Senator Lamar Alexander joined me this morning:
HH: I’m talking with Lamar Alexander, senator from Tennessee and Mitch McConnell’s second favorite Lamar, he told us last week, Senator Alexander.
LA: That’s true.
HH: You don’t rank with Lamar Jackson in his estimate.
LA: Nor did I get drafted at all.
HH: Yeah, you see, so that’s okay. Neither did I, so it’s obviously been a bad draft year. Senator, welcome, I want to dive into the weeds with you on your two committees, on Health and Pensions and on Appropriations. But before I do, Gina Haspel is in the news. Do you expect that she will be confirmed to lead the CIA when her nomination comes to the Senate floor after her hearing on Wednesday?
LA: I certainly hope so. I know that Senator McConnell said on your show, I believe, that she may be the best qualified person we’ve ever had to head the CIA. She’s got the support of the Obama CIA director and all the others. So based on that, I surely hope so.
HH: All right, so now that, that will be not your, that goes to Intel and then to the floor. You get to vote for her on the floor. I want to go to your work as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees energy and water appropriations, because one of the things that’s not getting much attention is the President is directing an overhaul of our nuclear deterrent. I assume that the money for that comes out of this and the Defense committees?
LA: Yes, that’s right.
HH: And how goes, how fares that process?
LA: That process goes well. I mean, going back to 2010 when we did the new START treaty, which will limit the number of nuclear weapons, we also agreed with the administration to spend money over the next ten years to build up our nuclear deterrent, modernize it so that the weapons we had worked. And we’ve met that commitment.
HH: Now I’ve got a buddy, Dan Poneman, who used to be President Obama’s number two at Energy. He runs Centrus Energy, and he’s at the Balfour Center. He tells me we’re not in the enrichment business anymore, that we’ve shut down our enrichment facilities in the United States. How does that make any sense for us, Senator?
LA: Well, it does, that’s true. We have shut that down. In terms that we can get, if you’re talking about enriching uranium…
LA: We can get uranium other places. For one thing, what we’re doing is we’re taking uranium from nuclear weapons, and using that in our civilian nuclear plants.
HH: Do you not think, and again, I’m echoing Dan’s been talking to me about this for a couple of years. Do you think we should have our own independent enrichment capability, though, because you know, if we’re going to be a superpower for a couple of centuries, we need that.
LA: Well, we tried to have that. We had that in something called USAC. But what we had wasn’t working, and it was shut down. And we have a supply now that we can use. So I think for the long term, we need to look at it, but for now, I think we’re fine.
HH: Well, I hope you guys do throw some resources at it, because I do think in the long term. 50 years goes by in a hurry, as both you and I know. And all of a sudden, we’ll be out of uranium. Let me ask you about the short term, the pension problem in the states. I left California because it’s functionally bankrupt. Some of their states, some of their cities have gone bankrupt. The whole state is on the edge of $400 billion dollars of unfunded pension liabilities. And everywhere I go, I hear horror stories except Wisconsin, which is fairly well-funded. What’s the pension part of your health, labor and pensions committee doing about this problem?
LA: Well, we have a select committee, a special committee set up in the Appropriations bill a month ago on which I serve. We’re taking a look at the private pension plans. Those are the ones that we’re looking at that are in trouble. The state plans, and you’re correct, some of them, some of the government plans are way out of whack. In Tennessee, where I was governor for a while before I was senator, we’re in good shape. I mean, we’re funded at nearly, more than 90% of our liability. In other states, they’re not. And what happens when they’re not is that people lose their benefits over time, and nobody’s going to bail them out.
HH: Yeah, but when they say no one’s going to bail them out, they also lack a chapter in the bankruptcy code to use to reorganize. Detroit had to give everyone a haircut. It was very unfair to patrol officers who had been in the car for 30 years. San Bernardino County had to give everybody a haircut. But you know, but they have cities. They have the authority to do that. What do we do when a state goes bankrupt?
LA: Well, when a state goes bankrupt, the state has to, you know, reorganize itself, make its own agreements with its, with the people that it owes money to, and settle up with the pensioners that it made promises to that it can’t keep. I don’t see the United States government bailing out the government of California or the government of Illinois because they made bad decisions and promises they couldn’t keep. The people of Tennessee who put money into their own state accounts over that period of time wouldn’t put up with that.
HH: I hope not. Connecticut, California, Illinois are the big three offenders, though there are others in trouble as well. But would it not make sense to have a chapter in the bankruptcy code that provided the reorganization authority to state governments if they choose to use it to act as though they were in Chapter 13?
LA: Maybe so, but in effect, they have the same sort of process that they have to go through. They owe the money both to the people they borrowed it from and to the people they owe it to, states do. So they’re going to have to go through a process of settling that out and electing officials who have the responsibility for doing it.
HH: All right, now Senator, if I can switch to the Iran deal, the President is facing a decision within a week as to whether or not to renew sanctions or to continue their suspension. It’s a very complicated thing, but basically, do we exit from the JCPOA. What’s your opinion on that, Senator Alexander?
LA: Well, I would hope the President would try to get a better deal. They can get rid of the deal we have first. When our country, even if it’s just the President, makes an agreement with our allies with another country, we ought to be very careful about changing that. Number two, the agreement we made, even though there were a lot of flaws with it, does give us a window into what Iran is doing and limits their development of nuclear weapons. So I would like to see him work with Great Britain and France and other countries and try to get a better deal rather than getting out of the deal entirely.
HH: Now I have been watching over the weekend Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and others suggesting we are on the brink of an all-out exchange of fire between Iranian missile emplacements in Syria and Israel. If that happens, what’s your expectation for the cycle of that conflict, Senator Alexander?
LA: I have no idea, Hugh. I would hope that would not happen. And I would hope our government is working closely with the government of Israel to try to avoid that possibility.
HH: Now, me, too, but it does look like we are on tenterhooks there. Let me turn to the other big news of the weekend, which is the President is tweeting at the special counsel in his unusual but always provocative way this morning, that there is no collusion, that there are conflicts, that they’re being, you’ve been in the Congress and the Senate. You’ve been a governor. You’ve been the secretary of Education. You’ve seen it all, Senator Alexander, and for a long period of time. What do you make of this situation and whether or not the President ought to respond to a subpoena from the special counsel, should one respond, or should one issue forth?
LA: To give you a short answer, Hugh, there are about 500,000 people obsessing over this investigation, and I’m not one of them. I think what the President should do is to use his tweeting following and say good economy, lower taxes, fewer regulations, conservative judges, repeal a part of Dodd-Frank, local control of schools, Alaska energy, repeal of the individual mandate. We did all that in the first 15 months, and focus on that. The investigation into Russian so-called collusion should continue to the end. We have a bipartisan committee, Senate committee that’s undertaking that. We’ve got a special prosecutor appointed by the Trump administration. Let that go on to the end, and then let’s see whether there’s anything there. In the meantime, focus on the accomplishments. If you like a center-right government, we’re getting one. But because of all the tweets and the chaos, it’s hard to see through the fog and know that.
HH: It has been extraordinarily successful on a number of fronts, as you point out, especially on the judicial appointments, especially on breaking the sequester, especially on the tax cuts, especially on the repeal of Obamacare mandate. But people do focus on what the media focuses on, and there is this question of whether or not a subpoena from Mr. Mueller would be effective against the head of Article II? You’re part of Article I, but you’ve been a governor, so you know what it’s like to have an attorney general, and you know what it’s like to have a Department of Justice that answers sort of to you. I’m not sure how it works in Tennessee. Do you think a special counsel can subpoena a president?
LA: Well, I don’t know. You know, I think probably the Constitution, I think the Supreme Court would probably have to decide that question. When it came up with President Clinton, they negotiated a settlement and he answered some questions. But still, I think one reason why we hear so much about this is because the President talks about it so much. I mean, it’s really a pretty remarkable record without going through the whole list again – taxes, economy, regulations, judges, Dodd-Frank, local control of schools, energy, individual mandate. That’s a lot to accomplish if you want a center-right government. And I would like to see the President focus more on those accomplishments and less on this investigation.
HH: Last question, Senator. We’ve got some great regulatory rollback people like Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, our friend over at, Mick Mulvaney. They’re doing their job, but they’re getting paper cut to death. At what point do the Republican Congress stand behind our guys and our gals and say enough of this silliness?
LA: I think we are standing behind them. I mean, we’ve overturned 17 of the Obama-era regulations. We’ve confirmed all of the people who are getting rid of the extra regulations in the Trump administration. I think it’s one of the real accomplishments of the last 15 months of the Republican majority.
HH: Always a pleasure to talk with the other Lamar, Lamar Alexander, Senator extraordinaire from Tennessee. Thank you, Senator.
End of interview.