Oklahoma’s Senator James Lankford joined me this morning to discuss the status of the tax bill:
HH: I am joined by United States Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma. Good morning, Senator, how are you?
JL: I’m doing very well. How are you?
HH: Good. Our good friend, Marty Sherman, tells me that you and Angus King are going to show up here and talk about bipartisanship someday. I hope that is in fact the case.
JL: That would in fact be the case. Angus and I would very much appreciate having that public conversation. It’s a friendship that we have here, and I think most people don’t know that there are actually bipartisan conversations and friendships that happen all the time on Capitol Hill.
HH: I’m looking forward to it. I do want to talk about two things with you, the tax bill and your report that is coming out today on Federal Fumbles: 100 Ways the Government Dropped the Ball. First, the tax bill. You are in three newspapers – the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times, as demanding triggers, tax hikes, if the budget deficit balloons. True or false, Senator Lankford?
JL: Well I would say that is mostly true. I actually called, I don’t call them a trigger. It’s a little different mechanism. I’d like to have what I call a backstop. We are all making our best educated guess of exactly what the rates should be. We’re trying to bring them down as fast, as far as possible. What I have asked for is a way to have a five year lookout. And if we get five years down the road and realize that the revenue is not coming on, the economic growth has not happened as expected, I don’t want our deficits to accelerate. So I’m looking for a very small tweak. I’m not looking for some giant change on it. I’m trying to say if the code is not working as correct as we hope it will, then let’s try to tweak that out and make sure that it does.
HH: Is your tweak the same tweak that Senator Corker wants, and that if delivered, would bring Senator Corker into the fold?
JL: Yes. Senator Corker and I have worked together on this. This is something that several of us have worked on together, whether it be Jeff Flake, Senator Corker, Todd Young. We’ve all looked at, Jerry Moran, we’ve all looked at ways to be able to provide this backstop. The challenge that we have as you go through this process is you make your best educated guess. Most tax bills that happen, for instance, you go through the ’86 change in the tax bill, four or five years later, there was a change on that. Another four years later, there was a change on that. There will be changes in tax code in the days ahead. Nothing is truly permanent. But as much as you can make plans and say this is what it looks like it could do, we want to be able to do that. People forget, though, the last two years, the deficit has started increasing again. The deficit’s gone down every year since 2011. In the last two years, deficit has started tweaking back up again. So we have to be able to deal with economic growth. We need to be able to bring our tax code down significantly. But we also need to make sure that we’re paying attention to the future generation as well and how we’re going to handle our economy.
HH: So the magic words to me were that if this tweak is happening, then Corker, Flake and Lankford are on board. And those are three of the seven that we need. Ron Johnson and Steve Daines have different concerns. Susan Collins, John McCain have different concerns. But I heard Jeff Flake mentioned there, too. So you believe Jeff Flake would be a yes with your tweak?
JL: I do. I’ll allow Jeff to make a decision for himself, but we’ve all worked together on this. None of us are trying to not do this. All of us are going through a very complicated bill and saying what will be a couple of things that would improve it. We’re in that final moment as you’re working through the legislation. It’s getting narrower and narrower. And everyone looks at is and says okay, there’s one final thing, let’s see if we can get this done and try to get it complete. There’s no reason we can’t get any of these things and all of them done, actually, this week and the final days of the legislative work.
HH: You know, Senator, I have posted over at Hughhewitt.com, I know you need more revenue, and I cannot get anyone to pay attention to the idea of allowing for one-time partial withdrawals from retirement savings. There are $25 trillion dollars in protected accounts that if you allow individuals to withdraw at a preferred rate, say a 10% tax on the amount withdrawn up to 25% of their retirement savings, provided they use it to pay down mortgage interest, mortgages, or to buy residential real estate, you’ll flip the realtors, you’ll make good to homeowners who are getting screwed by this bill. I hope I can persuade you to go over and read that at Hughhewitt.com. Can I get that out of you?
JL: You know what? I actually will do that. Thank you.
HH: All right, now, thank you. I think I can persuade some people. Let’s turn over to Federal Fumbles. You’re having a press conference a little bit later today. And I remember William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece award. Is it the successor to that, the Federal Fumbles: The 100 Ways the Government Dropped the Ball?
JL: I would be glad for it to be a successor to that. What I’ve tried to do is to be able to refocus the nation again on the issue of debt and deficit. As I mentioned before, deficits started going back up again. And I’m concerned that no one’s paying attention to that. And that will continue to be a significant issue. We were at a whopping $660 billion dollars in overspending for 2017. And what I laid out was about half a trillion dollars where we could actually go get that and try to be able to establish a path not just to say we’re overspending, but say here’s how to get out of it in ways that I think we’d have wide bipartisan support for. So some are small, some are large. But all of them are things, I think, should not be controversial.
HH: You’ve done this for three, two years. This is the third year that you’ve done it on…
JL: That’s correct.
HH: Is there anything in particular that you would offer as an example of a federal fumble?
JL: Of currently? Yes, let me give you small and big on it. One of the small ones is a $40,000 dollar grant for the National Science Foundation to study refugees in Iceland.
JL: And I can’t for the life of me figure out why we’re spending money to study refugees in Iceland and what the gain of what that was. If the U.N. wants to do that, or if Iceland wants to do that, have at it. But there’s no reason the federal taxpayer should pay for that. There’s a billion dollars spent by the DOD was moving some equipment to the Iraqi Army, and in that transition, we know it made it to Kuwait, but there’s no record of it actually making it the next step to the Iraqi Army. That’s a problem when you’ve got a billion dollars of equipment. The flip side of that, we talked about tax before, the IRS did a study on how they can work on tax compliance. This is taxes that are already due that people aren’t paying, or that filling out forms incorrectly, just basic tax compliance, that’s over $400 billion dollars in what they call the tax…, where the IRS is just literally not collecting what should be collected by law already. So there are several areas that we tried to identify and say okay, these are areas that need additional attention, or that we’ve got wasted money on.
HH: Well, I am all in favor of this. I hope people go forward and do this. Let me also take a moment to ask you, you’re on the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Section 702 is expiring. That provides for the surveillance of overseas individuals suspected of being involved in terrorist activity. Are we going to get a 702 fix before the end of the year, Senator Lankford?
JL: I believe we are working on additional protections that we have negotiated to be able to put in that to make sure people understand exactly what you just said. This is about overseas information gathering, not about gathering on Americans. And we want to continue to put in safeguards to make sure people understand that. But if we’ve got a thug overseas that’s trying to come at us, I want to know everything about him before he does it, not afterwards.
HH: All right, so I want to close by where I began, on the tax bill. It is important, in my view, that this move through the Senate this week. Have you talked to Ron Johnson, yet, as to whether or not he’s close to yes, because he can derail it today in the Budget Committee.
JL: He could. I have not talked to him in the last 24 hours. I’ll have some other conversations with other folks. I know Bob Corker is also on the Budget Committee. If both of them decide to vote against it, there are other methods to move it to the floor later in the week. But I think both of them are trying to work to get to a yes on this. No one wants to see it derailed. Everyone wants to just see it done right so we can get to it done.
HH: And if you had to predict, will the elimination of the individual mandate actually happen?
JL: I predict that it will, and I certainly hope that it will. But that, everything that I have seen shows that that’s continuing to move forward. With all the reports, with all the pushback that we’ve had on it, it’s still the absolute right thing to do. It doesn’t take away a single subsidy from anyone. But it certainly protects people from the tax penalties and the IRS from the individual mandate itself.
HH: Well then, four thank you’s. Thank you for optimism on the tax bill, thank you for Federal Fumbles, because I think people need to read that. Thank you as well for agreeing to come back with Angus King and talk about bipartisanship, and thank you for agreeing to read over at Hughhewitt.com how you can raise some revenue and take care of the home builders and homeowners at the same time. Thank you, Senator Lankford.
JL: You bet. Thank you very much.
End of interview.