Mr. President, I rise today to say farewell to the United States Senate after 12 years. I would like to take time to convey my heartfelt thanks to all those who have helped me during my time in the Senate and to reflect briefly on the work we were able to get done, work that made a difference for the people of my state and our nation.Finally...
I’d also like to share a few observations with my colleagues – both those who are staying as the 112th Congress convenes as well as senators yet to come.
At this stage in my life, as I look back on my 44 years in public service, I cannot help but thank God for the immeasurable blessings he has bestowed upon me. Each time I walk the steps of the Senate, I look up at the Statue of Freedom on the top of our Capitol Dome and I think of my grandparents who came to America with nothing but the clothes on their backs – they couldn't read or write, and spoke only a few words of English.
I have to pinch myself as a reminder that this has not all been just a wonderful dream; the grandson of Serbian and Slovenian immigrants who grew up on the East Side of Cleveland is a United States Senator.
Only in America – truly – none of us should take for granted the economic and political freedoms we have. My Dad used to say that the reason why we have more of the world’s bounty is because we get more out of our people due to our free enterprise and educational systems.
Mr. Gudikuntz, my Social Studies teacher said, “A democracy is a place where everyone has an equal opportunity to become unequal.”
And so during my final days in the United States Senate, I think of the people in my life who have gotten me up the steps of this hallowed chamber:
My wife of 48 years, Janet. She is God’s greatest blessing on me – she has never pushed or pulled but has always been at my side. My three children here on earth – George, Betsy and Peter, and my angel in heaven, Molly. And my eight grandchildren, my siblings and their extended families.
It’s not easy to have a father, brother or uncle in this business.
To the people of Ohio who have facilitated my election to seven different offices, and who have stuck with me, even though on occasion they don’t agree with me – my deep appreciation to you can never be properly expressed.
I hope you know that every decision I’ve made and every policy I’ve crafted – although not always the easiest or most popular at the time – has aimed to improve and make a positive difference in your lives.
I am very humbled to have been given the privilege to serve you through the years.
Here in the Senate, my wonderful staff – both in Ohio and in Washington. I am so proud of what they have done for me and the people of Ohio, and I take fatherly pride in having had the chance to touch their lives and see them grow.
I also think of their colleagues in other Senate offices who helped and cooperated with them as we worked together to solve our nation’s problems, meet challenges, and seize opportunities. My colleagues and I should be most humble, for all we are is a reflection of these wonderful, loyal, hardworking individuals. Also, thank you all in this chamber for the courtesies you have extended me. The folks in the Attending Physician’s office have taken care of me physically, and our two great chaplains Lloyd Ogilvie and Barry Black, along with the wonderful priests at St. Joseph’s on the Hill, have helped me grow spiritually.
I’ve learned in my life that you cannot do anything alone, so of course I think of my colleagues in the Senate who I have learned to know and respect – and been blessed to call friends. The American people have made it clear that they are not happy with partisanship in Washington, but the fact is there are some great partnerships here – and those partnerships and relationships result in action.
I don’t think many people outside Washington understand that a lot does get done here on a bipartisan basis. Many Americans think the only action in the Senate is on the floor of the Senate.
But much of the action of the Senate is in the committees and meetings with other members off the floor, as well as through unanimous consents. And once a bill gets through the committee, perhaps one or two people might have a problem with it, but you work it out; call them or go see them, and it gets done.
I’m proud of the contribution I have made to the country in the area of human capital and government management. The fact is though, without my brother Dan Akaka, the changes never would have occurred. There’s nobody who’s done more to reform the way we treat our federal workers - to make us more competitive and work harder and smarter and do more with less - than what Dan and I have done over the years.
It’s an area that is neglected by most legislators because they don’t appreciate how important the people are that work for government. I call them the “A Team.” Any successful organization has to have good finances and good people.
I’m also proud of my work in helping to relaunch the nuclear renaissance, which will help deliver baseload energy for America, reducing our greenhouse emissions and reigniting our manufacturing base in Ohio and America.
I couldn’t have done this without my great friend Senator Tom Carper, who has been both a friend and a colleague since our days as governor. Tom’s leadership was key to organizing our recent successful nuclear summit in Washington, and Tom has taken the baton from me and will carry nuclear energy to the finish line as part of the future of America’s energy supply- along with Mike Crapo, Jim Risch, Lamar Alexander and others.
I also recall the passage of the landmark PRO-IP bill, a bill to protect our intellectual property- the last bastion of our global competitiveness. It was a multi-year process that wouldn’t have succeeded without the work of the business community and my friend Evan Bayh, who I first met when we were governors of our neighboring states.
As many know, I have been an ardent champion for my brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. As such, I am proud to have led the effort to expand NATO and increase membership in the Visa Waiver Program.
These two accomplishments would not have happened without the bipartisan leadership of Dick Lugar and Joe Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – and the help of Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. I pray that the bipartisanship we have enjoyed in both the Foreign Relations and Homeland Security committees will continue.
I must also acknowledge Senator Jeanne Shaheen for her keen interest in Southeast Europe. We travelled together to the region in February of this year – and I am heartened that she has picked up the mantle on our mission to ensure the door to NATO and European Union membership remains open to all states in the Western Balkans, which is key to our national security.
I have also championed the cause of monitoring and combating anti-Semitism a priority within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and at our State Department. The progress that has been made over the years could not have happened without the leadership of Senator Ben Cardin, Congressman Chris Smith and the late Congressman Tom Lantos. One of the highlights of my career was the passage of the Global anti-Semitism bill which created a special envoy at the State Department to monitor and combat global anti-Semitism.
These are just a few of examples of the great bipartisan work going on in the Senate, but much of the time this is blurred because of the media’s addiction to conflict.
Even though I don’t agree with the bipartisan resolution on extending the Bush tax cuts, I compliment the President and leaders in Congress for sitting down and working together to find compromise. One of my frustrations after working so hard to find common ground on the significant issues of our day over the past 12 years has been that it does not happen more often.
The American people know that even when members of a family get along, it is difficult to get things done. So they most certainly know that when we are laser focused on fighting, politicking and messaging, their concerns and plight are forgotten and nothing controversial gets done. There is a growing frustration that Congress is oblivious to their problems, anxieties, and fears.
Frankly, one action Leaders could take at the beginning of each Congress it to assess the issues at hand – what are the items that Republicans and Democrats agree should get done to make our nation more competitive and really make a difference in people’s lives and set out a common agenda. By setting collective goals, buy-in and agreement from leadership will set the environment for committee Chairmen and Ranking Members for the year.
Additionally, an unacceptable amount of time is spent on fundraising. In my estimate, 20 to 25 percent of a senator’s time is spent on raising millions of dollars, and with it comes the negative fallout in terms of the public’s view of Congress bowing to contributions from special interests. In addition to this negative impression, the time spent chasing money too often interferes with the time we need with our families, our colleagues and most importantly doing the job the people elected us to do. My last two years have been my most productive and enjoyable because I have not had to chase money at home and around the country. None of us like it, but nothing seems to get done about it.
Ideological differences aside, it is necessary for us to have good working relationships if we are going to get anything done for the people who elected us. And I know it’s possible from experience.
As mayor of Cleveland, I worked side-by-side with George Forbes, the most powerful Democratic City Council president in Cleveland history. George and I met first when our children attended the Mayor Works Program in the Cleveland public school system. Who would have guessed that we would become the tag team that turned Cleveland around after it became the first major city in the country to declare bankruptcy. I was pummeled by the media on occasion in regard to who was actually running City Hall. My answer was both of us – Forbes and I worked together as friends and partners.
One of my great satisfactions was the write up in USA Today at the end of my mayoral career that highlighted both of us – the tall, African-American Democrat (Big George) and the short, white Republican (Little George) – working together to bring about the Cleveland Renaissance.
In Columbus I found a worthy adversary in Democrat Vern Riffe, who was speaker of the Ohio House for my first four years as Ohio governor. My office was on the 30th floor of the building named for Riffe while he was still alive and serving an unprecedented 22 years as speaker! Well, every day when I went over to the Riffe Tower I had to genuflect before his bust. But somehow, Vern and I decided we were going to figure out how we could work together and move Ohio forward and became good friends.
Needless to say I was dismayed when I learned last year that President Obama had held only a single one-on-one meeting with Mitch McConnell. When I was governor, I met with Vern Riffe and Stan Aranoff every two weeks – developing good interpersonal relationships and a trust which allowed us to move Ohio forward, from the Rust Belt to the Jobs Belt.
I’m hoping that we have entered a new era in the relationship between the President and Leadership in Congress.
Our situation is more critical than at any time in my 44 years in government; how we work together will determine the future of our country. We must also recognize that if we diminish the President in the eyes of the world, it is to the detriment of our nation’s international influence and will impact our national security.
We are on thin ice and need the help of our allies – they need our help as well. For example, the START Treaty: Although I had some reservations, they have been satisfied. It is vitally important we get it done this year, or, alternatively we must make it clear that the Senate will ratify the treaty as soon as the 112th Congress convenes.
To not do so would do irreparable harm to America’s standing with our NATO allies and would be exploited by our enemies – particularly those factions in Russia that would like to break off communication and revert back to our Cold War relationship.
Two weeks ago, Janet and I attended a farewell dinner hosted by Mitch McConnell. Although I have had differences with Mitch, I have to credit him with keeping the Republican Team together. There is no one more strategic than Mitch, John Kyle and Lamar Alexander. Still, I share the concern of many of my colleagues that too often the herd mentality has taken over our respective conferences.
At the dinner, I shared with my Republican colleagues what Ohio State University football coach, Jim Tressel defines as success in his book “The Winners Manual.”
“Success is the inner satisfaction and peace of mind that come from knowing I did the best I was capable of doing for the group.”
Success is a team sport. Hopefully, this will become the Senate’s definition of success because finding common ground and teamwork is what it will take to confront the problems facing our nation.
My colleague Senator Chris Dodd hit the nail on the head when he said, “It is whether each one of the 100 Senators can work together – living up to the incredible honor that comes with the title, and the awesome responsibility that comes with the office.”
We do have a symbiotic relationship, and I’m encouraged that more and more of my colleagues understand that. I was quite impressed with the fact that 60 percent of the Senate representation on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform supported the recommendations of the Chairmen, including Tom Coburn, Mike Crapo, Judd Gregg, Kent Conrad and Dick Durbin.
As far as I am concerned, they and the other commission members who voted in favor of the proposal are true patriots.
As our colleague Tom Coburn said just before the Commission’s vote, “The time for action is now. We can’t afford to wait until the next election to begin this process. Long before the skyrocketing cost of entitlements cause our national debt to triple and tax rates to double, our economy may collapse under the weight of this burden. We are already near a precipice. In the near future, we could experience a collapse in the value of the dollar, hyperinflation or other consequences that would force Congress to face a set of choices far more painful than those proposed in this plan.”
And so, here we are in a situation where we are on an unsustainable fiscal course caused by explosive and unchecked growth in spending and entitlement obligations without adequate funding.
We’ve got an outdated tax code that does not sufficiently encourage saving and economic growth, and a skyrocketing national debt that puts our credit-rating in serious jeopardy and should give all of us great pause.
Fareed Zakaria posed questions that should haunt all of us in Monday’s Washington Post:
“So when will we get serious about our fiscal mess? In 2020 or 2030, when the needed spending cuts and tax hikes get much larger? If we cannot inflict a little pain now, who will impose a lot of pain later? Does anyone believe that Washington will one day develop the political courage it now lacks? And what if, while we are getting around to doing something, countries get nervous about lending us money and interest rates rise?”
I believe that the American people get it. They recognize that our fiscal situation is in the intensive care unit — on life support. And as I walk down the steps of the United States Capitol for the last time, I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire my colleagues to make the right decisions for our country’s future and work together to tackle our fiscal crisis. You have the future of our nation and the future of our children and grandchildren in your hands.
Mr. President, I’ve already spoken too long, but I would like to finish with a reading from “One Quiet Moment,” a book of daily readings from the former Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie which I read every day for inspiration and proper perspective. Perhaps some of my colleagues are familiar with his daily reading – this was his Election Day admonition:
“…May the immense responsibilities they assume, and the vows they make when sworn into office, bring them to their knees with profound humility and unprecedented openness to You. Save them from the seduction of power, the addiction of popularity, and the aggrandizement of pride. Lord, keep their priorities straight: You and their families first; the good of the nation second; consensus around truth third; party loyalties fourth; and personal success last of all. May they never forget that they have been elected to serve and not be served.”
I yield the floor.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Sen. Voinovich Farewell Address