back in the drawer to gather dust. Give me the pen, and I'll veto every single pork barrel bill Congress sends me, and if they keep sending them to me, I'll use the bully pulpit to make the people who are wasting your money famous. You'll know who they are, and you can hold them accountable. No is always the right answer to wasteful spending. Give me the pen and, I promise you, I'll say no, and I'll say it loud enough so everyone hears me.

I'll use the power of the office to hold the agencies of the federal government accountable for the money they spend, and I'll make sure the public helps me. We're going to make every aspect of government purchases and performance transparent. Information on every step of contracts and grants will be posted on the internet in plain and simple English. We're not going to hide anything behind accounting tricks and bureaucratic doubletalk that a linguist with a PhD in accounting couldn't decipher. Believe me, that's going to help change the way we buy things in Washington. But we're going to post an agency's performance evaluation as well. We're going to demand accountability. Every federal agency is going to have goals set at the beginning of the fiscal year, and they'll have to issue public progress reports at the end of the year on how well or poorly they met them. We'll find some good performers, and I'll be proud to recognize them. But when we do not, performance will determine whether they are funded the next year. Government programs will be judged for the success they've had in meeting a need that people can't be expected to meet for themselves. If a program has a good record, and serves a purpose that the private sector can't they'll receive continued funding. But we're not going to spend more money on them just because they have been around for a long time. If they're not giving Americans good value for their tax dollars, they're going to have to change or they're going out of business.

When the government's budget is tighter, the family's budget won't have to be. I promise you, if I'm elected President, I won't leave office without balancing the federal budget. And I won't do it with smoke and mirrors. When I leave office, I want to leave a budget that stays balanced after I'm gone, and can weather the occasional downturn and unexpected contingency. I'll do it by spending less and encouraging economic growth. If the federal government can't be funded with current revenues, which are growing at historic rates, then the government is too big and is growing too fast. I won't balance the budget by allowing the President's income and investment tax cuts to expire. When we passed those tax cuts, we increased spending as well. That's unacceptable, and the best way to protect the tax cuts and balance the budget is to stop spending money on things that are not the business of government and on programs that have outlived their usefulness or were never useful to begin with. I'll fight to prevent government from keeping an individual from making a good living or spending and taxing our economy into decline. I won't let government make it harder for American businesses to adapt to the changes in the global economy that our own free market principles have unleashed. I won't let the government get in the way of earning an honest dollar. I'll appoint judges who won't allow our legal system to be abused by meritless class action suits that increase the costs of every product we purchase and every job we create; judges who won't let your property be confiscated to build a new shopping mall without your permission. But I won't use government to make your profits for you. Every American and every American business can do that for themselves.

Our tax code shouldn't penalize hard work, thrift, risk-taking and success. I want America's smartest people creating jobs, not wasting their time, energy and capital on navigating our incomprehensible tax laws. Tomorrow is the deadline for filing our tax returns. It's a day most Americans anticipate with dread or weary resignation. And even though more than a quarter of the year has passed, the average American family still hasn't earned enough money to pay their taxes next year. Compounding this burden, is the complexity and waste of the tax code that requires $140 billion in compliance and preparation costs each year - one thousand dollars for every American family. It won't be easy to fix a Byzantine code that has been decades in the making. But I don't want the office for the sake of the nice house, the big plane and the car and driver. I want to fix the hardest problems, and I'll fight to make the tax code simpler, fairer, flatter, more pro-growth and pro-jobs.

I'll fight to save the future of Social Security and Medicare. I won't leave office without doing everything I can to fix the fiscal problem that, more than any other, threatens our future prosperity and power. No problem is in more need of honesty than the looming insolvency of our entitlement programs. No government program is the object of more political posturing and spin than Social Security and Medicare. Americans have the right to know the truth, no matter how bad it is. So here's a little straight talk: the current Social Security system is unsustainable. Period. A half century ago, sixteen American workers supported every retiree. Today, it's just three. Soon, it will be only two. If we don't make some tough choices, Social Security and Medicare either won't be there for our children and grandchildren or we will have had to raise taxes so dramatically to support them that we will have crushed the prosperity of average Americans.

If I'm President, I'll submit a plan to save Social Security and Medicare, and I'll ask Democrats in Congress to do the same. We'll listen to what people outside government suggest as well. I'll work on a bipartisan basis to make the hard choices; to protect the retirement security of the American worker, and the growth of the American economy. And if Congress is afraid to make those choices, then they can just let me do it. I'll take the heat. I'll ask Congress to let me submit a comprehensive proposal. I'll prepare it carefully, fairly and honestly. And they can vote yes or no on that proposal: no amendments; no filibuster; no tricks: no band-aid solutions; no more lies; no more kicking the can down the road as the problem becomes harder and more expensive to solve; no more hoping that a future generation of leaders will have the courage we lack. If some of their constituents complain, and they will, they can put the blame on me. I can take it. What I can't take is the shame of leaving office knowing that America's future was less promising than its past. I've spent my life fighting to make sure that sad day never comes.

There's never been a tomorrow Americans weren't eager to greet. There's never been a problem Americans couldn't solve. The courage, patriotism, ingenuity and industry of our forbears earned the reverence we hold for our storied past. But we have never been a country that substitutes nostalgia for optimism. We have never been a country that would rather go back than forward. We are the world's leaders, and leaders don't fear change, hide from challenges, pine for the past and dread the future. We make the future better than the past. That's why I resent demagogues who preach the false virtues of economic isolationism. Opening new markets for American goods and services is indispensable to our future prosperity. We can compete with anyone. You wouldn't know that by listening to the protectionists. They think we're licked. They think we should hide behind walls, bury our heads and industries in the sand, and hope we have enough left to live on while the world passes us by. That's not leadership, and that's not American.

Here's what the demagogues don't tell you. America is the world's biggest exporter, importer, producer, saver, investor, manufacturer, and innovator. Americans don't run from the challenge of a global economy. We are the global economy. Any confident, competent government should embrace competition - it makes us stronger - not hide from our competitors and cheat our consumers and workers. We can compete and win, as we always have, or we can be left behind. I'm not running for President to preside over our decline.

Lowering barriers to trade creates more and better jobs, and higher wages. It keeps inflation under control. It keeps mortgage and other interest rates low, and it makes goods more affordable for low and middle income consumers. Protectionism threatens all those benefits.

I know that open markets don't automatically translate into a higher quality of life for every single American. Change is hard, and while most of us gain, some industries, companies and workers are forced to struggle with very difficult choices. It wasn't government's job to spend millions to save buggy whip factories and haberdashers when cars replaced carriages and men stopped wearing hats. And it isn't government's job to spend billions preserving products and services that we can't sell anymore. But it is government's job to help workers get the education and training they need for the new jobs that will be created by new businesses in this new century.

Right now we have a half-dozen different programs that are supposed to help displaced workers, and another half-dozen for people who are not working at all. We have an unemployment insurance program straight out of the 1950s. It was designed to assist workers through a few tough months during an economic downturn until their old jobs came back. That program has no relevance to the world we live in today.

If I'm elected President, I'll work with Congress and the states to overhaul unemployment insurance and make it a program for retraining, relocating and assisting workers who have lost a job that's not coming back to find a job that won't go away. We should replace our outmoded and redundant programs with a single system. We can help people get back on their feet more quickly with jobs in the private sector, which offer the best training for a changing marketplace. We can strengthen community colleges and technical training, and give displaced workers more choices to find their way back to productive and prosperous lives.

No one should have to wait until they are laid off to build a better life. We can start right now by improving the accountability of public education at the primary and secondary level, allowing competition, and helping provide parents with choices for their children's education. The better educated Americans are, the more capable they will be of adjusting to and benefiting from economic change.

We won't compete successfully by using old technology to produce old goods. We will succeed by knowing what to produce and continuously inventing new technologies to produce it. America has the world's best entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors and workers. That's why our advantages in the global marketplace have never been better. An educated work force equipped with American technology will out compete anyone. When our education and training programs match our technology, our country will move ahead, and no American worker will be left behind.

You can't sell me on hopelessness. You can't scare me about the future. You can't convince me that our problems are insurmountable. I don't buy it, and neither do the American people. We stand on the threshold of another century of American leadership. We have the opportunity to write another chapter of American greatness. Those of us privileged to lead this country need only be mindful of what has always made us great, have the courage to stand by our principles, honor our public trust, and keep our promises to put the country's interests before our own.

I've always kept my promises to my country. I'll keep the ones I make now. And I will keep the ones I make as President.

I'm not running for President to be somebody, but to do something; to do the hard but necessary things not the easy and needless things. I'm running for President to protect this country from harm and defeat our enemies. I'm running for President to make the government do its job, not your job; to do it with less, and to do it better. I'm running for President to defend our freedom and expand our opportunities. I'm running for President not to leave our biggest national problems to some unluckier generation of leaders, but to fix them now, and leave our grandchildren a safer, freer and more prosperous country than the one we were blessed to inherit; I'm running for President to make sure America maintains its place as the political and economic leader of the world; the country that doesn't fear change but makes change work for us; the country that doesn't long for the good old days, but aspires to even better days. I'm running for President of the United States, not a defeated country, not a bankrupt country; not a timid and frightened country; not a country fragmented into bickering interest groups with no sense of or dedication to the national interest; not a country with a bloated, irresponsible and incompetent government. I'm not running for town manager or school board member or corporate treasurer or surgeon general or head of the trial lawyers association or secretary of the local charity. I'm running for President of the United States, the most powerful, prosperous nation and greatest force for good on earth. And if I am elected President I intend to keep it so. Thank you.

John McCain, Address to the Economic Club of Memphis Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/277322

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