HH: Inevitably, when I’m on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd, he will say Hugh, you’re kind of a Rob Portman Republican. What do you think? Or inevitably, I’ll say to him, look, I’m just kind of a Rob Portman Republican. And everyone knows what I mean by that. But rather than explaining what a Rob Portman Republican thinks about the meltdown underway on Capitol Hill right now, I thought we’d ask Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio. Good morning, Senator.
RP: You know, I would be honored to be called a Hugh Hewitt Republican, but you know, you’ve raised expectations too high here.
HH: Well, I do, we always do use this shorthand for kind of Midwestern calm, common sense approach to what’s going on. So would you give us the calm, Midwestern common sense approach to what is happening in real time on the Hill right now?
RP: Well, first, the whole thing is silly. We shouldn’t be doing these showdowns. You know, you wrote a book about this saying how do we get out of these showdowns and this gridlock called The Fourth Way, and it’s a pretty simple way, which is to say okay, we’ve got to keep the government funded. It’s stupid to shut down the government, because when you do that, you actually end up costing the taxpayers more. You dislocate a lot of people’s lives. There are three issues here I think we have to address. One is, of course, the spending bill itself, and we have to increase Defense spending. We know that. I think Democrats and Republicans alike are aware of the fact that we are not prepared for the dangerous world we live in. Second, we’ve got to deal with something on DACA, because these kids are here, because they’re in school, because they’re working, because they have to make their plans, and otherwise some of them would actually be deported. And that should be combined with something to avoid a future DACA, which would be something on the enforcement side. And there’s some flexibility on what that can be. But border security is certainly one of them. And then third, we have to deal with this Children’s Health Insurance Program, which expired back in September, and you know, I think there’s an agreement on that. It’s been bipartisan forever. It was bipartisan coming out of our committee. So to me, those are kind of the simple pieces to put together, and not to just kick it down the road for another month, but actually to do it until the end of the fiscal year.
HH: Now Senator, I want to focus in on border security for a moment because of fentanyl. And I told Bill Bennett yesterday I had never heard the world until you and I had lunch in Ohio after you gave the commencement.
HH: …at the University of Akron, and I was over at Ashland. And you explained to me that more people were dying of fentanyl in Ohio than of car crashes. 64,000 people died last year of drug overdose in the United States. And that’s a border security issue in part, is it not?
RP: It is, and unfortunately, I will tell you in your home state, my home state of Ohio, fentanyl is now the number one killer. So it’s surpassed prescription drugs, heroin, and of course, car accidents and other causes of death. It’s really unbelievably devastating our communities. And it’s so powerful, Hugh, that just a few flakes can kill you if you ingest it. And so it’s dangerous to law enforcement, other first responders, and it’s dangerous to kids in houses. And it’s coming in, mostly, in the case of fentanyl, by the U.S. mail system. So it’s not as much of a border security issue as heroin, although some of it is now going to Mexico and then being smuggled across the border. So yeah, the border issue is an immigration issue, but it’s also a drug issue. There’s no question about it. And it’s also a trafficking issue, something I’ve been working on for years, as you know. There’s a concentration of human trafficking along the border as well.
HH: Let’s talk about that. Browns coach Hue Jackson has opened a foundation in his name that combats trafficking in Ohio specifically. And people don’t think of trafficking and where it goes across, but if they begin to concentrate on the highways, they’ll find out where human slaves end up being imported to, and that is another border issue.
RP: Yeah, it is, and you know, I think, Hugh, it was widely-viewed as an immigrant issue years ago. Today, it’s everything. In other words, there are young people, unfortunately, in your neighborhood and mine who end up getting trafficked as well. But you’re right that Ohio is in the middle of it all. You know, we brag about the fact that we’re, you know, 500 miles from 70% of America or something like that. Well, that’s one reason I think that trafficking does occur in our state. 75, 71, 270, we’ve got to, I-70, we’ve got lots of major thoroughfares. And you do seem to see a concentration of trafficking in those areas. By the way, I comment Hue Jackson for that. He had a tough season. He’s a good coach, though. He was in Cincinnati, as you know, as the offensive coordinator as well, and, but he’s taken on this issue, and it’s really important. What’s happening with this issue, interestingly, it’s going online. So what victims of sex trafficking tell me is Rob, it’s gone from the street corner to the smartphone. And that’s where you see this big increase. Based on what the experts tell us, there’s been an increase in sex trafficking in this country, in this century, and it’s because of the dark side of the internet.
HH: Well, this is what at the end of the day what frustrates me so much about a spending shutdown, and making the easy things hard when the hard things are hard enough.
HH: And easy things are the DACA kids stay, and we build border barriers, and we do border security of some sort, and we don’t reward in a way that it is repeated, right? That’s the problem with DACA regularization is that we will incentivize people to make this very dangerous journey which often will end up, for example, in the Wal-Mart parking lot with ten people dead in the back of a semi-truck.
RP: No, there’s no question. The whole immigration issue is a difficult one emotionally, politically and otherwise. But this is a pretty simple one, which is I think there’s a consensus. We’ve got to be sure that these specific kids who came here through no fault of their own, and I do believe that ought to be taken care of, but we’ve got to also ensure that we don’t continue to have the problem. Then, there’s a broader immigration debate that has to occur, and that’s where you get into all of the issues, including family reunification versus merit-based system, including how you deal with our visa program, which is a mess. You know, 40% of the people here illegally, they say, came here through a legal means which was a visa they overstayed. And you’ve got to deal with the workplace. You and I have talked about this. If you don’t have better e-verification at the workplace, you’ll continue to have that magnet even if you have a tall fence. And so these are all issues that I think, and the visa lottery, as the President has rightly pointed out, these are all issues that have to be addressed. But let’s get this first one out of the way as part of the CR and have this continuing resolution go to the end of the fiscal year. Let’s not continue to kick the can down the road.
HH: Now I want to ask you, Senator, as well, there’s a very disturbing report in the New York Times this morning that a CIA agent was in fact a double agent and a defector, and a treasonous one, and that as a result, a lot of CIA network has been rolled up. Have you had any briefing on this, yet?
RP: We’ve not, although very, very disturbing. And it, you know, it’s on top of secrets that have been shared in the last administration, and you know, have caused a lot of people who put their lives on the line for America, foreign nationals who are helping us put their lives in danger. So this concerns me, and look, I am a big fan of transparency, a big fan of being sure that you, people have their privacy in this country. But people have to recognize we live in an increasingly volatile and dangerous world where there are a lot of bad people out there trying, you know, to hurt us. And it’s to destabilize our democracy. It’s to go after our commercial and military secrets. And we’ve got to tighten it up. And this is a major concern.
HH: Now our Section 702 authorization passed the House this week, and it is now before the Senate. Do you expect that it will get through the Senate, because we really can’t have a lapse in this authority?
RP: Yeah, if you had a gap as of Friday, at this time, it would be a disaster for us, and so I do think we have to get it done. Could we look at some reforms later? Yes, but Hugh, you know, this is one of those issues along the lines of what I just talking about. I mean, I wish we lived in a world where we didn’t have to worry about it. But if we do not have that information to be able to avoid potential acts of terrorism here against us, it creates a real problem. I think we’ll pass it in the Senate. We had a vote on it last night to move to it, which probably is reflective of the final vote. And we got, as I recall, barely 60 votes, maybe 61 votes, which we needed out of a 100. So I think it probably ends up passing the Senate as well.
HH: All right, now let me close on some happy talk. You have been going around Ohio visiting people who have benefited by the tax reform that passed at the end of the year, and it has been an explosion of optimism. In fact, the market is racing ahead so fast, it’s got to correct at some point. What’s the reality of the tax impact on businesses in Ohio, Senator Portman?
RP: It is terrific. I mean, I’ve got to tell you, you know, everything that those of us who have promoted this for the last decade, have talked about, seems to be coming true, which is that we are seeing not just higher wages and more jobs, we’re seeing more long-term investment, and that’ll increase productivity, which is what most economists say our problem is. You know, if we can’t raise our productivity, we can’t get our GDP up, we can’t get wages up. So it’s really exciting. I’ve been to four different plants in the last two weeks, in Cincinnati, Cleveland, your area, Northeast Ohio, Columbus, Dayton, and it’s the same story at every one of them. You know, they’re investing in their workers. Some are increasing wages and bonuses, some are buying more equipment. Some are investing more in the retirement security through 401k’s and defined benefit plan like the one in Cleveland. And this is all good news. And that’s on top of the middle class tax cuts that are now coming out. In other words, people are going to see in their paychecks also less withholding from the federal government. Probably, according to the Treasury Department, 90% of workers in America are going to see over the next few weeks that their paychecks are bigger. So it’s the immediate effect of that tax relief for families plus these changes on the business side that’s really going to help to give people more hope and opportunity. And I’m excited about it.
HH: You know, Senator, we have 30 seconds left, but so many people come up to me. I gave a speech at a synagogue on Friday night, and very liberal group, and they came over to me and they said you know, this is just trickle down again. This is the old Reagan bait and switch. And I tell them no, it really isn’t.
HH: And so the last 30 seconds to you.
RP: Well, this is one statistic that I think is interesting. 3 million Americans or more, and this is based on the Joint Committee on Taxation, non-partisan group, who will pay no income taxes at all who used to pay it as of, you know, a couple of weeks ago because we’ve propped up the rolls. The top 10% paid 70% of the taxes on the old system. Under this system, they’ll pay more.
RP: That’s the reality of this tax relief proposal. It does help folks who are middle class, but also helps those to get out of poverty and into work.
HH: Good luck this weekend, Senator Portman, in getting the government fixed. Like I said, we Rob Portman Republicans want it to get done without a lot of drama.
End of interview.