THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT TO NATIONAL SENIOR CITIZENS COUNCIL
The Hyatt Regency Washington, D.C.
8:30 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Well, I don't know what all the young folks in Washington are doing tonight, but whatever it is, they don't have half the energy you do. (Laughter.)
I can't thank you enough for that wonderful welcome. I want to thank you, Tom, for your introduction. I also want to tell you -- we were standing outside when Tom was talking and he said that I was looking for an interpreter to explain these -- (laughter.) I mean, you know, folks, this is America. Where else do you get to talk to a Greek from Uruguay? I mean, come on. (Laughter and applause.) I can't decide whether I want him to solve all the South American border wars or go fix the Cyprus problem -- (laughter) -- but, meanwhile, he's doing a fine job for you and we love working with him.
I thank you for honoring Dorothy Height and Bob Georgine, two good friends of mine. I wish your President, George Korporus, well in his trip to Greece. And let me join the applause you gave to this young lady, Paula Postell, who sang the National Anthem. I think she's got a great future -- (Applause.)
It's become commonplace to say that Americans over 85 are the fastest growing group in the country, but I'd also like to acknowledge that you have two members here who are entering that extremely select group of centenarians, Cliff Holliday and Genevieve Mother Johnson. Congratulations to you. Thank you, Cliff and Genevieve. Congratulations to both of you. (Applause.) We'd all like to join your group. I must say, there are plenty of days around here when I feel like I'm 100. (Laughter.) But I'm still working at it.
Before I begin, I think I'd like to just make a few remarks to say how very pleased I am on behalf of all the American people and the prospects of our growing economy that the United Auto Workers and General Motors resolved their differences earlier today. (Applause.) This is truly a win-win-win situation. It's a victory for the company, a victory for the employees and a victory for all Americans, who understand I think now more clearly than ever after the last 60 days what a great stake all of us in the United States have in the success of General Motors and our auto industry in general, and those jobs and those workers, the cars they produce and the contributions they make to our general welfare.
It also shows that the collective bargaining process works. And I'm glad that I have been able to defend it for the last six years. (Applause.) I believe that one of many things the United States has proved over the last six years, nearly six years, I've been privileged to be your President is that it is possible for us to be competitive in a global economy and still have good jobs with good benefits for productive employees.
I have spoken with President Steve Yokich of the UAW, and Jack Smith, the CEO of G.M. And again I want to publicly thank them for their role in this. And as a matter of personal privilege, I also want you to know that our terrific Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman, worked day and night behind the scenes to keep the parties in the room together, keep the temperatures down and the lines of communication open. And I appreciate that. (Applause.)
I am profoundly honored to be here tonight. The NCSC has stood by me and our administration in all the fights we have waged from 1992 forward. You know, just before I left the house -- normally, when I have to go out at night like this, Hillary says something like, this is the time when I'm glad you've got the job -- you go give the speech. Tonight she said, I kind of resent the fact that you're going and I'm staying home; I love those people, they have been so good to me. (Applause.)
We will never forget the fight that you helped us wage for better health care for all Americans. And it was not a fight in vain. I will say more about it, but, you know, we helped to increase the awareness of the American people about the problems. And we told them that unless we did something, more and more people would lose their insurance at work. Our attackers said, oh, the President is trying to have the government take over the health care system. I said, no, I'm not, I'm trying to have the government guarantee that every American family has access to affordable, quality health care that they don't lose. (Applause.)
Well, since then we've done a lot of, I think, quite important things. We strengthened the Medicare program. We're doing more now to help prevent breast cancer with mammographies. We're doing more to deal with osteoporosis. We're doing more in research and treatment for both breast cancer and prostate cancer. We're doing a great deal more with diabetes -- last year I signed legislation that the American Diabetes Association said represented the greatest step forward in the treatment of diabetes since the discovery of insulin 70 years ago. We are adding 5 million children to the ranks of those with health insurance. And so while we haven't solved the whole problem, we have come a long way, thanks in no small measure to your advocacy and your work and your conscience.
I should also tell you that remember when our attackers said we were trying to have the government take over the health care system and we pointed out that we weren't -- when they made that charge, 40 percent of all dollars going into the health care system in America -- 40 cents on the dollar -- came from the public. Today, because so many private employers have dropped their employees from health insurance since the cost goes up, 47 cents on the dollar comes from public sources in health care.
So we have to keep working on this. But don't forget, you stood up for a good cause and we have advanced the cause. And there are millions of children who are now going to get health care as a result of that provision in the balanced budget amendment that I am absolutely convinced would not have happened had it not been for your advocacy. I do not believe we would have passed the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, saying people can't lose their health insurance when someone in their family is sick or when they change jobs, had it not been for your advocacy. So you should be proud of what you accomplished, as well as the fight you fought that you didn't win. I'm proud of you and I thank you for that. (Applause.)
I thank you for sticking up for retirees and for working families. I thank you, too, for your commitment to helping us meet the challenge of the year 2000 computer problem by reaching out to senior citizens to enlist their help. And I know other people have talked to you about this -- this is a big deal. America computerized more extensively earlier than any other country. When we first did that, memory in these computer chips was a precious commodity, so a lot of these little chips only had two slots for year numbers, instead of four. Well, now, of course, it's an entirely different thing. You can get hundreds of millions of bits of information out of these little computer chips.
And we now have a whole generation of people out there working that don't even know how to go in and speak the language that will fix these problems. So we've got to have retirees come back and help us. I think it's interesting -- you have all these 25 year old kids worth $200 million or $300 million in Silicon Valley, but they need you to come back and help them fix this Y2K computer problem so they don't lose their investment. (Applause.) We still need more help, so I thank you.
Let me say also that I'm very grateful for the general support you have given me. If I told you on the day I was inaugurated President that I would come back in five and a half years, and that we would be able to say in the last five and a half years this is what America has accomplished -- we have the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, 16 million new jobs; the lowest crime rate in 25 years; the smallest percentage of our people on welfare in 29 years; the first balanced budget and surplus in 29 years; the lowest inflation rate in 32 years; the highest home ownership in American history, with the smallest federal government in 35 years, I think you would say, that's a pretty good record for five and a half years. And I thank you for your role in that. (Applause.)
Now, I think our obligation is to use this moment. And I think that the senior citizens of our country have a special role in making sure that our people in general, and our political system in particular, has the right response. Because, normally, when people work hard and their life is full of hassles and they deal with one crisis after another, when they hit a good patch they just want to sit back, relax and enjoy it. And countries are like people and families.
But the world is changing so fast and there are so many challenges all around the world that I submit to you we cannot afford to do that; that, instead, we have to use the prosperity we now enjoy and the confidence we now have to face the large, long-term challenges of America. Now, what are they? I'll just mention a few.
One is to give America the best elementary and secondary school system in the world. (Applause.) We have done a good job with our university system, and now, in the last five and a half years, we've also virtually opened the doors of college to everybody who will work for it -- with the HOPE Scholarship and more work-study funds and AmeriCorps national service scholarships and more Pell grants and all of these things. We've really worked hard. But we've got to have the best elementary and secondary system in the world for all of our kids.
The second thing we've got to do is bring the benefits of this prosperity to the places that haven't felt them yet: to the inner-city neighborhoods, where the unemployment rate is still in double-digits; to the small, rural communities that lost the factory or where the farm income is down; to the Native American communities, where there has been no spark of enterprise. We have to prove that America can work for all Americans who are willing to work.
The third thing we have to do is to recognize that we have a huge obligation to our children to begin a process that I believe will continue well into the 21st century of proving that a country can both grow rich and improve, rather than destroy the environment. Folks, I'm telling you, this climate change-global warming issue is real. You see the fires in Florida -- they had the wettest winter, the driest spring and the hottest month in their history in June, and then they got the fires. The nine hottest years on record -- the nine hottest years on record have all occurred in the last 11 years. Nineteen ninety-seven was the hottest year ever recorded. Every single month of 1998 has topped the preceding month in 1997.
Now, do we have to give up good jobs to do it? No, we don't. Thankfully, what we now know and what is about to happen in energy use enables us to cool the planet, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and grow more jobs that are good jobs with good wages. But we have to make a decision to do it. It's a big, long-term challenge for America. (Applause.)
We have to continue to move forward on health care, and I'll say a little more about that in a moment, because there are still great challenges out there. I remember when Hillary said in 1994, look, there's going to be a big growth in managed care; the question is whether we'll have managed care that's also quality care for all Americans. And then people said, well, why is she trying to promote that? That was one on the attacks. So now you see we have more people than ever before in managed care -- 160 million. But the issue now is there aren't enough guarantees of quality care, which is what we all want. That's a huge challenge for the American people and we have to meet it. (Applause.)
Not especially popular to say, but we have to remain engaged with the rest of the world. I'm trying to get Congress to pay our fair share to something called the International Monetary Fund. And nearly any congressman could come here and give you a speech and convince you it was a bad idea, saying, why are we giving money to all those other countries. Well, the reason is that if we help to reform and restore growth in Asia, they'll buy our products. One-third of our economic growth has come from international trade. About half our grain that our farmers grow is sold abroad. Forty percent of it is sold in Asia. They can't buy it if they don't have any money. Today, they don't have much money; therefore, the price of grain is down. Farm income has dropped 90 percent in one year in North Dakota.
So we have to stay involved in a constructive way in the rest of the world as a force for peace and freedom and prosperity . The next thing we have to do is -- I made a joke about my Uruguayan Greek friend here, or my Greek Uruguayan friend or whatever it is --(laughter)-- but the truth is that this is a country where we have people from everywhere. And in a global society, a global economy, that is a great economic boon if we prove that we really can be one America, that we celebrate our differences, that we respect our differences and that we're bound together by a set of shared values. If we want to do good around the world, we have to first be good here at home and set a good example for the rest of the world. (Applause.)
So those are the big challenges. But there's one other big challenge. Those of us in the baby boom -- and I'm the oldest of the baby boomers at just nearly 52 -- the generation now aged 34 to 52, the biggest group of Americans ever, until last year's school class got in. When we retire, when we're all in the retirement pool, in about 2030 or a little before -- actually a little before that -- there will only be about two people working for every one person drawing Social Security. We have to protect and save and reform Social Security so that it will be there for the baby boom generation on terms that won't bankrupt our children and their ability to raise our grandchildren. And we have to do it in a way that gives absolute security to all the people now on Social Security and those who will go on it in the next few years.
So I want to talk to you about that tonight, because we need your support and involvement. You know, for 60 years Social Security has meant more than an ID number or even that monthly check. It really has become the symbol of the responsibility we feel to one another across the generations.
You know, in 1985, our country passed a watershed and I always think of it -- 1985 was the first year in the history of America when people over 65 had a poverty rate below that of the general population. Today, it's under 12 percent. And 48 percent -- almost half of all senior citizens -- are lifted out of poverty because of Social Security. It is very important. (Applause.)
Now, we know we're going to have a budget surplus this year. We don't know exactly how much, but it's going to be quite sizeable. And it's going to be the first one since 1969. We project that we will have one for years to come. And even when the country has recessions now and then, we think over a long period of time, if we stay with the same framework of budget discipline we've got now we will run surpluses. So we've tried to move from deficits as far as the eye can see, and a quadrupling of the nation's debt in the 12 years before I took office, to surpluses as far as the eye can see.
Now, I know you heard me say in the State of the Union, and I've said it 100 times since, we shouldn't spend a penny of that surplus until we save Social Security first. (Applause.) I'm happy that there are both Republican and Democratic members of Congress who agree with me. Some do not. And I know it is terribly tempting in an election year to offer people a tax cut or to offer people a new spending program that I might love. Even if I could design the tax cut -- and there are some we badly need -- or design the spending program, I would say we should not take it out of the surplus.
You know, we've waited 29 years to see the red ink go away. It looks to me like we should wait just a year until we fix Social Security before we run the risk of getting into it again. (Applause.) And I say that to you because you have something America needs now -- memory. It is very important to look to the future. You know, my campaign theme song in 1992 was, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." My campaign slogan in 1996 was, "building a bridge to the 21st century." But the First Lady's slogan for honoring the year 2000 and our millennium may have more relevance today: Honoring the past, imagining the future. (Applause.) To be successful you have to do both. And I'm here to tell you the only way we can really imagine the future and come up with all these new ideas and actualize them is if we remember our roots, our basic values, and we don't always take the easy way out.
You have memory. We have waited a long time for this balanced budget. We have waited a long time for this surplus. There are a lot of things that you would like to do with this surplus -- and we may be able to do some of them if it doesn't take all the money that we project to be in the surplus to fix the Social Security system. But first you've got to know it's going to be there.
As I said -- let me say again -- by the year 2030, there will be twice as many seniors as there are today, with only two people working for every one person drawing at present rates of birth, immigration and retirement. Around that time, 2030, if we just leave the system the way it is and we do not do anything, there will only be enough money coming in to fund 75 cents on the dollar current benefit.
Today, Social Security is sound. Let me say this again: Today, Social Security is sound. We're talking about 2030 and beyond. For today's seniors, Social Security is as strong as it's ever been. For those tomorrow, it's as strong as it's ever been. But here's the issue: If we wait until 2025 to start fooling with it, it will require breathtaking, dramatic changes that will either require huge tax increases or huge benefit cuts or the virtual abolition of the rest of domestic government -- our investments in education, in scientific research and the environment -- and maybe even some of our defense programs, just to pay the difference.
But if start now and make modest, disciplined changes that will take effect over the long run, then we can say Social Security is not only there for all the seniors now, Social Security is not only there for all those that are going to be there in the next few years -- it will be there for the baby boomers and it will be there for the baby boomers in a way that will be good for their children and their grandchildren. That's what this is about and that's what I ask your support on. (Applause.)
I want to thank you officers for consulting with us. We've consulted before all of the three forums we've had around the country, bipartisan forums to raise the issues here in the debate. The Vice President and I have been to three of them. In December I'm going to host a White House Conference on Social Security. I want you involved. And then in January I'm going to try to get all the leaders of Congress together to fashion a bipartisan resolution the way it was done back in 1983. This is only going to work if we can find a way to reach across the lines of party, philosophy and generation. Because Republicans and Democrats get old together -- (laughter) -- sometimes I think they forget it, but we do. All of them get old, but Senator Thurmond. He never does, but everybody else does. (Laughter.) And we've got to do this together. We're going to have to have open minds and generous spirits. We've all got to be willing to listen and learn.
There are going to be a lot of proposals out there and some of them will be good and some of them I think will be quite unwise. But I wanted to share with you how I think we should all judge these proposals for dealing with tomorrow's challenge in Social Security. And you need to decide whether you agree with these five principles, and if you don't, how you would judge them.
First, we have to strengthen and protect the guarantee of Social Security for the 21st century. People have to know it's there. (Applause.) There has to be a certainty about it. Secondly, we must maintain universality and fairness. It must be available to all and fair to all. It's been a progressive guarantee. All of you understand that well. There's a lot of people who work all their lives for very modest wages the would not have enough to live on if Social Security were not a progressive program and we have to keep it the way. (Applause.)
Third, it must provide a benefit people can count on, regardless of the ups or downs of the economy or the financial market. It has to be a program that has a foundation of financial security in good economic times and bad. Not every six years will be as good as the last six years have been on Wall Street or Main Street. But people will retire every year. People will continue to age every year.
Fourth, Social Security must continue to provide financial security for disabled and low-income beneficiaries. We can't forget that one in three people on Social Security is not a retiree. One in three people is a disabled person or a family where the wage earner has been killed or disabled or died young. It's a life insurance program and a disability program and a retirement program. And I believe when we get done with reforming it, it should still be all three, because those one in three people need that help as well. (Applause.)
And finally, I believe anything we do to strengthen Social Security now must be done within the framework of the hard- won fiscal discipline we have seen since 1993. When we voted in 1993 to drive that deficit down -- and a lot of members in our party took the heat for doing it; some of them laid down their seats in Congress for doing it -- it drove down interest rates, it increased investment, it caused the economy to explode. The American people were out there waiting to work, to create jobs, to start new businesses, to prove they could compete in the world, and they have done it in stunning order.
If you look around the world today at the problems a lot of our friends and neighbors are having, our trading partners are having, they begin to have these problems when there is a sense that they don't have their financial house in order. Because whether we like it or not, this money moves around the world at the speed of light and people can move money in and out at breathtaking speed. So no matter what we try to do to help anyone else, they first have to help themselves. But we can't forget that lesson ourselves. We cannot allow ourselves to get in another situation where we quadruple the debt in 10 years. The consequences would be far more serious if we did that again. So we can reform Social Security, but we have to do it consistent with what's growing our economy today.
Now, those are the things that I believe we should be doing. You and I have worked together to preserve and strengthen Medicare, as Steve said. We've worked to secure the Medicare trust fund for a decade. And we've made, as I said, mammographies and diabetes screening more available. We've increased health plan choices while making beneficiaries know they can choose to keep their current plans. Next year we'll also have to act to strengthen Medicare for the long-term, and once again, as with Social Security, I'll ask for your help, because the answer is to strengthen the program, not to dismantle it. So I ask you to think about that and to be involved in it.
And one last health issue that I think is important that's before the Congress today is the patients' bill of rights. It includes the guarantee of access to specialists, access to emergency rooms, the right to appeal health care decisions. Basically, it includes the right to say, okay, we want the benefits of managed care, but we don't want someone who is an accountant telling a doctor and a patient that they can't have a life-saving procedure. It's very important. (Applause.)
Now, if you're on Medicare, I have, by executive order, extended those rights to everybody on Medicare. But most Americans are not on Medicare or Medicaid. And they're entitled to the same protection. We should manage the system as efficiently as we can. We should do everything we can to get the cost down, except risk someone's life or deny them the quality health care they deserve. That's what we're paying for. So we shouldn't put the cart before the horse, here, or let the tail wag the dog. That's what the patients' bill of rights is all about.
We've also, as you know, fought together against proposals to block grant the Medicaid program, to eliminate federal nursing home standards, to get rid of the health care guarantee for people on welfare and their children. Last week, I launched a major legislative and administrative initiative to improve our nursing homes, with more frequent inspections, immediate fines for nursing homes that provide inadequate or abusive care, a national registry for nursing home workers known to be abusive, and unprecedented efforts to prevent poor nutrition and other health concerns from threatening people in nursing homes. And I thank you for your support of that. (Applause.)
Before I go there are two other things that I'd ask you to help me with. I want you to keep working with me until we actually succeed in reauthorizing the Older Americans Act. It's funded Meals on Wheels and many other programs. (Applause.) Thank you.
I also ask you to work with me again and to continue to oppose the public housing bill that recently passed the House of Representatives. It could be devastating to our nation's hardest-pressed seniors, unnecessarily denying them housing assistance when they need it the most.
We've got a big agenda out there, and you've got to be involved in it: Social Security reform, Medicare reform, the Older Americans Act, all these other issues. I have done my best as President to bring this country together when others sought to divide it; to put progress ahead of partisanship and people ahead of politics; to build a stronger world for our children and grandchildren and a decent world for all of you.
I've been thinking a lot about this country today, because I'm sure all of you know we had a very emotional service today in the United States Capitol for the two brave police officers who were killed last Friday. And I told their families that I realize that any words of mine were poor substitutes for the time they should have been given with their family and friends. It is unnatural for people to have their days terminated before they see the seasons turn enough, before they get their fill of the rhythms of daily life, before they see their grandchildren wandering around their feet.
But those people put on that uniform and went to work that day, like every other day, because they knew that somebody had to do that so that the rest of us could enjoy all that normal life. I tried to tell the families that their fathers and husbands, in laying down their lives, had not only saved the lives of many of their fellow citizens -- which clearly they did -- but they had really consecrated our Capitol as the house of freedom.
So I think today we can put aside a lot of our normal conflicts and just think about what America is at its best. If you go all the way back to the beginning, if you go -- and I do this on a regular basis -- and reread the Declaration of Independence, it's very interesting to see that the guidance they gave then is the guidance we ought to have today. We believe everybody is created equal, endowed by God with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we put this government together because we can't protect and enhance those rights alone -- there are some things we have to do together, as one people.
The government should be limited in power and scope, but should have enough authority to do what we all need to do together that we can't do alone. And for over 200 years now we've worked together within that framework to widen the circle of opportunity for more people -- that's what Social Security did -- to deepen the meaning of American freedom -- that's what the civil rights law did -- and to strengthen the bonds of our union, our common home.
Every time we stand up for a decent cause, every time we stand up for something even though it may help some other group of people more than it helps us -- because we know that we're better off and we're stronger if everybody in America has a decent life and a fair chance.
We honor the sacrifice those men made last Friday. I think you do that every week, every month, every year. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you. (Applause.)