Sending more American troops is not the change of course that the people of Minnesota and the American people called for in this past election, and it is not the change in course that our military forces deserve.
We learned this week that 3,000 of the 22,000 troops added for the escalation are from Minnesota’s National Guard. These Minnesota soldiers have already served honorably and well. They and their families were told they would be coming home in March. And I just talked to General Shellito who heads up the National Guard in Minnesota and he said that the hardest thing for them is they’ve been hanging on – in his words ‘hanging on through March’ – now they are extended well into the summer.
These brave soldiers will be thrust even more deeply into the midst of Iraq’s civil war. Haven’t we asked our soldiers and their families to sacrifice enough?
The great burden on Minnesota and the rest of the country should remind us that what is needed is a surge in diplomacy and not a surge in troops.
With that, I’d like to change to the issue of ethics reform. And I wanted to thank Senator Reid and the other Senators for their leadership and for making ethics reform a real priority for this Congress.
When I arrived in Washington last week, we pulled up in our family Saturn, loaded with my husband’s college dishes and a shower curtain that I found in the basement from 1980. But we brought a little more than dishes and shower curtains. We brought a commitment for change – something the people of our state – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, from Worthington to Moorhead to Duluth to Rochester – called for very clearly and loudly in November.
We also brought a Minnesota moral compass, grounded in a simple notion of Minnesota fairness: A notion that all people should be on equal footing in the halls of Congress. But they can’t be on equal footing when their elected representatives are selling their votes for trips to Scotland or have cash in the freezer.
They can’t be on equal footing unless this new Congress delivers real, meaningful ethics reform.
Ethics reform is an issue of great importance to the people of my state. Wherever I went, Minnesotans told me this was the kind of change that they wanted to see in Washington.
It’s not an abstract political science issue. It affects real people in the real world. And today it comes out of the political science classrooms and into the halls of Congress.
Ethics is woven into the very fabric of how our government does business. And ethics reform goes to the very heart of our democracy, to the public trust and respect that’s essential to the health of our constitutional system.
Recent scandals have cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the laws and policies that come out of Washington. The American public’s receding faith in the integrity of our legislative process means that ethics reform is now central to every public issue that we will consider – whether it’s energy policy, or health care reform, or even homeland security.
The ability of Congress to deal credibly and forthrightly with these other issues depends on reforming our own ethical rules.
The long-term challenges that we face in this country are enormous. They include high energy prices and a growing dependency on foreign oil; health care costs that have spiraled out of control; global warming that threatens the future of our environment and our economy; a mounting national debt; a growing middle class squeeze.
I believe that there are solutions to these challenges. While not always immediate, these solutions are within our grasp. We can achieve energy independence by investing smart and having some guts to take on the oil companies. We can get this country back on the right fiscal track, and move forward to more affordable health care. We can deliver much-needed and long overdue relief to the middle class. These are the things that the people of Minnesota sent me to Washington to fight for.
They sent me here because they have not yet seen the bold change of direction that we need to make these solutions happen. Instead, they have seen a Washington that too often served big special interests at the expense of the middle class.
As a prosecutor, I learned first hand how the well-connected and powerful do not face the same challenges as middle-class families.
Every day, I would go into our courthouse in Minnesota with a mission to treat people the same no matter where they came from. When we prosecuted a wealthy well-connected person for a white collar crime the courtroom was packed with his friends, and I would get all kinds of calls. One of my favorites was, ‘I know he stole 400,000 dollars from a mentally disabled woman, but he’s such a good guy; he shouldn’t go to prison.’
But when we prosecuted someone who was poor or middle class, they were lucky if their mom could take the day off work to stand behind them in the courtroom. And I figured my job was to even the playing field, to treat people the same no matter where they came from and who they knew.
That is still my job, it is our job, it is the job of this Congress. With that in mind, we have to change business as usual.
Business as usual has created a playing field tilted toward special interests and against the middle class.
When our energy policy is drafted in secret meetings with the oil companies, we all end up paying more at the pump because they’ve failed to invest in renewable energy. When our health care legislation is written by the drug companies, we all pay more because they’ve banned negotiation on prices. The people of this country know corruption when they see it and they saw this last November who was benefiting and who was getting hurt.
Business as usual doesn’t only generate bad policy and wasteful spending. It also erodes public trust in the integrity of our government institutions, our elected leaders, and the law-making process itself. We the American people know what we want from Washington. It is this: a government that’s focused on doing what’s best for our nation, and on securing a better and more prosperous future for the people.
There are so many people of good faith on both sides of the aisle that want to see this happen. Like me, they want to solve the great challenges of our day and to restore public faith in our government.
They know, as I do, that General Omar Bradley was right back in 1948 when he said that ‘we need to start steering our ships by the stars, and not by the lights of each passing ship.’
The new leadership that took the helm last week has already begun that change in course. They have introduced the ethics reform package at issue today as the very first bill to be considered by the new Senate.
It has been an honor to work with Senator Reid, colleagues like Senators Feingold and Obama, and with a great class of freshmen – that includes you Mr. President as well as Senator Tester who is here with me today – who share my passion for ethics reform. I am also pleased by the bipartisan support for this bill.
The proposals being offered will strengthen the original S. 1 in a number of important areas, including stricter travel rules, enhanced lobbying disclosure requirements, tougher restrictions on the revolving door between Capitol Hill and lobbying firms, and additional earmarking reforms.
It is also my understanding that the Senate will thoughtfully address methods to improve ethics enforcement in debates and hearings over the next few months. Speaking as a former prosecutor, I have expressed to a number of Senators the great value of strong, sensible enforcement.
I am particularly gratified to see Senator Reid’s Amendment number four contains improvements to the Senate gift and meal rules. Under current law, anyone, including a lobbyist, is permitted to buy a gift or a meal for a Senator or a staff member, up to a certain dollar amount. We need to make sensible changes to this current law.
A decade ago, the Minnesota legislature passed a strong, clear rule in this area: lobbyists and those who employ them cannot give gifts or meals to state or local officials (subject to very limited exceptions that were meant to be just that – limited exceptions). For more than ten years, our state officials have abided by these rules, which are rooted in Minnesota values. I followed them as county prosecutor. And the result has been greater fairness in our democratic process and a greater faith in our government.
A rule banning gifts and meals from both lobbyists and those who hire lobbyists worked in Minnesota, and it can work in Washington, D.C.
I want to make clear that my support for this rule is no reflection on my colleagues, who have humbled me with their good faith, with their honor, and integrity since I arrived in Washington. Instead, I support it because the urgency of our need to restore the public’s faith in government has convinced me that clear, bright-line rules are best. Such rules do not impose unreasonable constraints and does not adversely affect citizens’ rights to petition their government. But it does send a strong, clear message and an important signal to the American people that we are focused solely on representing their interests.
Last week at my swearing in, a number of people and Senators from both sides of the aisle came up to me remembering the great Senators who have come to Washington from the state of Minnesota. It is humbling to follow in the footsteps of people like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. I was reminded many times this past week of the great things that they did and that they said.
On Humphrey’s gravestone, there is an inscription, a quote from Humphrey himself. It says, ‘I have enjoyed my life, its disappointments outweighed by its pleasures. I have loved my country in a way that some people consider sentimental and out of style. I still do. And I remain an optimist with joy, without apology about this country and about the American experiment in democracy.’
Like Humphrey, Mr. President, I too remain an optimist about this grand experiment in democracy.
I remain an optimist because the people in my state and across the country have spoken up for change.
I remain an optimist because the people in this chamber are devoted to getting things done, and getting them done the right way.
I remain an optimist because this American experiment in democracy has worked best when we, the American people, have, without apology, demanded accountability.
This past November was one of those times. The American people spoke out for change. We need to answer them.