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Sen. Jim Jeffords: Does He Think We Don't Notice?

'Declaring Independence'
By U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords

The following speech by Sen. Jim Jeffords was delivered at the National Press Club on June 5, 2003 to commemorate the second anniversary of his decision to leave the Republican Party and become the Senate's only Independent.

*****************

Two years ago, I was big news. I got to know many of you for the first time. I was followed in airports and recognized on the street. Network news people, who until then couldn't identify me as a senator in a police line-up, were now calling my home number. Subsequent events put me back in my place: 9/11, two wars, the space shuttle disaster and a worsening economy took back the nation's attention -- as they should have done.

Yet the reasons for my switch, while apparent to me then, have become painfully clear to me now. The events of the past two years have only heightened my concern over the president's veer to the right, and the poisoning of our democratic process of government.

The promises of candidate Bush, who pledged to bring a new tone to Washington and packaged himself as a compassionate conservative, are unmet. On issue after issue the Bush administration is not what it claims to be. Since coming into office, the president has dragged the Republican Party into short-sighted positions that maximize short-term gain while neglecting the long-term needs of families and the nation.

Pundits asked after last November's election: will the president over-reach with his Republican majorities in the House and Senate? Well, President Bush hasn't just over-reached, he has set a new standard for extreme partisan politics that on many occasions has been supported by the Republican-controlled Congress.

In place of thoughtful policy we now have superficial and cynical sound-bites. Instead of confronting pressing national problems, our president lands airplanes while Rome burns.

While our troops search for WMD in Iraq, we have found our own WMD right here in Washington -- at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They are President Bush's weapons of mass distortion, or better, distraction. The Bush administration says one thing and does another to take the focus off the present realities.

Does he think we don't notice?

In Iraq, we have seen the inexcusable results of what happens when the Bush administration says one thing and does another. Last fall, the president said U.N. weapons inspectors would be allowed to do their job, but in reality, he didn't give them the time they needed. I am pleased to see calls for Congressional investigations to determine whether the president manipulated intelligence information to build support for the war. Why the hurry to invade a country and use military force in such an unprecedented manner? Where was the imminent threat to the United States? And where are the weapons of mass destruction?

As he prepared to invade Iraq and win the support of other nations, the president promised the world that the United States had a plan in place to rebuild that nation. But it quickly became apparent that there was no plan. While our military guarded the oil fields, we showed no compassion for the Iraqi people as we allowed their national treasures to be looted. All we see now is growing unrest with the U.S. presence in Iraq. Every day we see more lawlessness, more upheaval and more U.S. soldiers being killed. Is it any surprise that a recent Pell Research Center survey of 16,000 people from 20 nations shows a dramatic rise in distrust and skepticism toward the United States?

Does he think we don't notice?

His polls and famous advisors tell him to talk about compassion and job growth, and how he is helping Main Street. But that is all it is, talk.

In reality he adopts hard-right proposals that favor those who need help least and neglect those who need help the most. In reality we are now in the longest period of continued job loss since the Great Depression. Since the beginning of this Bush administration, 2.7 million private sector jobs have been lost and the number of unemployed Americans has increased by over 45 percent. In the first three months of this year alone, America has lost another half-million jobs. President Bush has said his tax plan is a "jobs growth package." But the only thing guaranteed to grow is the federal budget deficit. He says one thing and does another.

Does he think we don't notice?

We will be paying for his tax cuts with borrowed funds, money borrowed from our children and grandchildren who will be forced to foot the bill. And, according to reports, the Bush administration intends to ask for more tax cuts next year. The effect of these tax cuts will be enduring -- and enormously damaging. These tax cuts will widen the gap between rich and poor. These tax cuts help those who need it least and do nothing for those who need it most. These tax cuts provide a $90,000 tax cut for millionaires, while millions of parents with incomes under $26,000 will see no benefit from the increased child credit. This is compassion? Again, he says one thing and does another.

Does he think we don't notice?

President Bush is rashly piling up debt our nation can't afford even as he knows the really big bills are about to come due. The Congressional Budget Office forecasts a $300 billion deficit this fiscal year -- an all-time record. Some economists believe the deficit could approach $500 billion dollars in the near future. That's edging close to a troublingly high percentage of the economy. But the real problem is not this year or next. Rather, it's the long-term cost, combined with the budgetary hit coming just around the corner, when the baby boomers start to retire and put new huge demands on Social Security and Medicare.

The administration highlighted this problem in its own budget documents, describing the real fiscal danger as the 18 trillion dollar shortfall -- yes, trillion with a "T" -- projected in those two programs. At the same time, it was recently disclosed the Bush administration shelved a report commissioned by its own Treasury Department that shows the United States currently faces future budget deficits totaling at least $44 trillion.

The Bush tax cut will threaten the country's long-term well-being by starving the federal government of revenue for essential services, such as homeland security, transportation infrastructure, education and health care. Our States are bearing the brunt of our dismal economic conditions, and these cuts will brutalize them.

One of the most disturbing effects of the economic downturn is the lack of state and federal funding for our educational system -- where states are laying off teachers, cutting school days and eliminating early childhood programs -- most of which have only just started. The president's advisors tell him to endlessly repeat "No Child Left Behind."

But in the 17 months since that policy became law, we've seen something very different. Too many children are being left behind. President Bush says the new law will lead to stronger schools. I say it is all part of a quiet plan to starve our public schools so this country can move to vouchers and private school choice.

As the president pushes tax cut after tax cut, his administration still can not find the funding to fulfill the federal government's commitment to special education -- where we still fall $12 billion short on a commitment we made to the states more than 25 years ago, to help them finance this federal constitutional mandate. According to school boards across the nation, the number one thing the federal government can do to support education is fully fund special ed.

While pretending to have compassion for our schoolchildren, the approach of No Child Left Behind is heartless. It chronically under-funds our schools, it sets unattainable goals for our teachers and it steals from schoolchildren the quality education they deserve. Once again, the Bush administration says one thing and does another.

Does he think we don't notice?

A recent report in The New York Times noted that combined budget deficits for 50 states are estimated to be between $52 billion and $82 billion, and the schools are taking the worst hit. In Oregon, 84 school districts closed their schools ahead of schedule -- some by as much as a month -- because the money ran out. This comes at a time when schools are faced with mounting pressure to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind or face penalties.

Now we see that states are cutting back on testing standards to avoid sanctions. In the president's home state of Texas, the State Board of Education voted to reduce the number of questions that students must answer correctly to pass the standard test, to 20 out of 36, from 24, for third-grade reading. And Texas is not alone. Michigan's standards had been among the nation's highest, which caused problems last year when 1,513 schools there were labeled under the law as needing improvement, more than in any other state.

So Michigan officials lowered the percentage of students who must pass statewide tests to certify a school as making adequate progress. That reduced the number of schools "in need of improvement" to 216. In other words, we are dumbing down our standards so the Bush administration can say we have strengthened our schools.

Saying one thing, doing another.

In my home state of Vermont, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution last week expressing its concerns over the policies and mandates of No Child Left Behind. They noted that the law could cost Vermont up to three times more to implement than the federal government provides -- and maybe more -- "thereby placing a major burden on the state's strained financial resources...."

If this wasn't all bad enough, we learned last week that the U.S. Department of Education plans to spend a half-million dollars -- yes, a half-million dollars! -- on a public relations campaign aimed at quieting the critics of No Child Left Behind. During three decades in Congress, I have never heard of such an ad campaign. Yet as schools are cutting early education programs for lack of money, the president has no problem with assembling an eight-person "communications" team to try and make a bad plan look good.

Saying one thing, doing another.

In an age now driven by scientific and technological advances, American students are falling behind. This is inexcusable. But despite warnings that have spanned three decades, we have done nothing to respond. "Before It's Too Late: A Report to the Nation from the National Commission on Mathematics & Science Teaching for the 21st Century," released in 2000, highlighted that problem. Recent reports of the performance of our country's students from both the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and the National Assessment of Educational Progress echo a dismal message of lackluster performance.

In December of 2000 I met with President-elect Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas to discuss education. He assured me that education would be his top priority. But his actions speak louder than his words and that promise clearly fell to the wayside long ago.

The president says one thing, but does another.

Perhaps this is most apparent when it comes to the environment. With a straight face he talks about protecting resources for our children -- even as he abandons the federal protection of land and air and water as fast as he can.

Does he think we don't notice?

The Bush administration continues to protect special interests and ignore public support for strong environmental protections and conservation measures. Candidate Bush said in September of 2000: "With the help of Congress, environmental groups and industry we will require all power plants to meet clean air standards in order to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide within a reasonable period of time." Those were heartening words for many of us. Unfortunately, just two months into his term, President Bush backed away from that statement, and abandoned his commitment to seek reductions in carbon dioxide which is the leading cause of global warming and climate change. And there has been no working together on anything.

Saying one thing, and doing another.

>From the beginning, this administration has relaxed environmental laws through deregulation and lack of enforcement, and put forward legislative proposals long on public relations and short on substance. What Americans really need now is relief from air pollution, and swift and serious action to avert global warming. We have a right to breathe air that is not contaminated by pollution. At a minimum, we have a right to full and vigorous implementation of laws already on the books, such as the Clean Air Act. The devastation caused by dirty air is staggering. As many as 60,000 premature deaths each year are linked to air pollution, according to an American Cancer Society study and researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

I was proud to work with the first President Bush on the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, when I was a Republican. I was proud to be chosen by the first President Bush as one of the lead Senate negotiators on that bill. He called our work, "a new chapter in our environmental history, and a new era for clean air." That was an example of what we could do -- together -- when we made a shared commitment to our environmental future. Now this President Bush insists on moving us backward, undoing his father's legacy and weakening our nation's environmental laws.

This Bush administration has put forward a plan mislabeled "Clear Skies." This bill weakens or eliminates current clean air programs, accelerates global warming, and saves only one-third of the lives that could be saved by the Clean Power Act. Worse, the administration bill takes 20 years before its reduction targets are achieved.

Does he think we won't notice?

Well, we do notice. We do care. And it does matter.

Some people might not have agreed with my decision to leave the GOP two years ago, but at least I did it for the reasons I said I did. I was honest about what brought me to that decision.

What makes the actions of the Bush administration so troublesome is the lack of honesty.

It amounts, in the end, to a pattern of deception and distortion; ultimately that does not respect the wisdom of the American people.

Thank you.

*****************

Jim Jeffords represents the state of Vermont in the U.S. Senate as an Independent.

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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