Editor’s note: Below is the video of Senator Jeff Sessions’ keynote speech at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 2013 West Coast Retreat. The event was held February 22nd-24th at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, California. A transcript of the lecture follows.
Jeff Sessions: David, and the Freedom Center, we thank you so much for hosting this event, and, David, for your profound contribution to the conservative movement. I really liked “A Point in Time.” If you haven’t read that, it is a good book, a wise book, well in the tradition of the Western heritage of faith and reason, and gives us some perspective about who we are.
And recently, reading “Radicals,” I hit the last chapter lying in bed, and I awakened myself and had an epiphany, because he was talking about our President. And I’ve been wrestling with — how do we deal? How has this been working, and how can we do better, and how can we understand better how to respond to his quite successful tactics politically? So I was so moved I called him, and he gave me some ideas. He’s written some papers. I’ve passed them around, the draft, to a bunch of senators, and shared those thoughts. And I know Ron Johnson — I don’t know if Ron’s still here or not, but he and I definitely have discussed what you shared with us. And it’ll make a difference in the way we approach things.
So how can it be that those of us who treasure the unique heritage of American values, the exceptional values, are so ineffective in promoting and even defending those values? I think we’ve been too ineffective. And that has been a concern of mine for some time, and it’s been more urgent since the past election. From my conversations with you during this conference, I know you share that same concern. Really do. And I know Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert and Ron Johnson share those views, too. And Ron has been particularly valuable as a new senator, successful international businessman, never been in politics — a Tea Party candidate, basically — just challenging us — and he will not back down — that we need to develop a strategy, do it in an effective way and execute a systematic strategy that will appeal to the American people. And I think he’s fundamentally correct on that.
The truth is that the power is outside the Senate and House chambers. The power is with the American people. And how can you negotiate in secret with somebody who has, he believes, the support of the American people? Or he’s confident that there’s a showdown, he can spin it in his favor, and he will come out on top. That’s not a position of strength.
So I’m convinced that we need to develop methods to communicate to the American people to be more effective, to try to point out that the sequester was put in as a result of Barack Obama’s idea. The House has twice passed a legislation that would maintain the cuts, not raise taxes; but make the cuts more fair and even across the whole government — the kind of thing that a responsible legislative body should do. But if you listen to the media, somehow, everybody seems to think that Republicans are obstructing the ability to fix the sequester and make it more logical.
So you’ve had a good day. You’ve listened to some of the finest minds in America, no doubt. And you’ve had a lot of stimulation intellectually today. So I would assume at this time you’re about ready to go home, if you’re not awake, but not gone to sleep.
Here’s the situation that I would share with you. President Obama has framed every fiscal issue and his own reelection campaign as a choice between his compassion and Republicans’ uncaring fiscal discipline emphasis. According to this fiction, Republicans are the protectors of the rich, while the President and his party are champions of the poor and the middle class. The Left’s big spending policies are portrayed as expressions of concern for those in need, while conservatives’ desire to achieve financial stability and economic growth are portrayed as heartless and uncaring. To an alarming degree, the President has succeeded in framing the debate around this fundamentally egregious falsehood.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have not even produced a budget in four years, for political reasons and no other. Harry Reid said it’s foolish to have a budget. What he meant was it’s foolish politically, not foolish for the interests of the United States of America. And so we now face the greatest systemic debt threat this nation has ever faced. I am telling you, it is not going to be fixed by a little economic growth. It is a systemic and deep problem that needs honest leadership. And we need a President who would at least look the American people in the eye and tell them that’s true — that we need to do something, instead of pretending that it’s not a problem. It’s just amazing to me.
So their strategy has been to rhetorically savage the GOP efforts to solve our financial problems around budget — pushing little old ladies off the cliff — right, while they merely offer no plan to help the Americans that are trapped in poverty and joblessness.
So in the Senate, I’m ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, exactly where my wife thinks I should be, since I’m a tightwad, grew up poor –
– and don’t like to spend the dime. But I’ve come to see these slanders up close and personal. And we’re determined to rebut them. Now, not only will we rebut these attacks — David, you’ve been giving me encouragement in this thing — we’re going to rebut these attacks, but we’ll explain how our policies will work, will rescue and uplift Americans that are hurting and economically trapped by the failed government programs. I think that’s what we have to do.
All of us here in this room tonight know that as conservatives we’re motivated by deep conviction — that with free markets, free people thrive. That uplifts the poor, while state-dominated economies produce human misery, social destruction and economic suffering, environmental degradation and lots of other problems. And we are motivated by the deepest concern for those who are struggling to get by and are determined to defend our heritage, our history of values that have made this country the most prosperous the world has ever known.
We love our fellow citizens. We know they’re hurting. But we believe the values that made America great are the things that will be most beneficial to them. We oppose federal spending programs and policies that already are hurting them every day and could result in a disaster in the future.
We’re going to be having hearings soon. I expect to call witnesses that will testify that the current debt of America, the gross debt, is over 100 percent of GDP — that that is already slowing economic growth. The joy of spending now and throwing the debt off later has hit a point where it is already hurting people today — not just our children and grandchildren, but people today are beginning to feel the impact. And I think that’s why for a number of years now economic growth has been less.
So the President’s narrative just assumes that even the slightest reduction in the growth of government spending is inherently harmful to society and destructive to the poor. And those who propose changes do so to harm the have-nots who benefit the haves. So it’s a serious challenge we face in Washington.
Consider some of these remarks from a prominent Democrat — Budget Chairman with whom I serve, Patty Murray, said this — quote — I will not agree to a deal that throws middle-class families under the bus, forces them to bear the burden alone. Unless Republicans end their commitment to protecting the rich above all else, our country is going to have to face the consequences of Republican intransigents. They pay lip service to deficit reduction. But what they actually seem to be concerned about is cutting taxes for the rich and starving programs that help middle-class families and most vulnerable Americans.
That’s good bipartisan rhetoric.
Sweet talk from our sweet, compassionate Democrat.
Jay Carney said this recently in the White House — we will not accept deficit reduction that is borne solely by seniors, solely by families with disabled children –
– solely by families trying to send their kids to college, or other vulnerable groups — closed quote.
So this is the kind of thing that we have decided we’re not going to take anymore. This is baloney.
Now, too often, the response has been to simply ignore these charges, dismiss them as class warfare, insist that the Democrats are not providing leadership while we’re the grownups in the room, and those kind of things, right? Most importantly, such responses fail to rebut the Left’s core slander — that the GOP policies are morally wrong. And this is a direct attack on the integrity, character, of Republicans and conservatives. It’s a direct attack on who we are as people, our decency as people. And I’m not sure Republicans are a lot better, but I think they are a pretty good bit better on matters of representing character and decency and support for our fellow men, in contributions to good causes and working to improve our republic.
Now, Dwight and I were talking about this. It’s also an attack on you, is it not? Those of you who share our views, this is an attack on you. And I think you’re entitled to expect your elected representatives to defend you and the good values that you have that have helped make this country [correct].
To paraphrase Larry Elder — you know, I think he said — you want to bring a gun to a knife fight, well, Republicans tend to bring pie charts to a gunfight.
We got to do better. I’m learning, David, I’m doing the best I can do.
Therefore, we must and will make the moral case for conservative reform, and explain the fundamental truth — that our ideas are the only real way to reduce poverty in America. Truth is always the best defense against slander. On issue after issue, our policies will work to lift the poor and working Americans, while the policies of the Left create poverty and dependency and damage the moral integrity of the people they pretend to help.
Consider energy. This is something we talk about a lot. This is more than about gas prices, which is important. It’s also about putting millions of Americans to work in good-paying jobs that can support their families, that has a healthcare and a retirement benefit. At a time when so many Americans are out of work, living from one unemployment check to another, how can the Left morally justify depriving Americans of these jobs? These are natural resources. They belong to the people of the United States. And the people have a right to benefit from them. And we must defend the American worker on the world stage. We must really mean it, and we must really do it.
In truth, this election — I think it’s fair to say, and a lot of experts agree — was lost because millions of dutiful Americans didn’t think we cared about people like them. That’s the question the pollsters asked. We must prove we do. And one way to do that is — as was discussed this afternoon — make sure that we ask the tough questions about how immigration — is that going to help the working Americans have a better salary? Is it going to help them get promoted? Is it going to help their children find a job if we legalize 10 million people? I don’t think so. The Chamber of Commerce isn’t very concerned about that.
Excessive debt, studies show, is already pulling down growth. And we’ve got fewer job openings out there. And should we remain on our current fiscal course, we will experience a debt crisis that will be economically catastrophic for all Americans, especially the poor. Is it not morally wrong to deprive future Americans of economic opportunity in order to fund today’s profligate spending in Washington? Isn’t it morally wrong for our President to not even honestly discuss this with the American people?
One area where government policy has been particularly harmful is in welfare. Here we must confront the Left directly with the social and economic harm their policies create. Consider a city like Baltimore, governed exclusively by the Left for many, many years. One in three people in Baltimore are on food stamps. One in three youth are living in poverty. At what point is the Left to be held accountable for these kind of activities that they produce?
Back in 1965 the economist James Tobin wrote this about the welfare system that was beginning — quote — it is almost as if our present programs of public assistance had been consciously contrived to perpetuate the conditions they are supposed to alleviate — closed quote.
Since President Johnson’s Great Society, as Ron Johnson told us, we spent $16 trillion on the war on poverty. And yet, poverty is up, not down. The surging welfare costs are now the single largest item in the federal budget. Did you know that? The 83 programs together are larger than Medicare, larger than the Defense Department, larger than Social Security.
So it’s time to return to the moral principles of 1996 welfare reform. That was guided by the principle that unmonitored welfare programs are damaging not merely to the Treasury but to the recipient. Our moral and compassionate objective is to work with our fellow Americans and to help them transition from dependency to self-sufficiency, to independence, to prosperity.
You remember the dire predictions that were bandied about — most of you can remember 1996, how we were going to sink into the ocean, and poor people would be starving if we passed welfare reform. But as Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute reported afterwards, this — quote — until the mid-1990s, never-married mothers seldom worked outside the home, had poverty rates over 60 percent, and were at least five times more likely than married couples to be poor. Between 1996 and 2000, when the bill was passed, the percentage of never-married mothers in jobs increased about a third, while the poverty rate for those mothers and their children declined by a third. For the poorest of the poor, this large an improvement based on their own efforts was unprecedented. Yet, even in the worst recession since the Depression, more are employed, and they are less poor than they were before the 1996 law — closed quote. That’s the Brookings liberal institution view of it.
Bob Woodson, the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise — we had him testify. I asked him to come to the Budget Committee. African American, great — he’s been involved in this for a lot of years. And had a nice lady who’d moved out of poverty. And they were citing her as a good example. And he said — well, what is it about our welfare programs that have absolutely no concern about the character, the moral integrity, the work ethic of the people involved? This lady obviously had those kind of qualities. And we need to look for a welfare system that helps promote those, rather than depress those. And he was very critical of the damage he believed welfare had done to the African-American community in America.
Welfare spending has increased every single year, regardless of whether the economy is improving or declining. Based on the Congressional Budget Office data, it is projected to increase another 80 percent over the next decade. Welfare spending will increase 80 percent over the next decade.
Now, our super budget staff has studied that. You can be pleased to know that if it increased at 60 percent instead of 80, we’d save $1 trillion, which is half the sequester, which is the biggest cuts we’ve ever had. And if you increased it 30 percent rather than 80, it would save $2 trillion. So converted to cash, we spent enough on federal welfare today to mail every household living beneath the poverty line a check for $60,000. Spending on food stamps has more than quadrupled since 2000, four times, from $20 billion to $80 billion. And the federal government actively promotes food stamps to those who say they don’t need them.
You’ve heard the Spanish-language soap operas. One recruitment worker in North Carolina was given an award because she had overcome mountain pride, and talked people in the hills in North Carolina into taking food stamps when they said they want them and didn’t need them. And this is where we give awards out there. Overcoming mountain pride. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, I’m not sure what does.
The Congressional Budget Office finds that a strong incentive is created by the welfare system that we have to, quote, put in fewer hours or to be less productive, closed quote. That’s the CBO’s analysis. And how horrible is that? We got a program that makes people less productive?
In one example, contained in a Pennsylvania study, a single parent with two children, earning $29,000, would have a net income including welfare benefits of $57,000. But the individual — get this — would need — this is what their report found — would need annual earnings to jump from $29,000 to $69,000 pretax, a $40,000 increase, to maintain the same standard of living without welfare benefits. That’s an incredible, dangerous condition that should not continue.
Undoubtedly, as we propose, these reforms that reflect our concerns for the poor — the Left will launch their predictable attacks. But we will stand firm. We will reply. We are fighting to protect Americans from the consequences of your policies. We’re trying to replace the jobs you have destroyed. We’re trying to alleviate the economic suffering that your deficits and government policies have created. We will offer real jobs, real independence and prosperity to the American people. The real measure of compassion, we will explain, is not how much money we spend on poverty, but how many people we help to rise out of poverty.
Thank you so much for allowing me to be with you. It’s been a great time together. And I appreciate all you do for this group, for David; and all you do for America. God bless.
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