Senator Johnson's 'Maiden Speech'

Thank you Mr. President. It is my honor to represent the good people of Wisconsin in the United States Senate. It is an awesome responsibility - a responsibility I take very seriously.

Today, it is my distinct privilege to address this historic body for the first time. It is a moment in time when our nation is in peril. Not only do we continue to face the very real threat of international terrorism, but we also face a threat of our own making - one that challenges the very foundation of this republic.

Our nation was founded on the basis of God-given rights and individual liberty. The genius of our Founding Fathers’ vision was rooted in their recognition that more often than not, government was something to fear. Government necessarily limited individual freedom, and therefore, government itself must be limited; its potential for growth, highly constrained.

During America’s first century, this vision was largely upheld. The last century, however, has been an entirely different story.

In 1902, the federal government spent 2% of the nation’s gross domestic product. State and local governments spent 5%. Government was close to the governed. The size, scope, and cost of the federal government was constrained by the Constitution’s enumerated powers. The individual was preeminent, and government’s role was modest and pedestrian.

This body played a key role in limiting federal government expansion. Debate in the Senate was unlimited. The cloture vote did not exist. As George Washington had said, the Senate really was the saucer that cooled the tea.

All that changed in the 20th century’s second decade. The Senate adopted the cloture vote, and America adopted the 16th Amendment. The federal government now had the power to tax income, and the Senate had made it easier for government to grow. And guess what, government grew.

It grew in reaction to real problems. Trusts had been formed that concentrated power and created monopolies that threatened free-markets. Capital did exert too much power over labor. Balance was needed.

And as our nation’s prosperity grew, the elimination of poverty and retirement insecurity became a public responsibility. Private charity was simply deemed not up to the task.

So government acted and government grew. From 2% in 1902 to today, where the federal government spends 25% of our nation’s economy, and combined, all levels of government in the U.S. now consume 39%. By comparison, the size of government in Norway is 40%; in Greece, 47%; and in France, 53%. In the end, I don’t believe Americans want to be like France or Greece. We haven’t reached that tipping point yet, but we are extremely close.

There is a reason America holds 5% of the world’s population, and yet accounts for 24% of the world’s GDP. It is because of freedom, the free market system, and the American people.

America became a land of unlimited opportunity because we were a nation of self-reliant people. Hard work was valued, personal responsibility expected, and success was celebrated, not demonized. I grew up in that America.

I am sad to say, what I have witnessed during my lifetime, is a slow but steady drift, and I would argue over the last two years, a lurch, toward a culture of entitlement and dependency. This is not an America I recognize. It is not an America that will work.

Even worse, we have granted entitlements and encouraged dependency with little thought as to how we would pay for it. We have racked up enormous debt, and now the bill is coming due.

Time is running out. Last week, the government almost shut down because we were arguing over a few billion dollars. But our debt and deficits are measured in the trillions. Our problem is a thousand times larger than the current debate.

Most of us recognize this is simply unsustainable. Most of us know what programs need to be reformed. And most of us want to fix the problem. So let’s start addressing these issues now, before it is too late.

These are enormous problems, and it is easy to be pessimistic. But there is reason to be hopeful.

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling throughout Wisconsin over the last year, speaking to all kinds of people: Republicans, Democrats, union members and Tea Party folks. I talked about America. About how incredibly precious and exceptional it is, and how I fear we may be losing it.

What I will never forget is how many people came up to me after my speeches with tears in their eyes, or tears rolling down their cheeks. Not because I’m a great public speaker, but because people love this country. Their political affiliation makes absolutely no difference. Americans want this nation preserved, and they are counting on us to do just that. The good news is that they will support us, if we make the hard choices together.

So together, let’s roll up our sleeves, and do what needs to be done.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.