Sen. Mitt Romney speaks with Managing Editor Bryan Schott about how extreme partisanship in Congress is preventing bills from passing. He also talks about the exploding federal deficit, whether he is worried about the economy tipping into a recession, his work on an alternative to Obamacare and whether he would try to buy Greenland.
Highlights of our conversation with Sen. Romney:
After 8 months in office, is there something about the job he finds surprising?
I knew intellectually how Washington works, and yet getting there it is very clear for anything to become a law. It requires Republicans and Democrats to agree.
You can't push through the agenda of one party alone without the other party on board. And both parties have to feel it's a win. If the Democrats feel something is a loss for them and a win for Republicans, they will not support it and it won't become law. And that's not just because there's a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. It's even if you had just the Senate making the decisions, you have to have 60 votes in the Senate and Republicans have 53. So you need Democrats to vote for it. And we're simply not going to have laws created in our country unless we have a meeting of the minds in the center and people on both sides agreeing.
How do you have those discussions when everyone is focused on winning?
The only thing that will get done or things that are not political that are not partisan. So we pass legislation on a land bill for instance, that related to the management of public lands and the traded property between the states and federal government and so forth. That can be done on a bipartisan basis. We pass legislation on opioid addiction which was not a partisan issue. Right now we're working on legislation to reduce the price of prescription drugs and to end so-called surprise billings. Again, those things can be done and we work collaboratively on those things. But if there's a highly partisan issue, let's say immigration or taxation it's very hard for something to happen because neither party has figured out a way to find a common ground.
Major divisive issues have been resolved in the past when when a president has taken on his own party. I think back to Lyndon Baines Johnson and the civil rights act of 1964 where he went after his own party and said, we're going to do this. And then he took Everett Dirksen, the Republican and said, I'm giving you credit for what's done here. So he, he found a way to make it a win for Republicans and a win for himself and a win for the country. And that's frankly what has to happen on something highly partisan. Someone has to step forward and say, I'm disciplining my own team. We're going to get this done.
You ran on being a fiscal hawk. There was news this week that the deficit is going to hit $980 billion this year, going to go over a trillion next year. How do we get people to pay attention to that problem with everything else that’s going on?
I'm very concerned about the size of the annual deficit and the amount of national debt that we get as a result of that deficit. But I'm one of a relatively small number of people back there and I mean it used to be my party that was always talking about balancing the budget, balanced budget amendment.
The Tea Party was insisting on balancing the budget, and somehow that's disappeared as an item of high priority in either party. I’ve got a small group of people in Washington that I work with who think this is important, and we're looking for a way to at least pursue a process to get us to a balanced budget and we'll see whether I'll be successful in that regard. But it's not coming from the leadership, frankly, of either party. Why is that? Well, because as politicians, you're much better off spending more money and kicking the can down the road and letting other people pay for it.
There's no way a business could go $1 trillion in, into debt or spend $1 trillion more than they bring in and still survive. How do you square that with what some of your colleagues are saying?
A lot of them say Mitt, you're absolutely right. This is a real problem. It's gotta be addressed. There are plenty of people who understand it's a problem. They just don't see the politics behind doing something about it. I'm not worried so much about the politics. I'm more worried about what happens to my kids and grandkids and to our country in the interim. So I'm looking for a process that allows us to deal with the big spending items. And by the way, two thirds of federal spending is not part of the budget we vote on every year. Two thirds of federal spending is automatic, medicare, Medicaid, social security and interest. And that's the area we're going to have to focus on.
Are you worried that the economy is going to tip into a recession?
I think what you're seeing around the world is a slowing of growth, and China has the slowest growth I think they've had in a long time. That will have an effect on us because we sent a lot of goods and services around the world, so that will potentially slow down our economy somewhat. I'm not one of those who thinks that we're going to go into recession. I acknowledge that I don't have a perfect view on what happens with the economy, but the president did a number of things that were highly stimulative. Cutting the corporate tax rate basically in half means a lot more money available for investment here, for dividends here. That's money going into the economy. We're also spending $1 trillion more as you point out then we're taking in that's highly stimulative. These things. I think we'll keep our economy moving along, although perhaps not at as fast a rate as we've seen in the past. I haven't identified an area of our economy where we were completely out of whack, like we were back in 2007, 2008 with the subprime mortgages that were part of the extreme overheating of the housing market.
There were some elements that that really had to be corrected that caused a very deep and prolonged recession. I don't think those conditions apply. I think we're more likely if we have a recession or a slowdown globally it will not be as long and deep as the past.
You've been reportedly working on an alternative to the affordable care act. Is there anything that you can share about how those negotiations are going?
I think it's important to note that there are probably two issues relating to health care that are on people's minds. The big issue that I hear people concerned about is how expensive prescription drugs are. There’s also a lot of concern about the surprise billing issue, which is you go to a doctor inside your network or a hospital in network and you still get a bill. These are things, those prescriptions and surprise billing are big issues and that's being worked on on a bipartisan basis right now. And I think you’re going to see legislation on that front.
Then there's the other portion, which is OK, our insurance system, uh, how do we deal with a 10 or 15% of Americans that don't have insurance? And Obamacare took that on but wasn't really successful in getting everybody insured that last 10 or 15% turned out to be very hard to get insured. They made some progress in getting more people insured, but nowhere near as far as I think people hoped.I've got a proposal that I would like to see the country adopt and how to get those last 10 or 15% insured. Without revealing it fully, it's a federal state partnership giving more authority to the states and more funding back to states to deal with this issue. So that's kind of the approach I would take.
I know the president and his team are working on their own proposal, so I want to see what they come up with. I'd far prefer my approach which deals specifically with the 10 or 15% uninsured.
Is it similar to what they tried to do here in the state with the legislature where they were trying to expand Medicaid coverage and get a better financial split with the feds? Or is it similar to what governor Herbert was trying to do with his Healthy Utah proposal, which is more of a block block grant program?
You're in the right path. I'm not wild about the idea that a state has to go to Washington begging for the authority to do what it believes is right for its own people. I think it's much better to say, let the state craft its own program for its own people in the way it thinks best, but the state has to meet certain standards. It can't say, you know, okay, we're gonna to take that money and give it all to our friends. You have to get your people insured. You have to meet certain standards, you have to cover preexisting conditions. You have to make sure that you're covering maternity care and so forth. So the federal government would set the standards and then give the state some leeway in how they meet those standards. That’s on the same path that the, that the governor and the legislature were considering.
I would be negligent if I didn’t ask you about President Trump’s “Chosen One” comments or his comments about Jews who vote for Democrats being disloyal to Israel. Do you have any comments on that?
Clearly those comments are ones to which I do not subscribe. Sometimes the president says things just to cause a controversy to get everyone to talk about him and to fire up the base.
I just don't think it's productive for me to weigh in and all those things. Clearly, for some of us, the “Chosen One” comment has a religious connotation that would not be attributed to a politician. I remember Mike Huckabee once being asked what he thought Jesus would do about an issue. He replied Jesus would have nothing to do with politics. So, I keep those religious elements out of the discussion.
I will continue to speak out if I believe the president says something which is really significant and divisive and harmful to our country. On other differences I have with things he says, I’ve kinda been keeping to myself.
Would you buy Greenland?
Absolutely! If a country would be willing to sell us a major piece of real estate that had enormous natural resources and strategic value, I’d be all for that. I don’t blame the president asking his legal people if they can do that. My guess is this was not something they anticipated would be made public.
I’m not surprised a real estate guy would be thinking about that, but I’m also not surprised Denmark would say heck no.
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