‘It’s time to come home’

‘It’s time to come home’

Sen. Patrick Leahy speaks on his decision not to seek reelection after 24 years in the United States Senate

Thank you all for being here this morning. This room is special to both Marcelle and me, and not just because as a kid I used to ride my tricycle down these halls.

Having grown up right across the street, Marcelle and I gathered here with our parents, our children Kevin, Alicia, and Mark, and my sister Mary and announced my candidacy for the United States Senate.At the time, I was a 33-year-old, four-term Chittenden County state's attorney, launching a campaign knowing that Vermont had never sent a Democrat to the United States Senate.

What propelled me was a belief that I understood the needs and values of Vermont and thought it was time for a new generation to address them.

Dublin-born parliamentarian Edmund Burke's speech to the Electors of Bristol served as my North Star. He said, “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment.” Burke also said that a representative “ought not sacrifice to you” his “conscience.”

After what many described as an improbable win, I began my time in the United States Senate in the aftermath of a constitutional crisis. We faced a nation broken by the Watergate scandal, the resignation of President Nixon, and an endless war in Vietnam.

Within just a few months of taking office, and as the newest and most junior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, we were asked to vote to reauthorize and continue the war in Vietnam. In Vermont, where support for the war was strong, I had always opposed it.

The authorization was defeated by one vote. I was proud to be that vote.

My hope was Vermonters would respect my judgment and my conscience, even if they disagreed with my vote to end the war.

I learned early in my career that good judgment and hard work are exactly what Vermonters expect from their representatives.

* * *

The hard work part began for me as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, where I would eventually become its chairman. We used it to bring several “born in Vermont” ideas to Capitol Hill, such as Farms for the Future and the Forest Legacy program. These programs have conserved hundreds of thousands of acres of working farmland and forestland in Vermont and throughout the country.

That is where I began a program that has since brought tens of millions of dollars to aid in the cleanup of Lake Champlain and now Lake Memphremagog. It was also the place where I was able to add more than 140,000 acres to Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest, one of the greatest treasures in our state.

And it was after Marcelle and I spent time in the homes of some farm families in Vermont that I was convinced we needed a law to set standards in organic farming.

As chairman of the Agriculture Committee, we were able to pass the law that established the national organics standards and labeling program, helping to launch an organic farm sector that now is a $55 billion a year industry and an important new avenue for Vermont's farmers.

I also changed the Committee name to Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, because the former chairmen had left out nutrition. Again, by meeting with Vermonters all over the state, I realized the need to have a law that allowed SNAP benefits to be used in farmers' markets, to increase our student lunch programs, and to give the means to create the Farm to School program.

Today, more than 30 million children receive nutritious school lunches, and we have established a national program to source school lunches from local farms.

We also added competitive bidding to legislation for the popular but underfunded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. Because of that change, today more than 7 million women, infants, and children receive much-needed food and formula. Every time Marcelle and I are home, we see these programs thriving and growing in Vermonters' everyday lives.

Open land. Cleaner water. New markets for our farmers. Providing nutritious food for those in need. That will be a legacy to our state for generations.

* * *

On the Judiciary Committee, I served as chairman or ranking member for 20 years. My oath was to protect the Constitution, and I fiercely defended our civil liberties, the First Amendment, our right to privacy, and the free flow of information from the government to the people it represents.

This has resulted in the Innocence Protection Act, the Justice for All Act, and the Freedom of Information Reform Act.

In this capacity, we advanced the first update to the Violence Against Women Act. In subsequent reauthorizations, we added protections for the LGBTQ community and Native American women, and to confront the sexual trafficking of children.

Serving on the Judiciary Committee also meant being there at times of crisis such as the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. We not only had to protect our nation from outside threats but from a zealous administration that advocated some of the most serious rollbacks of basic civil liberties.

Year after year, I worked with - and at times pushed back on - administrations and their judicial nominations. I always worked to keep the federal judiciary independent for all Americans, regardless of their political background.

I recommended and worked to confirm some of the top judges in the land, including Christina Reiss, who became the first woman to serve on the Federal District Court in Vermont and, most recently, Beth Robinson's historic appointment to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

I am proud of them, and of the many other superb Vermonters I recommended for the bench and other appointments.

After a couple of years, I was assigned to the Appropriations Committee.

My approach on Appropriations was simple: help all states in alphabetical order. Starting with the letter V, Vermont.

Perhaps the most beneficial tool to help Vermont are small state minimums. Because of these funds, our state had the tools and resources we needed for first responders after the 9-11 attacks and after Tropical Storm Irene devastated our communities, and for us to help those afflicted by the scourge of the opioid epidemic.

My advocacy for the small state minimum most recently meant over $2.5 billion to help Vermont with the devastating impact of the Covid pandemic. It will also mean funds for long-overdue projects and investments that can be transformative for Vermont.

* * *

These accomplishments have come because of that first commitment I made to Vermonters: a commitment to bring Vermont values to the challenges we face at home and around the world.

Marcelle and I went to hospitals and rescue facilities around the world to visit victims of land mines. What we've seen has allowed me to write and pass the first law in the world banning the export of land mines. It also led to the Leahy War Victims Fund to help innocent victims of the indiscriminate weapons left long after wars have ended.

We have traveled to Vietnam to restore relations between our countries through assistance with land mine removal and mitigation of Agent Orange. Our trips there, backed by presidents of both parties, have shown what positive steps can do.

We have worked to re-establish relations with Cuba and are working to undo the misguided policy of the last administration. And I am especially proud of the Leahy Law, which requires us to withhold American aid to units of government in other parts of the world involved with violations of human rights. It has long been regarded as the most effective human rights tool in our diplomatic arsenal.

* * *

Throughout it all, I was supported by family and the most remarkable women and men who worked with me, both in Vermont and in Washington. I am uniquely blessed to have served with fellow Vermonters who share my deep love of and commitment to Vermont: Sen. Bob Stafford, Sen. Jim Jeffords, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Smith and, of course, Rep. Peter Welch. Our collective efforts are why, in so many ways, Vermont continues to set an example for the rest of the nation to follow.

I am proud to be Vermont's longest-serving Senator because I know my time in the Senate has made a difference for Vermonters and often well beyond. I know I have been there for my state when I was needed most. I know I have taken our best ideas and helped them grow. I brought Vermont's voice to the United States Senate and Vermont values across the world.

So, yes, I am proud to be Vermont's longest serving Senator.

* * *

While I will continue to serve Vermont, Marcelle and I have reached the conclusion that it is time to put down this gavel. It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter who will carry on this work for our great state.

It's time to come home.

I will forever carry with me the enduring bond with my fellow Vermonters, whose common sense and goodness are what I strive to match as their representative.

Thank you for being the inspiration and the motivation for all the good that has come from my work in the Senate. Rest assured our state and our nation will remain resilient and the next generation will ensure our democracy remains whole and thriving.

Today, I will join President Biden and other members of Congress at the White House. The president will sign into law the largest investment in our nation's infrastructure since the Eisenhower administration and, despite all odds, has done so with bipartisan support. We will take on the challenging yet essential tasks of passing the reconciliation bill and the appropriations bills.

When I return to the Senate, I will tell the other members what a privilege it has been to be one of only 1,994 senators in the history of our country. I will tell them how humbled I am by the support I received from my fellow Vermonters the 24 times my name appeared on the ballot.

I will tell my fellow senators that I will not be on the ballot next year. I will not run for reelection. It is important to me to first announce that here at home, just a few yards from where I grew up as a child in Montpelier.

Representing you in Washington has been the greatest honor. I am humbled, and always will be, by your support, and I am confident in what the future holds.

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