I came here to Washington, D.C. in 1987, when the people of the 4th district in northern Kentucky gave me the distinct honor to serve them. I did not know then that the people of Kentucky would bestow me the privilege to represent them for 24 years.
I have the same conservative principles in 2010 as I had when I was first elected to Congress. Over the years, I have always done what I thought was right for Kentucky and my country.
I did not run for public office for fame or public acclaim. When I cast my votes, I thought about how they would affect my grandchildren and the next generation of Kentuckians, not where the political wind at the time was blowing.
Words cannot express my gratitude to the people of Kentucky for giving me the distinct honor to serve for 12 years in the House of Representatives and for 12 years in the Senate.
Here I stand, though, in the Senate Chamber about to say goodbye after nearly a quarter of a century in Congress. I have reflected much about my time here. As I stand here at the desk of Henry Clay, the great Kentuckian, I am proud to have had the opportunity to serve in a place in history.
I thought it fitting to discuss the legislative items of which I am most proud. I have three bills that I am particularly proud that I was able to accomplish signing into law.
One of the things I am most proud of during my time in Congress was helping pass legislation that repealed the earnings limit on older Americans under the Social Security system.
Social Security used to penalize many older Americans for working by reducing their Social Security benefit by $1 for every $3 they earned if they made more than the earnings limit, which was about $12,000 in 1995. This was an unfair tax on seniors and punished them for working.
I worked hard for many years in both the House and the Senate to get this unfair earnings limit eliminated. And, finally in 2000 after I had been elected to the Senate, it passed and was signed into law. This law has helped many hard-working seniors stay involved in their communities, remain independent, and contribute to society.
Another bill I am proud of is the 2004 Flood Insurance Reform Modernization Act.
In 2004, I wrote the last reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program. That law provided significant reforms to the program just in time for the 2004 and 2005 hurricane season, including Hurricane Katrina. Had the law not been in place, homeowners all along the Gulf coast would not have had coverage for the flood damage to their homes.
The 2004 law is still the framework for the program today. It was not a Republican accomplishment or a Democrat accomplishment -- it was a bipartisan accomplishment. I worked closely with Senator Sarbanes and Representatives Bereuter and Blumenauer to write and pass that law. While I believe that further changes are still needed to the program, the 2004 law made meaningful changes that put the program on a more sound financial footing.
Unfortunately, passage of the bill was not the end of the story. What happened, or more accurately did not happen, illustrates one reason why people are fed up with Washington -- because government doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. Despite the fact that the bill passed both the Senate and the House unanimously, F.E.M.A. refused to implement all of its provisions in a timely manner. The most glaring example was the appeals process created by the bill for property owners to appeal claims they thought were not settled fairly or correctly. The law gave F.E.M.A. six months to write the rules. F.E.M.A. instead took almost two years from the day the bill was signed to even put out draft rules, and they probably would not have done it then if not for the right of one Senator to object. I had to hold the nominee to head the agency to get the attention of the Bush Administration and move the Secretary of Homeland Security to finally publish the rule. It should not have had to be that way.
The third bill I am gratified was signed into law is the Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program.
The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Kentucky, is the only operating uranium enrichment plant in the United States. When I came to the Senate, I held the first hearing to look at cleaning up the contamination that the Department of Energy left at the site. After the hearing, I focused on cleaning up the site. A lot has been cleaned up since that 1st hearing 10 years ago.
I also worked hard to provide compensation to workers who suffered serious illnesses as a result of their employment at the D.O.E. nuclear weapons programs. This energy employee compensation program was set up because many of the workers served our country in the nuclear program during the Cold War and their health was put at risk without their knowledge. The first compensation bill passed in 2000 with the help of a bi-partisan group of congressmen and senators.
I then became aware that the D.O.E. was slow-walking claims processing and payment to many claimants with their portion of the compensation program. So in 2004, again with the help of a bi-partisan group of senators and congressman, I spearheaded legislation that moved the entire program over to the Department of Labor, which has sped up and streamlined compensation for the sick nuclear workers.
Along with my achievements, I’ve also had some time to reflect on some disappointments that I wish I had been able to fix during my time here.
I am deeply concerned about the state of the entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. It is clear that our government cannot meet its future obligations and ultimately the American people will suffer. Unfortunately, too many Members of Congress are willing to look the other way and let the financial problems of these programs fester instead of making hard decisions.
Congress just cannot get the courage together to address these issues head on. In fact, after President Bush’s second election, Congress briefly focused on the problem of Social Security solvency. At the time, I was a strong supporter of private-investment accounts, but certainly realized that the whole system needed an overhaul and was open to many different reform options. Towards the end of the debate, I was willing to tackle Social Security reform, even if we didn’t do investment accounts, as long as we did something.
However, it quickly became clear that many Members of Congress – even some in my own party – were not willing to get serious about this. Six years later, Congress still hasn’t touched Social Security reform and the program is in even worse financial shape.
Medicare and Medicaid are the same. In 2006, Congress finally got serious about spending in these programs and passed the Deficit Reduction Act. This bill slowed the rate of growth in Medicare by $6 billion and in Medicaid by $5 billion over five years. Let me be clear about this – we weren’t cutting spending in these programs, we were just slowing the rate of growth.
Well, you would have thought the sky was falling when we did this.
The longer Congress takes to honestly tackle these fiscal challenges, the harder it will be to fix these programs. This will mean bigger cuts, bigger deficits and bigger tax increases.
Health care is another area where Congress should have done better.
The other side of the aisle’s stubborn refusal to compromise – and more importantly listen to the desires of the American people – on health care reform led to the passage of a bill that is one of the worst pieces of legislation passed by Congress.
The Healthcare bill is clearly unconstitutional, will force millions of Americans to lose the health insurance they currently enjoy, gives the IRS the power to police and tax Americans who don’t have health insurance, and takes over $500 billion out of the Medicare program to pay for new spending.
Despite all the rhetoric from the Administration and Democratic leaders about being “transparent” and “open” and willing to compromise, it quickly became clear that they only wanted Republican support IF we agreed to everything they wanted to do.
Well, compromise doesn’t work like that. A compromise means you actually have to take ideas from other people instead of just giving lip service.
One other recent disappointment was the financial regulation bill passed earlier this year. Before my first election I spent 31 years in the securities brokerage business. That was back when baseball players did not make millions of dollars each year and had to have jobs in the off-season to pay the bills. And I spent nearly all of my time in Congress on either the old House Banking Committee or the Senate Banking Committee, so this was something I know a good deal about and care about.
There were and are real problems in our financial system, but that bill is not going to fix them and almost certainly sows the seeds for the next banking and financial crisis, while at the same time adding more burdens on an economy struggling to recover.
That bill did not replace bailouts with bankruptcy; it made bailouts a permanent part of the financial system. The bill did not force the too-big-to-fail banks to get smaller; it gave them special status. The bill ignored the role of housing finance and left Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac alone. The housing crisis could not have happened without Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Senate failed to act on a bill to reform Fannie and Freddie passed by the Banking Committee in 2006, and that failure is going to end up costing the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Congress has to do something soon to get them off the taxpayer life-support they have been on since 2008, but unfortunately that did not happen in the financial reform bill.
The bill also ignored the Federal Reserve’s failure as a regulator and instead gave it more power. And worst of all, the bill did nothing to reign in the largest single cause of the current financial crisis and most other financial crises in the past – flawed monetary policy by the Federal Reserve. Nothing Congress has done will stop the next bubble or collapse if the Fed continues with its easy money policies. Cheap money will always distort prices and lead to dangerous behavior and no amount of regulation can contain it.
For many years I was a lonely critic of the Federal Reserve. Practically no one questioned Alan Greenspan, despite his policies causing two recessions and two asset bubbles.
I was the lone vote against Ben Bernanke in 2006 because I thought he would continue the Greenspan monetary and regulatory policies. Well, he did. He kept up the flawed monetary policy and was slow to regulate. And then in 2008 he took the Federal Reserve into fiscal policy by bailing out Bear Stearns and later A.I.G. and just about every other major financial institution in the country and, as we saw last week, around the world. Chairman Bernanke compromised the independence of the Fed and turned it into an arm of the Treasury.
Things have not gotten better since then either. Chairman Bernanke is continuing with the easy monetary policy and just a month ago started the printing presses again to buy up more Treasury debt. While the Fed may be propping up the banks with plenty of cheap money, he is undermining our currency. Other central banks are moving away from the dollar and gold is continuing to climb. Just like the soaring national debt and entitlement costs, the destruction of the dollar is not sustainable.
Congress must act to reign in Chairman Bernanke and the Fed before they destroy our currency and permanently damage our economy and financial system. Public awareness of what the Fed is doing is increasing while public opinion of the Fed is falling. Chairman Bernanke had nearly twice as many votes cast against him in the Senate earlier this year than any Fed chairman in history.
And it is not just outside the Fed that opposition is growing. Regional Federal Reserve Bank presidents are speaking up and voting against Fed policies, and even some members of the Fed board are recognizing the danger of Chairman Bernanke’s policies. I am more hopeful now than I have ever been that Chairman Bernanke and the Fed will not be allowed to continue their flawed policies and acting as an arm of the Treasury and the major banks.
As I stand here and reflect upon my time in Congress, I can honestly say I am gratified despite the ups and the downs to have had the opportunity to serve my country and to serve the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Twenty-four years is a very large portion of my life and my family’s life.
I thank my nine children - Barb, Jim, Joan, Cat, Bill, Bridget, Mark, Amy, and David - and my 40 grandchildren who inspired me to try to make this country a better place for the next generation to live.
I also want to give a special thank you to my wife, Mary. The mother of my nine children and my childhood sweetheart from the 4th grade.
I thank her for being by my side through all the road trips and the late nights I spent in the House and the Senate. She is my better half who supported and stood by me. She is my lighthouse that always shined a light during the good and bad times of public service. She prayed me to my wins in public service, baseball, and life. I never could have done any of these achievements without you, Mary.
As this chapter in my life comes to an end and I flip a page to a new chapter, I want to thank very much all the other people in my life who have stood by me. Without the friendship and support of so many of you over the years, I never would have had the privilege to represent Kentucky in the House and the Senate.
As I leave here today, I offer a little prayer for the next Congress. Pope John Paul II once said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” This is a motto I tried to live by during my time in Congress. I pray that the members of the next Congress do what is right for the country, not what is right for their fame or their future aspirations.
My hope is that Congress will focus on the astronomical debt, instead of continuing down the path of spending our future generations into higher taxes and a lower standard of living than we have now.
God bless and God speed.
With a sense of deep pride and gratitude I will say for the last time, Mr. President I yield the floor.