Since becoming a candidate for the Senate, I am often asked this question: Has Nebraska changed much since you last faced the voters in 1994? My answer is: Not as much as I have changed.
And the biggest change has nothing to do with political or economic views.
These are Sen. Bob Kerrey's recent remarks to the League of Nebraska Municipalities, a group of city leaders. The group met in Kearney. Kerrey is a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
The biggest change can be seen through the telling of a story. I was visiting the Norfolk Veterans Home, which I helped build when I was in the Senate. It is a wonderful and wonderfully managed place that treats our veterans with the dignity they deserve.
During the visit I approached an old man in a wheelchair whose head was dropped down into his chest. It was a lonely sight. When I greeted him, he brightened up, reached out, took my hand, held on, and asked: “What room are you in?”
No one ever asked me that when I ran before.
Age is not the only change.
As president of a university, I have discovered just how generous Americans are and how uniquely important our not-for-profit civil society is to the health and well being of our communities. There are many things that a not-for-profit agency can do that the government cannot and should not be doing.
I have been involved with Nebraska Lutheran Family Services effort to help Iraq and Afghan wars vets deal with PTSD.
For 20 years my businesses have been working to build a refuge for sexually and physically abused children, to protect them and prosecute their perpetrators.
I started a fund at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to help Nebraskans who suffer the trauma of an amputation pay for the purchase of their prosthetics.
From my personal experience of having others helping me when I came home in 1969, I can tell you that even small acts of generosity make a huge difference.
I have also learned a lot by remaining involved with my businesses. We were not immune to the damage done by the financial crisis of 2008. We survived; we have over 700 employees and are growing again.
And I say this to those who are critical of business corporations: I do not believe there has been a year since 1973 when my business partner and I paid ourselves more than we paid in taxes to cities, schools, states and the feds.
Let me repeat this. I do not believe there has been a year since 1973 when my business partner and I paid ourselves more than we paid in taxes to cities, schools, states and the feds.
I am not complaining. I am just stating a fact.
And every dollar we paid was one less dollar we had to invest and create jobs. I know these words sound surprising coming from a Democrat but I am just telling you the truth of the matter.
I have also become more committed to the need to find common cause with Republicans since I left elected politics 11 years ago.
I have co-chaired the Concord Coalition board with former Republican Senator and friend, Warren Rudman, and fellow Nebraskan, Pete Peterson. I have joined former Senators Simpson, Rudman, Bradley and many other former members of Congress to advocate for campaign finance reform. I was a member of the bi-partisan committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which earned me several protests during my time in New York.
My singular contribution to the 9/11 Commission may have been to argue that we needed to acquire the unity of purpose we felt in the days and weeks after our nation was attacked. Five Republicans and five Democrats selected in a highly partisan time and a highly partisan manner resisted all efforts to be divided. As a consequence, Congress enacted most of our recommendations. And as a consequence Americans are safer.
On a less publicized cause, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and I co-chaired a national commission on Alzheimer’s disease. We worked closely with Republican and Democratic Senators and House members who converted our recommendations into legislation that was signed into law.
As a consequence there is a better chance that researchers might find a cure or a means to delay the onset of this terrible disease. As a consequence, we are much more likely to provide the quality of care needed by the victims of this disease.
I became a candidate for the United States Senate because I believe the same kind of bi-partisan action will be needed to do three things that are essential for our country’s future: Balancing the national budget, simplifying our tax code and reforming our immigration laws.
I also became a candidate because I would love the opportunity of working again with you, the most important leaders in our state.
Democracy begins with our cities - jobs, health, safety, recreation and more. This is where it begins. This is where I began in 1973 approaching the city of Ralston for permission to build a building.
I enjoy working with city leaders. As Governor and as Senator, I was an active, reliable partner with mayors and city councils as they worked to build their communities. And I promise if elected to do more of the same.
I can promise you if elected, I will arrive in the Senate ready to do the job. I have done it before. I know how to fight for Nebraska’s interests, but not if it conflicts with our country’s best interest. I also know how the Senate works. I require no on the job training to get up to speed. From day one I will be doing the work you expect a Nebraska senator to do.
I can also promise you I will shake things up in Washington. I became a candidate in part because I have become frustrated and angry about the partisan divide in our Nation’s capitol.
Repeating cleverly written slogans has become more common than solving problems. Holding onto or gaining committee chairmanships has become more important than rebuilding the financial foundation of our country. Votes are cast based upon what is best for political parties rather than what is best for our country.
Too many Nebraskans have made the frustrating trip from skepticism in their government to full-on pessimism about government’s motive and ability to put the law on their side. It doesn’t have to be that way, but you need senators who view compromise and partnership as valuable – not as a sign of betrayal to one’s party.
This week we have witnessed two terrible examples of the debilitating impact of this partisanship and one very related challenge revealed by the teacher strike in Chicago.
First, we watched Congress adjourning without resolving the big tax and spending issues looming over our country. They adjourned with no budget, no immigration reform, no appropriations bills, no farm bill, no Violence Against Women Act, no cyber-security legislation, no repeal of counter productive trade restrictions on Russia, and no legislation to help our returning veterans find work.
Enough is enough, I say. It’s time for the Americans to demand that Congress pass the George W. Norris Constitutional amendment. The Norris amendment contains 45 powerful words:
“Congress shall write rules so as to elect its leaders and organize itself in a non-partisan fashion. Members shall be limited to 12 years of consecutive service and shall be permitted to enact legislation limiting the amount of money that can be spent by themselves or outside groups on Congressional campaigns.”
If these 45 words become a part of our Constitution, I promise you that Nebraskans will see more solutions and fewer slogans, more problem solving and fewer problems created.
Retiring baby boomers
The second incident was the unauthorized video taken at a fundraiser for Gov. Romney. He said something to the effect that 47% of Americans who pay no income tax, have become dependent on the government, and are going to vote for President Obama because of their dependency.
Democrats have attacked the statement as one more example of a heartless wealthy out-of-touch businessman who doesn’t understand what is going on in the real world. Maybe so. But lost in the debate is a very simple fact. The retirement of the a baby boomer generation is creating a growing demand on taxpayers to fund their retirement years in the form of health care and retirement income.
This problem could be seen buried in the stories about the Chicago schoolteacher’s strike.
Behind the headlines was a problem that is also the central problem with our federal budget: Democrats and Republicans alike have overpromised and overcommitted when it comes to post employment income and health benefits.
The numbers in Chicago were shocking. A $10 billion pension fund paying out $1 billion per year predicted to be broke in a few years. To fund pension costs, the state of Illinois and the school district of Chicago are laying off teachers and other essential personnel, increasing class sizes, and doing damage to the current generation of school students.
The future is being sacrificed in order to fund post-employment income and health benefits made in the past. This is unsustainable.
This same problem the central challenge of our federal budget. If we fail to address the unfunded liability of Social Security and Medicare, we will starve the future to fund the past.
That is why I have endorsed bi-partisan solutions for both Social Security and Medicare. It is why I have endorsed other bi-partisan reductions in spending that will allow the federal government to be the kind of constructive partner our cities need to make investments in our future.
It is why I have not outsourced my loyalty to Grover Norquist by signing his no-tax increase pledge. I have also made it clear that I will work with Republicans to simplify our tax code with the goal of lowering overall rates and generating some additional revenue after securing agreement on spending reductions.
Immigration, balanced budget
And I have endorsed Gov. Romney’s immigration plan which is a big improvement over current law and that must be a big part of Nebraska’s strategy to grow our economy. Our immigrant communities are among our hardest working. They save their money, hold fast to their families and go to church on Sundays. They understand why this is a great country perhaps even more than those of us whose mothers did all the work to make us citizens. They get the American dream. We need them to grow our cities and make them even better places to live.
I have given Nebraskan voters solutions, not slogans. I have told Nebraska voters exactly what I believe needs to be done including detailed proposals to change the rules of Congress, shake up Washington, and reduce the importance of money in campaigns.
In the State Fair debate and elsewhere State Senator Fischer has talked about her plan for Nebraska. She has emphasized her support for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution and criticized me for not supporting this amendment.
Let me be clear with all of you. If elected, I will vigorously oppose this amendment. I will vigorously oppose it because it is bad, very bad for Nebraska and very bad for Nebraskans.
If we use research and data from the Congressional Budget office to evaluate the impact of Senator Fischer’s plan, we get a very grim picture of her vision of our future.
Nebraskans need to know that her constitutional requirement to balance the budget does not provide the flexibility she suggests when she says that job growth will take care of everything. That is not the case at all.
In fact, her slogans ignore the positive impact this flexibility had on Nebraska in 2009 and 2010 when federal stimulus money was used by Senator Fischer and others to solve 80% of the state’s budget deficit. When challenged in the Republican primary on this point, she did not refute the facts. She merely said it was the Governor who made the decision to use the stimulus money this way.
Further, Nebraskans need to know that Senator Fischer has repeatedly misled her audiences by referring to the fact that in 2000 federal spending was at the levels dictated by her plan.
First of all, she is essentially congratulating me on participating in bi-partisan action in the 1990s that produced this result while criticizing tax increases necessary to get the job done. Worse, she sacrifices her own integrity when she says she has always been philosophically opposed to tax increases while her record in the legislature reveals that is not true.
Second, a lot has changed since 2000. We have engaged in two very expensive wars the costs of which will be born by taxpayers for another 50 years at least. Most important, the baby boomers have begun to draw down their claims on Social Security and Medicare.
In that time, 12 million men and women with $25,000 in annual benefits have become eligible. This means that in the past 12 years more Americans have become dependent on working Americans to pay their Social Security and Medicare than entered the workforce. Let that one soak in.
Over the next 18 years, another 30 million men and women will become eligible for benefits with an expected annual cost per beneficiary of $30,000.
In an effort to appeal to older Nebraska voters, Senator Fischer originally said that no one over the age of 55 should have to take less or pay more. In the State Fair debate she went further saying that no one over the age of 40 should have to pay more or take less.
What is the message to Nebraskans under the age of 40? If you think your lives are difficult now, you haven’t seen anything yet. In 18 years it’s going to be a whole lot worse.
If Senator Fischer’s balanced budget amendment is passed, they won’t be alone.
According to the detailed analysis by several non-profit groups, Senator Fischer’s plan would necessitate a cut of 29% of nearly everything in 2014.
According to these analyses, Nebraska’s unemployment would be at least double what it is today and probably worse.
Why is that the case? Because in 2010 Social Security payments to Nebraskans was $4 billion while Medicare payments to Nebraska doctors and hospitals totaled $2.6 billion. To put this in perspective this is approximately the 2010 value of our entire corn crop.
The Fischer plan would remove $2 billion of this income in a single year. According to the Nebraska Rural Health Care Association, this would close many rural hospitals who depend on critical access reimbursement and result in the loss of thousands rural jobs.
I can predict what she will say about these studies: That she intends to hold Medicare and Social Security harmless. After repeatedly saying that when it is time to balance the budget “everything must be on the table,” she will probably remove the two biggest domestic programs from consideration.
That will only make matters worse for everything else. It is unlikely we could fund Community Development Block Grants, USDA Rural Development, or the Drinking Water and Waste Water Revolving Loan Fund. Veterans’ benefits would have to be slashed much deeper. Hot Springs Veterans Hospital would close. The new hospital in Omaha could not be built. Pell grants – that are so critical to our colleges and universities - would have to be slashed. So, too would Federal research efforts that have been so important to Nebraska agriculture and economic development.
My plan is different than Senator Fischer’s. My plan calls for shared sacrifice, bi-partisan action, and leaves the Federal government in a position to be a full partner with our cities.
My experiences are also different. I started and built a business, served in the military, served as your Governor and voluntarily left after four years, served as your Senator and voluntarily left after two terms, and served as a university president for ten.
I have lived long enough and traveled far enough to know how lucky I was to have been born in Nebraska. I still feel I have a debt to my country and am willing to serve one more time.
If elected, I will work to make Nebraska an even better place than it is today. I will promote and defend Nebraska agriculture. I will do everything I can to help our cities recruit and retain the good jobs needed to keep our young citizens here and to encourage them to return to the good life. I will be the best partner I can with you: The most important leaders of our State.
Editor's Note: Kerrey's campaign office provided a copy of these remarks. We have not received something similar from Sen. Fischer's office but would be happy to publish it if we do.