Public Papers

Remarks to the National Association of Towns and Townships


Please be seated, and thank you, Butch, for that introduction. I salute the president of NATAT. And it's a pleasure to have this opportunity to address the board of directors and all the members or many of the members, those of you here today of the National Association of Towns and Townships. I love that town meeting concept. At the outset, let me simply thank those who were responsible for the lovely quilt that was left for me here in the holding room. I'm just sorry that Barbara is not here to revel in it already, but I guarantee you she'll see it when I get back to the White House. [Laughter]

You know, this week doesn't mark the end of summer just for schoolchildren across the country. And I'm back at my desk, too. But I won't bore you with a speech titled, ``What I did on my summer vacation.'' [Laughter] Okay though, I will tell you my reaction when I received a phone call on August 19th saying, ``It's a crisis!'' I responded, ``Look, I've already heard enough about Barbara's golf game.'' [Laughter] Some of you may have remembered the way I characterized her golf game, and I'm still living it down. [Laughter]

But thank you for giving me this chance to meet with you today. You know, Ike, President Eisenhower, talked of ``the great and priceless privilege of being raised in a small town''. I understand some of that because I, too, had that privilege. The towns of my youth and of my children's youth were all very different from each other, from the tree-lined streets of Greenwich, Connecticut, to the salt air of little Kennebunkport, to the dusty oil-patch towns of Odessa, Texas, and Midland, Texas. But they also had much in common, the same thing that I think this meeting, all the people here, have in common.

Our towns nurture dreams, and they nourish values. Think of the ideals of integrity, hard work, and caring for others instilled in a young boy growing up in Pinpoint, Georgia. Today, that man stands ready to serve on the highest court in this land. Clarence Thomas embodies the virtues America and all her towns and townships hold dear. Just before coming over here, I just had a cup of coffee with Clarence, with Judge Thomas. And I am more convinced than ever that I have appointed the right man for the Supreme Court. And I expect and hope that he will be confirmed.

I am delighted to be here with people from the towns that really form this Nation's backbone. You know what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said American townships ``have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and its preservation.''

You understand the problems that challenge our country. You understand them not from a bureaucrat's safe distance but from the embattled position of public servants whose neighbors call to complain about services or the lack thereof. And you understand the real basics of local government, and that's why you are our country's future and our country's hope.

Our domestic policy begins with you, the people of this land. Here in Washington and in the States, politicians and officials have learned that we can't just hurl money at problems. We take enough of people's money as it is. And if we want to do our jobs, we must make better use of the vast sums already at our disposal. More fundamentally, we must recognize the genius of our own people. And we must trust them, and trust you, to find answers that do good things to make America work. We must make our government more responsive, more local. And we must learn from the real professionals, you, the NATAT representatives. You're the voice of small-town America.

And that's a considerable voice. I'm not sure many in the country understand this. That is a considerable voice, of course. Eight of ten, eight of ten governmental bodies in this Nation represent communities with 5,000 or fewer residents. And you will have to help others. The examples you set will help teach the other 20 percent how, in these difficult times, that they can cope and innovate and make ends meet.

Your strengths begin with your commitment to the American idea of civic responsibility. Many of you are part-time officials, I'm told, volunteers. And you give your time to your communities. You emphasize creativity and innovation, what folks in my birthplace of Milton, Massachusetts, referred to as ``old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity.'' And sometimes you exhaust your ingenuity just trying to escape the regulatory handcuffs that are placed upon you by Federal and State mandates. And I am concerned about those mandates. The President simply can't wave a wand, given our Federal system, given our system of Congress and the executive branch, can't wave a wand to correct all these things. But I believe strongly in the importance of cooperation among all levels of government.

Our administration also remains committed to the commonsense approach of the Regulatory Flexibility Act, one that lets you use your own common sense to solve your own problems. And I will direct Federal departments and agencies to follow the spirit and the letter of that law.

Speaking of creativity, I want to add my congratulations to Bill Herman of Weare, New Hampshire. Bill won your Grassroots Government Leadership Award by producing ideas for cutting costs without slashing services. Now, maybe I should call on him -- [laughter] -- I'd like him to help me solve one big problem, because when I asked my staff how we can improve our crisis management, they said, ``How about a calendar that doesn't have August on it?'' [Laughter] Think back a year, and then look at this August, and you'll know what I'm talking about. [Laughter]

All of you here have helped develop public-private partnerships, a crucial concept as we gear up for the unique problems of the 21st century. The alliance between your National Center for Small Communities and private sector sources, like the Kellogg Foundation, sets an example for others to follow.

Because of your strengths, your successes, and your leadership, today I ask you to lead one of our greatest battles: making our Nation's schools the world's best.

You know, our administration introduced an education strategy 5 months ago. We call it America 2000, and it involves four different tracks: accountable schools for today -- and get that word accountable -- accountable schools for today; a new generation of schools for tomorrow; a Nation of students committed to a lifetime of education; and fourth, communities where learning can happen.

Now, you play a critical role in making that entire strategy work, and especially track four: building communities that value, support, encourage, and advance education. It's no coincidence that we historically have entrusted this fundamental responsibility -- education -- to communities. And we now call upon you to enlist in our national crusade to improve education community-by-community.

First, let's adopt the education goals established 18 months ago following that Charlottesville education summit with the Nation's Governors. Then you can begin to develop a community plan to reach the goals to design a report card to measure your progress and to create your own ``break the mold school,'' one that builds upon your unique strengths and takes into account your special needs and circumstances.

We're talking about a revolution. We're talking about communities literally starting from scratch and redesigning schools that can cope and meet these broad goals that have been set out. It's not going to be done from the center. The Department of Education can help, State education associations can help, teachers' unions can help, but it can't be done there. It's got to be done at the local level. And as we immerse ourselves in the challenges of the nineties, or administration also will look to you for leadership in other areas.

For instance, Congress is now debating, or will soon be again debating, the 5-year reauthorization of the Nation's surface transportation system. Now, we need your help in getting a system that spends money to address needs and not just support politicians' careers. We've called in our bill for increased investment in infrastructure. Some think spending a lot of money is the only answer. Not so; we need more sensible programs. More than half of all congressionally mandated transportation projects don't even show up on State priority lists. You might like some of the programs your Member of Congress slips into legislation. But in the end, Congress usurps local power for its own purposes, making decisions in Washington that affect the lives and the pocketbooks of people in Berea, Kentucky, or Mount Wolf, Pennsylvania.

So, if Congress sends me a transportation bill with another tax, with a gasoline tax on it, I'm going to veto it. We must not let Congress raise the gas tax for projects that towns don't even need. And we won't let it raise a tax that will do nothing except squeeze the local economies and lighten the workers' already-thin pocketbooks. Now, our highway bill, my highway bill, will invest in infrastructure without raising taxes or busting those budget caps, meaningful controls on spending now placed upon the Congress of the United States.

We believe in letting communities shape their own futures, and this belief lies at the heart of our Community Opportunity Act. This proposal invites communities to think of new ways to solve old problems, and it lets all of us adopt a more flexible approach to domestic social programs. You see, it puts the emphasis on results and not on procedures cooked up back here in Washington, DC. After all, when someone wants food or shelter or schooling, what's more important, the service or the government paperwork?

And this commonsense approach, giving local governments greater flexibility, led us to propose turning over billion in so-called ``Federal money'' to the States, no strings attached. And it was paid for under our proposals. This initiative will give decision-making power to the people whose lives those decisions will affect. And quite simply, that's the fundamental principle on which our administration functions.

This turnover proposal, and the act itself, grow out of the basic assumption that government assistance programs should lead people to self-sufficiency. There's no better way to do this than by rebuilding those programs from the bottom up based on plans developed right at your level, right at the community level.

I talked about Jefferson earlier, and if we want to remain true to the spirit of his philosophy, we must empower communities to control their own futures. Our domestic policy isn't a spending policy; it's designed to increase personal freedom and to produce results, not just a lot of expensive rhetoric. And this is the way to approach all of this country's challenges. It's an extraordinary opportunity, and it's essential that we get it enacted and in use.

So, I wanted to come over here and thank you, the leaders of this organization all attending this conference, for your work and, really, for the example you set for so much of America. I expect it's hard for some of you to realize that when it's all put together, you really are setting an example for this country. Even with whatever problems our towns may face, I know that we'd all agree with writer Catherine Sedgwick, who loved her town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. And someone once told her that she spoke about Stockbridge as if it were heaven. ``Well,'' she replied, ``I expect no very violent transition.'' [Laughter]

So, not only are you solving problems but let me just end by another thing that is on my mind. I am concerned as President of this country about the pressures on family. I am concerned as I see family values sublimated. I am concerned as I see the breakup of many families. And somehow I have the feeling that you, the representatives in NATAT, understand what I'm talking about here. I think you in your work, keeping that government, keeping the solutions close to the people, are really doing something constructive about family values, about strengthening family in these times when the families across our country are under an awful lot of strain.

So, good luck to you, all of you, and may God bless the towns to which you return. Thank you very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 10:05 a.m. in the Regency Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Capitol Hill. In his remarks, he referred to Lothar ``Butch'' Wolter, Jr., president of the National Association of Towns and Townships; Clarence Thomas, nominee for Supreme Court Associate Justice; and William G. Herman, member of the board of selectmen of Weare, NH.