John McCain photo

Remarks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

April 24, 2008

Thank you, Governor Jindal, for that kind introduction, and thank you all for the warm welcome to Baton Rouge. I appreciate the hospitality of Mayor Kip Holden ... former Governor Buddy Roemer ... members of Junior Achievement ... and the editors and staff of The Business Report. And my congratulations to all of this evening's honorees.

Tonight's awards recognize the qualities that make for excellence in business. And though many different types of business are represented here, I suspect the basic qualities are the same. I've had two careers, neither one in the corporate world for any length of time. But I've been around business leaders enough to know what makes the best companies stand apart -- why some enterprises succeed and others don't.

The best companies respect public opinion, among other reasons because they know their customers have the option of going elsewhere. They're focused on outcomes, not just process. They steer far clear of bureaucracy, because they know that bureaucracy can be the death of creativity, initiative, commonsense, and the spirit of service. Above all, the finest business leaders never lose their sense of responsibility -- both corporate and personal responsibility. They insist on transparency, having nothing to fear from the inquiries of reporters or auditors. And even if shareholders and the public did not expect a full accounting of budgets, costs, plans and commitments, the best companies would demand it of themselves.

Now I don't want to disillusion the business community of Louisiana, but I'm afraid that these same standards of efficiency, commonsense, and honesty are not always observed by government. At both the state and federal level, government has been known to act in an arbitrary, inflexible, and irresponsible manner, indifferent to the wishes of the people it is supposed to serve. Too often, government has its own peculiar way of doing things, following practices that in the private sector would invite financial ruin or worse. Even in this information age, often our federal government still relies on the old bureaucratic model, in which little offices in Washington are assumed to be the centers of knowledge. Regardless of which party controls Congress or the Executive Branch, our federal government is far too process-oriented -- measuring success by rising budgets instead of actual results ... forever declaring new goals but so seldom meeting any of them.

All of this is bad enough in the day-to-day routine of many federal departments and agencies, in the confusion and air of futility that often hangs over their work. But the ineptitude of government can have far graver consequences, as the people of this state know better than anyone, from events still fresh in memory. At a very minimum, we depend on our government to protect us from danger when the danger is greatest. We assume that when the worst happens, it will bring out the best in our government. We trust that police, emergency workers, federal authorities, and elected officials will do their duty and do it well. But that is not what happened here in Louisiana. That is not what you and the world witnessed in the fall of 2005.

What happened, instead, was a series of failures that shook of the confidence of Americans in their government as much as any event in recent memory. There were heroic exceptions, as there always are. There were some who performed with courage, speed, and presence of mind in the most difficult of conditions. But as to the overall performance of government during and after the crisis, the verdict is in, and first impressions were correct. With many thousands of lives in the balance, across 90,000 square miles of misery, there was a failure of foresight, a failure of planning, a failure in execution and a failure in follow-up. And the incompetence of leadership didn't end with the rescue efforts. In the conduct of Congress in the year after Katrina and Rita, we saw the same excesses, lack of focus, and short-term thinking that left New Orleans vulnerable in the first place. As one critic observed, while the hu rricanes "proved to be the worst and costliest natural disaster in our history, the waste and fraud uncovered ... has been a disaster all in itself." Apparently a lot of Louisianans agreed with this critic, because you elected him governor.

Bobby Jindal has had some very able predecessors in office. But last year, after all this state had been through, the moment was right and the people were ready for breakthrough reforms. He stands for a new way of doing business in this state, and it's a model I intend to apply elsewhere. Some people think that it's just our youthful vitality that the governor and I have in common. But we share important convictions as well, and it starts with an intolerance of ineptitude, waste, and self-dealing of any kind in any agency of government.

With a special session of the Legislature devoted to ethics reform, he and allies in both parties have made a clean break from many corrupt practices of the past. Just because legislators have grown comfortable with certain privileges ... or accustomed to doing business in a certain way ... doesn't make those practices right, or acceptable, or beyond the reach of reform. Your new governor understands that, and he's changing the culture of Baton Rouge. You and I understand it too, and together we can change the culture of Washington.

There was another special session here devoted to workforce development, and tax reform, and economic growth -- because your governor understands that the deep problems of the Ninth Ward and beyond did not begin with a catastrophe of nature, and they did not end with the relief programs of government. With merciless force, Katrina laid bare the failures and stagnant ideas of generations of government policy. Despite years of grand promises from their government, and years of costly programs, so many of these citizens still lived in persistent poverty ... with no jobs or the hope of a good job ... no skills to speak of and no chance to learn them.

Even the basics of life, like health care and protection from violent crime, could not be counted on in a city that had the highest murder rate in our country. This was life as many thousands knew it before the levees broke and the waters rose. This is life as so many know it now, in places the rescue teams and camera crews have never had to go. And more of the same in Washington -- the same tired ideas, patronizing rhetoric and self-serving practices -- will accomplish exactly nothing. Lofty lectures on change won't do much good, either, when they are just a new version of the same old ideas. The time for talking about change is over. It's time for action in Washington, with serious reforms to make a difference in the lives of the American people.

We must start as you have begun here in Louisiana -- with ethics reforms that go to the heart of the problem of a dysfunctional federal establishment. Maybe you remember how the Congress responded to the tragedy of Katrina with billions of dollars in new spending that had, in many cases, nothing whatever to do with the victims of Katrina. One reason for this is that the House and Senate routinely squander tens of billions of dollars on projects and favors sought by lobbyists. For some legislators, even Katrina was just another excuse to lard up another bill with another batch of earmarks.

This practice is not only bad in itself, revealing a disregard of the common good. The abuses of lobbying and earmark spending are also symptomatic of even larger problems in Washington, like the broken windows of buildings in a badly governed city. When we attack these abuses with aggressive reform, we are signaling an entirely new attitude, a higher and better standard in how we conduct the people's business. By ending the practice of pork-barrel spending altogether, members of Congress can show the best kind of reform -- self-reform. And this alone will go a long way toward regaining the confidence of the people in their government.

As president, I will veto every earmark spending bill that the Congress sends me, until the Congress stops sending me earmark bills. And I will apply precisely the same standards of conduct to all who serve in the Executive Branch. All officials in my administration will have their interactions with lobbyists fully disclosed to public view. Lobbying is not an inherently corrupt profession, despite the frequent discredit brought to it by a relatively few. At its best, lobbying is an honorable exercise of the right of petition. But just as vital is the right of the people to know who the petitioners are and what they want. And I intend to make that information public in every instance. In my administration, there will be no such thing as a closed-door meeting with a lobbyist. If a lobbyist's case is important enough for my administration to hear it, then it will be important enough for the public to know about it too.

Katrina and its aftermath were a moment of truth for our federal government, requiring focused action and immediate, effective aid. What we saw instead was the confusion, inefficiency, and poor judgment that trouble many agencies of government every day, when no one's paying close attention. We need to make government far more transparent in its way of doing business ... more accountable for its day-to-day decisions and expenditures ... and in every way more responsive to the people it serves.

To this end, as president, I will order a prompt and thorough review of the budgets of every federal program, department, and agency. And we will institute a one-year pause in discretionary spending increases, with the necessary exception of military spending and veterans benefits. I'll hold every agency accountable for the public money they spend. I'll make sure the public helps me, and I'll provide federal agencies with the best executive leadership that can be found in America. We're going to make every aspect of government purchases and performance transparent. There will be no exceptions, least of all in the case of our military procurement system, where the costs of mismanagement and waste are far-reaching. Information on every step of all contracts and grants will be posted on the Internet in plain English, so that anyone can know what their government is buying and how much we're paying.

In all of this, the aim is to assure that federal spending serves the common interests. We need to know which agencies of government are meeting goals, and which agencies are just talking about goals. We need to make certain that good programs are rewarded, and that failed programs aren't. Only then can we be certain that discretionary spending is going where it belongs -- to essential priorities like job training, the care of our veterans, and the safety of our citizens in times of emergency.

One of the worst aspects of Katrina, as a measure of emergency-response by government, is that Americans are renowned for their ingenuity and resourcefulness in a tough spot. Ask the military historians, and they'll tell you that the ability of American men and women in war to react quickly to crisis, to think fast and solve any problem of logistics, has been one of our greatest assets. And yet with the exception of our Coast Guard, our National Guard, reservists, and others, these qualities were hard to find in the response of federal and state agencies to an enormous danger that, as a congressional report put it, was "not only predictable, it was predicted." There were all those school busses lined up in a parking lot, and no one in authority with the sense to use them. Wal-Mart had the ice, water, and generators ready ... Federal Express the planes ... and other companies and groups stood ready to help. But they were leaderless. And some of the most inspiring work was done by churches and charities and volunteers, working around FEMA instead of with it.

My friends, it is not in our power to turn back hurricanes, but I assure you it is within our power to respond to crisis better than this -- and I intend to make sure that happens. We're going to clear away the bureaucratic obstacles to disaster response, and establish clear, straight lines of communication among federal, state, and local agencies. We're going to give first-responders in our states and cities every tool they need to move fast, work together, and save lives. We're going to give them allies, too -- the same kind of partners who rushed to the Gulf Coast after Katrina but were turned away or told to wait. Every Emergency Operations Center will have a unit run by trained experts from local businesses, with the skills and technology to track assets and send them where they are needed, when they are needed. At any given moment, UPS, FedEx, and Wal-Mart can tell you in real time where a pa ckage is anywhere in the world. But FEMA, when it mattered most, often couldn't even locate its own assets or its own people. We're going to change all that, to make certain that our federal government is ready for whatever comes, and that the failures during Katrina are never repeated.

Part of helping vulnerable cities is also helping vulnerable people. It is not enough, when those who were poor are left with even less, to set up trailers, hand out debit cards, and wish them the best. These men and women ask more of life than that. They have more to offer than that. And we need policies that give them that chance.CC

I was in the lower Ninth Ward today with the governor, and it's inspiring to see the labor and care that is going into the rebuilding of that community. There may be some who wonder from afar: Why even bother rebuilding parts of what was lost in Katrina? But the people who live there in the Ninth Ward don't feel that way. They are even hoping that life will be better than before. And businesses like yours can help, by taking risks and investing in those very communities where the harm was greatest. They need jobs there, and job training and good wages. The business people of New Orleans and of this state can make all the difference in the life of those communities, and I hope you'll consider it. The government of Louisiana is doing its part, with the workforce and tax policies of Gov. Jindal. And with low tax policies, a new approach to job training, and a plan of spending restraint in Washington, I assure y ou that more reforms are on the way if I am given the privilege of serving as president of the United States.

I am a believer in the good that government can do in the lives of people. I have seen it in my own life. And you will never hear me speak scornfully, as a candidate or as president, about the institutions of government, or about the honor of serving in any position of public responsibility. In all of these reforms, the goal is not to diminish government but to make it better ... not to deride government but to restore its good name. It will be hard work in Washington, but it is a cause worthy of our best efforts. And if we do it well, in the right spirit, then we will finally reclaim the confidence of the people we serve.

Thank you.

John McCain, Remarks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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