Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has served in the US Senate since January 2011. Before that, he served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush from 2006 to 2007, and as a member of the US House of Representatives from 1993 to 2005. He also served as White House director of legislative affairs under President George H. W. Bush from 1989 to 1991. In this wide-ranging interview conducted a couple of months prior to his leaving office, Senator Portman discusses his legislative record, his accomplishments, his disappointments, and the changes in the culture of Washington DC, that he has witnessed in his 30 years of service. And he hints at what he has planned for the future.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Peter Robinson: George Will, "The Senator probably will win a second term "despite the fact that he deserves to do so." That was six years ago. The Senator did win a second term. Today, he's just a few months from leaving public office. A dozen years in the Senate, a dozen years in the house, several years in senior positions in the White House. As he prepares to leave public life, what does he want the rest of us to know about the state of our republic? Rob Portman, the gentleman from Ohio on "Uncommon Knowledge" now. Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge," I'm Peter Robinson. After growing up in Cincinnati, Robert Jones Portman attended Dartmouth College as a member of the class of 1978, although he graduated with the class of '79 because he took time off to canoe the entire length of the Rio Grande River. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1984, began practicing law in Washington DC, and soon began a career of public service that would last for more than three decades. Senator Portman, welcome.
Rob Portman: Peter, thanks for having me on again.
Peter Robinson: Actually, I should say thank you, we are meeting in the Hughes Scott room in the United States Capital, and you only get to use the Hugh Scott room if you're a senator, so thank you. Why did you do it the way you did these last 30 years? You graduated in 1984, as I just mentioned, from a very prestigious law school, you could have stuck with the law. Just the other day I looked up what partners in big time firms in this town are pulling down these these days, and it's three to six and $7 million a year. Over the last 30 years you have foregone tens, maybe low tens, but tens of millions of dollars in income.
Rob Portman: Don't tell Jane that, please.
Peter Robinson: Has it been worth it?
Rob Portman: Oh, yeah. Look, I love public service. And, actually, when I left Dartmouth in 1979 I started a public service job, which was to work on a presidential congressional commission under the Carter years, and then under Ronald Reagan. And we reported under Ronald Reagan, and that was my sort of opening to public service, and I realized although you have to go to law school to kind of get ahead in this town, that ultimately I wanted to be in public service in one way or another. I didn't know I'd be in elected office, but I did know that-
Peter Robinson: So you knew early.
Rob Portman: Had a passion for it? Yeah, yeah.
Peter Robinson: Let me ask the same question, but put it the other way around, I'll flip it. Listen to this. You know, this, but listen to this. 1989 to 1993 Associate Council, and then Director of the Office of Legislative Affairs in the White House of President George H. W. Bush. Those are pretty senior positions. 1993 elected to the House of Representatives from the second Congressional district in Ohio, which takes in a big piece of Cincinnati. Reelected in 1994, in 1996, in 1998, in 2000 and 2002, and 2004, 2005 United States Trade Representative in the administration of President George W. Bush. 2006, Director of the Office of Management and the Budget, one of the three or four most important jobs in the entire executive branch, also in the administration of President George W. Bush. 2010, elected to the Senate from Ohio. 2016, reelected to the Senate from Ohio by a margin of more than 21 points. You started in the White House, and you've gone up. And every time you have stood before the people of Ohio and asked for their votes, you've won. You have not lost a single election. So first I asked whether it was worth it, now my question is why are you calling it quits?
Rob Portman: Well, it's a good question because I do love what I do, and I feel truly honored to have been able to do it. And as I tell my constituents back home, you've given me the opportunity of a lifetime to help serve Ohio and our country, and get stuff done. I'm a legislator. Kind of boring, but I'm into actually getting things done, finding that common ground, moving the ball forward, and I've love that. But, having said that, it's time. 12 years in the Senate, 12 years in the house, as you said. I think it's about about time. I also served in both Bush administrations, and I love the public sector, I love my family. I love the opportunity to be back in Ohio full time. I'm 66 years old, so no spring chicken.
Peter Robinson: Don't say such things.
Rob Portman: I think it's time, it's time to try something else. And for me, it's probably gonna be a combination of public service in some way, probably helping from the outside to try to encourage the country to move in a more civil, bipartisan way, because I think that's what's necessary right now, and it's what's missing. And then also the private sector, which I love. I look forward to getting back to that. And then-
Peter Robinson: So you'll be practicing law?
Rob Portman: Perhaps, but I like being on the business side of things rather than law side better, having done both. And we have a family business back home, as you know, the historic Golden Lamb Inn, Ohio's most iconic restaurant, it was recently named. And 13 presidents have stayed there, all Republican, by the way. And I'm proud of that place. And my brother's been kind of picking up the majority of the work there, so I'll be able to help more on that. And look, I just can't wait to be home, and to have more time to focus on the things that are really important in life, which is family and faith. And being able to go out to the farm and do a little bush hogging without worrying I'm gonna get a call from my office saying you've gotta respond to this pesky reporter or whatever.
Peter Robinson: I detect no bitterness, no regret.
Rob Portman: No.
Peter Robinson: You're a contented man. Could we talk for a moment or two, you said, just a moment ago you said you like to get stuff done, so let's talk about the arc of this career. I asked your staff to give me your top two or three accomplishments in the Senate. 13 pages single spaced is what they gave me. During the, you've sponsored 68 pieces of legislation that were signed by President Obama, 82 signed by President Trump. And in just these two years of the Biden administration, 37 pieces of legislation signed by Joe Biden. And these go, I mean, as I say, they're 13 pages. The infrastructure and investment in Jobs Act of 2021, Chips Act earlier this year, Tax cut of '20, on and on it goes. And so I thought to myself, well, we're only going to, we're not gonna do this again, you're only stepping down from the Senate once, so let's go through this, if you don't mind, and let me ask you your proudest accomplishments at various phases of your career as a way of getting at the way you've approached these jobs, the kind of public servant you've been. So you were a young but very consequential member of the staff in the White House of George H. W. Bush, your proudest accomplishment as a 20 and then 30 something member of the White House staff.
Rob Portman: Well, George H. W. Bush was my mentor. He's the one who I looked up to, a decent, honorable guy, and he moved me from the council's office to the legislative affairs job, and I will be very grateful for that, because I really wasn't qualified. But he, he put me at the table. I mean literally at the meetings with members of Congress I would sit there with him, and that was, that was probably the most exciting part. George H. W. Bush was well liked by the staff, and well respected by members of Congress, but he also had this, this passion for how do you find that middle ground? How do you find the common ground between the right and left, Republicans and Democrats? For that he was punished politically, because remember when he said "Despite my pledge of no new taxes, "I think we need to figure out a way "to get the deficit under control." Democrats insisted on raising taxes in exchange for cutting some spending, and he was going to go along with that. So it was an interesting experience for me. I was proud of him. I think he, again, was an incredibly effective executive. He'd already been vice president, he knew what he was doing. He was very good on the, on the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War. I think extremely effective at dealing with Gorbachev, and the realities of that seismic shift. But he also was, was the guy who early on said we gotta figure out a way to find that common ground. And for that I think he didn't win reelection.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: So it was a, it was a good lesson as well.
Peter Robinson: More than a dozen years in the House of Representatives, what stands out?
Rob Portman: Well, you know, it's interesting, as I look back on those days, the things that stand out to me are where you kind of can change the culture or change the approach that our country takes to an issue. And-
Peter Robinson: By the way, I just wanna repeat or note that body has 435 members. I'm just, how do you change anything?
Rob Portman: Yeah, yeah. So early, this early on I was involved on the budget issues and the trade issues and the tax issues, those were my things. I was on the Ways and Means committee, but early on I developed a passion for two things. One was unfunded mandates on the states, and I ended up being the Republican author of the unfunded mandates legislation that actually-
Peter Robinson: You better explain what an unfunded mandate means.
Rob Portman: Well, where the federal government puts a mandate on state or local government, doesn't pay for it. And it used to be really outta control. People think it might be bad now, but we put in place legislation that allowed for the first time ever, and this was sort of a big fight within the Congress at the rules committee level, the ability for any member to raise a point of order if there was an unfunded mandate being placed on a state or local government. The result of that was that all of a sudden unfunded mandates started to disappear, because no one wanted to be subject to the point of order and have to explain themselves publicly as to why they were telling their constituents back home we're gonna force you to do this a certain way from the federal government saying environmental statute, but we're not gonna pay anything for it. You're gonna have to pay for it. And so that was, that was a change in terms of the attitude between our Federalist system, where the federal government had to pull back a little bit rather than sip, dumping things on state and local taxpayers and saying we know best. So to me that was very satisfying. And I was part of the contract with America, thanks to Speaker Gingrich, she put it in there, and we passed it shortly after we got the majority. The second one I'll mention out of, out of, I guess maybe a hundred or so bills that we got passed during that time period, was with regard to the drug issue. In particular, I took a stance early on that we had to change our focus from the so-called supply side on drugs to the demand side.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: Republicans at that time were very good, in my view, on interdiction of drugs, on going to places like Columbia and helping them actually rid themselves of some of their drugs, poppy fields and so on, and good on the prosecution side. But where we were missing the boat, in my view, was on the demand side. And therefore, prevention, education, treatment and longer term recovery. So I passed into law with, again, speaker Greek Gingrich's help, something called the Antidrug Communities Act. So Drug-Free Communities Act. The Drug Free Communities Act said that we ought to encourage more prevention and we ought to help let communities start community coalitions around the country that deal with the demand side of this, not just the supply side. Over 2000 community coalitions later, including one in my hometown that I founded, we began to shift the emphasis from focusing on the supply side only to saying we need to reduce supply, but ultimately what drives us is the demand. It's a very Adam Smith kind of Republican approach, I thought.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: And so did Speaker Gingrich. And so we were able to accomplish something great. We then passed the Drug-Free Workplace Act, the Drug-Free Media Campaign, to allow these media ads to be run. And we really changed in the 1990s the trajectory, which was, at that time the issue was cocaine, marijuana, somewhat heroin, but mostly cocaine. And we really made great progress and reduced substance abuse. So it's like the ocean, the waves keep coming in, never stops. And then later in the Senate I was the lead on the legislation called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which took it to the next level, which is to say not only should we focus on the demand side more, but we should focus more on treating substance abuse as a disease. And what that means is you look at it differently, and you put more emphasis on getting people into treatment and recovery, knowing that you can't just lock people up and expect this to go away, that an addiction has to be addressed. So, again, not a very Republican approach at the time, but now is fairly well acknowledged, I think, as being the right way to do it. Now we need to ensure that we're coming up with new strategies, 'cause once again, after making tremendous progress, a couple years after our legislation passed, you had a reduction of 22%, for instance, in opioid overdoses in Ohio, and around the country they were being reduced. Then unfortunately we were hit with COVID, and those rates went back up again. And now we need to once again redouble our efforts in terms of focusing on this issue on the demand side and the supply side, and also with regard to treating it like a disease, meaning treatment and recovery. So, anyway, that's something that I'm proud of because it shifted people's paradigm and made a difference.
Peter Robinson: George W. Bush, you served as United States trade rep. I suspect that's, that's a position not well understood outside Washington, but it's huge. The elite negotiator for the country on trade. And then you served as director of Office of Management and the Budget, which is the one place where the entire federal budget, I shouldn't say the one place, it comes together up here in a couple of the committees on the Hill, but in the executive branch, it's the director of OMB who produces this budget and looks at it all and has a chance to try to do sensible things. What comes to mind there? What are you proud of in those?
Rob Portman: Well, US Trade Rep job is actually my favorite job in the sense that I was kinda on my own.
Peter Robinson: Of all your career?
Rob Portman: It was pretty interesting, yeah.
Peter Robinson: Oh, really?
Rob Portman: Yeah. And I wouldn't have left except that I was asked to come over to OMB, and I remember the conversation, I said "I'm fine where I am." And then the response was "Well, no, you don't understand, "the president would like you to take another job, "so you have no choice." And OMB was fascinating too in its own way. And a real, as you said, it's a difficult job, it's a grind. I had three teenagers at home, it was difficult to balance it.
Peter Robinson: Oh wow.
Rob Portman: But on the trade job I would say the biggest change we made was with regard to China. When I got into the job, I started a top to bottom review of US/China trade policy, it hadn't been done in years, if ever. And we were able to be tougher on China, and we were sort of ahead of our time in that sense. At that point we had PNTR in place, but China was-
Peter Robinson: PNTR is?
Rob Portman: Permanent trade relationship with China, which brought them into the World Trading System through the World Trade Organization. But China was not following the rules. And so we were able, not just to point that out, but to do more enforcement actions than had ever been done before, including taking China to the WTO for the first time for a successful case.
Peter Robinson: Just on that, the thinking in this town for years, and I have to admit, I can remember it in the Reagan White House, the thinking in this town for years was that if we bring China into the world trading system, first they'll free up their economy and experience economic growth, and then eventually, once they achieve a certain level of wealth, the next thing that happens, it happened in South Korea, and it happened in Taiwan, was that they'll move toward democracy.
Rob Portman: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: And Rob Portman was one of the first people in the town who spotted what was really happening, and it wasn't what we hoped or thought or wanted, correct?
Rob Portman: That's correct. And China has gone through phases, and prior to President G I think they were making some progress along those lines. But back when I was US Trade Rep in 2006, they were unfortunately backsliding on the commitments that they had made. Then they, I think, put some reforms in place that were actually fairly positive, and now they're back to a much more protectionist approach, meaning subsidizing their industries, meaning dumping product in the United States at below its cost. I had been a trade lawyer early in my career in Washington, and so I had some background here and had been on both sides of these trade cases, and I just felt strongly that we weren't calling China to account, that we were assuming that there'd be this miraculous transformation, as you'd seen, I should say, in so many other economies where you have liberalized trade, it leads to a more open democratic-
Peter Robinson: It worked. It was a reasonable hope.
Rob Portman: Yeah, yeah.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: But they didn't play by the rules, and I think that was important. At OMB, one of the jobs is oversight of the agency's departments, which is an endless job and unbounded, and that was fascinating, I loved that part of it. But you do have to put together a budget every year. And my big fight was I wanted to prepare a budget in 2007 that was balanced over not 10 years, but five years.
Peter Robinson: You are a dreamer.
Rob Portman: I was a dreamer. And there was some opposition to that within the White House, and certainly on the hill. One of my advocates was a guy named Hank Paulson, who had six months previously been named Secretary of the Treasury, and we'd gotten to know each other, and had very similar views on this fiscal discipline issue. And next to him, frankly, because there was a bit of a fight, we were able to get that done. So I actually proposed a budget that over five years balanced, now back then it was relatively easy because the deficit was much smaller, and it's a percent of the economy, particularly smaller.
Peter Robinson: And that expansion that started way back in the 80's was still taking place.
Rob Portman: Exactly. The economy was strong.
Peter Robinson: 2008 was when everything changed.
Rob Portman: Right, exactly. And I left before the 2008-2009 Great Recession, and all of the issues that that happened there. But, at that point, we were having good luck in raising revenue, and we had the opportunity to trim spending on the mandatory side in a way that you could get to a balance in five years. So I was very proud of that. Now, Democrats held both chambers at that point, and they weren't particularly interested in what our views were on the budget. And so we would have continuing resolutions every year. And that's one reason I didn't stay in that job, because there wasn't much to negotiate at that point.
Peter Robinson: Right. All right. This brings us to this body, the United States Senate. A dozen years in the Senate. What, can you reduce it to one or two achievements? What are you proudest of here?
Rob Portman: Well, again, you mentioned, I think we've had 60 some bills passed under President Obama and 80 some under President Trump, and then about 40 under this president, so there's been a lot. I guess I'd mention two things. One seems a little obscure, but I think it's really important, and that's how you deal with US companies relative to the international tax systems. It's very complicated. I really dug into that. I was the lead on that in the tax reform efforts. And what happened was, by changing the rules to say that we weren't going to disadvantage American companies, which to me means American workers.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: Which is really the issue that we brought more investment back to America that previously was being retained overseas to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. And we also made American workers more competitive with their counterparts around the world by increasing production here, manufacturing here, and so on. So the tax bill worked. People say "Well, my gosh, big tax cuts, and these deficits. Actually we had more revenue coming in the year after the tax cut and cash reform than we did before. So it actually did increase revenue. But most importantly, despite the reductions to individuals taxes', on the global side, international side, business side, we made America more competitive, so I'm proud of that. And that made a difference. Second, I guess I have to mention the infrastructure bill, because that was a six month exercise of-
Peter Robinson: The infrastructure bill that just passed a single digit number of months ago.
Rob Portman: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Right?
Rob Portman: Yes. And the, during the Biden administration, but it had been talked about for literally five administrations, including the Bush administration where I'd worked, not just the second Bush, but the first Bush administration. And so President Trump had talked about it. You recall he had a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that he was promoting. I recall when some Democrats went down to the White House, wants to meet with him on infrastructure to promote, propose a trillion dollar infrastructure package, roads, bridges, broadband, and so on, his response was two trillion. And they came back shocked. That never happened, but it didn't happen because Congress and the executive branch couldn't get together, and hadn't been able to do so. It wasn't President Trump's fault. I mean, it had been something that had not happened literally for five administrations. And people talked about can't we get back to the days of Dwight Eisenhower, when we started at the interstate highway, can't we make a serious investment in infrastructure over the long haul? And so when President Biden got elected, he proposed such a bill, so he said. It was called the Infrastructure Act. We looked at it on our side of the aisle, and said "This is full of huge new taxes, "the biggest tax increase in American history. "And much of the spending is not about infrastructure, "it's about so-called soft infrastructure."
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: This would be childcare, healthcare, and so on. And so Senator Sinema and I, she's a Democrat from Arizona, looked at this as an opportunity to pull out the core infrastructure, think roads, bridges, railroads, and ports, but also digital infrastructure, broadband, that's core infrastructure, and just do that part, not all this soft stuff that you might want to do in another bill, but it doesn't belong with infrastructure. And at the same time take out the tax increases that would hurt American workers. And by trimming it down and taking out the tax increases, we were able to come together with a compromise. We then went to five Republicans, five Democrats and 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats, and kind of grew it out from the center out, adding people as we went along. And eventually it passed the US Senate with a more than two-thirds majority. And both the minority leader and the majority leader supported it. And it became the law of land. Now, is it perfect? No, it's not exactly what I would've written, but it does move us forward. Long term economic growth will depend on that. And, for me, one of the passions was we have a bridge in Cincinnati, my hometown that I've worked on for literally 25 years that is obsolete, that's carrying twice the number of trucks and cars that it was ever designed to carry that's very dangerous 'cause there's no shoulder anymore. So you're inches away from a semi as you go across it. I went across it this morning, kept my fingers crossed the whole time.
Peter Robinson: Glad you made it.
Rob Portman: It's truly a problem. It's a traffic jam every morning, every night. Huge economic problem for us because it's where 71 and 75 come together. Finally that bridge can be fixed now because we put funding into this infrastructure package adequate to deal with some of our major infrastructure headaches like Brent Spence Bridge. So that's not, the only reason I got involved in, in the legislation, I got involved because I saw an opportunity to find common ground. But it will help in instances like that to make our economy more efficient.
Peter Robinson: Okay, so here's what I get listening to you. Here's what you didn't say, we just went across three decades, and I didn't hear you say I gave an especially memorable speech, I sponsored legislation that got a splash headline in the New York Times, I moved my state or my party or my caucus in a certain ideological direction. You did talk about reframing the way people think about drug abuse, but that was to the extent that that was an ideological accomplishment. It was you bumping into certain rough edges of the ideology of your own party. So that's the kind of senator, that's the kind of public servant you haven't been. And here's the kind of public servant you have been. Here's what you said over and over again, I found a Democrat to work with, I found somebody in the administration I could... I found Hank Paulson. I was getting guff from other, all sorts of angles, people in the White House. I found somebody, we worked together. We found out what we could accomplish. All right, so all of this brings us back to, to something that's a cliche in a way but not, it's something basic, I think. And here, you must have, I'm sure you have this, you've heard this a thousand times, Carl Hayden, the great, I think seven term senator from Arizona, dead now for half a century, but Carl Hayden said, "If you wanna get ahead here in the United States Senate, "if you want to get ahead here, "you have to be a workhorse and not a show horse." And Rob Portman has been a workhorse, and proud of it, correct?
Rob Portman: Yes.
Peter Robinson: All right. Now here's the second quotation. This comes from Ual Levin's book of a year or two ago.
Rob Portman: Yeah, yeah.
Peter Robinson: "A Time to Build." Yuval says today, legislators, Carl Haydens 50 years ago. "Today legislators seek, quote, "a prominent role in the theater of our national politics, "and they view the institution of Congress "as a particularly prominent stage in that theater, "a way to raise their profiles, "to become stars in the world of cable news "or talk radio, to build bigger social media followings, "and to establish themselves as celebrities." That has never interested you, as far as I can tell. We've known each other a long time, that just hasn't interested you. But here's the question, is that now the way to get ahead in the US Senate? Carl Hayden said "If you wanna get stuff done be a workhorse," and Yuval Levin says "Legislators now "want to become celebrities," is that sheer vanity, or is that now a necessary part of doing the job?
Rob Portman: Well, I think you've analyzed it pretty well. Look, I don't know that it's a necessary part of doing the job, because there are plenty of workhorse here who don't focus on the cable shows, and don't give fiery speeches on the floor, don't throw out the red meat, on the right or the left, but instead focus on finding common ground because you have to get 60 votes in the Senate for just about anything. And I think that's good, by the way, I support the filibuster. Because of that, this is helping our democracy to achieve things that are sustainable, bipartisan, as opposed to jerking back and forth between extremes, which is what would happen otherwise. That's an aside. So I think, I think there are plenty of members who continue to be work horses. You don't hear much about 'em, but they're quietly getting things done. They're very important for the people they represent. My view's really pretty simple, and I've had this since I got involved in public service. I think it's an honor to serve, because you get to make a difference in people's lives. So it shouldn't be about you, it should be about them. And I think that your job is really pretty simple, which is you were hired to get something done, to make people's lives better. You weren't hired to be-
Peter Robinson: To become a star.
Rob Portman: Be a talk show host and be a star. Now, on the other hand, honestly, Peter, I think the ascendancy of Barack Obama, and then the ascendancy of Donald Trump leads some people to believe that it's celebrity status that is necessary to be able to achieve the highest political office, which is presidency. And there's an argument that with that kind of celebrity status you can then get things done in a more effective way because you can move your party with you or your team with you. But I think your job as a senator, unless you aspire for the highest office, which many do, as you know, ought to be how do you find that common ground between yourself and your colleagues on the other side? I tend to go to more mainstream Democrats, although I've worked with a number of them that on certain issues are quite mainstream. Ben Cardin, for instance, one of my best friends from Minnesota. We've done more on retirement security than has been done for decades around here. And we've done four bills together over 25 years. We've got another one right now that helps people save more through their IRAs and their 401ks, and helps small businesses be able to have a 401K for their employees. Very important stuff for my constituents, but not the sort of thing that lends itself to a controversial talk show host.
Peter Robinson: A related question.
Rob Portman: Yep.
Peter Robinson: Back in the days of the first, of the elder Bush, when you served in his administration, journalism was one thing, and I can remember having a meeting with David Gergen, this is in the Reagan White House, but George Bush was vice president, and Gergen, the communications director, had in his office a television that HR Haldeman had had built in the Nixon years, and it was two little screens and one big screen. And that was so he could watch all three newscasts at night.
Rob Portman: Right, Right.
Peter Robinson: Three network news programs, The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, sometimes the LA Times. Those were what mattered.
Rob Portman: Yeah, yeah.
Peter Robinson: And on the reporting, there was a certain amount of reporting in all these newspapers, particularly the Washington Post reporting on politics as a game, who's up? Who's down?
Rob Portman: Yeah, yeah.
Peter Robinson: And the leaks from all sorts of places in the White House and elsewhere. All right, that took place, but there was also, I don't wanna sound too pompous, I don't wanna sound even more pompous than I usually do, let's put it that way, but there was serious reporting on the kinds of things, a parliamentary change that has big implications for a major technique the federal government uses to enact its will, to enforce its will on states. That would've been a big story in the old days.
Rob Portman: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Peter Robinson: And the nature of journalism is now, it's not just cable television, where, of course, segment by segment they're, how do we get the audience, how do we sustain the audience to the next commercial? They're in a straightforward business. They need the, they need the eyeballs.
Rob Portman: Yeah, that's right.
Peter Robinson: But even in the print press now in major newsrooms they have screens, what articles are trending, who's getting the most eyeballs minute by minute, by minute. So I'm just trying to think through, it feels as though the nature of journalism, first of all, journalism is one of the incentives that members of this chamber face. I need votes, I need my people to understand what I'm doing. I've gotta get on television, I've gotta get in the news. And somehow the nature of journalism has changed in a way that, that creates bad incentives instead of good ones.
Rob Portman: I give you a specific example of that, I couldn't agree with you more. When I started, so it was 12 years ago, in the Senate, there were several people from Ohio who were here in Washington as Stringers reporting on what we were doing in Washington. When I was in the house, there were 12 people from Ohio.
Peter Robinson: The Cleveland plane dealer used to be a great newspaper.
Rob Portman: They had three people here at one point, and then two, now they have one. But guess what? She is the only reporter from Ohio currently following Washington here in Washington. One, that's it. That's it. So that, I guess is in a nutshell what has happened is that their business model has not worked, they've lost advertisers, I suppose, do they've changed their approach to the point that they really don't follow what we're doing here. When I try to get the press to follow what we're doing in terms of these bipartisan issues, it's very difficult. I remember one day I was going to a press conference with Democrat Claire McCaskill to announce the, the conclusion of negotiations on a permitting reform package, Joe Manchin's brought that issue back to light now, this was after working on it for many years, we finally had an agreement between the Building Trades Union, the National Associate Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, an environmental group. We were gonna actually be able to get a green light to make things, make things in this country more quickly, and to construct a bridge more quickly and to build office building more quickly. It was a-
Peter Robinson: A big deal.
Rob Portman: It was a big deal. And it still is. It established what's called the Permitting Council that's still in effect. I could not get a reporter to come. And I legally ran into a high reporter on my way there, and I said "This is actually pretty big news, "you might wanna follow me." And she said "You know what? "My editors just don't care. "We're gonna follow a political story today instead." So this is what, if you're a legislator focused on results, you have to acknowledge that you're not gonna get much coverage, 'cause it's not controversial, you're just getting something done, that doesn't sell apparently. So what you have to do is rely on your, your own media. And that's fine. I mean, we do a lot of social media. At one point I was, I had more tweets going out than any other member of the Senate, but they were all about policy. And most of the time accompanied with a lot of very negative tweets afterwards on politics. But at least I knew I was getting it out to some in the reporting class, and to some of my constituents. And so that's what you have to do, is you have to kind of do your, do your own thing, let people know what you're up to. And then during a campaign, I ran ads in my last campaign, you mentioned we won by 21 points in Ohio, which is true, but we won because we had accomplished things for the people of Ohio. Human trafficking, Lake Erie, the opioid crisis, the economic growth issues I mentioned. And we specifically did ads. We didn't do any attack ads, we did ads about what we had actually accomplished. And so you can, the ways you can communicate it, but you have to raise a lot of money to do that.
Peter Robinson: But now it's your job, you can't rely on, on the independent media.
Rob Portman: Right. It's just not there anymore.
Peter Robinson: Institutions. We talked about your, we talked about what you've done. Now, if we may, I'd like to talk about what you've seen, and let's begin with the Senate. I'll give you, here's, here's, I found this 19th century quotation, which was the received wisdom about the Senate certainly when you and I were undergraduates at Dartmouth College, and until, in some ways, until almost the day before yesterday it seems. Here we go. This is somebody called Massachusetts Senator George Frisbee Hoar. "The Senate was created that the deliberate will, "the sober second thought of the people "might find expression." I think that's just beautifully put. "It was intended that it should resist the hasty "and temperate passionate desire of the people. "This hasty passion and temperance "is frequently found in the best of men as in the worst. "But when it is excited, "the Senate will resist it." All right, that's 19th century. Here's much more recent, and this is from the memoir of the late Congressman John Dingle, who served for so many years it's hard to imagine that he's actually not here anymore. "The framers required that all states big "and small have two senators. "The idea that Rhode Island needed two, "two US senators to protect itself "from being bullied by Massachusetts "emerged under a system that governed four million American. "Today in a nation of more than 325 million, "and 37 additional states, "it's downright dangerous. "Sparsely populated, usually conservative states "can block legislation supported by a majority "of the American people, that's just plain crazy," close quotes. John Dingle's been dead for a long time, but this argument that the Senate is by its very nature illegitimate is all over the place these days. And how do you reply?
Rob Portman: Well, I liked John Dingle, I got to work with him, I respect him. And by the way, he was a bipartisan legislator.
Peter Robinson: By the way, can I get you to call anybody a son of a bitch?
Rob Portman: Yes. You hit the right name, yeah, I will for sure. But I disagree with him. I mean, first of all, the founders set the Senate up initially to be not just six year terms rather than two year terms, but to be state legislatively elected. We were elected by our state legislatures. So it was meant to be this cooling off body, you know the famous story with Washington and Jefferson, you poured the tea into the saucer cup, and that's the Senate to cool the tea. So it wasn't just that there'd be two from each state, that was more of a federalism compromise. By the way, the Senate, I think with its 50/50 house sort of goes back and forth. But we're squarely, I think, with where the American people is right now, it's a 50/50 country, we're a 50/50 Senate.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: So I don't think that's accurate. But, having said that, I think the most important thing is that over time there has developed this practice that you need 60 votes, not just a mere majority.
Peter Robinson: Explain that. This is a next question. Of course this is an obvious question. The filibuster, can you just, this is public policy 101, just explain what on earth is the filibuster? Somehow we have it in our, I mean, what I picture is during the civil rights legislation, Southern senators getting up and reading the, Wasn't there a famous-
Rob Portman: Yeah, reading the phone book.
Peter Robinson: Strom Thurmond actually read the phone book and managed to keep talking for 20, that was what a filibuster was, when somebody actually stood up and used his right to unlimited debate to hold up a piece of legislation. It doesn't work that way anymore.
Rob Portman: No, people don't feel buster anymore. But what they do is insist that we use this 60 vote margin for most everything now, with the exception of nominations. As you've seen, under Harry Reid they stopped requiring 60 votes for the nominations, for judges as an example, except for the Supreme Court. Republicans came in and then said also the Supreme Court. So now all judges and other executive branch personnel can be passed out of the Senate with, with 50 votes plus one.
Peter Robinson: The 60 vote rule is because anybody could, there's a kind of permanent implicit threat to filibuster.
Rob Portman: Right, right.
Peter Robinson: If anybody did filibuster a vote of cloture to shut him up would require 60 votes-
Rob Portman: 60 vote, 60 vote mark, yeah.
Peter Robinson: So that's become so common that now it's just assumed you need 60 votes-
Rob Portman: Exactly.
Peter Robinson: To get anything.
Rob Portman: Exactly.
Peter Robinson: That's the way it works.
Rob Portman: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: It has worked. So the cloture vote of 60 votes is what people have fallen back on. I would make the strong argument that it is not anti majoritarian, it is pro-democracy in the sense that by requiring 60 people to come together in the Senate rather than just 50 plus one, if you have the presidency, that you require that legislation be more, obviously bipartisan, more reliable and sustainable so you aren't going back and forth. I mentioned the pendulum swinging on issues like healthcare or like taxes. You would have the majority doing one thing, and then two years later majority doing something else. And it requires, even in the House of Representatives, for people to think about legislation that might be viewed as too extreme. When I was in the house, as an example, I was a significant legislator, so I was thinking about this a lot and thinking, okay, it's great if we can pass this bill in the house, but how do we get it through the Senate? We have to find 60 votes in the Senate. By the way, Republicans have never had 60 votes in the Senate. Democrats have only had it very rarely, including under Barack Obama briefly when they passed the Obamacare legislation.
Rob Portman: So we shouldn't think of it as a filibuster, we should think of it as the bipartisanship rule.
Peter Robinson: It's a bipartisanship rule.
Rob Portman: It almost always forces you to get two parties, some members of both parties.
Peter Robinson: And some members. And, again, I've passed a lot of bills this way, but you can find 10 Democrats along with all Republicans or 10 Republicans with all Democrats, so you don't need everybody. But typically what you want is something more like the infrastructure bill where we had roughly 35 on each side voting for it. And in the end we had more Democrats and Republicans on Filibusters. So that's, it was more than 35 Democrats, but there were more than half of the Republicans were supporting it too. And you end up with something that I think makes more sense for the country. It still has to be passed in the house. It still has to be signed into law by a president. So they still have significant say in this. And the presidents over time have vetoed plenty of bills that have come out the Senate with 60 votes. You have to get the two-thirds vote to override that veto in the House and the Senate. But my point is for those who are now saying the filibuster is anti-democratic, I would, I would, I'd be very cautious. I mean, it's true that Democrats are in a situation right now where with the vice president's breaking the tie, they could get a lot done, what they wanna do on gun control or abortion or taxes, tax increases or healthcare. But watch out what you wish for, because a couple years from now, it could be the shoe on the other foot, and you would see again the exact opposite. And, again, moving-
Rob Portman: Or as early as-
Peter Robinson: Back and forth, back and forth.
Rob Portman: As early as next January. It's not, there's some polls that show that it's not out of the realm of possibility that Republicans might narrowly recapture the Senate.
Peter Robinson: Absolutely, absolutely.
Rob Portman: This November.
Peter Robinson: Yeah, yeah. We would do the same thing. Now we'd be subject to a veto over the next two years, but after that who knows. And so I think it's, I think it's smart for us to continue to view the Senate as a place where we have to try to find compromise and find that common ground. And if you take this away, again, you're gonna have legislative issues swinging back and forth. And that's bad for-
Peter Robinson: It'll give people back, would give the political class in Washington the right to yank around the rest of the country.
Rob Portman: Yep. Yep, yep. Yep. So I'm hopeful that we'll be able to hold. One of the concerns I have about this election coming up, Peter, that's not talked about enough in my view, is that it's not just about who has the majority in the Senate. Right now it's a 50/50 Senate. Some think Republicans will gain the majority, as you said, it just requires one seat after all. So let's say we won a seat in Georgia and kept the other seats. It could also go the other way. The Democrats could pick up one seat. The Democrats were telling me if they pick up two seats, which is not impossible given the fact that we have more Republicans running than Democrats this year, and it's the, the climate is uncertain, pick up two seats, what they're most excited about is not having the majority, which they already have, but doing away with the filibuster because there were only two Democrats who dared stand up against-
Peter Robinson: Joe Manchin and your friend-
Rob Portman: Kirsten Sinema.
Peter Robinson: Kirsten Sinema.
Rob Portman: Yeah. And this is despite the fact only several years ago, during President Trump's administration, over 60 of us signed a letter, including me, saying we are not interested in getting rid of the filibuster, which included about 30 Democrats. I don't have the exact number.
Peter Robinson: Because at that time it was Chief Executive President Trump who said, "What's the point of this filibuster?"
Rob Portman: Yeah. He wanted us to do way with it, and a bunch of us stood up. Now, all but two of those Democrats who signed the letter are now saying forget that, now that we have President Biden we wanna get rid of the filibuster. So I think it's not principled, I think it's bad for the country, and my hope is that they will not prevail.
Peter Robinson: The House and Senate alike, Congress, the legislative branch as an institution, take a look, if you would, at this chart. You've got the three branches set up by the Constitution, you've got the cabinet offices, and then you've got endless names here of independent agencies, regulatory agencies. I say independent, they're different legal regimes under which they operate. But, well, let me just, here's a quotation from someone called Jeffrey Tucker of the Brownstone Institute. The lower two-thirds of this chart is increasingly the government as we know it, and its power is unaccountable. Jeffrey Bergner of the University of Virginia. "Since the 1970s, I think Congress has become "hopelessly inefficient and ineffective. "There is in the Constitution a notion of non delegation. "It's the Congress that's supposed to be responsible "for passing all legislation. "This has long since ceased to be the case," close quote. The Congress of the United States, to which you have devoted the prime years of your life, although you still look pretty good. I say this because we're only months apart in age, of course. The Congress of the United States, to which you've devoted much of your life, has abdicated responsibility to the permanent bureaucracy or the deep state.
Rob Portman: I agree. I agree. So we mentioned earlier-
Peter Robinson: You're supposed to cheer me up a little.
Rob Portman: Well, here's one solution, which is bipartisan. It's a bill that Senator Warner, who's a Democrat, and I have proposed over the years, and it says that independent-
Peter Robinson: Mark Warner of Virginia.
Rob Portman: Mark Warner of Virginia, says that independent agencies should be subject to the same regulatory reform, regulatory review process as an executive branch agency. Because these independent agencies think of all the alphabet soups, the FECs and FTCs and SECs and so on. They are not subject to those rules, so that they're able to regulate in ways that often is taking power from the executive branch and significantly from the congressional branch, from the legislative branch. So we think they should be subject to the rule making, and this is the OIRA function, which is a function within the Office of Management Budget.
Peter Robinson: OIRA stands for?
Rob Portman: Independent agents, Independent Agency, Office of Independent Regulatory and something affairs.
Peter Robinson: All right.
Rob Portman: So it is a place where you look at new regulations, you say this meets the cost benefit analysis or doesn't. And often these independent agencies put rules out there that have huge costs and relatively small benefits in my view. And they're, again, usurping this power, but also acting almost in a, in a rogue fashion. So I think they should be brought in to this process. They are not now, because technically they're independent. So I think that's part of the answer. Part of the answer also is for Congress to legislate with more precision. And right now we've passed legislation often that is very broad and give enormous powers to the agencies to be able to implement the legislation. We should instead be saying okay, this is our intent, clear intent, and writing more prescriptive legislation. It requires us to do more work here, to have more experts here. But that's how the founders intended it. They didn't intend on elected representatives to decide big issues. There's a case recently about the EPA, EPA versus West Virginia that came out that is pulling that back, so the Supreme Court has stepped in and said, you know what, Congress did not delegate all these powers to the EPA to be able to regulate at the state level, that should be something that is done by the states or by the elected representatives themselves.
Peter Robinson: Would you agree that there's an opportunity here? I'm trying to talk you into sticking around. The current composition of the Supreme Court you could argue about their, on this position, that position, the abortion pos, set that aside. On non delegation, on the responsibilities of Congress and on what should be the much more limited responsibilities of that vast sprawl of agencies that lie south of this building. There's an opportunity to get worked on.
Rob Portman: There's definitely an opportunity.
Peter Robinson: Because the Supreme Court is now in a mood to backstop it, isn't that right?
Rob Portman: Yeah, absolutely. And there are a couple of, of doctrine, for instance there's a Chevron doctrine, probably cases where the court has decided how much power the agency has to interpret its own rules, for instance. But my strong view is this needs to come back to Congress, because we're the elected representatives, we should do our work. It requires, again, more time and effort. There are some who say that our economy and our society generally is so much more complicated today that it's impossible for Congress to do this job. I feel that the answer to that is to provide Congress with the wherewithal to do it and to be held accountable for it, because these agencies are not held accountable. So I think the court, the hour doctrine, the Chevron doctrine, to look at their own precedent, I think they're going to continue to say, you know what, this is really a function of the legislative branch, not the unaccountable executive branch agencies.
Peter Robinson: From Congress to the state of the Republic, and I have in mind, again, this broad sweep of more than three decades, but you've seen the budget. In 2007, when you were director of OMB, the annual federal spending was 2.8 trillion. You probably have all this memorized, 2.8 trillion or 19% of GDP. Today federal spending has more than doubled to 6 trillion or 26% of GDP. In 2007, again, when you were running the federal budget, the federal debt stood at 9.2 trillion or 63% of GDP. And if Congress had had the wits to enact your budget it would've begun to decline. Today the debt has more than tripled, more than tripled to 30.8 trillion or 135% of GDP under Republican and democratic presidents alike, under Republican and democratic majorities on the hill alike, spending just keeps rising. Why, why, what can be done?
Rob Portman: Well, three thoughts. One, I think economists who at one time were worried about deficit spending and said deficits matter were thought to have been proven wrong because these huge deficits and the accumulation of debt didn't seem to be affecting our economy. In fact, until the pandemic, as you know, we had a growth spurt where we had the lowest unemployment we'd had historically for many groups, and overall very, very low, 3.5%. We had wage growth, 3% or more per month for 19 months.
Peter Robinson: So called new monetary theory. Fiscal policy doesn't matter, and by the way neither does monetary policy.
Rob Portman: Yeah, monetary policy doesn't seem affect-
Peter Robinson: Just flood the system with liquidity, the economy keeps growing and inflation stays low.
Rob Portman: And we were the cleanest dirty shirt in the closet, meaning that America was viewed as a country that despite our debt, which is relatively high compared to other countries, not as high as Japan, as a percent of the economy, not as high as some other countries, but, but relatively high debt, we seem to be doing the best in terms of entrepreneurship.
Peter Robinson: So foreign capital still came in.
Rob Portman: Lots of capital.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: Yeah. And the tax changes helped a lot, by the way, in bringing investment back here. Investment coming to the United States to take advantage of the immediate write off, as an example, the lower rates and so on. Anyway, so I think that's, that's one of the issues is that for those of us who are more fiscal hawks, it's tough to make the argument sometimes. Second, the mandatory spending is where you see this huge increase. So mandatory spending simply means that it's on autopilot and it's spending for social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a few other programs add to that, and interest on the debt, which Congress doesn't appropriate every year that is based on the eligibility for the program. So if you're eligible for Medicare you get the funding. And those are the third rail of American politics, the electrified rail of the New York subway system, you grab it and you're dead, traditionally. So that's the political reality is that the spending you're talking about is driven almost exclusively in terms of the increase in spending relative to GDP by the mandatory side. So in the 1960s it was roughly 25% of spending. Now it's roughly 70% of spending is mandatory. Think about that. So, and that continues to grow, so it's the fastest growing part-
Peter Robinson: It's another species of Congress putting things on autopilot.
Rob Portman: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: 70% of the budget.
Rob Portman: Exactly.
Peter Robinson: We don't worry about.
Rob Portman: Yeah, we don't, we don't affect.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: And the biggest part of what remains is defense spending, where Republicans wanna ensure that we continue to have the ability to project force and that we keep a competitive advantage relative to China and Russia and other places. So that's sacrosanct too in a sense, and I think should be. So it's a relatively small amount you're working with. Agencies and departments, and that spending can be reduced, no question about, it can be more efficient, but it won't solve the problems. A little like global warming. If you don't solve the problem in China and India and Brazil and elsewhere, you're not gonna solve the overall problem. So, and then third, I would say there are some proposals out there that might be worth talking about for a second. I'm not suggesting they're gonna be immediately helpful, but there's something called the trust Act that's Bipartisan. Angus King and Mitt Romney have supported it. And they're the primary authors. I'm a supporter. There are probably seven Democrats, seven Republicans now. And it's to take every one of these trusts, every one of these-
Peter Robinson: Highway Trust-
Rob Portman: Highway Trust. Social Security Trust Fund, Medicare Trust Fund, and to do an analysis of it and come up with recommendation, taken back to Congress for an up or down vote. My my own view is that social security's the place to begin because-
Peter Robinson: Begin?
Rob Portman: To begin because although it has a lot of political issues connected to it, it's also one where it's a matter of math. Healthcare costs are difficult to contain without a lot of policy changes. With social security it's a matter of what should the formula be? How much payroll tax should you pay? What should the age be? And I think we could come up with something that would keep Social Security solvent into the future, much as Tip O'Neal and Ronald Reagan did.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: Rather than this trust fund going insolvent in 2032, 2033, 2034, depending on the analysis, but very soon you would see a 24% reduction in people's social security spending unless you make a change. So my hope is that's the one, and, that we start with. And it's not gonna be easy. On the other hand, if you take care of people who are currently retired or near retirement, and you're talking about the future, most young people don't think they're ever gonna be able to receive Social Security because they get it, they look at these numbers, they're smart. And so I think this is one where we have a great opportunity to make a change for the future.
Peter Robinson: Drug abuse, in particular opioids. The Centers for Disease Control, CDC, publishes figures that, as far as I can work out, go back to 1999. In that year, again, 1999, about 18,000 Americans died of overdoses. By 2020, that figure had risen to almost 92,000. Over that period, the rate of overdose deaths per 100,000 Americans rose from 1.5 to 13.3, and in Ohio, between 1999 and 2016, the rate rose from 1.5 to 33. This is horrifying.
Rob Portman: Very disturbing.
Peter Robinson: We hear a great deal about deaths of despair, is, we have in the southwestern part of your state, that's country that used to be industrial and has de-industrial, is that what's going on? People just don't have jobs, so they turn to drink and opioids, or what is happening here?
Rob Portman: Well, it's a much longer discussion, and, as you know, I've been working on this issue for 25 years or so, including starting my own anti-drug coalition back home that's still very active. I was, I chaired it for nine years. I was on the board before I ran for the Senate. So I'm very discouraged by these numbers. But one thing you didn't say is that in Ohio and most other states, in 2017 and 2018 and 2019, we saw something very interesting, which we saw the numbers begin to shift. I mentioned there was a 22% decrease in overdose deaths in one year in Ohio, that was 2018.
Peter Robinson: And then COVID blew it all apart.
Rob Portman: COVID came in and blew it all apart, partly because people couldn't have access to their training session with a recovery coach, where you had somebody else who had been through this and could help them through it, they couldn't get the treatment that they needed. They couldn't go to a longer term recovery setting because people were not coming into group settings, and despair and losing their job. And family members passing because of COVID. So there was a lot of factors, and as I've probed experts, everybody has a little different perception of it. But the fact is COVID took the rates back up. During that time period something else happened, which goes against what I said earlier about let's focus on demand, not just supply, because we're Republicans, we're conservatives. We believe that you gotta deal with the demand side.
Peter Robinson: Of course.
Rob Portman: Not just the supply, because it would be this insatiable demand for these drugs unless we focus on that. But the supply side expanded dramatically in 2021, 2022.
Peter Robinson: This is fentanyl?
Rob Portman: This is fentanyl primarily, although all drugs are coming across the southern border, cocaine, heroin, meth. But the big change is that instead of this opioid called Fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid coming in mostly from China directly to the United States through the mail system, and I wrote the legislation called the Stop Act to stop that, it worked pretty well to the point that-
Peter Robinson: Now they're coming in-
Rob Portman: It shifted. Whack-a-mole. So we stopped it here, now it's coming in through Mexico. And just yesterday there was a young man, apparently an American, but at a border checkpoint who was found with enough fentanyl pills taped to his, his legs to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. So these drugs are flowing across the southern border now to the point that it makes it less expensive on the streets of Cincinnati or Columbus or Cleveland or your town, wherever it is. So the demand side is the most important single thing, but the supply matters. And we've got to tighten up the southern border, not just because of the unprecedented numbers of illegals coming across, but because of the unprecedented amount of drugs that's flowing, surging across the border now. And Mexico is changing this formula, they're making into pills that look like Xanax or look like Percocet or look like Adderall, and people are taking these pills, buying 'em on the street, unfortunately.
Peter Robinson: And it's killing a lot of them.
Rob Portman: And it's killing them because they're heavily, heavily laced with fentanyl. So the message clearly is don't ever buy any drug except in a pharmacy that's approved, otherwise, you're risking your life. I gave a speech at Ohio State's graduation this year, and a week before I gave the speech two Ohio State students were killed taking Adderall, so they thought apparently, laced with fentanyl. So, Peter, the answer is elusive because it's a lot of different factors, but at a minimum we've gotta do a better job on the demand side, the treatment and recovery side, and the education side. I want a national campaign on this issue of these pills because they're a scourge and they're an epidemic. But, second, we do have to do something on this supply side, and this is where I'm so frustrated with the Biden administration not getting control of the border.
Peter Robinson: The American family. 1995, the proportion of kids under 18 who lived in single parent homes was about one quarter, today that's up to one third. The out of wedlock birth rate today is over 70% among African Americans, over 50% among Hispanics, and almost a third among whites. The government has tried transfer programs, after school programs, tax credits, and it hasn't worked. The American family, I suppose you could say, well, we're redefining the family, all right, maybe so, but what it looks like, what you have to say for sure is that the notion of the nuclear family, where two parents raise kids until the kids go, leave home, is dissolving. And it's hard to think of a government program that can set things right if a kid has been raised by single parents. Still worse if a kid has been raised by single parents, forced to attend a school that doesn't function because teachers unions won't permit a charter school in that district, in a neighborhood where drugs are, all right, you get the picture. These are serious problems that seem somehow or other to lie beyond the reach of government, is that right?
Rob Portman: Yes and no. I mean-
Peter Robinson: All right.
Rob Portman: Culture is a difficult thing to, to change, but government policies sometimes encourage certain behavior. You mentioned the transfer of payments. So if you are attaching to each child a transfer payment and you have more children then it's a benefit. I think we have looked at that issue relative to welfare reform and made some changes, and allowed the states to have much more of a say in that, I think it helped. Again, I look back at what, what has worked.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Rob Portman: And in 2018, again, what worked was more on the drug issue, more prevention, more treatment, more recovery, and we actually had a nice drop off, then it shoots back up again during the pandemic. What has worked in terms of welfare reform, and in terms of providing the proper incentives for families-
Peter Robinson: You realize that that test, what has worked as opposed to what sounds good, sets you apart from some large number of your colleagues on this?
Rob Portman: Well I don't, yeah, I don't know that, but I think often we don't spend much time talking about that.
Peter Robinson: Yeah.
Rob Portman: As an example, teen pregnancies, unwed mothers, we've made tremendous progress there as a country. And it happened partly because of an education campaign, partly because of federal funding and providing an incentive for women not to get into that position. I mean that's a success story that's never talked about. Just as some of the success stories dealing with people's healthcare and disease, not just here in this country but globally. We've made tremendous progress here, which is, Bill Gates' point is that things are like, they're going to hell in a hand basket, but look at what we've done in terms of, of the AIDS epidemic here in America. Also PEPFAR nationally or globally.
Peter Robinson: PEPFAR is the-
Rob Portman: It's the-
Peter Robinson: AIDD program. Sorry, go ahead. I can't remember the, I can't begin to remember what the acronym stands for.
Rob Portman: Well, it's the program that George W. Bush as a Republican started to try to help encourage other countries around the world to use these medications to get people so that they weren't dying of AIDS, but could live with it. And presidential initiative that made a huge difference. But anyway, my point is, let's look at what works in terms of the, the broader cultural issue, though, the family is the building block, right? And government can never replace that, the government can come up with better policies to encourage it.
Peter Robinson: Okay, one more sort of policy area defense. Couple of quotations here. Secretary of State, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a 2020 address. "What's happening now isn't Cold War 2.0, "the challenge of resisting the CCP, "Chinese Communist Party, is in some ways more difficult. "This Cold War with China's tougher "than the Cold War with the Soviet Union. "That's because the CCP is already "enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, "and in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was." Quotation two. This is from author Gordon Chang, and this is in an interview just a couple weeks ago. "One year ago China issued a statement saying "that when they invaded Taiwan, "not if, but when, "the island would fall within hours, "and the US would not help. "The Chinese believe that disarray "in the Western coalition "really means that coalition is ineffective, "and I think the Chinese believe "they can do what they want," close quote.
Rob Portman: Perhaps the most important aspect of the brutal, illegal, totally unjustified war in Ukraine is that it brought the West back together. And I'd use the West in the broadest sense.
Peter Robinson: And you'd include Japan.
Rob Portman: I would include Japan-
Peter Robinson: South Korea-
Rob Portman: Australia and New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore. I mean it's incredible what has happened. So you have 50 countries that are providing weapons to Ukraine. I don't know if 50 will provide weapons to Taiwan, but some will, including the United States, in my view, to be able to defend themselves. But the point is I think Putin thought he was going to divide NATO. In fact, he brought NATO together, and actually Finland and Sweden coming into NATO makes it even stronger, not weaker. So I think the world has mobilized in ways that no one expected. And, America, to our credit, although we've been imperfect in how we've done this, I wanted to do more earlier on, but we have been, as John F. Kennedy once famously wrote, the WatchGuards on the walls of world Freedom. We've been the leaders. And that, I think China must look at it and think maybe our analysis wasn't correct, even if that was what they thought previously. Maybe if we do this people will see that this is also unjustified, illegal and certainly brutal because the Taiwanian people are gonna fight back.
Peter Robinson: So there's a kind of feeling in the air. Well, compared to the 1980s, when you and I were both kids in this town, the United States is richer, a lot richer from 1985, our per capita GDP and constant dollars, constant dollars has grown from 35,000 to 61,000, an increase of 74%. This country does know how to create wealth, but in all kinds of other ways, family life, drug use, the state of our schools, our standing in the world, the competence of the government. The United States is worse off today than it was when you got your job in the administration of George H. W. Bush. Do you buy that? Do you feel, does this feel like the last days of Rome or Berlin between the wars? Are our best days behind us?
Rob Portman: No, absolutely not. And American people are incredibly resilient, but also entrepreneurial, hardworking. When given the chance people do pretty darn well on their own. It doesn't mean government doesn't have a role to establish the parameters. You know, the structure for success, government has a huge role, but it does mean that we are very blessed to live in a country where people are willing to take a risk and grow something for themselves and their family, but also for others. I saw my dad do this. He was, a young guy in his late 30's, started his own business, lost money the first few years, and had five employees. My mom was the bookkeeper, ended up with a company of almost 300 people. And why? What motivated him? Helping those people to develop their careers and to help their families. And that's still out there. That's the America I grew up in. That's the America that I think is still there. So, with all of the bad news, there's plenty of it, and all the dysfunction we see in government, the American people are incredibly strong and able, through their own devices, to be able to make progress for our country, because, again, building block of our country is our families. The second building block is our communities and how we work together. And government has a limited but important role, but I'm ultimately optimistic about where we're headed. I think our biggest challenge right now is the fact that we can't seem to get out of our own way in terms of the polarization, and dividing our country. I think still the vast majority of Americans are in the middle helping neighbor to neighbor when there's a disaster and watching out for people. But there is this, this issue we've gotta resolve, which is making fellow Americans an enemy. We can have opposing political views, that's fine, but I think what social media has done and what cable TV has done is whipped up this frenzy on one side or the other that makes it more difficult to solve our problems in America and to make progress. So that's the bigger issue that I see that we have to, we have to calm things down a little bit. And I don't think COVID helped, by the way, I think COVID made it more challenging in many respects, but as long as we can figure out how to talk to each other and continue to have that, that national sense of pride in our country and who we are, we'll be fine.
Peter Robinson: Last questions. Two quotations here. One is Senator Rob Portman's speaking on the Senate floor December 2018 to mark the death of President George H. W. Bush, quote, President Bush brought-
Rob Portman: Brought me into his White House when I was a young man trying to figure out my way in life, and I would not be in this crazy business of politics but for him, not just because he gave me opportunities to work for him, but because he showed me that you could do this work of public service and politics with honor and dignity and respect. He showed that nice guys can finish first.
Peter Robinson: Second quotation, the Washington Post, Dan Balz writing about you. "Portman was not built for these political times," close quote.
Peter Robinson: Senator, American politics has become permanently cruder and nice guys can no longer finish first, the gentleman are gone.
Rob Portman: I just respectfully disagree. You mentioned that we were able to prevail on our last election, but I've been fortunate, I've never lost an election in the house. I never won one by less than 70% in the Senate. I won by 18 points and 21 points by talking about bipartisanship, getting things done, and going directly to the voters and letting to know what I'd done and what I thought about the issues, and I think there's room for that, I really do. I don't believe that it's as easy as it used to be because there is more partisanship and kind of shirts and skins, but as I said a moment ago, I mean, I think our goal as a country ought to be to figure out yeah we're gonna have different political views, and we're gonna have different views on cultural issues, but how do we come together and move the country forward? And I think there's still a role for that.
Peter Robinson: Last question. When you and I were undergraduates at Dartmouth College, here's what it was like. There were both sessions in dorms late into the night about the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate. In the fall of 1976, we all gathered in Webster Hall to watch the Carter versus Ford debate on what was then an amazing technology, this huge screen that you could watch on television, politics mattered. Half of our classmates wanted to be senators. I actually, I envied you until I worked out how much money you've given up by being in the Senate. Today, what undergraduate would want to subject himself to the acid bath of politics when there's money to be made in tech and finance? What would you say to, what would you say to some 21 or 22 year old Dartmouth undergraduate about whether, whether, why public service still matters, for that matter why in this era of globalization the United States still matters as an entity? Why does it matter?
Rob Portman: Well, you have just laid out what is going to be one of my missions when I get out of this place. I'm gonna set up an institute, a center to try to let young people know that there is honor in public service, and that you can do it in a way that's high integrity with decency, and that you can get things done for your neighbors in ways that are possible in the private sector, certainly, but different, and in some respects more impactful. So that's part of what my, what my challenge is gonna be is to say don't look over there at the shiny object, the constant controversy on MSNBC or Fox News or others, but instead look at what you can do, whatever your passion is, if it's healthcare, if it's education, if it's tax policy, if it's looking at some of these tougher issues like the drug, substance abuse problem. I mean there's opportunities to serve and it's very fulfilling. And so I'm gonna talk about that, and hopefully generate some, some interest in it. I mentioned George W. Bush, having worked for him, and his dad, George H. W. Bush, both of these guys were in public service for the right reasons. And they woke up every morning thinking what can I do to help move the country forward, not what can I do to help me? And I think that's, that's honorable, and that's still out there. So I would, I would say to those young people politics may look ugly, but it's really about public service, it's not about politics. And politics is sort of a necessary evil to become elected to go into public service, assuming you wanna go the electorate route, that's not for everybody, but it's all ultimately about public service and that is honorable. And to America's role in the world, we continue to be that beacon of hope and opportunity for the rest of the world, no question about it. If you travel, you see it, but sometimes the media doesn't report it, but people vote with their feet. I mean, look at the couple million people who have come across our border in the last year alone trying to find opportunity here. They should come legally and properly, but it's an example. People look at the United States still as that leader. And with regard to Ukraine, again, 49 other countries are involved in providing military supplies, but many of them wouldn't be there without us. I would say most of them would not be, because, again, American leadership is what's looked to, not till we do everything, and we should do it as a coalition. It's sort of like the sheriff getting the posse together rather than the world's police officer. But that's our role as a country. And I mentioned John F. Kennedy earlier, he was meant to give a speech on the afternoon that he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and it was to the Dallas World Affairs Council. And in that speech he was supposed to have said, We in this generation by destiny rather than choice, are the WatchGuards on the walls of world freedom, by destiny rather than choice. I mean, look, we were established as a country based on this ideal of self-government and freedoms. And from the start we had grandiose ideas of what America could stand for uniquely in the world at that time. And look what's happened since. So many other countries have adopted our democratic values, and our search for freedom for all of our citizens, and that, we're imperfect, we've made-
Peter Robinson: We still offer a better deal than China, a better example to China.
Rob Portman: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Peter Robinson: Not close.
Rob Portman: Oh yeah, not close. And the Chinese example is one of, again, under the current presidency of increasing concern about internal strife in that country and unhappiness with the direction of the country and lack of freedoms because people see it on cable TV or news or on online. So I think ultimately our model, not just prevails, but America continues to, to lead the world. And, again, it requires us to get our act together here at home in terms of not fighting each other so much, but rather figuring out how to work together to get things done to move our country forward.
Peter Robinson: How do you wanna be remembered? In one sentence.
Rob Portman: Oh gosh, I don't know, just as somebody who, who tried to find common ground and move the country forward.
Peter Robinson: Rob Portman, the gentleman from Ohio. Thank you.
Rob Portman: Thanks Peter.
Peter Robinson: For "Uncommon Knowledge," the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson. Thank you.