Recorded on February 25, 2018
“On Election Day in 2016, Donald Trump carried Ohio by eight percentage points. Our guest today carried the state by twenty-one. Senator of Ohio Rob Portman joins Peter Robinson at a special live taping of Uncommon Knowledge. They discuss the 2018 tax bill, the opioid crisis, the Parkland shootings, North Korea, and much more.
Senator Portman stands by his decision to vote for the new tax bill as he has seen the benefits right in his home state. He recounts several anecdotes of his constituents who have already seen benefits from the new tax bill. He tells the story of one small-business owner who is finally able to offer health care to her full-time employees because of the tax breaks for small businesses. He also discusses meeting with microbrewers who are now able to expand their facilities and grow their businesses because of the tax cuts.
Portman also discusses how the new federal budget helped the Department of Defense and the US military to build out their forces in order to project strength abroad. He explains ways that the Republicans and Democrats were able to compromise on increasing domestic discretionary spending so that they can also spend equally on defense. He recounts examples of bipartisanship in order to help Congress get work done.
Senator Portman goes into great detail about the opioid crisis‑a huge issue in his state. Portman is working hard to increase treatment programs for addicts to end the crisis. He tells a story about one young man he met who will be able to become sober and regain his life back because of the new treatment programs.
Peter Robinson takes the interview into a lightning round near the end of the program, asking Senator Portman quick questions for quick answers about his thoughts on the situation with North Korea, the Parkland shootings, conservatives and Donald Trump, and why Portman continues to be in public service. Portman ends the interview by explaining why public service matters to him more than making significantly more money in the private sector.
About the Guest:
Senator Rob Portman is a junior senator for the state of Ohio. He has served as a senator since 2011. Senator Portman previously served as a US Representative, a United States Trade Representative, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
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Peter Robinson: On Election Day in 2016, Donald Trump carried Ohio by eight percentage points. Our guest today carried the state by 21. The junior senator from the Buckeye State, Rob Portman, on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson, we're shooting today in Washington, DC. After graduating from Dartmouth as a member of the class of 1978, Rob Portman took a law degree from the University of Michigan, practiced law for a time and then went into politics. From 1993 to 2005 he served in the House of Representatives. From 2005 to 2006 he served as United States Trade Representative and from 2006 to 2007 as Director of the Office and Management and the Budget, holding both positions under President George W. Bush. Rob Portman was elected to the Senate from Ohio in 2010 and then reelected last year. Senator Portman, welcome.
Rob Portman: Peter, it's good to be on with you again.
Peter Robinson: Something is happening. Two months ago President Trump's approval rating, about 36%, in the generic ballot Democrats led Republicans by about eight points. Today President Trump's approval rating is up the low 40s, in one recent poll he touched 50% and the Democratic lead over Republicans has shrunk a couple of points, now it's around, four, five percentage points. Now President Trump and the Republicans on the Hill are still under water. But that's a sharp improvement. What accounts for it?
Rob Portman: I think it's very simple. I think it's that we started to get stuff done. And, in particular, we got something done that people, as they learn more about it, find to be great for them and their families and their jobs, which is the tax bill. And I just spend a few days in Ohio talking to small businesses all over the state. We had a forum with 12 brewers, microbrewers, because they have something in particular in the tax bill they thought was helpful in terms of their low volume of craft beer. But what they really love about the tax bil detal is the expensing, the lower rates, the fact that they can now expand their facilities, they can now hire that extra person they needed. In one case a brewer who had never been able to offer health care insurance is now offering health care insurance. I went to a small business where I got the opportunity to meet with some of the NFIB, National Federation of Independent Businesses. It represents a lot of small businesses around the country. Talked to a bunch of their members and same thing: story after story. Again, a woman who had not been able to offer health care since 2016 because of the very high cost, 22% increase for her. She is now able to offer health care to all of her full-time employees. But it's 401K contributions, it's pension contributions, to find benefit plans, it's higher pay. We've heard about the bonuses, and they're about 160 companies, big, multinational companies have announced they're doing something that's well known. And by bonuses, think of Walmart, for instance, our largest employer in Ohio. But what we don't hear about are these hundreds and even thousands of small businesses that are benefiting from this. On top of that, of course, individuals are seeing their paychecks change. And so, despite the fact the Democrats and the media tried to convince people this tax bill wasn't gonna be good for them, they're seeing not only is their employer doing more to help them, investing in them, or investing in equipment that'll allow them to more productive, but also the individual tax relief of doubling the standard deduction, of doubling the Child Tax Credit. They're withholding has improved. One guy told me when I was explaining the tax, "You don't have to tell my employees about that, they're telling me about it. They're coming to say, 'Hey look, I got forty more bucks on my paycheck every two weeks.'" And that adds up. It's about $2,000 for a median income family in Ohio. So, Peter, that is changing the dynamic I think-
Peter Robinson: And you feel it?
Rob Portman: Yeah. I do.
Peter Robinson: You're a working politician and you feel it already?
Rob Portman: I feel it.
Peter Robinson: Tax-
Rob Portman: And, by the way, the polling's even better than you indicate in some of these tough districts, including in California. Some districts that people thought were out of reach now for Republicans, that Republicans have held for many years. And in some cases there have been some retirements, as you know. Now those numbers are changing pretty significantly as, again, people are looking at their own situation, their family's situation and, when you're living paycheck to paycheck, which is most of the people I represent, $2,000 is a big deal. And on top of that, again, the increased employment opportunities and so on, so it's working.
Peter Robinson: Senator, Nancy Pelosi, the ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives referred to a $1,000 ... Companies were giving $1,000 bonuses after the tax cut. She referred to a $1,000 as chicken feed. And you're saying it actually matters.
Rob Portman: So I was at a small business recently and a guy who's kind of irreverent and not very politically correct said in front of the ... I was giving an interview, and he put his head in and said, "Nancy Pelosi says it's crumbs. We call it fine dining." His point was this is meaningful in people's lives. It may not be in hers but it is in theirs. Look, I think people, the proof's in the paycheck.
Peter Robinson: Formerly known as the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, the President signed it into law December 22nd. This is all very recent. Just signed into law December 22nd. You've named some of the provisions: lowers the personal income tax rates in all seven brackets. Doubles the standard deduction for all married filers. Reduces the corporate tax rate from 31, 35% to 21% and caps the deductibility of state and local taxes at $10,000.
Peter Robinson: Now we're having this conversation in front of an audience that includes a number of Californians. You sit on the Finance Committee. Why have you made it impossible for these good people to deduct their state taxes?
Rob Portman: You forgot about the New Yorkers that are here. I met a couple already. Well two things, one, from a philosophical point of view the idea here is lower the rates by broadening the base. So, yeah, there's tax relief in the legislation, roughly one trillion dollars when you net it out, when you assume you use the right baseline, which is a complicated way of saying it's about a trillion dollar tax cut over ten years. But most of the relief, and we're talking about four or five trillion dollars of tax relief comes from getting rid of some of the preferences in the code, in other words, broadening the base of taxation, therefore lowering the rate, which most economists, including all five of those I mentioned earlier, the Hoover Institution folks, think is the right thing to do, generally, that's directionally the right thing to do with tax reform. In that respect, even as compared to the 1986 Act, this one is more fundamentally pro-growth. And, of course, the biggest preference of all is the deduction for state and local taxes. Or was under the previous code until the end of last year. That was an obviously place to look for broadening the base, it was about $1.3 trillion, and to take those rates down, the individual rates down we talked about, required us to find places where you could reduce preferences. On the corporate side there were more preferences to reduce. For instance, the Section 199 is gone for manufacturing. But taking the rate, you say, from 35 to 21 makes up for that. But on the individual side, most of it came from that one deduction. We also have a couple of other deductions that are expensive, if you look at it in terms of the revenue loss, but extremely important and helpful to the economy. One is the mortgage interest reduction. There was talk about getting rid of that or lowering it. It was capped at a slightly lower amount, $750K, instead of a million bucks, but that one would have had a really negative impact, people believed, on housing. We want to encourage more home ownership as Republicans. And then charitable. And probably a lot of people in this room waited on the charitable side and the notion was there, again, as Republicans, philosophically, we want to encourage more charitable activity. We think that the private sector is sometimes much more effective at meeting the needs and addressing poverty. And then, finally, philosophically, apart from what I said about the general approach here, why should the federal government be subsidizing high tech states? In other words, why should we, at the federal level, be providing this $1.3 trillion tax deduction? By the way, the $10,000 is still significant for a lot of people. That's $10,000 either state and local taxes, or property taxes. And for people who are low middle income Americans, that's very significant. So there still is relief there.
Peter Robinson: Can I just-
Rob Portman: It's a philosophical difference.
Peter Robinson: So, you're going high, let me go low. It's already been the case that the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo is screaming to high heaven about the lost revenues to his state, because New Yorkers will lose their deductibility and they're going to put pressure on Albany to reduce spending. Same thing is happening in Sacramento. The Democratic establishment, and it is an establishment, and it does control the state, is already screaming, because it feels political pressure, frankly from many of its own people, those folks who live in Malibu are calling Sacramento. You sort of like it, don't you?
Rob Portman: I sort of like competition. We often say that we wanna be sure that we have a tax code that's more competitive, which is what drove me, as you know, over the last dozen years, to really push for tax reform so that we don't have a code making US workers disadvantaged relative to foreign workers. But competition between the states is not a bad thing either, Peter. And I will tell you, it's 25,000 bucks on average, the deduction in New York County as an example. Manhattan, for those of you from the city. That was the average. In Ohio, it's about 2,500 bucks. So yeah, I think there should be competition on this issue. And, by the way, for those Democrats who are complaining about it, and they are, and they're saying, "I can't believe you've done this," as you can imagine the state and local tax deduction, the state and local property deduction is not, shall we say, progressive. In other words it goes primarily to people who are wealthy by far. In other words, more than 50% of it goes to people who make significant income over 200,000 bucks a year or so. So it's interesting that Democrats who are always saying the code needs to be more progressive have chosen this place to make their stand. Because it doesn't really work with their philosophy.
Peter Robinson: So you do like it? You are enjoying this. Listen-
Rob Portman: I like good tax reform, honestly. And I think this is gonna grow the economy in ways that ... And, by the way, for those in the room who have expressed concerns about it to me, and I get it. They've also said, "Look, I also get it that the economy is improving all around me and we all benefit from that." Every single American benefits from lower unemployment, higher wages, higher stock market, the things that result from a better and growing economy.
Peter Robinson: I'm struck again that the President just signed this darn thing on December 22nd. This is all very recent. And here you are, a working politician, who's just flown in from his state saying "On the ground, I see a difference."
Rob Portman: It's already happening.
Peter Robinson: Alright. Paul Krugman, economist, or, some would say, former economist. Paul Krugman in a column in the New York Times, and this column was entitled "A Permanent Slump." Quote: "The evidence suggests that we have become an economy whose normal state," this is the new normal, "whose normal state is one of mild depression with brief episodes of prosperity that occur only thanks to bubbles." Close quote. Senator, the new normal is two or two and a half percent growth. You Republicans, with the President, have got it spiked up over three percent, but it's going to fall back to the new normal, you're just creating a temporary bubble. So, come on fess up. Senator?
Rob Portman: I think that is exactly what a lot of folks had started to think. And, by the way, not just liberal Democrats, but frankly Republicans and others, thinking ... And by the way, you say 2 and 2.5, 1.5-2. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the growth for the next ten years will be 1.9%. That's what we had to work with. By the way, that's why this tax reform proposal, I believe, will result in the economic growth that will make it so that it is not a tax cut in the end in terms of revenue to the federal government. A 1% increase in that GDP from 1.9% to 2.9% is $2.7 trillion. That's as compared to the one trillion I talked about early.
Peter Robinson: And even in this town that counts as real money.
Rob Portman: Counts as real money and it's revenue. But it's revenue through growth. So if you increase the economic growth only .4% over that ten year period because of the tax reform proposal, it actually makes up for the so-called tax cut that Democrats are concerned about. So we can't resign ourselves to that kind of depressing future. And Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner by the way, he'll tell you, I just think that's wrong. I think we have enormous opportunity in this economy to grow more. Our productivity is still relatively low. One of the things that's exiting about this tax bill, and which will the biggest, longest term impact, as important as the individual cuts are for working families in Ohio, as important as this evidence we're seeing now, the bonuses and so on, the longer term effect is investment. And it's investment in equipment and in technology that'll make our workforce more productive. And, again, those economists at Hoover we talked about earlier, they will all tell you what they told me a few months ago as we were putting this bill together, "Focus on investment and productivity, because when you get those productivity gains is when you get back to growth in the 2.5 to 3.5 percent range steady growth rather than this 1.5-2% range." Which makes all the difference in terms of the deficit and the revenue, in terms of poverty, in terms of all the things we care about. Allowing Americans once again to think that their kids and grandkids can be better off than them.
Peter Robinson: Alright. The budget deal. Earlier this month President Trump signed a budget deal that includes some $300 billion in new spending over the next two years. In the House, 67 Republicans voted no. And in the Senate, your beloved chamber, where I note that the vote took place at two in the morning, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky rose to speak. Quote: "The reason I'm here tonight is to put people," including Senator Portman, "is to put people on the spot. I want them to answer the people at home who say, 'How come you were against President Obama's deficits, and then how come you're for Republican deficits?'" Close quote. 71 senators voted for this budget deal. You were one of the 71. And you answer your colleague, Senator Paul, how?
Rob Portman: First, it was essential to pass that budget because of the point that General Mattis, your former colleague at Hoover, made to us behind closed doors and made to the American people in a less specific way, in a very public way, which was that we had eroded our military to the point that we literally did not have the ability to project force and to be able to keep the peace through strength as Ronald Reagan famously said. And one thing he told us behind closed doors, which I believe is accurate as to 2017, there were more of our brave men and women in uniform, service members who lost their lives from accidents last year, than from combat. And his point was, we're not prepared. We are not doing the training we should be doing, we have ships that can't leave the docks because of the lack of funding. We have planes that are on the tarmac that can't take off because of the lack of parts. We have a military that, frankly, is not able to respond to this expanding and very dangerous situation we have in North Korea, Iran-
Peter Robinson: And over half of that $300 billion-
Rob Portman: Russia, China.
Peter Robinson: Over half, I don't remember, actually, you may know the number, but over half of that $300 billion is for the military.
Rob Portman: Yes. Traditionally, Republicans and Democrats have had this debate over the budget and Republicans have focused on the defense side as I do, and that was my top priority as you can imagine. And Democrats have said, fine, but there has to be an equal amount that's spend on the domestic discretionary side, on departments, agencies, social programs and so on. And under sequestration, as you know, all of that was kept under a discipline that allowed us actually to see some savings overall on the appropriations side. Which is an untold story, by the way. To the point that the other side of the budget, the mandatory spending side, was growing relative to the GDP and relative to the rest of the budget, and continues to. In this case, it wasn't exactly [inaudible 00:16:58] as we get more spending in the defense than we did in the rest of the budget. Part of the rest of the budget also included something that I also think was very important to do, that you and I have talked about at length, which is addressing the opioid crisis. It is not Washington's job to do everything, but when you have a national crisis like this and you can bring best practices to the states and help the states to be able to respond to it, I think it's very important. So there was $3 billion provided per year for opioid treatment, recovery, prevention. We haven't done this ever, this is historic. Unfortunately we're back to where we were when Ronald Reagan declared the war on drugs, and Nancy Reagan did such a superb job in increasing the message of prevention and education. We have a huge crisis, where the number one-
Peter Robinson: Which, again, you see when you go home-
Rob Portman: The number one cause of death in Ohio is overdoses from opioids. Number one cause of death. And so this is something that affects all of us. And by the way, there are many listening to this program who care a lot about the economy, I understand that. And they might think "This issue doesn't really affect us." The data is overwhelming. That those who are not in the workforce, and who we need desperately ... We've done a good job on regulatory relief, I believe, I think that's one reason we see the economy growing, we've done a good job now on taxes, to be able to provide that incentive, it's not a perfect bill, but it's a very good bill, pro-growth. Workforce is one of our huge challenges. Those who have left the workforce and don't even show up on the unemployment numbers, unfortunately we have record numbers among men. The labor force participation rate as your economists at Hoover will call it, is, unfortunately, very low for men. Right now it's historically low. When you combine men and women it goes back to the 1970s, late 70s. We don't wanna repeat double digit unemployment. 50% of those men, roughly, according to recent studies, are taking pain medication, opioids, on a regular basis. 50%. Think about that. So, a conservative estimate, taking these studies, Department of Labor's done work on this, the Fed has done work on this ... By the way, Jay Powell, the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve and I have talked a lot about this. He's very interested in this issue, because he's trying to get more people into the workforce. So this opioid issue, it's effecting all of us. But it's scary how much it is affecting our ability to bring people out of the shadows and into the workforce, to get the dignity and self-respect that comes from work, without dealing with this opioid crisis.
Peter Robinson: Rob-
Rob Portman: Bottom line is. Budget wasn't perfect, I didn't like the increased spending for many of those domestic initiatives. But overall, we had to do this, in terms of the defense side. We had to do it to keep government operating and, I think, on the opioid side, we gotta make sure the money is spent properly, which I'm now working on with others. But that's an important, national priority.
Peter Robinson: Rob Portman, interviewed in 2012 about your tenure as director of OMB. Quote: "I was frustrated... I wanted to offer a balanced budget for over five years but a lot of people didn't." Close quote.
Peter Robinson: Okay. You have argued, I think I can sum this up fairly, if I get it wrong, say so, you've argued that the imperative of the moment is growth. It is increased defense spending. It is, within growth, as a matter of the budget it's small, but it's important to you and important to the country dealing with the opioid crisis. Grant every bit of that. When do we get to entitlement reform?
Rob Portman: Well first of all there's two things we have to do. One is to get this economy growing again and that will create the revenue we talked about through growth and that's what happened in the late 1990s the last time we had a balanced budget on a unified basis as they say, was, frankly, because of growth. And we were very proud of ourselves in terms of the spending side, but that's not what really happened. When you look at it, it happened three years earlier, and it happened because we cut capital gain taxes and $100 billion showed up in the coffers no one expected. And you had growth and you had, in the late 1990s-
Peter Robinson: John Cogan, your friend, and my colleague at Hoover, John Cogan remarked to me, I remember this vividly, during, as George W. Bush was about to take office and we were running a surplus, he said, "Peter, here's the definition of a surplus: the money is coming in so fast that even Congress can't spend it."
Rob Portman: We spend like drunken sailors. Which is an insult to sailors, by the way.
Peter Robinson: But entitlements, yes.
Rob Portman: So, we talked earlier about the budget having two areas, one is the domestic spending, more than half of which is defense. And again, we're at a period in time, once again, where we had starved defense to the point that we were risking our own national security and our ability, again, to promote peace through strength. The other part of the budget is the mandatory side. So-called autopilot. In other words, it's not appropriated by Congress every year as the rest of this is. And that is Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt. Back in the '60s that was about 25% of the budget. Now it's totally reversed, now it's almost 75%, it's probably about 70% this year. And if you look at it in any context, including percentage of GDP, it's growing dramatically.
Peter Robinson: 70% of the federal budget on autopilot.
Rob Portman: Autopilot. Now it doesn't mean that Congress can't act. Obviously these are programs that can be reformed. And everybody knows they have to be. It has to be done on a bipartisan basis, by the way, it simply isn't gonna happen on a partisan basis. It has to be something that improves these programs, it has to be something that protects those people in terms of Medicare and Social Security who are already retired. I think that's a given. But can you do some things? Yes, you can. And there are some reforms out there that are important. That have been initiated in small ways. There's some means testing in Medicare in the budget you talked about. Some additional means testing on Part B and Part D. I support that. Age adjustment, as we're leaving longer and healthier lives, there's discussions about that. It's not bipartisan, necessarily, yet but it can be and should be and will be, I believe, as we look at the options we have. So there are various ways to do this. Ronald Reagan did it last time. The last time it was done in any significant way was 1983 where he and Tip O'Neil decided, you know what, we're gonna take Social Security and we're gonna extend the life by doing a combination of things. And in the 1984 election, you would have thought this would have been terrible politics. In fact, both sides protected the other, because it was bipartisan. That was the year, as you may recall, when Ronald Reagan won all but one state. And some say that he could have won that state but he said, "That's Fritz's state, let's let him have Minnesota." So I think there is a more partisan atmosphere today, it's gonna be harder. But anybody who looks at this seriously understands that we have to reform these important programs, these incredibly important safety net programs and we can. We can improve them. And we have to do it in a bipartisan way. And that's how, ultimately, along with growth ... And keeping the other spending restrained is important, of course there's waste in government, we can do more there. But, if you look at it realistically, why do you rob banks, that's where the money is. If you look at it realistically, you have to deal with the mandatory spending side. I hope we can do that. It won't happen between now and the 2018 election, but I hope in 2019, that can be something we have a bipartisan commitment to do.
Peter Robinson: Senator, let me ... Something that goes against the grain of senators, I know, could I ask for, I'd like to go through a lightning round here. By which I mean I'll ask just an issue, and the question is just: legislative movement between now and November yes or no?
Rob Portman: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Health care?
Rob Portman: Yes, small pieces. Not the overall piece, but the individual mandate is now gone, which was a significant part of the-
Peter Robinson: Is part of the tax reform.
Rob Portman: Is part of the tax reform. Many people didn't even know that. By the way, my constituents know it and they're happy about it. 50% of those people in Ohio, actually 80% make less than 50 grand a year, were affected by it.
Peter Robinson: Immigration?
Rob Portman: Yes, narrow. DACA will be addressed. I don't think it'll be the broad immigration reform package that others would like to see. But we need to deal with DACA and I think it'll happen.
Peter Robinson: The Democrats will get DACA, and they'll give the Republicans what in return?
Rob Portman: Some additional funding for border security. I think that's the likely result. And some of us have legislation to do that.
Peter Robinson: Trade? Earlier this month the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, the Commerce Department recommended wide ranging restrictions on steel and aluminum imports. The Administration has already imposed tariffs on certain goods, including washing machines, I note that Whirlpool has factories in one, two, three, four, five towns in Ohio. But still only on certain goods. But restrictions on steel and aluminum would of course ripple through the whole economy.
Peter Robinson: Wall Street Journal: "The steel and aluminum industries are benefiting enormously from Mr. Trump's economic agenda," growth. "Why would Mr. Trump undercut his achievements with trade barriers?" Close quote.
Peter Robinson: Senator, are you with the Department of Commerce or the Wall Street Journal?
Rob Portman: I don't where the Department of Commerce ends up because they've given the President various options. And we finally got the report last week, which I was really happy to see, because we had no data to be able to make these decisions. Let me tell you an example in Ohio that troubles me a lot. Electrical steel is a very important product for transformers and therefore for our grid. It's an essential material. The last electrical steel manufacturer in Ohio and in the country is AK Steel. Their plant's in Zanesville, Ohio. They report to me, which my staff has looked into and it's true, that there's been a 101% in imports of electrical steel over the last year.
Peter Robinson: The last year?
Rob Portman: The last year. They indicate to me that they will not be able to continue to produce electrical steel if this continues because they can't compete with these low-priced imports. So 232 is meant for national security reasons. I think this is a national security reason. Now that's a very small part of the market, it's a tiny part of the market. And so, my answer is, as I have said to the President publicly, because he brought the media in when he met with us, which was interesting, we got off track a few times, but we ended up focusing mostly on steel and aluminum, but I said, "It oughta be targeted as to country, as to product," so it doesn't have that broad base negative impact you're talking about on those who take steel and process it into something else like automobiles, which are also made in Ohio. But we do need to protect our steel industry, and, particularly, things like electrical steel. The other one is the oil country products, the pipe and tubes. And, there again, there's been a substantial increase, I think it's about a 72% just in the last year of that product. Often foreign exporters getting under the wire, because they know something's gonna happen. Which is one reason we oughta do something, not just announce we're gonna do, but do it more quickly so that doesn't increase the exports coming into our country. But the bottom line is, we need to have a strong economy and steel and aluminum is important to that to keep the prices ... But it oughta be fair. China's overcapacity is driving this, as you know, primarily. And every country in the world realizes it. China was probably 15% of the steel production 14 years ago. It has increased eight times since then. Today, most of the steel in the world is made in China. They do not have the market for it, so they send it to other countries that in turn send it to us. Or they send it directly to us. So they subsidize it. And they sell it below its cost, which means dumping. And those are things that under the international rules are illegal. So we do need to deal with the overcapacity issue. And if we don't, we'll find ourselves, potentially, without an industry that actually is, in some areas, like electrical steel already in risk, at risk of being lost.
Peter Robinson: Is this a fair summary of your position: I, Rob Portman, am a free trader. And you can see that by examining my speeches going way back, in particular my time as US Trade Rep. But I am also the Senator from Ohio. And when an industry in my state gets hurt, it is my job to pay attention. Fair?
Rob Portman: Not necessarily. I would say I'm a balanced trader. I think free trade has gotten us to the point where if you're pure free trader, you wouldn't care about the electrical steel industry, because that's not consistent with free trade. And I do. And I think we all should. So I think it needs to be balanced. I think it needs to be fair in the sense that we have rules and we oughta follow those rules. We should not unfairly restrict trade, and we should expand exports dramatically in this country. We way under export. We should have more trade agreements. I'm a strong supporter of increasing the number of trade agreements and ensuring we don't walk away from the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. Even though it gets a bad name, in some states like mine ... it's incredibly important in Ohio and to our country. We only have trade agreements with 10% of the global GDP. Yet we send 47% of our exports to that 10% of the world. And so to blame trade agreements, which some do, including in the Trump Administration, I think is a big mistake. And by the way, from Ohio, our number one export market is Canada. Number two is Mexico. We send over 50% of our exports just to those two countries. So we can do much more, Peter, to expand exports, knock down barriers to our workers, our farmers, our service providers. And we also oughta, yes, allow fair trade to come into our country, but we ought not to let people to dump their products in our country, which results in losing jobs that otherwise would be there through fair competition. If it's fair, if it's a level playing field, I think we can compete and win now. Particularly with a better tax code, a better regulatory system and a much better energy situation now and into the future.
Peter Robinson: Gun control legislation between now and November?
Rob Portman: Yes.
Peter Robinson: I know this is a recent issue. The shootings are still recent, I believe you haven't worked out your own position in detail yet, but you think some legislation or just executive action?
Rob Portman: I think both. I think both. It's so tragic, what has happened recently in Florida.
Peter Robinson: Something will happen?
Rob Portman: And the other shootings. I think something will happen. I think there's a consensus building around keeping people who shouldn't have guns from getting them. Meaning that the background check system, the national system has lots of leakage. And I think there's other areas where you can find consensus as well.
Peter Robinson: North Korea. You sit on the Committee on Foreign Relations. You are acutely aware that every chief executive since Bill Clinton has attempted to negotiate away the North Korean nuclear program and everyone has failed. And you will be acutely aware that intelligence estimates for at least a decade now have underestimated the speed and the scope of the North Korean nuclear program. You get the classified stuff. Of course you can't share that with us. Do President Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have the situation in hand?
Rob Portman: No. But it's not their fault. It's the fact that you have a government in North Korea that has played not just the United States, but I would say the global community like a fiddle. In other words, they have demanded certain concessions in exchange for talks, you have the talks, and then they don't keep their commitment. This happened to President Clinton, it happened to President Bush, it happened to President Obama. And they're not to be trusted. I'm encouraged by three things. One, the UN putting sanctions in place, the first time we've ever had these global sanctions put in place by the United Nations.
Peter Robinson: That's new.
Rob Portman: And they've done it twice and they're now tightening those sanctions. I think there is room to do even more, particularly on the financial side, that would really help with regard to a handful of Chinese companies that continue to trade with North Korea. That's encouraging. Second, the North Koreans are interested in talking. And the United States typically saying we'll give you concessions for that is saying, we're happy to talk, but we're not looking for concessions to talk, because that hasn't worked. So we're learning from our mistakes finally. And I think that's very positive. And then finally, and I think perhaps most significantly, for the first time in our adult lives-
Peter Robinson: Which you're getting to have lasted a long time-
Rob Portman: A long time now. I do you think have, well, since the Korean War, I think there's been a sense by China that the worst outcome would be American troops on their border. In other words reunification or anything that resolved this issue with North Korea would be negative for them, because just as you have troops today in South Korea, the Republic of Korea, you could have American troops on their border in North Korea. I think that thinking has changed. And I think the thinking now is perhaps the worst situation is the chaos that would result from an unthinkable nuclear war. And the refugees that would streaming across that border from North Korea starving. And so I think they're thinking differently about it. And whether it's blocking the exports from North Korea or not providing imports of coal, or some of the other sanctions that I think can be tightened even further, they're beginning to think about it differently and that's very significant because we have so little leverage. Same with the other countries around the world. China at least has some leverage. So I'm hopeful that even in the next few months we'll see some talks. I'm for talks, actually. I am not for making concessions to have talks. But I think we should be talking.
Peter Robinson: Two last questions. Donald Trump and the character question. Hoover Fellow Victor Davis Hanson on Donald Trump's first year in office, quote: "An impressive record of achievement...The stock market and small business confidence are at record highs. Trump has now ended 66 regulations for every one he has added. And cut the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21%... [and] the ISIS Caliphate is for all purposes extinct," close quote. Add to that Neil Gorsuch and a dozen very good judges now nominated to and confirmed, thanks to the Senate, on the Federal Appellate Courts. And yet and yet and yet he's Donald Trump. October 2016 the Access Hollywood tapes are released and Rob Portman puts on his website a statement. "I had hoped to support the candidate for president my party nominated, but I can no longer support Donald Trump. I will be voting Mike Pence for president," close quote. Policy matter to you, you've just demonstrated that. But character matters to you, too. How does the Republican Party advance Donald Trump's agenda without seeming to excuse or to even in some way embrace his failings?
Rob Portman: Well I think you are honest. And I think when you agree not only let it be known, but you work with the Administration to accomplish great things, including you mentioned the regulatory front, where we worked closely with him on a number of regulatory issues that were unprecedented. We had one example over the last couple decades of using these congressional review acts to eliminate a regulation. We've done 14 in the last year. And you're right, Donald Trump's philosophy in the agencies is if you want to put out a new regulation, you have to get rid of two, which changes the whole thinking of the bureaucracy. So even when he doesn't have political appointees, he's been able to push through a different mentality, which is we're gonna work as a partner to get businesses into compliance, including small businesses, because there are rules that need to be followed. But we're not gonna seek to find them out of compliance so that we can punish them. It's a different thinking. So he's done some things that are very significant where I have supported him, including, obviously on the pro-growth tax reform. But where he has said or done things that I disagree with, I also speak up. And I can give you two dozen examples of that. But because I do, as I did with Access Hollywood, I do find that we have an extremely politically divided country right now. So, you're right, small business optimism based on a recent NFIB survey is all times high. People feel better not just about their future, but the future for their kids in terms of the economy. But they don't feel good about our country overall, because they have very strong views either on the right or on the left and that division is growing and the gap is growing.
Rob Portman: So, some of my constituents tell me when I'm home, as they did this weekend, when I spoke at an annual county Lincoln Day dinner. "Why don't you always support the President, no matter what? Because he's the Republican President, he was nominated by us, he won Ohio." And then that same day, people say to me "Why are you supporting the President?" Because he's saying or doing these things. And my answer is very simple. Again, going back to my initial comment, you're honest. You say where you land and you be an independent voice for your state or your district and I think that serves the country best.
Peter Robinson: Last question. 18 months ago, roughly, you had a decision to make. You could have honorably ended one term in the Senate, and a long a very distinguished, remarkably distinguished, if you'd known him in college, you'd be astonished, career in public service and you could have begun spending more time with your family. And frankly, joining a few boards and expanding your income. And here you are, you've just flown in from Cincinnati to be with us in Washington. You've got an event in New York. You resume, you go back into session, what are you doing? Why did you run for reelection? What keeps Rob Portman at it?
Rob Portman: You've missed a few things about public service that make it even harder. I mentioned the division today. In my office on Friday we received a letter. And when one of my incredibly talented young staffers, a guy named Drew Shaw, who's a great kid, opened up this package, luckily he was doing proper procedure, which is, he had it in a box which helps to ensure that the fumes from a letter are vacuumed out rather than toward him, and white powder went everywhere. And there was panic in the office as you can imagine. And the police were called. And it appears now that it is corn starch. But they won't tell us for sure until probably Tuesday, which is unnerving for me. So I call Drew immediately and tell him how much I appreciate his service and hope he's okay and he's good, he's calm. But you can imagine how this rattles our office. And here's a kid who wants to devote his life to public service. That's his goal. Not necessarily elected office. And the letter, by the way, contained language that I can't repeat. Because otherwise you guys would cut me out of Uncommon Knowledge. But really unfortunate, just again this division is real. And it's on both sides. So public service today is ... And I used just one example. But, Peter, it is an honor. It is an absolute honor. Despite some of the sacrifices that everybody makes in this business, to be able to represent your neighbor and to be able to help make a difference in people's lives, I can't tell you, I feel so blessed to have the opportunity. I've devoted a lot of time to the pro growth tax reform not because, frankly, I'm trying to help big business, they'll be fine. Board rooms will be fine. But it's the workers I know, who I grew up with at Portman Equipment Company, which was a small family business. The mechanic who's on the line. They wanna work hard and play by the rules, but they hope to be able to get ahead. Hope to be able to have their kids have a better opportunity than they've had. And that's not been the case. For the last couple decades actually in Ohio wages have been flat. And yet expenses are up. And Washington seems to ignore it. And so the reason you do these things like the tax reform or the regulatory leave, it's because of that guy or his wife or that woman who works in receivables who has done all the right things and yet can't get ahead. And they deserve our help. And then poverty is driven so much by these issues we've talked about earlier.
Rob Portman: The opioid crisis, also the prison population, people getting out, 95% of prisoners are getting out, we have a record number of people in prison, and they have a felony conviction, they can't get a job. That's another thing that's driving this unemployment number, people who are outside of the workforce. And I've been able, through the Second Chance Act I've authored, I've been able, through some of the opioid work I've done, to actually to really help some of those people. On Thursday I was at a treatment center in Ohio and some of the funds that we sent here from Washington went to leverage private sector dollars, which I love seeing that. Seeing money delivers private sector dollars to start something entirely new which is one emergency room in a large city, Columbus, that focuses on overdoses. Rather than going to a dozen different emergency rooms that also have to cover gunshot wounds and traffic accidents and so on and have a different set up this is just focused on Narcan and saving someone's life by using this miracle drug that reverses the effect of an overdose. But now we have in this emergency room, right next room, in the same building, 50 beds for treatment. Because the huge gap right is people overdose, your firefighters, police officers, are saving their lives. As one of the people who works there told me this week often people are going out into the parking lot and shooting up again. That's dramatic, but certainly within a week, sometimes within a day, people are coming back again and again and not getting into treatment. 80% of the people now that have come into that emergency room that's only been open for a month, they've had 103 people come through already, 80% of them have elected to go into treatment. That number is exactly the reverse of what it is in most places, which, 20% at best. So I got to meet some of those people. And I met a young man who has been an addict for seven years. And he's never sought treatment before. And he's gotten a job, lost a job. Broken up with his wife, lost his family. All the things tearing apart these families is a huge part of this. Committed crimes to feed your habit. I mean that's the number one cause of crime in Ohio is people who are addicted, shoplifting, stealing, fraud, they've got to figure out how to find four or five hundred bucks a day to feed their habit. This young man is now clean. He's gone through detox. It's only been a few weeks, he's very proud of his being sober for 21 days. He's now researching what he's going to do next, he's going to go into a sober living facility, he has chosen to leave the medication assisted therapy he's on now, which is a big step. I believe he's gonna make it. I looked into his eyes. And this is a guy that's got unbelievable promise. He's smart. He actually has a good education. But he fell into this trap that so many people have. And, by the way, four out of five people who die of overdoses in Ohio started on prescription drugs, many of them legally, because of an accident or an injury, something changed in their brain. Others did it to try to find the high at a party or something. But this young man is a great example of that. Of someone who can achieve his God-given ability now because of something that Washington helped to. We provided the seed money for this new experiment. And, again, it's not just about money, it's providing the money in the right way so it's an evidence-based program that actually works. Not just throwing money at something. So that's why it's worth it. And I feel honored and privileged to be able to do it.
Peter Robinson: Senator Rob Portman of the great State of Ohio, thank you.
Peter Robinson: For the Hoover Institution and Uncommon Knowledge I'm Peter Robinson. Thank you.
Peter Robinson: Now applaud.