John McCain photo

Address to the Oklahoma State Legislature

May 21, 2007

When our founding fathers signed the document that declared our independence from Great Britain, they risked more than their lives and property for the cause. They pledged their most cherished possession their "sacred honor." Today, the phrase seems little more than a reminder that, once upon a time, we judged public officials and they judged themselves by the sincerity with which they put our nation's interests before their own. Americans who expect their elected representatives to execute the responsibilities of our office with competence and integrity are often disappointed. They are disappointed by our failure to address the big problems facing our country, and make the necessary changes to government to meet those challenges. They are disappointed by politicians who value incumbency over principle, and by partisanship that is less a contest of ideas than an uncivil brawl over the spoils of power. And t hey are disgusted by the disgrace of public officials who trade their integrity for personal gain and advantage.

I am a conservative, and I believe it is a healthy thing for Americans to be skeptical about the purposes and practices of public officials, and refrain from expecting too much from government. But it worries me when healthy skepticism becomes widespread cynicism bordering on alienation; when the people come to believe that government has become so dysfunctional that it no longer serves basic constitutional ends; our politics have become so polarizing we're incapable of addressing national priorities; and their elected leaders so devoted to their personal interests they ignore the public's.

If I'm privileged to serve our country as President, I will hold my administration to standards of conduct that will strengthen rather than diminish the people's faith in our integrity. I will not tolerate influence peddling or self-dealing of any kind. No one who wishes to use his or her office for personal gain will have the privilege of holding office in my administration. I'll make sure that all officials in my administration have their interactions with lobbyists fully disclosed to public view. Lobbyists have a right to petition government on behalf of their clients. I've never believed lobbying is an inherently corrupt profession. Like any profession, its members include many people of sterling character who play a valuable public role, and a few whose qualities are less admirable and whose purposes are less honorable. We need not slander the reputation of the many by finding fault in the character of their profession rather than in the character of the few who dishonor themselves.

But it is right and necessary to ensure the public's right to know as well as anyone's right to petition the government; to respect the ability of lobbyists to advocate their client's cause as well as the need for truthful disclosure; to strengthen our ability to govern and the imperative to keep it free from corrupting influences. In my administration, public disclosure will be constant, timely and widely available. Ethical standards will be subject to frequent review. Every inspector general in every department of government will have direct access to the heads of their departments and cabinet secretaries. And I'll hold those senior officeholders directly responsible for taking the necessary corrective measures to ensure the integrity of the departments they lead.

I will encourage Congress to toughen its enforcement of ethical standards. I am proud to serve in Congress, and I know the vast majority of members to be decent, conscientious public servants. But the few who have traded favors for personal gain have shaken the public's faith in the institution. Indeed, I'm afraid such scandals contributed significantly to the defeat Republicans suffered in the last election. Congress has taken some steps to address the problem, but did not do enough to repair the damage done by those members who disgraced themselves and the institution. Much more is necessary, including the establishment of an Office of Public Integrity that moves swiftly to investigate complaints of ethical violations by members and their staffs, and its conclusions should be subject to an up or down vote by all members.

I am a Republican, and I believe it is essential to our party's success, and to the nation's honor that we claim sincerely the mantle of reform. We were elected the majority in Congress thirteen years ago for that reason more than any other: to reform the way government is funded and structured, and to hold it accountable for its ability or inability to address the serious challenges of our time. We lost sight of that principle, and our partisanship, which should be the way in which we compete for the right to advance our principles of smaller, more efficient government, became more concerned with the preservation of our power than with honoring our principles.

We became paralyzed by the demands of competing special interests and the narrow, selfish partisanship of both parties has crippled our efforts to reform government and face squarely the problems the people expect us to fix. We need to reform and modernize our transportation system, our energy use, our public education; our tax code; our health care system; our telecommunications laws; the way we assist displaced workers; respond to emergencies; even the way we defend our national security. We need to balance the federal budget and stop spending money on things that are not the business of government. We need to repair Social Security and Medicare now, not when they're completely insolvent and some unluckier generation of Americans is stuck with the problem. None of these daunting challenges can be addressed without genuine and lasting reform. It is essential to our security and our continued economic vitali ty. And beyond providing more choices in the marketplace; or a secure old age; or enhanced security; reforming government so that it meets real needs with basic competence will help restore America's pride in the way we govern ourselves, and remind us all, those of us lucky enough to serve and those who elect us, what a special thing it is to be an American.

Last month, Americans filed their tax returns. The government collected over $2.4 trillion in total revenue for 2006. Do you think you are getting $2.4 trillion worth of value out of Washington?

As president, I'll hold the agencies of the federal government accountable for the money they spend, and work with members of Congress who are serious about reform, like my friend, Tom Coburn, a man of principle who sought office for no other purpose than to get things done for his country. 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.

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 programs have a good record, and serve a purpose that the private sector can't, they will 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.

Before disaster strikes, natural or man made, we will make sure that clear procedures and lines of communication exist between government and private industry to maximize response and recovery efforts.

America has many of the best run businesses in the world. Yet we fail to take full advantage of their know-how and entrepreneurial spirit when catastrophe strikes. For example, UPS, FedEx, and Wal-Mart can tell in real time where a package is anywhere in the world, but FEMA, despite its multi-billion dollar budget, couldn't track many of its assets during its Katrina response, needlessly delaying help to our citizens. Wal-Mart responded more quickly to the victims of Katrina than did the federal government. We need to ensure that FEMA adapts similar technology and processes that are employed by America's best run companies.

Government-run Emergency Operations Centers should include a Business Operations Center to allow for proper coordination between the public and private sectors to maximize the surge of manpower, equipment and material. And federal law should provide sufficient liability protections to encourage more companies to act as a "force multiplier" for the government during disaster response and recovery efforts.

Another responsibility of the federal government that cries out for reform is how we buy the weapons systems used by our military. We are at war. Our servicemen and women who risk their lives for us deserve a procurement system that is lean, agile and efficient not a system that is ponderous, ineffective and susceptible to mismanagement and even corruption. Every dollar we waste on unnecessary or too costly weapons is a dollar less for the men and women who stand a post for us in harm's way.

Problems in defense acquisition are well known: undefined or poorly defined and ever-changing requirements for weapons systems; long delays in delivery, cost overruns, and a lack of accountability for recurring failures. More than 100 studies have identified the same problems over and over again for many years.

Why has a broken system endured for so long when everyone's well aware of the problem? It is the product of members of Congress who are more concerned with their re-election than national security; bureaucrats who place individual and parochial service priorities above national defense priorities, and defense contractors more concerned with winning the next contract than performing on the current one.

If I'm elected President, I intend do something about that.

I won't tolerate congressional earmarks -- which have encouraged not only additional wasteful spending but public corruption, and led to the depressing spectacle of members of Congress being led off to prison. Nor will I allow other procurement tricks that divert funds from national priorities. I will expand the use of fixed price contracts to enforce discipline in the procurement process and ensure that clearly defined requirements are fulfilled, realistic schedules are kept, and costs don't exceed the promised price. Too often, contractors underbid to "buy into" a market with little expectation of delivering on schedule and within budget. At the same time, the government's cost estimates are often unrealistic. The Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship was supposed to be a model program. In the end, it cost twice its projected price, and the Navy had to cancel purchase of third ship because of the cost overruns. Fixed price contracts based on realistic cost estimates with clear, consistent requirements will ensure that the contractor pays for cost overruns, not the taxpayers. We must also limit sole-source contracting and make cost discipline a priority using market competition to keep costs down and innovation up.

Our defense industries make the finest weapons in the world but are not incentivized enough to keep costs down. That must change. When a company delivers the promised products and controls costs, it should be rewarded. When it doesn't, it must pay the price in its bottom line.

We must set clear expectations and requirements at the outset of an acquisition program, and stick to the plan throughout the life of the program. But we must be prepared to make tough decisions, decisions that are routinely made in the private sector when a product does not meet the demands of the market. We shouldn't move automatically from research and development to procurement either. This critical decision should be made in a transparent process -- and we must be willing to pull the plug before sinking more dollars into weapons that do not provide what our warriors need for the conflicts of today and tomorrow.

These reforms and many others will not be easy, but they are necessary. And so is reforming our entire federal workforce.

We must streamline our workforce, demand high standards of behavior, promote excellence at every level based on merit and accountability, and not let good workers be crippled by the fine print of the latest union contract.

If I'm elected President, I will say to the best people outside Washington who have proven their worth by setting goals and achieving them whether it's running a Fortune 500 company in Silicon Valley or a smaller enterprise in America's heartland: you have done well for yourself and your shareholders, now come serve your country. I want people who know how to run things: efficiently, ethically, and successfully.

Our public and private sectors have produced thousands of men and women, many now retired, who have served their country and their community with distinction. I want to recruit some of them for an Executive Search Leadership group to help my administration find the right people for the right executive jobs. If there's a body armor expert in Kansas City who can help us find better and more efficient ways to protect our troops or a company executive who turned around a bloated corporate bureaucracy, I want to know their names and their willingness to serve, not whether they contributed to my campaign. I will demand that every resume matches the qualifications needed to get the job done. When it comes to competence and integrity, there should be no reservations, and no surprises.

Within the next 10 years over 40 percent of the Federal workforce will likely retire. This is an opportunity to reorganize the entire federal workforce. We can instill in the next generation of public servants higher aspirations and a greater sense of purpose. I'll devote the necessary resources to it. We can use this opportunity to make sure that government pay scales allow us to attract the finest public servants, equip them with the newest technologies, target replacements judiciously, and change government to make it smaller, less expensive, better skilled, and more dedicated to the national interest.

Employees in the private sector know that if they don't do their job right they will lose their job. Competition and consequences are the driving force of excellence. Taxpayers deserve the same commitment to excellence from their employees. There must be a new bargain with federal employees, one that is worthy of the American people and mindful that public service is a privilege and a responsibility not a right.

The civil service has strayed from its reformist roots and has mutated into a no-accountability zone, where employment is treated as an entitlement, good performance as an option, and accountability as someone else's problem. Our current system isn't fair to the many good workers who must pick up the slack of those who aren't doing their jobs. The failings in our civil service are encouraged by a system that makes it very difficult to fire someoneeven for gross misconduct. Due process should not be the ally of bad behavior. We must do away with the current system that treats federal employment as a right and makes dismissal a near impossibility. If a federal employee is removed the decision should be reviewed swiftly by an independent board to be sure that it's not motivated by political or personal animus, but it should not trigger an endless process of appeal that mocks justice and accountability.

I know these reforms won't be easy. An entire bureaucracy has grown comfortable in its cocoon of rules and regulations and is not about to change its habits without a fight. But I don't seek the presidency to do the easy things. I seek it to do the right and necessary things. I'm not running for President to be somebody, but to do something: to protect our country and defeat its enemies; to make the government do its job, not your job; to do it better and to do it with less.

I have held a public trust all of my adult life. I have never lived a single day, in good times and bad, that I haven't thanked God for the privilege. America and her causes are a blessing to mankind and they honor all of us who work to make our country an even better place and America's example a greater influence on human history. It is all the reward any of us should need. "Honor," Abraham Lincoln said, "is better than honors." I'm running for President to make sure Americans have a government that reflects the priorities and the honor of the great nation it serves. Thank you.

John McCain, Address to the Oklahoma State Legislature Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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