Remarks at the 1987 Reagan Administration Executive Forum

March 30, 1987

Well, Vice President Bush and distinguished members of the Cabinet and Chief of Staff Baker, and all of you, it's an honor to be able to join you here today on this our sixth get-together since that January day in 1981 when we started a revolution. Permit me to begin today by welcoming those who've joined our team in recent weeks and months, those in the audience and, yes, those here on the dais.

Seeing these new faces reminds me of -- would you mind if I told an old story? [Laughter] It's that one about the fellow hiking on the mountain trail. And the rocks gave way, and he fell and grabbed the root of a tree that was sticking out and hung there. And he looked down at what was below him and then looked up above and said, ``Oh, Lord, save me.'' And a voice boomed back, ``My son, have faith and let go.'' Well, he took another look at those roots that he was gripping and then down at the rocks below him and looked back up and said, ``Is there anybody else up there?'' [Laughter]

Now, those of you who've heard me tell this story before think that it ends there, and it always has before. But I have to admit, until a couple of weeks ago, as I say, it did; and then I discovered the way this story really ends: He looked at the roots he was clutching and then down to the canyon floor again. Then he looked back up to heaven and says, ``Is there anybody else up there?'' And there was a pause, and a voice boomed out, ``Come to think of it, my son, you might try getting in touch with Howard Baker.'' [Laughter] And then the voice added, ``And if you have any trouble with the press, just call Senator Al Simpson.'' [Laughter]

But we're here today to talk business. We know the achievements of the past, and we're mighty proud. Real family income is up, inflation last year at the lowest level in over 20 years, a greater percentage of our work force employed than ever before in our national history, and yes, the creation of more than 13 million new jobs. And of course this economic expansion still has plenty of economists puzzled. You know economists; they're the sort of people who see something works in practice and wonder if it would work in theory. [Laughter]

In foreign relations our accomplishments have been just as profound. The rebuilding of our defenses -- we've shown the Soviets that we're willing to negotiate genuine arms reductions, but at the same time, we're absolutely determined to stand for the cause of world freedom. In fact, since we took office, not 1 inch of territory has fallen to the Soviets, while one nation, Grenada, has been set free. Indeed, during our administration the world has witnessed a crucial turning point in the world struggle. From Afghanistan to Nicaragua, today the guerrillas fight not for communism but for freedom. And everywhere freedom-loving men and women, including those of us here today, stand with them in -- well, if you'll permit me to use a word with special meaning -- stand with them in solidarity.

I could go on and on listing achievements and the outstanding work the Department of Justice has done in helping me to nominate fine judges to the Federal bench, to the way the Department of Education has put our schools at the top of the national agenda. And in a sense, it would be only fitting for me to provide such a list, because each achievement is the result of your own hard work and spirit of sacrifice, your willingness to put up with the long hours, your ability to stomach the frustration and stick with it when you discover that it takes longer to make a change in Washington than you perhaps had thought it would.

But I think I know what's really on your minds today, and I know what's on mine: not the last 6 years but the next 2. And briefly this is our strategy: My friends, we're not about to fall on the ball and wait for the clock to run out. Instead, we're going to have the greatest fourth quarter in Presidential history. To begin with, you might have noticed that lately there's been a little trouble with the way the big spenders in Congress have been handling the budget. I have to admit legislation like the $88 billion boondoggle of a highway bill sort of gives me a case of heartburn. How do I spell relief? V-E-T-O. [Laughter]

And then there are those in the other party who are clamoring for an increase in tax rates. You'll remember, of course, that it was just a little better than 2 years ago that one Presidential candidate promised not to raise taxes, while the other candidate promised that he would. And while I don't want to be immodest about this, it's true that the fellow who promised no tax increase carried 49 out of 50 States. Now, with less than 2 years to the next Presidential election, to see the other party once again demanding a tax hike -- well, if you'll permit me, there they go again. [Laughter]

The truth is Congress must stick to its Gramm-Rudman-Hollings commitment, and do so without raising taxes. I intend to become personally involved in meeting the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings target, and that means working the telephones -- something I've already started doing. In my case, though, I have to be a little careful, because our fine White House operators will go to any lengths to find people that I ask to speak with. It was quite early in my first term when I discovered that. I had made a call; I asked to talk to a certain Congressman. When he came on the line, I noticed that the connection didn't seem to be very good, and I kind of jovially said, ``Well, where did we find you?'' And he said, ``New Zealand.'' [Laughter] And I said, ``What time is it there?'' And he said, ``Four o'clock in the morning.'' [Laughter] You know, that's one vote I never count on any -- [laughter].

But regarding the budget, there's a deeper problem than even Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, a problem with the institutions of government themselves. Simply put, the entire budget process has become a profound national embarrassment: every year, budget deadlines delayed or missed completely, monstrous continuing resolutions, billion-dollar hideouts for boondoggles and special interests. To tell you the truth, the whole process reminds me of the hit movie ``The Little Shop of Horrors.'' [Laughter] The budget isn't exactly like the maneating plant in the movie. And it isn't mean, it isn't green, and it doesn't come from outer space. But it does say, ``Feed me! Feed me! Feed me!'' [Laughter]

One reason for this is that the Congress has been lumping more and more appropriation bills together, making it harder and harder for a President to exercise his veto power. This undermining of the President's veto power profoundly alters the constitutional balance of power that the Founding Fathers have set in place. And with the Budget Act of 1974, Congress further restricted the President's authority in the budget process. And remember, a President is the only single official in that process who represents the interests of the Nation as a whole, including the national interest in a limit on the overall size of the budget.

You know, this process that goes on has become so ``Mickey Mouse'' that one of our ladies in Congress, Lynn Martin, has had created a pin. She's heard me call it ``Mickey Mouse.'' And the pin is Mickey Mouse with a bar indicating no across the front of it -- ``No Mickey Mouse'' -- and she's distributing them in the Congress.

You know, beginning in 1965 till 1980, in that 15-year period that launched the Great Society, the supposed War on Poverty -- which poverty won -- [laughter] -- in those 15 years the budget went to almost 5 times what it had been, and the deficit went to 38 times what it had been. When it comes to the way that Congress spends, I'm reminded of Howard Baker's father-in-law, the late Senator Everett Dirksen. As he once put it: ``A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there. Pretty soon it adds up to real money.'' [Laughter] So, let me just ask you: Isn't it about time we gave the President of the United States the same power already vested in the hands of 43 Governors -- the power of a line-item veto? [Applause]

And consistent with this, we need a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to balance the budget. I've prodded Congress for 6 years, and now I intend to take our case to the people. Just 2 weeks ago I wrote to the minority leader of a State senate that was noting a call by the States for a constitutional convention -- could give the balanced budget amendment a powerful boost. Thirty-four States would need to call for a convention to draft a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The number that have already done so is 32. We're that close. Now, I would prefer to have the Congress do it. It would be less time-consuming and more certain. And I know you'll agree, on this, the bicentennial year of our Constitution, it would be only fitting -- indeed, it is our simple duty -- to restore the constitutional balance between the President and Congress that the Founding Fathers intended.

In foreign policy we must go forward with our Strategic Defense Initiative. And let me pause here to set the record straight: SDI is not now, nor will I ever permit it to become, a mere bargaining chip. I've said for a long time that the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, what's called the MAD policy, is downright immoral. We used to have agreements and rules of warfare in an earlier day under which noncombatants were protected by both sides in a war. And here, now the world is basing its security on weapons whose ultimate target is the noncombatant: the innocent people; the men, women, and children; the cities that would be destroyed.

Well, SDI represents an historic shift in military strategy away from a defense based upon the threat of retaliation toward a system that could actually prevent missiles from reaching us or our allies in the first place -- in short, toward a defense that defends. And to those who argue that SDI is a so-called destabilizing influence, I would say only this: Today, were even a single missile to be launched against the United States, either accidentally or by some Third World dictator, a President would be powerless to prevent the massive loss of American life, powerless to prevent a Chernobyl of the sky. Destabilizing? It's this threat of nuclear accident or terrorism that is truly destabilizing. What it all comes down to is this: As President, I am profoundly aware that it's my first duty to see to the safety and defense of our nation. And there is no question in my mind but that this means moving ahead with SDI. Can I count on your support? [Applause] I just asked, ``Can I count on your support?'' But you didn't hear me, because you were busy telling me you were going to give it.

Now, there's another great issue before us in foreign affairs: the cause of liberty in Central America. And permit me to comment for a moment upon the recent House vote in this connection. As you know, the House voted to withhold a portion of the aid to the freedom fighters that Congress approved last year. Of course I would have preferred the vote to have gone the other way, but to tell you the truth, after thinking it over, there's a sense in which I actually found the vote encouraging. In the first place, it was overturned by the Senate. But beyond that, the House vote took place during one of the more frustrating times of this or any administration. In the preceding 4 months, we had endured a relentless barrage, yet after 4 months of ceaseless attack, a change of just 18 votes would have won the day for the stand against Communist expansion in Central America. Now, I just have to believe that when it comes to providing the freedom fighters in Nicaragua with more of the assistance they so badly need we'll be able to find those 18 votes. The issue is clear. The choice is communism versus freedom, and I don't care what ``60 Minutes'' said last night about it. There's the fact that in recent years we've been reestablishing a bipartisan consensus of foreign policy. Democrats and Republicans alike have joined in supporting freedom fighters in Afghanistan, Africa, and Cambodia, and last year in Nicaragua.

Then there's one other factor. Come to think of it, it's a factor that's bound to have an effect on our entire agenda on Nicaragua and SDI, on budget reform and constitutional amendments, on laying the groundwork for excellence in the 21st century with welfare reform and a return to family values, on excellence in education, school prayer, and protection of the unborn, on our work to promote free and fair international trade, on our efforts to make this a healthier nation, including our plans for catastrophic health coverage and our campaign for a drug-free America. Just what is this last factor? Well, I'll be the first to say that we've been through some difficult times lately and that there was a period when I believed it best to remain silent while we waited for a certain board to issue its report. But now we've heard from the Tower board, and we have a clear account of what took place instead of a barrage of speculation, assumptions, and rumors. We can get on with the business that brought us here and institutionalize the improvements that we've made, so that someone doesn't take us back down the spend-and-spend, tax-and-tax path we were on for a century or so. We've almost 2 years yet to go and the show ain't over until the fat lady sings. I won't even let her whistle. [Laughter]

I've just got to conclude with something. A gentleman sent me a letter the other day -- and I mentioned a few words back there doing something for the American family -- and this man told me a little account in his personal letter that I thought I'd pass on. It was Sunday morning. He wanted to read the Sunday paper, and his son, Billy, came at him with a baseball glove and ball and said, ``Come on, Dad. Let's go out, and you play ball with me.'' Well, he wanted to read the paper. And he looked down, and there happened to be a picture of the map of the world on the front of the paper. And he cut it out, cut it into pieces, gave it to waiting Billy, and said, ``Look, you see if you can put this map of the world together, and then I'll go out and play ball with you.'' He figured that would give him plenty of time to read the paper. Little Billy was back in 7 minutes -- had the map all put together. And his father says, ``How did you do that?'' Well, he said, ``Dad, on the back there was a picture of a family, and I found that if you put the family together the world takes care of itself.'

' Thank you all. Thank you for showing me this family is together.

Note: The President spoke at 11:33 a.m. at DAR Constitution Hall at the sixth annual Executive Forum for political appointees of the administration. ``60 Minutes'' was a news commentary television program.