The President’s State of the Union Addressby Senator John Cornyn
Posted on 2016-01-12
CORNYN. Mr. President, tonight the President of the United States
will offer his last State of the Union speech and one that I know we
will all be listening carefully to. I couldn't help but reflect on the
first speech he gave to a joint session of Congress back in 2009,
shortly after his inauguration. It was a hopeful speech, it was an
optimistic speech--one that appealed to the better angels of
Republicans and Democrats and the whole Nation alike. He said we needed
to pull together and boldly confront the challenges we face, but
somewhere along the way he seems to have forgotten the benefit of
finding common ground where folks can agree. It seems we have seen the
Obama administration more involved in dividing the American people when
facing opposition and then preferring to go it alone rather than to
work with Congress under the constitutional scheme created by our
Tonight in his final address on his priorities as President, I am sure President Obama will want to talk about what his legacy looks like once he leaves office, and that will invariably include times when he has simply done an end run around Congress. We have seen it time and time again. It is a mistake. It is shortsighted, but it is his method of governing and presumably being able to tell people: Well, I have gotten my way and I haven't had to do the hard work of working with people of different points of view to find the areas where we agree.
I have said it before, but I think it is worth noting the comment by the senior Senator from Wyoming, when I said to him: You are on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions with Teddy Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate, whom I served with for a while before he unfortunately passed away. How is it that you are able to work with somebody whose world view is so opposite from yours and you are still able to actually get things done? To this he replied: It is simple. It is the 80-20 rule. We look at the 80 percent of things we can agree upon, and we do those and forget the 20 percent we can't agree on.
I fear that our country and the Congress has become a Congress that looks at the 20 percent we can't agree on and as a result can't do the 80 percent that we do agree on because we disagree on the 20 percent, and that is a mistake. It is also not the scheme of government that was created by America and our Constitution, and it would be a mistake to do nothing because we can't agree on the 20 percent when we can agree on the 80 percent.
I know there are some areas where we are going to have a fundamental disagreement, and we are going to continue to fight and oppose each other's points of view, but I have been around here long enough to know that there are people of goodwill on both sides of the aisle, some of whom I disagree with strenuously, but by working together, we can find ways to solve problems and help move the country's agenda forward. But somewhere along the way, the President forgot that, and so I suspect he will be talking about some of his Executive orders, which have been a terrible mistake.
First of all, on his Executive order for immigration, there was a lawsuit. A Federal judge issued an injunction, which has been upheld so far. It bars implementation of his Executive order. So what did the President accomplish other than to enrage and polarize people and poison the well when it comes to actually trying to begin the process of solving and fixing some of our broken immigration system? The President has poisoned the well and made it virtually impossible for us to work with him on solving or fixing our broken immigration system because of what? Because of an Executive order that was subsequently enjoined by a Federal court. So he wasn't able to accomplish his goal, but he was able to kill meaningful immigration reform debate in the Senate.
Of course, as we have on the Iranian nuclear negotiation, the President seems content not to engage in a treaty process, which is actually binding on his successor. It is simply a political document which is not even in writing. It tries to freeze out the American people, whom we represent, and the sort of educational and consensus- building process that is good for our country. I mean, that is how we have become unified as a country--by looking at the things we can work together on and not just focusing on our differences. If we are just going to focus on our differences, we are never going to get anything done. There are some people who may be OK with that, but, frankly, I think the American people voted for Republicans and a new leadership in the last election not because they didn't want to get anything done, but because they wanted to give us the responsibility for setting the agenda and doing the things that were their priorities, which doesn't entail doing nothing. That entails doing those things that reflect the priorities of the American people and by working together where we can.
Nobody here is a dictator, not even the President of the United States. It is shortsighted. It is a mistake, and it is in contravention of the whole constitutional framework that was set up 230-something years ago.
We saw it most recently on the President's announcement on gun issues where he, again, ignored Congress and said: Well, I am going to do it my way. Maybe he is impatient. Maybe he doesn't believe in consensus building. Maybe he just doesn't like his job very much. Sometimes I think that is true. Temperamentally, I think the President may not be suited for the kind of consensus building and legislative process that is necessary to actually get important things done.
I was thinking, as we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act a short time back, do you actually think we could do something like that, given this polarized political environment and a President unwilling to work with Congress? I would say Lyndon Baines Johnson was a lot of things, but he knew how to get things done. He was the antithesis of this President when it came to rolling up his sleeves and working with Congress and people with different points of view and actually trying to find the possible and the doable--not to focus on failure but to focus on where we can make progress.
Unfortunately, as a result, I think the President's legacy is going to be discussed in a way that he probably isn't going to fully appreciate.
I was reading the Wall Street Journal this morning and was reminded of how his political legacy will be remembered. Since President Obama took office, his party has lost 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 910 State legislative seats, and has lost majority party status in 30 State legislatures. Those are amazing statistics, given that the President came out of the starting gate so strong. Unfortunately, he used his political capital by passing legislation like ObamaCare with just Democratic votes. That is not a way to build durable or sustainable policy or to build consensus. That is a way of jamming it down the throat of the minority party and then saying: Well, you are just going to have to live with it. Well, that is not the case.
As we reflected on the recent vote we had on appealing ObamaCare, which the President vetoed, we have the political will and votes to change that ill-considered and misguided health care law and to replace it with something that makes more sense, is more affordable, and suits the needs of individual Americans. What we do need is a new President, and I think we have demonstrated that.
[[Page S51]] If you look at item after item and our struggling economy--after the terrible events of 2008, I admit the President had a tough hand because America's economy cratered, and we went into a recession. Typically what economists will tell us--and I take some of my economic advice from former Senator Phil Gramm who is a Ph.D. economist. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal, or maybe it was the Washington Post, that following recessions, typically what you have is a v-shaped bounce of the economy. But what we have had under this President's policy-- because of overregulation and political uncertainty, just because of his unwillingness to work to build consensus to get things done, we have seen an economy struggling to recover with stagnant wages and slow economic growth.
Then there is the issue of foreign policy. I just had the privilege of meeting with a group of people, including the King of Jordan, where we talked about the battle against the Islamic State and Syria, which is right outside the King's back door, and the work they have been doing with us to try and deal with the Russians that are taking advantage of the chaos. There is a lack of a master strategy or plan to deal with this threat. It is not just a threat over there, as we have learned; it is a threat over here because of the use of social media and the ability to radicalize people who live in the United States and convince them to commit acts of violence right here in our country. So we have a mess in Syria and no real strategy to fight ISIL.
I mentioned ObamaCare just a few moments ago because I can't help but remember when the President was selling ObamaCare and jammed it through on a purely partisan vote. I remember he said: If you like what you have, you can keep it. Well, that was not true. I was a former attorney general in Texas. We had a consumer protection division that sued people for consumer fraud. When people are lied to about what it is they are going to get in exchange for their hard-earned money and they don't get it because they have been deceived, that usually ends up in court, and you end up getting sued. Well, we know that premiums didn't come down an average of $2,500 for a family of four. Instead, they skyrocketed. And we have been reading stories in the press which show that a lot of younger people who need to be part of the pool in order to keep rates down--because, frankly, you need young, healthy people as part of that insurance pool to hold down rates for the whole country-- didn't buy it because they don't think it suits their needs, and it is it too expensive. They are being forced to buy coverage that they can't use.
I say all of this because I think in some ways the President has squandered his mandate when he was elected. I remember in 2008 when the President talked about hope and change. I wasn't quite sure what he meant, but we all agree that hope is a good thing, and frequently change is a good thing. We were hopeful for the new President--the first African-American President elected in American history. It was a very positive thing for so many of us. It represented a huge transition for a country that unfortunately committed the original sin of treating African-Americans as less than fully human, and we paid a terrible price for it, and we continue to pay a terrible price. But I was hopeful, like many others were, that he would actually use his position as President to bring people together and work with us.
I will tell you that I am an optimistic person, and so despite the last 7 years, I hope the President talks tonight about what he plans to do in his last year in office. He still has one full year left in his two terms, or 8 years, in office. He has a choice to make, just as we all have choices to make. The President can decide to double down on his go-it-alone strategy, which has proved to be a disaster. It doesn't work. It is not enduring, and it polarizes the political parties and the American people. I think, actually, the way this President has chosen to govern is more responsible for the polarization we see among the American people when it comes to politics and some of the sorts of craziness of our current political process, which we all talk about privately. I think he is actually largely responsible for that--maybe not entirely, but largely.
The President can decide whether he actually wants to do something during his last year in office. He can actually want to try to work with Congress.
I will suggest an area where we can find common ground and work together, and that is by reforming our criminal justice system. Actually, I have been involved for several years, as have many Members on the Democratic and Republican side, on looking at our criminal justice system and saying: How can we do better? For example, for too long we have treated our prison system at the State and Federal levels as a warehouse for people, and we have forgotten some of the basic tenets of the goals of the criminal justice system, which is to rehabilitate people. You can't rehabilitate everybody. You have to have a willing heart, and you have to have people willing to change and take advantage of an opportunity to turn their lives around. There are people like that, and we have demonstrated that in many of our State penal systems, such as Texas, where we have seen that if you provide the right incentives, people will take advantage of opportunities to turn their lives around and deal with their addictions, lack of education, and lack of skills so they no longer have to live a life--as one person in Houston told me. He called himself a frequent flier in the criminal justice system. Every time he got out, he ended up coming back, until he finally took advantage of the opportunity to turn his life around. So we do have legislation that passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee 15 to 5.
There are some things we still need to continue to work on with our colleagues. But I think it represents a great opportunity--something the President himself has said he wants to see us do--and I think it could be a genuine legacy item for him and something that offers hope to people without much hope. It is also good for the taxpayers. We have actually been able to shutter three different penitentiaries in Texas and save the taxpayers billions of dollars, so it strikes me that it is a win across the board. So I think reforming our criminal justice system is a great opportunity.
I also believe, as I mentioned yesterday when I spoke on the floor, that addressing our broken mental health system is another area that we could deal with productively on a bipartisan basis and that could be a legacy of this President and certainly of this Congress.
We know our mental health delivery system is broken. All we have to do is look at people living on our streets, homeless people. These people frequent our emergency rooms because they have various medical conditions, but because of their mental illness, they never get the treatment they need, so they go in and out of that turnstile.
We also know that some people tragically become a danger not only to themselves but to their loved ones and the communities where they live. I know it is a simple fact borne out by public opinion polls that most people understand that some of the acts--not all but some of the acts-- in fact, public opinion in the polling I have seen said that 70 percent of respondents in public opinion polls said that mental illness is a factor in incidents of mass violence, including shootings in places such as Sandy Hook; Aurora, CO; Charleston; and others. We can name those incidents and those tragic circumstances, but until we get serious about working together to try to improve access to mental health services and give families the additional tools they need in order to get their loved ones compliant with their doctor's orders and their medication, we are never going to be able to make progress in this area.
I think about Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook, who stole his mother's own gun, killed her with it, and then went on to that elementary school and killed those poor, innocent children--a horrific tragedy. But Adam Lanza's mother knew he was sick. She knew he was basically living downstairs and descending into his mental illness and getting sicker and sicker. She didn't have much in the way of options, so she tried to find common ground with him and work with him, but obviously that wasn't enough to overcome his mental illness. If we could just do some simple things, such as provide outpatient, court- ordered [[Page S52]] mental health treatment--that is something that is included in a piece of legislation on which we will be having a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That will provide families additional tools other than involuntary commitment, which is just temporary and doesn't serve the long-term problems.
One of the biggest problems, I have learned, with our mental health system is that so often people who need treatment refuse treatment. In other words, frequently they don't take their medication. As long as it is purely a voluntary matter, particularly for people who are a threat to their own safety as well as the community's safety, then we are going to continue to see repetitions of this and more and more tragedies, more families torn apart by mental illness, when we could actually offer them some help and some hope.
There is a gentleman named Pete Earley who is an award-winning journalist who wrote a book called ``Crazy.'' This is not about his son, although his son did suffer from mental illness; this is about our broken mental health system. He called it ``Crazy.'' He wrote a book, which I would commend to anybody, about his own family's experience dealing with a mentally ill son and how hard it was to get him to comply with his doctor's orders and take his medication and the like.
I hope Pete Earley will come testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee later this month, along with some really innovative programs like those in San Antonio, TX, where they found a way to not just warehouse the mentally ill in our jails but to actually divert them for treatment and to get them in a better place and out of this turnstile of the criminal justice system.
So those are just a couple of ideas about what this President could do, and I hope they are areas he will perhaps address tonight that he would be willing to work with us on: criminal justice reform and mental health reform. I think if he were willing to do that, he would find Republicans and Democrats alike willing to work with him to try to build that common-ground consensus, and actually that would be one of the lasting legacies of his final year of his administration.
I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Daines). The Senator from Iowa.
Mrs. ERNST. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to speak for up to 10 minutes in morning business.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.