There is no evidence that partisan politics played any role in this monstrous attack. Even so, we should be more civil anyway. Being more mindful of the weight of our words always helps. We have much more to gain than to lose from civility and discretion.
In this new year, I hope we will return to the respect that has always been a hallmark of the United States Senate. I hope my colleagues will join in renewing our commitment to productive debate.
Some may be inspired by the town halls of two Augusts ago. Others by the heated election debates. Some may be motivated by the conversation that started after Arizona. And many will seek more civility simply because it’s the right thing to do. Whatever the reason, I hope the turn to more responsible rhetoric is more than empty rhetoric. I intend to do my part.
What I’m talking about goes beyond inflammatory allegations or hate speech. It also means not questioning each other’s motives, or calling into question the patriotism of a colleague who has been elected to serve his state and country.
But it’s even more than that. As we more carefully choose our words, we must also remember that we do not have the luxury, as Senator Moynihan used to caution, to choose our own facts. If we are really going to change the way we speak in the hope of changing the way we do business, we have to reintroduce truth into the public debate.
That doesn’t mean just rephrasing an attack line from ‘job-killing’ to ‘job-destroying,’ as House Republicans have done in response to the shooting. It means that if there is no proof that a policy takes away jobs – if in fact the evidence shows the opposite – we shouldn’t pretend any differently. The nonpartisan referee we rely on for this data, the Congressional Budget Office, found that when it comes to health reform – which is what House Republicans were talking about in this case – the claim is simply not true. Changing our rhetoric requires us to debate the facts, not invent them.
In the coming weeks, much of the discussion on the Senate floor will revolve around health care, the deficit and the debt limit. Each of these issues affects the number-one issue in America – jobs – and each issue is complex. If we are going to make the right decisions and point our economy back in the right direction, we have to start with a shared respect for the facts.
First, let’s look at health care. Independent fact-checkers examined all the political rhetoric of the last year. Given the intensity of the legislative debates and the election season, there was a lot to choose from. But one claim stood out above all – the habit of those opposed to health care to call it a ‘government takeover.’ One of those nonpartisan experts, FactCheck.org, called it plainly ‘false.’ Another, PolitiFact, a project of the St. Petersburg Times, called it the ‘Lie of the Year.’
So if we’re going to have an honest debate about the health reform law we passed last year, retiring this scare tactic would be a good place to start.
Second, my friends on the other side are quick to associate the current President with the current deficit, as if it happened overnight and under his watch.
But here is a brief review of the facts: In the 1990s, we balanced the budget. At the beginning of the new century, America had a bigger surplus than ever in her history. Over the next decade, while our troops went into battle, the costs of two wars went off the budget. The richest took home giant tax breaks, but nobody paid the bill. A massive prescription-drug program wasn’t paid for, either.
President Clinton left President Bush a record surplus. President Bush left President Obama a record deficit. Those unpaid-for wars, tax breaks and programs are the reason we’re in a hole today. What we do next is fair game for debate. But facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things.
Third, we’ll soon debate the debt limit. Earlier this month the Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, sent each of us a letter outlining what would happen if we don’t raise that ceiling. It would be the first time in history our country would default on our legal obligations. He didn’t share his partisan opinion in that letter – he simply laid out the facts. This is what he wrote:
‘Default would effectively impose a significant and long-lasting tax on all Americans and all American businesses and could lead to the loss of millions of American jobs. Even a very short-term or limited default would have catastrophic economic consequences that would last for decades.’
What are some of those consequences? Our troops and veterans would no longer get their paychecks. Our seniors would no longer get their Social Security and Medicare checks. Student loans would simply stop. On a larger scale, the Secretary of the Treasury warned it would lead to a worse financial crisis than the one we’re still recovering from.
There will soon be time to debate what we do about the debt limit. But these are the facts we must first acknowledge and consider.
The American people voted in November for a divided legislative branch – a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. They didn’t elect houses led by competing parties because they want us to compete. They did so because they want us to cooperate.
We cannot cooperate without an honest debate. And we cannot have an honest debate if we insist that fiction is fact.
Mark Twain, a great Nevadan, once said ‘If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.’ He was right. But here’s one thing every Senator should remember, and never forget: Though there are many different points of view in this body, we all share the same reality.”