Following is the full text, as prepared for delivery, of House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) address to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s 2012 Fiscal Summit on efforts to put our nation back on a path to prosperity and economic growth by cutting government spending, preventing job-crushing tax hikes, and making long-term changes to entitlement programs. In the address, Boehner renews his commitment to the principle that any increase in the nation’s debt limit must be accompanied by spending cuts and reforms larger than the amount of the debt limit hike. Failing to again meet this standard – dubbed the “Boehner principle” by Stanford economist John B. Taylor – in conjunction with the next debt limit increase means pushing American prosperity and job growth farther away.
It’s truly an honor to be with you in the historic Mellon Auditorium. It was here in the spring of 1949 that the United States and our closest allies gathered to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, giving birth to NATO.
On that occasion, President Truman declared that people ‘with courage and vision can still determine their own destiny. They can choose freedom or slavery.’
In our time, all of these great nations face a grave threat to freedom, one from within, and that is debt. It is shackling our economies and smothering the opportunities that have blessed us with so much.
Once again the world looks to the United States for what it always has: an example. It is the example of a free people whose hard work and sacrifice make up the sum total of thriving towns and a vibrant economy. It’s a humble government that lives within its means and unleashes the potential of first-rate ideas and world-class products. It’s a nation never content with the status quo and always on the make.
I got a glimpse of this example growing up working at my dad’s tavern just outside Cincinnati, and then lived a piece of it running my own small business.
Instead of this shining example, what does the world now see?
A president on whose watch the United States lost its gold-plated triple-A rating for the first time in our history;
A Senate, controlled by the president’s party, that has not passed a budget in more than three years;
And, earlier this month, another unemployment report showing that the world’s greatest economy remains unable to generate enough jobs to spur strong and lasting growth.
If you should know one thing about me, it’s that I’m an optimist.
Yes, times are tough, but our future doesn’t need to be dark. We don’t have to accept a new normal where the workplace looks more like a battlefield and families have to endure flat incomes, weak job prospects, and higher prices in their daily lives.
We have every reason to believe we can come out of this freer and more prosperous than ever. And we will, if we confront our challenges now while we still have the ability to do so.
For the solution to what ails our economy is not government – it’s the American people.
The failure of ‘stimulus’ – a word people in Washington won’t even use anymore – has sparked a rebellion against overspending, overtaxation, and overregulation.
Americans, who take pride in living on a budget, recognize we can’t go on spending money we don’t have, and that our economy is stuck in large part because it’s stuck with debt.
Nationwide, we’re seeing a groundswell of support for bold ideas that reject small politics, cast off big government, and return us to common sense and first principles – the kind of ideas that will restore prosperity and substantially improve the trajectory of our economy.
In March, as part of our Plan for America’s Job Creators, the House passed an honest budget with real spending cuts, pro-growth tax reform, and serious entitlement reform. It’s a far-reaching effort to control government’s worst habits and capitalize on the American people’s best. This budget gets our fiscal house in order AND promotes long-term growth. Far from settling for stability, it offers a true path to prosperity.
Various bipartisan commissions and coalitions have devised ambitious plans as well. The math and the mix are different, but the goals are mainly the same.
And of course, there are summits like these that bring together people who just get it. Of course, while I’m happy to be here and I’m sure we all enjoy each other’s company, we can also agree that we’ve talked this problem to death.
It’s about time we roll up our sleeves and get to work.
For all the focus on Election Day, another date looms large for every household and every business, and that’s January 1, 2013.
On that day, without action by Congress, a sudden and massive tax increase will be imposed on every American – by an average of $3,000 per household. Rates go up, the child tax credit is cut in half, the AMT patches end, the estate tax returns to 2001 levels, and so on.
Now, it gets a little more complicated than that. What will expire on January 1 is cause for concern – as is what will take effect. That includes:
Indiscriminate spending cuts of $1.2 trillion – half of which would devastate our men and women in uniform and send a signal of weakness;
Several tax increases from the health care law that is making it harder to hire new workers;
As well as a slate of energy and banking rules and regulations that will also increase the strain on the private sector.
But … it gets even more complicated than that.
Sometime after the election, the federal government will near the statutory debt limit.
This end-of-the-year pileup, commonly called the ‘fiscal cliff,’ is a chance for us to bid farewell – permanently – to the era of so-called ‘timely, temporary, and targeted’ short-term government intervention.
For years, Washington has force-fed our economy with a constant diet of meddling, micromanagement, and manipulation. None of it has been a substitute for long-term economic investment, private initiative, and freedom
Previous Congresses have encountered lesser precipices with lower stakes, and made a beeline for the closest lame-duck escape hatch.
Let me put your mind at ease. This Congress will not follow that path, not if I have anything to do with it.
Having run a business, I know that failing to plan is planning to fail. The real pain comes from doing nothing … ‘austerity’ is what will become necessary if we do nothing now. We’ll wake up one day without a choice in the matter.
There’s also no salvation to be found in doing anything just to get by, just to get through this year.
‘Nothing’ is not an option, and ‘anything’ is not a plan. To get on the path to prosperity, we have to avoid the fiscal cliff, but we need to start today.
To show my intentions are sincere, I’ll start with the stickiest issue, and that of course is the debt limit.
On several occasions in the past, the debt limit has been the catalyst for budget agreements. Last year, however, the president requested a quote-unquote ‘clean’ debt limit increase – business as usual.
Well I’ve run a business, and that’s no way to do it. It’s certainly no way to run a government either, especially one that has run up a debt bigger than the entire economy. Business as usual will no longer do.
So last year around this time, I accepted an invitation to address the Economic Club of New York. I went up there and said that in my view, the debt limit exists in statute precisely so that government is forced to address its fiscal issues.
Yes, allowing America to default would be irresponsible. But it would be more irresponsible to raise the debt ceiling without taking dramatic steps to reduce spending and reform the budget process.
We shouldn’t dread the debt limit. We should welcome it. It’s an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction.
That night in New York City, I put forth the principle that we should not raise the debt ceiling without real spending cuts and reforms that exceed the amount of the debt limit increase.
From all the way up in Midtown Manhattan, I could hear a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Over the next couple of months, I was asked again and again if I would yield on my ‘position,’ what it would take, if I would budge…
Each and every time, I said ‘no’ … because it isn’t a ‘position’ – it’s a principle. Not just that – it’s the right thing to do.
When the time comes, I will again insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase. This is the only avenue I see right now to force the elected leadership of this country to solve our structural fiscal imbalance.
If that means we have to do a series of stop-gap measures, so be it – but that’s not the ideal. Let’s start solving the problem. We can make the bold cuts and reforms necessary to meet this principle, and we must.
Just so we’re clear, I’m talking about REAL cuts and reforms – not these tricks and gimmicks that have given Washington a pass on grappling with its spending problem.
Last year, in our negotiations with the White House, the president and his team put a number of gimmicks on the table. Plenty of thought and creativity went into them – things like counting money that was never going to be spent as savings.
Maybe in another time, with another Speaker, gimmicks like these would be acceptable.
But, as a matter of simple arithmetic, they won’t work.
They won’t work, and as I told the president, we’re not doing things that way anymore.
What also doesn’t count as ‘cuts and reforms’ are tax increases. Tax hikes destroy jobs – especially an increase on the magnitude set for January 1st. Small businesses need to plan. We shouldn’t wait until New Year’s Eve to give American job creators the confidence that they aren’t going to get hit with a tax hike on New Year’s Day.
Any sudden tax hike would hurt our economy, so this fall – before the election – the House of Representatives will vote to stop the largest tax increase in American history.
This will give Congress time to work on broad-based tax reform that lowers rates for individuals and businesses while closing deductions, credits, and special carveouts.
Eyebrows go up all over town whenever I talk about this, but when I say ‘broad-based’ tax reform, I mean it. We need to do it all … deal with the whole code, personal and corporate it’s fairer and more productive for everyone.
That’s why our bill to stop the New Year’s Day tax increase will also establish an expedited process by which Congress would enact real tax reform in 2013. This process would look something like how we handle Trade Promotion Authority, where you put in place a timeline for both houses to act.
The Ways & Means Committee will work out the details, but the bottom line is: if we do this right, we will never again have to deal with the uncertainty of expiring tax rates.
We’ll have replaced the broken status quo with a tax code that maintains progressivity, taxes income once, and creates a fairer, simpler code.
And if we do THAT right, we will see increased revenue from more economic growth.
Again, change doesn’t need to be sudden or painful.
Last fall, when I addressed the Economic Club of Washington, I said that making relatively small changes now can lead to huge dividends down the road in terms of debt reduction. As we approach the issue of the debt limit again, we need to continue to bear this in mind.
As you know, we could eliminate all of the unfunded liabilities in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid tomorrow, and the effect within the Congressional Budget Office 10-year window could be minimal.
That’s because changes to these programs take time and are phased-in slowly.
For example, when Congress last increased the retirement age for Social Security, the increase – a mere two years – was scheduled to fully take effect 40 years after the law was enacted.
Another example: take the House Budget Resolution and its assumptions for Medicare reform. Those would not even begin until after 2022.
Smart and modest changes today mean huge dividends down the line.
Now, I can already hear the grumbles … partisans getting all worked up or people saying, eh, let’s wait until after the election.
We can’t wait. Employers large and small are already bracing for the coming tax hikes and regulations, which freeze their plans. The markets aren’t going to wait forever; eventually they’re going to start reacting.
We now know that we ignore these warnings at our own peril.
That’s why the House will do its part to ease the uncertainty surrounding the fiscal cliff. And I hope the president will step up, bring his party’s Senate leaders along, and work with us.
Because if there’s one action-forcing event that trumps all the rest – even the debt limit – it’s presidential leadership.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe President Obama cares about this country and knows what the right thing to do is. But knowing what’s right and doing what’s right are different things.
The difference between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right is courage, and the president, I’m sorry to say, lost his.
He was willing to talk about the tough choices needed to preserve and strengthen our entitlement programs, but he wasn’t ready to take action.
As it turned out, he wouldn’t agree to even the most basic entitlement reform unless it was accompanied by tax increases on small business job creators.
We were on the verge of an agreement that would have reduced the deficit by trillions, by strengthening entitlement programs and reforming the tax code with permanently lower rates for all, laying the foundation for lasting growth.
But when the president saw his former colleagues in the Senate getting ready to press for tax hikes, he lost his nerve. The political temptation was too great. He moved the goalposts, changed his stance, and demanded tax hikes.
We ended up enacting a package with cuts and reforms larger than the hike. But it could have been so much more.
The letdown was considerable. And, in turn, our nation’s credit rating was downgraded for the first time.
Well it should also be the last time that happens, which is why I came here today.
If the president continues to put politics before principle – or party before country, as he often accuses others of doing – our economy will suffer and we may well miss our last chance to solve this crisis on our own terms.
But if we have leaders who will lead … if we have leaders with the courage to make tough choices and the vision to pursue a future paved with growth, then we can heal our economy and again be the example for all to follow.
I’m ready, and I’ve been ready. I’m not angling for higher office. This is the last position in government I will hold. I haven’t come this far to walk away.
All my life, I’ve operated by a simple code: if you do the right thing for the reasons, good things will happen.
Well, NOW is the time to do the right thing.
Let’s do it for the right reasons – we don’t need to be dragged kicking and screaming. That’s not the American way. Let’s summon the courage and vision to choose freedom, to choose prosperity, and to determine our destiny.
Then we’ll not only have succeeded in solving this crisis – we’ll be worthy of that success.
Thank you all.