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Bill Clinton on Government Reform

President of the U.S., 1993-2001; Former Democratic Governor (AR)


Successful nations have strong economy and strong gov't

The most successful nations in the 21st century have both a strong economy and a strong, effective government. For example, Singapore, an island nation of just five million people, with a high per capita income and a relatively low tax burden, is making a $3 billion investment of government funds, much more than we are, to become the world's leading biotechnology center.
Source: Back to Work, by Bill Clinton, p. 84-85 , Nov 8, 2011

American Dream requires effective gov't AND private sector

The only way we can keep the American Dream alive for all Americans and continue to be the world's leading force for freedom and prosperity, peace and security, is to have BOTH a strong, effective private sector AND a strong, effective government that work together to promote an economy of good jobs, rising incomes, increasing exports, and greater energy independence. All over the world, the most successful nations have BOTH. And they work together, not always agreeing, but moving toward common goals. In other countries, conservatives and liberals also have arguments about taxes, energy policy, bank regulations, and how much government is healthy and affordable, but they tend to be less ideological and more rooted in evidence and experience. They focus more on what works.

Our long antigovernment obsession has proved to be remarkably successful politics, but its policy failures have given us an anemic, increasingly unequal economy; and left us a potentially crippling debt burden.

Source: Back to Work, by Bill Clinton, p. 17-18 , Nov 8, 2011

Anti-government attitude resulted in massive national debt

From 1981 to 2009, the greatest accomplishment of the antigovernment Republicans was not to reduce the size of the federal government but to stop paying for it. As a result, the national debt more than quadrupled from 1981 through 1992, then doubled again between 2001 & 2009, even before the financial meltdown, which then required more government spending--the financial-system bailout, increased unemployment, food stamp, and Medicaid expenditures, and the stimulus--to put a floor under the downturn. At the same time, tax revenues declined as unemployment rose, businesses closed, and Americans spent less. Because interest rates are so low, it doesn't cost much more to service the increased debt today, but when the economy picks up and there's more private demand for money, interest rates will rise, and financing the debt will cost a lot more, leaving less money for investments in our future, including education, technology, research, and energy independence.
Source: Back to Work, by Bill Clinton, p. 35 , Nov 8, 2011

Gov't has role in security, social services, & oversight

I think the role of government is to give people the tools and create the conditions to make the most of our lives. Government should empower us to do things we need or want to do that we can only do together by pooling our resources and spending them in large enough amounts to achieve the desired objectives. Here's a list of what that covers today:
  1. National Security
  2. Assistance to those otherwise unable to fully support themselves and to provide a decent retirement for seniors
  3. Equal access to opportunity, including federal aid to education for low-income and disabled students
  4. Economic development, including incentives to create new businesses
  5. Oversight of financial markets and institutions
  6. Protection of public interests the market can't fix, including clean air, clean water, safe food, and preservation of natural resources
  7. Providing investments when the costs are too great for the private sector to finance
  8. A revenue collection system.
Source: Back to Work, by Bill Clinton, p. 48-50 , Nov 8, 2011

Move country back from anti-government to future business

Q: What has happened to the economy and the U.S. over the past 30 years?

A: We face more intense competition from around the world, and at the same time we have adopted this anti-government philosophy, which has mostly been anti-tax and anti-regulation, so that we've dramatically increased the national debt. So we have to figure out a way to put the country in the future business. We have to get a hold of the long-term debt problem, and we have to revitalize the private sector. And you can't do it with an anti-government strategy. You have to have a smart government and a strong economy.

Source: Time Magazine on "Back To Work" book tour by Bill Clinton , Jan 21, 2011

OpEd: Triangulation fails to defend party principles

The economy thrived on Clinton's watch. His foreign policy was competent and occasionally inspired, as in the Camp David Accords and in the Kosovo settlement. He presided over fiscal discipline and reform of government agencies. His appointments were generally first-rate. But he failed to defend or advance his party's principles, reinforcing Republican ideology. His signature was "triangulation"--splitting the difference, simulating leadership often at the expense of his own party. The economy thrived on Clinton's watch. His foreign policy was competent and occasionally inspired, as in the Camp David Accords and in the Kosovo settlement. He presided over fiscal discipline and reform of government agencies. His appointments were generally first-rate. But he failed to defend or advance his party's principles, reinforcing Republican ideology. His signature was "triangulation"--splitting the difference, simulating leadership often at the expense of his own party.
Source: Obama`s Challenge, by Robert Kuttner, p. 57-58 , Aug 25, 2008

1993: Motor Voter law to increase electoral participation

There are two complementary strategies for enhancing citizenship. One is reducing barriers and welcoming people into the process of participation; the other is giving them a reason to participate. More than a decade ago, there was great enthusiasm for th new invention of the "Motor Vehicle" law signed by President Clinton in 1993. This law promotes voter registration at motor vehicle bureaus, welfare offices, and other retail government agencies. The entire psychology is circular. Competent government an engagement of the people restores faith in the enterprise of government, and in turn restores the civic impulse. My friend Marshall Ganz, former director of organizing for the national farmworkers union, wrote an article for "The American Prospect" whose title says it all: "Motor Voter or Motivated Voter?" Easing the process of registration is enhanced when people feel they have a reason to vote. At this writing, Marshall Ganz is director of organizer training for Barack Obama.
Source: Obama`s Challenge, by Robert Kuttner, p.198 , Aug 25, 2008

1996: The era of big government is over

Who said this? "We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there's not a program for every problem. We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big government is over."

George W. Bush? Actually, that was Bill Clinton, in his 1996 State of the Union address. Clinton added with pride, "Today our federal government is 200,000 employees smaller than it was the day I took office as President."

The irony is that the rest of Clinton's speech went on to propose a long list of goals that only the government could achieve--clean up the environment, improve job security, restore educational opportunity. His conceit was that he could combine smaller government and even disparagement of government with a commitment to more nimble government. But his headline message undermined the details of his program and his ability to win support for it.

Source: Obama`s Challenge, by Robert Kuttner, p. 87-88 , Aug 25, 2008

His 140 signing statements focused on judicial resolution

Pres. Clinton issued signing statements covering 140 laws over the eight years of his presidency, as compared with Pres. Bush, who objected to 232 laws during his four years in office. Pres. Bush, by contrast, has issued more signing statements than all of his predecessors combined--challenging the constitutionality of more than 1,000 laws during his first six years in office.

The difference between the practice of Pres. Clinton and that of Pres. Bush is not simply one of volume--though that alone is striking, particularly given that Pres. Clinton faced a hostile and adversarial Congress dominated by the opposing political party while President Bush for the first six years faced a docile and supportive Congress. Pres. Clinton's signing statements wer based on well-settled principles of constitutional law and were guided by a desire to allow the judiciary to resolve issues of constitutional interpretation. Pres. Bush's signing statements, however, rest on legal theories regarding his own power.

Source: The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore, p.224 , Jul 1, 2008

1993: Proposed (and failed at) campaign finance reform

Source: Wikipedia entry on Bill Clinton , Nov 11, 2007

Government matters, especially for big challenges

    Government matters. American has 5 big challenges that require an aggressive response from government:
  1. how to work with others to fight terror, the spread of WMD, and the consequences of failed states not just by opposing them militarily but also with diplomacy, trade, and investment to build a world with more partners and fewer enemies;
  2. how to restore our leadership in the global fight against climate change so that we do all we can and encourage China, India, & other developing nations with rising energy use to join us;
  3. how to increase economic opportunity and decrease income inequality at home;
  4. how to reform health care to achieve universal coverage that can't be taken away, with enough cost reductions to remain competitive, and a renewed emphasis on keeping people healthy, not just treating them when they are ill; and
  5. how to move to a clean, more independent energy future in a way that increases our national security, combats climate change, & creates millions of new jobs.
Source: Giving, by Bill Clinton, p.186-187 , Sep 4, 2007

2001: Last-minute pardons allegedly traded for donations

In the last hours of his presidency, Clinton had shocked America by insolently commuting 36 crooks, some of whom had been conspicuous in the Arkansas underworld. Brother Roger Clinton, himself a convicted drug dealer, was caught peddling some of the pardons. Even high-level felon Susan McDougal got a pardon, a prodigiously bold affront, given Clinton's solemn vow at the height of the Whitewater controversy never to pardon her for her defiance of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Others on the list shocked the nation, for instance, the fugitive billionaire Marc Rich. His ex-wife, Denise, had become a major Democratic donor just prior to his pardon, giving one million dollars to the Democratic Party and an "enormous sum" (according to her lawyer's boast) to the Clinton library.
Source: Madame Hillary, by R. Emmett Tyrell, p. 95 , Feb 25, 2004

Favored tax incentives over new bureaucracies

[Clinton's list of accomplishments] has a New Democrat bent, a tendency to favor cash and tax credits over the establishment of new federal bureaucracies. Indeed, in his 8 years in office, Clinton only created one new bureaucracy--AmeriCorps--and that program was semi-private, and run almost entirely through the states. "He was more effective than any other President, by far, in using the budget process to get what he wanted," said one pundit.

The government shutdowns had neutered the Republicans in the annual negotiations with the President, robbing them of their most potent threat; but Clinton still had the veto, and the ability to delay the process and raise the prospect of yet another government shutdown.

The pundit said, "He had an incredible feedback mechanism--if something didn't work, he tried something else. He would retreat, delay, come back with another proposal--get a half of what he wanted, a quarter, and eighth. But he'd almost always get something."

Source: The Natural, by Joe Klein, p.156 , Feb 11, 2003

OpEd: Mastered legislative process in 1995 budget impasse

The 1995 budget impasse would prove a significant turning point in the history of the Clinton presidency: the first sign that he had figured out Washington's legislative process, the beginnings of what would become a total mastery of the Republicans in the year-end budget negotiations. And it was in those negotiations--quietly, by dribs and drabs, with remarkable persistence over the years--that Clinton would get many of his most important programs enacted.
Source: The Natural, by Joe Klein, p.145-146 , Feb 11, 2003

Presidential pardon is absolute right; all Presidents use it

I want to make some general comments about pardons and commutations of sentences. Article II of the Constitution gives the President broad and unreviewable power to grant “Reprieves and Pardons” for all offenses. The exercise of executive clemency is inherently controversial. The reason the Framers of our Constitution vested this broad power in the Executive Branch was to assure that the President would have the freedom to do what he deemed to be the right thing, regardless of how unpopular a decision might be.

On January 20, 2001, I granted 140 pardons and issued 36 commutations. During my Presidency, I issued a total of approximately 450 pardons and commutations, compared to 406 issued by President Reagan during his two terms. During his four years, President Carter issued 566 pardons and commutations, while in the same length of time President Bush granted 77. President Ford issued 409 during the slightly more than two years he was President.

Source: Editorial by Clinton in NY Times , Feb 18, 2001

1972: More in Congress should have spoken up about Watergate

On Watergate: "Too many congressmen did not speak up. If they had, I believe we would not be faced with the sad and dismal prospect of impeaching the president of the US.the people of this country do not perceive Watergate as completely a party problem. One man could not have created all the trouble we have in the country today."
Source: Clinton on Clinton, by Wayne Meyer, p. 30 , Nov 9, 1999

Campaign promise: support Independent Counsel investigations

Washington was ablaze with speculation and doubt about the basic integrity of the Clintons and their White House. Had they brought a small state land deal scandal with them?

Key Republicans began calling for an independent investigation, then the calls came from some key Democrats. But the 1978 Ethics in Government Act had expired. It was, with Clinton's backing, expected to be renewed later in 1994. In any form, [Clinton's advisor] was opposed. "Here is an institution I understand," he told Clinton. "It is EVIL. They have one case. They have unlimited resources. They have no time limit. Their entire reputation hinges on making that one case." When the Democratic leaders in Congress reported that fall that the renewal of the act could be put on the back burner, Clinton said. "No, this is good. And I promised it in the campaign." [After that], the White House could not contain the Whitewater problem. The press would not let go.

Source: Shadow, by Bob Woodward, p.234-235 , Jun 15, 1999

Independent Counsel is cornerstone of trust of government

The president was about to sign the reauthorization of the Independent Counsel Act. There was a moment of hesitation. Clinton turned to his new chief of staff. "Do I have to?" Clinton asked. He was more serious than not.

"Mr. President," the chief of staff said, "you don't have any alternative. It's been passed overwhelmingly by the Congress." By margins of about 3 to 1, both the Senate and House had passed versions of the legislation, and the administration had pushed it.

A statement was handed out in which the president called the law "a foundation stone for the trust between the government and our citizens. It ensures that no matter what party controls the Congress or the executive branch, an independent nonpartisan process will be in place to guarantee the integrity of public officials and ensure that no one is above the law."

Afterwards, Clinton asked, Could it be misused? Have we started down a path we are not going to like?

Source: Shadow, by Bob Woodward, p.263 , Jun 15, 1999

1993: Considered firing all 95 US Attorneys

[In early 1993, Clinton faced] the question of US Attorneys. The 95 US Attorneys throughout the country are like the Justice Department's field generals--they & their subordinates investigate crimes, charge criminals, and make sentencing recommendations. Policy is set in Washington, but each US Attorney has broad discretion in interpretation of that policy. They're appointed by the President but serve a four-year term. Just before Pres. Clinton was inaugurated, we asked the Bush transition team to have Pres. Bush send a letter to all political appointees, including US Attorneys, advising them that they should expect to be asked for their resignations effective Jan. 20. The Bush letter went out, but instead of saying "should", it said they "might" be asked to resign.

The question was, Did we ask them all to resign? Ask only those in troubled offices to resign? Or leave everyone in place until we had a confirmed AG? In the end, we decided to wait for the appointment of Attorney General Janet Reno.

Source: Friends in High Places, by Webb Hubbell, p.197-198 , Nov 1, 1997

Curb campaign spending & ban contributions from noncitizens

[We have a] piece of unfinished business: to commit ourselves tonight, before the eyes of America, to finally enacting bipartisan campaign finance reform. Now, Senators McCain and Feingold, Representatives Shays and Meehan have reached across party lines here to craft tough and fair reform. Their proposal would curb spending, reduce the role of special interests, create a level playing field between challengers and incumbents, and ban contributions from noncitizens, all corporate sources, and the other large soft money contributions that both parties receive.

You know and I know that this can be delayed. And you know and I know the delay will mean the death of reform. So let's set our own deadline. Let's work together to write bipartisan campaign finance reform into law and pass McCain-Feingold by the day we celebrate the birth of our democracy, July the fourth.

Source: Pres. Clinton's 1997 State of the Union message to Congress , Feb 4, 1997

End soft money; cap political spending

PROMISE: To voluntarily cap spending in congressional races and reduce contributions from Political Action Committees from $5,000 to the $1,000 limit on individuals.

PROMISE: To end unlimited "soft money" contributions to parties.

STATUS: The White House supported the comprehensive campaign finance reform bill in the 103rd Congress, but it was killed by filibuster in the Senate.

PROMISE: To sign the "Motor Voter Act."

STATUS: The President proposed and signed the National Voter Registration Act on May 20, 1993, making it easier to vote by allowing voters to register when they get their driver's licenses. Already 11 million Americans have registered under the new program.

PROMISE: To require lobbyists to disclose contributions to members of a congressional committee before they can testify.

STATUS: On Jan. 1, 1996, a new lobbying reform law went into effect, broadening the definition of who is a lobbyist and requiring that lobbyists register and disclose their activities.

Source: State of the Union, by T.Blood & B.Henderson, p.125-126 , Aug 1, 1996

Big Government is over; but government has a role

Ever since the Reagan Revolution of 1980, the dominant Republican argument has shifted from “less government is almost always better than more of it” to “government is always the problem.”

Our administration and the new Democratic party take a different view. We say the era of big government is over, but we must not go back to an era of “every man for himself.”

The truth is, Americans don’t want our government gutted. We know from experience that there are some things that government must or should do: protect us against enemies, foreign and domestic, come to our aid when disaster strikes, help fight crime, ensure the health and well-being of the weakest among us, restore and preserve the environment, ensure the safety of our food, provide for the needs of those who have defended our country in uniform, provide everyone with access to quality education.

We don’t want our government in our face, but we do want it on our side when we need it, and quickly.

Source: Between Hope and History, by Bill Clinton, p. 89-91 , Jan 1, 1996

Free TV time to candidates for public office

Tonight I ask you to just stop taking the lobbyists' perks. Just stop. We don't have to wait for legislation to pass to send a strong signal to the American people that things are really changing. But I also hope you will send me the strongest possible lobby reform bill, and I'll sign that, too.

We should require lobbyists to tell the people for whom they work what they're spending, what they want. We should also curb the role of big money in elections by capping the cost of campaigns and limiting the influence of PAC's. And as I have said for 3 years, we should work to open the airwaves so that they can be an instrument of democracy, not a weapon of destruction, by giving free TV time to candidates for public office.

When the last Congress killed political reform last year, it was reported in the press that the lobbyists actually stood in the Halls of this sacred building and cheered. This year, let's give the folks at home something to cheer about.

Source: Pres. Clinton's 1995 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 24, 1995

Reinventing Government: cut $130B by shrinking departments

Previous government programs gathered dust. The reinventing government report is getting results. And we're not through. We propose to cut $130 billion in spending by shrinking departments, extending our freeze on domestic spending, cutting 60 public housing programs down to 3, getting rid of over 100 programs we do not need, like the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Helium Reserve Program. And we're working on getting rid of unnecessary regulations and making them more sensible. The programs and regulations that have outlived their usefulness should go. We have to cut yesterday's Government to help solve tomorrow's problems.

And we need to get Government closer to the people it's meant to serve. We need to help move programs down to the point where States and communities and private citizens in the private sector can do a better job. Taking power away from Federal bureaucracies and giving it back to communities and individuals is something everyone should be able to be for.

Source: Pres. Clinton's 1995 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 24, 1995

Reinventing Government: cut 252,000 bureaucrats over 5 years

Last year we began to put our house in order by tackling the budget deficit that was driving us toward bankruptcy. We cut $255 billion in spending, including entitlements, and over 340 separate budget items. We froze domestic spending and used honest budget numbers.

Led by the Vice President, we launched a campaign to reinvent Government. We cut staff, cut perks, even trimmed the fleet of Federal limousines. After years of leaders whose rhetoric attacked bureaucracy but whose action expanded it, we will actually reduce it by 252,000 people over the next 5 years. By the time we have finished, the Federal bureaucracy will be at its lowest point in 30 years.

Source: Pres. Clinton's 1994 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 25, 1994

Opposes Congressional term limits; bad for smaller states

BUSH: I strongly support term limits for Members of Congress. The President's terms are limited to two, a total of 8 years. What's wrong with limiting the terms of Congress to 12? Congress has gotten kind of institutionalized. I think you get a certain bureaucratic arrogance if people stay there too long. So I strongly favor term limits.

CLINTON: I know they're popular, but I'm against them. I'll tell you why. I believe, number one, it would pose a real problem for a lot of smaller States in the Congress who would have enough trouble now making sure their interests are heard. Number two, I think it would increase the influence of unelected staff members in the Congress who have too much influence already. I want to cut the size of the congressional staffs, but you'd have too much influence there with people who were never elected who have lots of expertise.

PEROT: If you put term limits in and don't reform Government, you won't get the benefit you thought. It takes both.

Source: The Second Clinton-Bush-Perot Presidential Debate , Oct 15, 1992

Voluntary public financing for all general elections.

Clinton adopted the manifesto, "A New Agenda for the New Decade":

Return Politics to the People
At a time when much of the world is emulating American values and institutions, too many Americans have lost confidence in their political system. They are turned off by a partisan debate that often seems to revolve not around opposing philosophies but around contending sets of interest groups. They believe that our current system for financing campaigns gives disproportionate power to wealthy individuals and groups and exerts too much influence over legislative and regulatory outcomes.

The time for piecemeal reform is past. As campaign costs soar at every level, we need to move toward voluntary public financing of all general elections and press broadcasters to donate television time to candidates.

The Internet holds tremendous potential for making campaigns less expensive and more edifying and for engaging Americans directly in electoral politics. We should promote the Internet as a new vehicle for political communication and champion online voting.

Source: The Hyde Park Declaration 00-DLC9 on Aug 1, 2000

  • Click here for definitions & background information on Government Reform.
  • Click here for VoteMatch responses by Bill Clinton.
  • Click here for AmericansElect.org quiz by Bill Clinton.
Other past presidents on Government Reform: Bill Clinton on other issues:
Former Presidents:
George W. Bush(R,2001-2009)
Bill Clinton(D,1993-2001)
George Bush Sr.(R,1989-1993)
Ronald Reagan(R,1981-1989)
Jimmy Carter(D,1977-1981)
Gerald Ford(R,1974-1977)
Richard Nixon(R,1969-1974)
Lyndon Johnson(D,1963-1969)
John F. Kennedy(D,1961-1963)
Dwight Eisenhower(R,1953-1961)
Harry S Truman(D,1945-1953)

Past Vice Presidents:
V.P.Dick Cheney
V.P.Al Gore
V.P.Dan Quayle
Sen.Bob Dole
V.P.Walter Mondale

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Page last updated: Jan 06, 2014