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Remarks to State and Local Republican Officials on Federalism and Aid to the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance

March 22, 1988

Well, ladies and gentlemen, President Owens, thank you all very much. It's good to have you all here in Washington. As you may have noticed, Washington, DC, isn't like other cities. Harry Truman, a man famous for saying exactly what he meant in a very few words well chosen, once said of Washington, it's the kind of city that if you want a friend you should find a dog. [Laughter] Well, that isn't true today, at least. I've counted on your friendship and support going on 8 years now. Eight years we've hung tough and hung together, often against seemingly overwhelming odds. Anybody who has come up through elected politics as a Republican knows how important that solidarity is.

It's like a story our first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, once told when he found out all but one of his Cabinet officers ranged against him on an important issue. His story was about a man who fell sound asleep during a revival meeting and didn't hear when the minister said, "All of you who are on the side of the Lord, stand up." Of course, everyone stood up immediately, except for this one man, who was still asleep. But the preacher was only getting started and bellowed out, "All of you who are on the side of the devil, stand up." Well, at that the man woke up and standing as straight as he could said, "I didn't exactly understand the question, parson, but I'll stand by you to the end. It does seem we're in a hopeless minority." [Laughter] Well, as Republicans, you may be in a minority in terms of numbers at this year's meeting of the National League of Cities, but always remember, the ideals and beliefs that you stand for are the majority beliefs in this United States of America. On everything from education to crime, federalism to welfare reform, to keeping the American economy a growth and opportunity economy, the people of this country agree with you.

Now, I know you've heard from Beryl Sprinkel [Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers] here, and from Senator Baker [Chief of Staff to the President] and Frank Donatelli [Assistant to the President for Political and Intergovernmental Affairs], so I'll try to keep this brief. As Henry the Eighth said to each of his 6 wives, "I won't keep you long." [Laughter] But there are so many issues before us that I want to cover.

The first is federalism. I remember how the pundits snickered at that idea at first. But those of us who have actually served at the State and local level know it's not in Washington but in the States, the cities, and communities of this country where the real work gets done. And we know from experience that the 10 most frightening words in the English language are, "I'm from the Federal Government, and I'm here to help." [Laughter] Well, federalism has become the wave of the future. Just last October, I signed Executive Order 12612. Everything in this town has a number attached to it—usually a large one. But this order is a breakthrough. We took a lesson from the environmental movement, and now when any agency in the executive branch takes an action that significantly affects State or local governments, it has to prepare a federalism impact statement, which only seems proper to me. The Federalist system given us by our Founding Fathers is a precious natural resource, and every bit as much as our environment, it should be cherished and protected.

Now it's time for Congress to join us and pass a truth-in-spending initiative that requires that all legislation include a financial impact statement, detailing the measure's likely economic effects upon the private sector and State and local governments. Last month I sent to the Congress the Truth in Federal Spending Act of 1988. I hope you'll join with me and urge the Congress to promptly enact this legislation. We see the momentum of federalism in the move in States across our country to reform welfare. In my State of the Union Address, I said that some years ago the Federal Government declared a War on Poverty and poverty won. Instead of providing a ladder out of poverty, welfare became a net of dependency that held millions back. Instead of hope, we've too often bred despair and futility.

It's time, as I said to Congress, for the Federal Government to show a little humility, to let a thousand sparks of genius in the States and communities around this country catch fire and become guiding lights. You know, on the subject of federalism, I remember back when I was Governor; we had something that was a bit more common back then—campus protests. And one thing the protesters would often chant was that we should give power back to the people. I guess they didn't realize how closely I was listening. [Laughter]

Yes, we've made tremendous progress with federalism, but all that progress and more could be destroyed by one bill that I vetoed last week, but some hope to pass over my veto. I'm talking about the so-called Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987. Equality before the law is the American standard. We can never allow ourselves to fall short. Discrimination is an evil, pure and simple, and cannot ever be tolerated. And there are already laws, many laws, on the books to protect our civil rights. We can ensure equality of opportunity without increasing Federal intrusion into State and local governments and the private sector.

The truth is, this legislation isn't a civil rights bill. It's a power grab by Washington, designed to take control away from States, localities, communities, parents, and the private sector and give it to Federal bureaucrats and judges. One dollar in Federal aid, direct or indirect, would bring entire organizations under Federal control from charitable social organizations to churches and synagogues. To give just one example, if a church or a group of churches operates a nearby summer camp open to all faiths, and that camp uses surplus Federal property, not only the camp but the entire church or group of churches would come under Federal control—even if the church itself received no aid.

What does that mean? It means masses of new paperwork, random on-site compliance reviews by Federal bureaucrats, and a field day for lawyers—we'd see lawsuits multiply faster than flies in springtime. The Grove City bill would force court-ordered social engineers into every corner of American society. And that's why I won't play politics with such a vital issue. I won't cave to the demagoguery of those who cloak a big government power grab in the mantle of civil rights. I have vetoed the Grove City bill, and I ask every Senator and Representative to rise above the pressures of an election year, to make a stand for religious liberty by sustaining my veto of this dangerous bill.

Now, as a reasonable alternative, I've transmitted to Congress the Civil Rights Protection Act of 1988, which is designed to ensure equal opportunity while preserving our basic freedoms. This bill properly addresses the Supreme Court's decision in the Grove City case. It would strengthen the civil rights coverage of educational institutions and accommodates other concerns raised during congressional consideration of the Grove City issue. It also would preserve the independence of State and local governments by limiting Federal regulation to that part of a State or local entity that receives or distributes Federal assistance. It's hard to believe that anyone who thinks seriously about the current Grove City bill would ever support it.

It's like the story about a Congressman sitting in his office one day when a constituent comes by to tell him why he must vote for a certain piece of legislation. The Congressman sat back, listened, and when he was done he said, "You're right. You know, you're absolutely right." The fellow left happy. A few minutes later, another constituent came by, and this one wanted him to vote against the bill. The Congressman listened to his reasons, sat back, and said, "You know, you're right. You're right. You're absolutely right." Well, the second constituent left happy. The Congressman's wife had dropped by and was waiting outside the office when she heard these two conversations. When the second man left, she went in and said, "That first man wanted you to vote for the bill, and you said he was right. And the second one wanted you to vote against it, and you said he was right, too. You can't run your affairs that way." And the Congressman said, "You know, you're right. You're right. You're absolutely right." [Laughter]

The inability of some in Congress to say no to special interests is right now the biggest threat to our prosperity and our democratic way of life. And that's why few election years will be more important than 1988. As you know, reapportionment comes up just 3 years later, in 1991. Having Republicans in State and local offices is the only hope we have of getting a fair deal, and that's all we're asking for: an end to the antidemocratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering congressional districts.

In 1984 there were 367 congressional races contested by both parties. In the races, Republicans won half a million more votes than the Democrats, but the Democratic Party won 31 more seats. In California, one of the worst cases of gerrymandering in the country, Republicans received a majority of votes in the '84 congressional races, but the Democrats won 60 percent more of the seats. The fact is gerrymandering has become a national scandal. The Democratic-controlled State legislatures have so rigged the electoral process that the will of the people cannot be heard. They vote Republican but elect Democrats. A look at the district lines shows how corrupt the whole process has become. The congressional map is a horror show of grotesque, contorted shapes. Districts jump back and forth over mountain ranges, cross large bodies of water, send out little tentacles to absorb special communities and ensure safe seats. One democratic Congressman who helped engineer the gerrymandering of California once described the district lines there as his contribution to modern art. [Laughter] But it isn't just the district lines the Democrats have bent out of shape: It's the American values of fair play and decency. And it's time we stopped them.

Frank Fahrenkopf and the Republican Party have challenged the Democrats' gerrymandering in court, but ultimately it's in the State legislatures that the battle for fairness must be won. And that's why Republicans are going to have to campaign with all our heart and soul for Republican State legislative candidates. I promise you this: As far as the President of the United States is concerned, he's not going to be sitting around his garden sniffing roses in 1988. I'm going to be out on the campaign trail, telling the American people the truth about how the electoral process has been twisted and distorted and that it's time to give the vote back to the people. And I'm going to be telling them, in the name of the American system and in the name of fair play: Vote Republican in 1988.

One final note, if I may. It's on a subject that concerns State and local officials and every American—every citizen who cherishes our freedom and shares a concern for our national security. I'm talking about the crisis developing in Nicaragua. No, crisis is not too strong a term. Those who voted to cut off aid to the freedom fighters claimed it would bring peace to Nicaragua. We pleaded with them that abandoning our friends in the region was no way to bring peace. We warned that even though we cut off the freedom fighters the Soviets would continue their massive aid to the Communists. And as I pointed out in my press conference, Soviet military aid to the Communist Sandinista regime doubled in the first 2 months of this year compared to last year. Well, our worst fears have come to pass. Only 7 weeks after the first vote in Congress, the Sandinista Communists have launched an offensive against the freedom fighters, hoping to deliver a killer blow before anyone can come to their rescue. The freedom fighters, with all aid cut off, sit trapped inside Nicaragua, prey for the Sandinistas and their Soviet-supplied weapons. Who can't but question whether the only plan that Daniel Ortega ever intended for the democratic resistance was their elimination?

The House leadership, who played hardball to win the vote to cut off aid, now says it won't accept responsibility for the destruction of the freedom fighters. Well, if the freedom fighters are extinguished and Communist rule is consolidated in Nicaragua, the American people will be the ones to decide who is responsible. Congress must immediately redress the grave mistake they've made and send aid urgently to the freedom fighters before it's too late. In every forum available to you, with your constituents and with your Representatives in the Congress, make your feelings on this issue known, and do it now because soon it may well be too late.

Well, I've spoken for long enough. I'm reminded of the quip that Henry Clay once made when one of his antagonists in the Senate, in the middle of a dull and lengthy speech, turned to him and said, "You, sir, speak for the present generation. I speak for posterity." Clay interrupted him and said, "Yes, and you seem resolved to keep on speaking till the arrival of your audience." [Laughter] Well, I won't do that today. I've said enough. Thank you all very much. God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 11:47 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. In his opening remarks, he referred to Donna Owens, president of the National Conference of Republican Mayors and Municipal Elected Officials.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to State and Local Republican Officials on Federalism and Aid to the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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