Ronald Reagan (January 27, 1987)
Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, distinguished Members of Congress, honored
guests, and fellow citizens:
May I congratulate all of you who are Members of this historic 100th
Congress of the United States of America. In this 200th anniversary year of
our Constitution, you and I stand on the shoulders of giants--men whose
words and deeds put wind in the sails of freedom. However, we must always
remember that our Constitution is to be celebrated not for being old, but
for being young--young with the same energy, spirit, and promise that
filled each eventful day in Philadelphia's statehouse. We will be guided
tonight by their acts, and we will be guided forever by their words.
Now, forgive me, but I can't resist sharing a story from those historic
days. Philadelphia was bursting with civic pride in the spring of 1787, and
its newspapers began embellishing the arrival of the Convention delegates
with elaborate social classifications. Governors of States were called
Excellency. Justices and Chancellors had reserved for them honorable with a
capital "H." For Congressmen, it was honorable with a small "h." And all
others were referred to as "the following respectable characters." Well,
for this 100th Congress, I invoke special executive powers to declare that
each of you must never be titled less than honorable with a capital "H."
Incidentally, I'm delighted you are celebrating the 100th birthday of the
Congress. It's always a pleasure to congratulate someone with more
birthdays than I've had.
Now, there's a new face at this place of honor tonight. And please join me
in warm congratulations to the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright. Mr.
Speaker, you might recall a similar situation in your very first session of
Congress 32 years ago. Then, as now, the speakership had changed hands and
another great son of Texas, Sam Rayburn--"Mr. Sam"--sat in your chair. I
cannot find better words than those used by President Eisenhower that
evening. He said, "We shall have much to do together; I am sure that we
will get it done and that we shall do it in harmony and good will." Tonight
I renew that pledge. To you, Mr. Speaker, and to Senate Majority Leader
Robert Byrd, who brings 34 years of distinguished service to the Congress,
may I say: Though there are changes in the Congress, America's interests
remain the same. And I am confident that, along with Republican leaders Bob
Michel and Bob Dole, this Congress can make history.
Six years ago I was here to ask the Congress to join me in America's new
beginning. Well, the results are something of which we can all be proud.
Our inflation rate is now the lowest in a quarter of a century. The prime
interest rate has fallen from the 21 1/2 percent the month before we took
office to 7 1/2 percent today. And those rates have triggered the most
housing starts in 8 years. The unemployment rate--still too high--is the
lowest in nearly 7 years, and our people have created nearly 13 million new
jobs. Over 61 percent of everyone over the age of 16, male and female, is
employed--the highest percentage on record. Let's roll up our sleeves and
go to work and put America's economic engine at full throttle. We can also
be heartened by our progress across the world. Most important, America is
at peace tonight, and freedom is on the march. And we've done much these
past years to restore our defenses, our alliances, and our leadership in
the world. Our sons and daughters in the services once again wear their
uniforms with pride.
But though we've made much progress, I have one major regret: I took a risk
with regard to our action in Iran. It did not work, and for that I assume
full responsibility. The goals were worthy. I do not believe it was wrong
to try to establish contacts with a country of strategic importance or to
try to save lives. And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom
for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we
wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so. We will get to
the bottom of this, and I will take whatever action is called for. But in
debating the past, we must not deny ourselves the successes of the future.
Let it never be said of this generation of Americans that we became so
obsessed with failure that we refused to take risks that could further the
cause of peace and freedom in the world. Much is at stake here, and the
Nation and the world are watching to see if we go forward together in the
national interest or if we let partisanship weaken us. And let there be no
mistake about American policy: We will not sit idly by if our interests or
our friends in the Middle East are threatened, nor will we yield to
And now, ladies and gentlemen of the Congress, why don't we get to work? I
am pleased to report that because of our efforts to rebuild the strength of
America, the world is a safer place. Earlier this month I submitted a
budget to defend America and maintain our momentum to make up for neglect
in the last decade. Well, I ask you to vote out a defense and foreign
affairs budget that says yes to protecting our country. While the world is
safer, it is not safe.
Since 1970 the Soviets have invested $500 billion more on their military
forces than we have. Even today, though nearly 1 in 3 Soviet families is
without running hot water and the average family spends 2 hours a day
shopping for the basic necessities of life, their government still found
the resources to transfer $75 billion in weapons to client states in the
past 5 years--clients like Syria, Vietnam, Cuba, Libya, Angola, Ethiopia,
Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. With 120,000 Soviet combat and military
personnel and 15,000 military advisers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America,
can anyone still doubt their single-minded determination to expand their
power? Despite this, the Congress cut my request for critical U.S. security
assistance to free nations by 21 percent this year, and cut defense
requests by $85 billion in the last 3 years.
These assistance programs serve our national interests as well as mutual
interests. And when the programs are devastated, American interests are
harmed. My friends, it's my duty as President to say to you again tonight
that there is no surer way to lose freedom than to lose our resolve. Today
the brave people of Afghanistan are showing that resolve. The Soviet Union
says it wants a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, yet it continues a
brutal war and props up a regime whose days are clearly numbered. We are
ready to support a political solution that guarantees the rapid withdrawal
of all Soviet troops and genuine self-determination for the Afghan people.
In Central America, too, the cause of freedom is being tested. And our
resolve is being tested there as well. Here, especially, the world is
watching to see how this nation responds. Today over 90 percent of the
people of Latin America live in democracy. Democracy is on the march in
Central and South America. Communist Nicaragua is the odd man
out--suppressing the church, the press, and democratic dissent and
promoting subversion in the region. We support diplomatic efforts, but
these efforts can never succeed if the Sandinistas win their war against
the Nicaraguan people.
Our commitment to a Western Hemisphere safe from aggression did not occur
by spontaneous generation on the day that we took office. It began with the
Monroe Doctrine in 1823 and continues our historic bipartisan American
policy. Franklin Roosevelt said we "are determined to do everything
possible to maintain peace on this hemisphere." President Truman was very
blunt: "International communism seeks to crush and undermine and destroy
the independence of the Americas. We cannot let that happen here." And John
F. Kennedy made clear that "Communist domination in this hemisphere can
never be negotiated." Some in this Congress may choose to depart from this
historic commitment, but I will not.
This year we celebrate the second century of our Constitution. The
Sandinistas just signed theirs 2 weeks ago, and then suspended it. We won't
know how my words tonight will be reported there for one simple reason:
There is no free press in Nicaragua. Nicaraguan freedom fighters have never
asked us to wage their battle, but I will fight any effort to shut off
their lifeblood and consign them to death, defeat, or a life without
freedom. There must be no Soviet beachhead in Central America.
You know, we Americans have always preferred dialog to conflict, and so, we
always remain open to more constructive relations with the Soviet Union.
But more responsible Soviet conduct around the world is a key element of
the U.S.-Soviet agenda. Progress is also required on the other items of our
agenda as well--real respect for human rights and more open contacts
between our societies and, of course, arms reduction.
In Iceland, last October, we had one moment of opportunity that the Soviets
dashed because they sought to cripple our Strategic Defense Initiative,
SDI. I wouldn't let them do it then; I won't let them do it now or in the
future. This is the most positive and promising defense program we have
undertaken. It's the path, for both sides, to a safer future--a system that
defends human life instead of threatening it. SDI will go forward. The
United States has made serious, fair, and far-reaching proposals to the
Soviet Union, and this is a moment of rare opportunity for arms reduction.
But I will need, and American negotiators in Geneva will need, Congress'
support. Enacting the Soviet negotiating position into American law would
not be the way to win a good agreement. So, I must tell you in this
Congress I will veto any effort that undercuts our national security and
our negotiating leverage.
Now, today, we also find ourselves engaged in expanding peaceful commerce
across the world. We will work to expand our opportunities in international
markets through the Uruguay round of trade negotiations and to complete an
historic free trade arrangement between the world's two largest trading
partners, Canada and the United States. Our basic trade policy remains the
same: We remain opposed as ever to protectionism, because America's growth
and future depend on trade. But we would insist on trade that is fair and
free. We are always willing to be trade partners but never trade patsies.
Now, from foreign borders let us return to our own, because America in the
world is only as strong as America at home. This 100th Congress has high
responsibilities. I begin with a gentle reminder that many of these are
simply the incomplete obligations of the past. The American people deserve
to be impatient, because we do not yet have the public house in order.
We've had great success in restoring our economic integrity, and we've
rescued our nation from the worst economic mess since the Depression. But
there's more to do. For starters, the Federal deficit is outrageous. For
years I've asked that we stop pushing onto our children the excesses of our
government. And what the Congress finally needs to do is pass a
constitutional amendment that mandates a balanced budget and forces
government to live within its means. States, cities, and the families of
America balance their budgets. Why can't we?
Next, the budget process is a sorry spectacle. The missing of deadlines and
the nightmare of monstrous continuing resolutions packing hundreds of
billions of dollars of spending into one bill must be stopped. We ask the
Congress once again: Give us the same tool that 43 Governors have--a
lineitem veto so we can carve out the boondoggles and pork, those items
that would never survive on their own. I will send the Congress broad
recommendations on the budget, but first I'd like to see yours. Let's go to
work and get this done together.
But now let's talk about this year's budget. Even though I have submitted
it within the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction target, I have seen
suggestions that we might postpone that timetable. Well, I think the
American people are tired of hearing the same old excuses. Together we made
a commitment to balance the budget. Now let's keep it. As for those
suggestions that the answer is higher taxes, the American people have
repeatedly rejected that shop-worn advice. They know that we don't have
deficits because people are taxed too little. We have deficits because big
government spends too much.
Now, next month I'll place two additional reforms before the Congress.
We've created a welfare monster that is a shocking indictment of our sense
of priorities. Our national welfare system consists of some 59 major
programs and over 6,000 pages of Federal laws and regulations on which more
than $132 billion was spent in 1985. I will propose a new national welfare
strategy, a program of welfare reform through State-sponsored,
community-based demonstration projects. This is the time to reform this
outmoded social dinosaur and finally break the poverty trap. Now, we will
never abandon those who, through no fault of their own, must have our help.
But let us work to see how many can be freed from the dependency of welfare
and made self-supporting, which the great majority of welfare recipients
want more than anything else. Next, let us remove a financial specter
facing our older Americans: the fear of an illness so expensive that it can
result in having to make an intolerable choice between bankruptcy and
death. I will submit legislation shortly to help free the elderly from the
fear of catastrophic illness.
Now let's turn to the future. It's widely said that America is losing her
competitive edge. Well, that won't happen if we act now. How well prepared
are we to enter the 21st century? In my lifetime, America set the standard
for the world. It is now time to determine that we should enter the next
century having achieved a level of excellence unsurpassed in history. We
will achieve this, first, by guaranteeing that government does everything
possible to promote America's ability to compete. Second, we must act as
individuals in a quest for excellence that will not be measured by new
proposals or billions in new funding. Rather, it involves an expenditure of
American spirit and just plain American grit. The Congress will soon
receive my comprehensive proposals to enhance our competitiveness,
including new science and technology centers and strong new funding for
basic research. The bill will include legal and regulatory reforms and
weapons to fight unfair trade practices. Competitiveness also means giving
our farmers a shot at participating fairly and fully in a changing world
Preparing for the future must begin, as always, with our children. We need
to set for them new and more rigorous goals. We must demand more of
ourselves and our children by raising literacy levels dramatically by the
year 2000. Our children should master the basic concepts of math and
science, and let's insist that students not leave high school until they
have studied and understood the basic documents of our national heritage.
There's one more thing we can't let up on: Let's redouble our personal
efforts to provide for every child a safe and drug-free learning
environment. If our crusade against drugs succeeds with our children, we
will defeat that scourge all over the country.
Finally, let's stop suppressing the spiritual core of our national being.
Our nation could not have been conceived without divine help. Why is it
that we can build a nation with our prayers, but we can't use a schoolroom
for voluntary prayer? The 100th Congress of the United States should be
remembered as the one that ended the expulsion of God from America's
The quest for excellence into the 21st century begins in the schoolroom but
must go next to the workplace. More than 20 million new jobs will be
created before the new century unfolds, and by then, our economy should be
able to provide a job for everyone who wants to work. We must also enable
our workers to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the workplace. And I
will propose substantial, new Federal commitments keyed to retraining and
Over the next few weeks, I'll be sending the Congress a complete series of
these special messages--on budget reform, welfare reform, competitiveness,
including education, trade, worker training and assistance, agriculture,
and other subjects. The Congress can give us these tools, but to make these
tools work, it really comes down to just being our best. And that is the
core of American greatness. The responsibility of freedom presses us
towards higher knowledge and, I believe, moral and spiritual greatness.
Through lower taxes and smaller government, government has its ways of
freeing people's spirits. But only we, each of us, can let the spirit soar
against our own individual standards. Excellence is what makes freedom
ring. And isn't that what we do best?
We're entering our third century now, but it's wrong to judge our nation by
its years. The calendar can't measure America because we were meant to be
an endless experiment in freedom--with no limit to our reaches, no
boundaries to what we can do, no end point to our hopes. The United States
Constitution is the impassioned and inspired vehicle by which we travel
through history. It grew out of the most fundamental inspiration of our
existence: that we are here to serve Him by living free--that living free
releases in us the noblest of impulses and the best of our abilities; that
we would use these gifts for good and generous purposes and would secure
them not just for ourselves and for our children but for all mankind.
Over the years--I won't count if you don't--nothing has been so
heartwarming to me as speaking to America's young, and the little ones
especially, so fresh-faced and so eager to know. Well, from time to time
I've been with them--they will ask about our Constitution. And I hope you
Members of Congress will not deem this a breach of protocol if you'll
permit me to share these thoughts again with the young people who might be
listening or watching this evening. I've read the constitutions of a number
of countries, including the Soviet Union's. Now, some people are surprised
to hear that they have a constitution, and it even supposedly grants a
number of freedoms to its people. Many countries have written into their
constitution provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Well, if this is true, why is the Constitution of the United States so
Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you, but it's so
great it tells you the whole story in just three words: We the people. In
those other constitutions, the Government tells the people of those
countries what they're allowed to do. In our Constitution, we the people
tell the Government what it can do, and it can do only those things listed
in that document and no others. Virtually every other revolution in history
has just exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Our
revolution is the first to say the people are the masters and government is
their servant. And you young people out there, don't ever forget that.
Someday you could be in this room, but wherever you are, America is
depending on you to reach your highest and be your best--because here in
America, we the people are in charge.
Just three words: We the people--those are the kids on Christmas Day
looking out from a frozen sentry post on the 38th parallel in Korea or
aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. A million miles from home,
but doing their duty.
We the people--those are the warmhearted whose numbers we can't begin to
count, who'll begin the day with a little prayer for hostages they will
never know and MIA families they will never meet. Why? Because that's the
way we are, this unique breed we call Americans.
We the people--they're farmers on tough times, but who never stop feeding a
hungry world. They're the volunteers at the hospital choking back their
tears for the hundredth time, caring for a baby struggling for life because
of a mother who used drugs. And you'll forgive me a special memory--it's a
million mothers like Nelle Reagan who never knew a stranger or turned a
hungry person away from her kitchen door.
We the people--they refute last week's television commentary downgrading
our optimism and our idealism. They are the entrepreneurs, the builders,
the pioneers, and a lot of regular folks--the true heroes of our land who
make up the most uncommon nation of doers in history. You know they're
Americans because their spirit is as big as the universe and their hearts
are bigger than their spirits.
We the people--starting the third century of a dream and standing up to
some cynic who's trying to tell us we're not going to get any better. Are
we at the end? Well, I can't tell it any better than the real thing--a
story recorded by James Madison from the final moments of the
Constitutional Convention, September 17th, 1787. As the last few members
signed the document, Benjamin Franklin--the oldest delegate at 81 years and
in frail health--looked over toward the chair where George Washington daily
presided. At the back of the chair was painted the picture of a Sun on the
horizon. And turning to those sitting next to him, Franklin observed that
artists found it difficult in their painting to distinguish between a
rising and a setting Sun.
Well, I know if we were there, we could see those delegates sitting around
Franklin--leaning in to listen more closely to him. And then Dr. Franklin
began to share his deepest hopes and fears about the outcome of their
efforts, and this is what he said: "I have often looked at that picture
behind the President without being able to tell whether it was a rising or
setting Sun: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a
rising and not a setting Sun." Well, you can bet it's rising because, my
fellow citizens, America isn't finished. Her best days have just begun.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.
NOTE: The President spoke at 9:03 p.m. in the House Chamber of the Capitol.
He was introduced by Jim Wright, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The address was broadcast live on nationwide radio and television.