You can’t say the junior senator from Ohio isn’t in the center of the storm. Freshman Rob Portman, a Republican, is on the Budget and Armed Services Committees, was on the failed supercommittee, is a Mitt Romney surrogate from a critical swing state and is likely on the short list of viable VP candidates. I talked to him in his Capitol Hill office today about all these matters.
Having spoken with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) earlier in the week, I was struck by the physical resemblance (grayish hair, slight build) and the temperamental similarity (smart, sober, disciplined) between the two.
When last I interviewed Portman, he was still in a cramped, windowless temporary office in the basement of the Russell Building. Now he is upstairs. “I even have a window” he jokes. Portman lives up to his reputation as the “adult in the room”; he’s a sober policy person. He is, however, anything but dour. Despite the serious subject matter he is cheery and animated. While critical of President Obama he doesn’t appear angry.
His immediate focus is on the budget, or rather the lack of one, in the Democratic-controlled Senate. “We’re in a time of trillion-dollar deficits and unsustainable debt. At a minimum, the American people deserve a budget.” He notes that at least President Obama sent up a budget, “although it was totally rejected [in the House] 414-0.” But the Senate Democrats, he points out, have no excuse. They could come up with enough votes in the Budget Committee and on the floor to pass their own budget with no GOP votes. He says that because budgets just need 51 votes to pass, Democrats “don’t have the excuse that Republicans are filibustering or blocking” passage of a budget. “It's unbelievable,” he says. While Democrats have failed to pass a budget in three years, “$4 trillion was added to the deficit. That’s $33,000 per household in Ohio and [across] the country.”
The economic news today was grim, and Portman sees a connection between the government’s failure to get its fiscal house in order and the lousy economy. “We have a structural problem in our economy,” he asserts. He concedes that the president inherited a bad economy and that events in Iran and the European Union are factors, but he thinks the state of the economy “is in part due to self-inflicted wounds.”
He ticks off Obama’s policy failures in the past three years. “We are not doing tax reform.” He notes, “We have the highest [corporate tax] rate [in the world] and a complicated code. It is the same with individual rates.” On the spending side, he says, “Until we have some proof the president and Congress have a serious plan on spending, [the debt] will be a wet blanket on the economy.” He points to recent economic studies showing that excessive debt translates into a 1 to 2 percent drag on growth. And he points to the regulatory overreach and uncertainty in health care, energy and other sectors of the economy.
“There is enormous uncertainty that is causing money to stay on the sidelines,” he says. “We’ve not seen the robust economic recovery we’ve all hoped for. It’s a sign of a structural problem. Something is going on there.” At this point after the 1981 recession, we had 6 million new jobs, he recalls. At the same point after the 2001 recession, we had gained back all the jobs plus some, he adds. In this “recovery,” he says, “we are still down 5 1/2 million jobs.” He continues, “I acknowledge the president inherited a tough economy. But what did he do with it?” He rattles off the numbers: “He said we’d be under 6 percent unemployment. We’re at 8. He said he’d cut the budget deficit in half. Instead, we have a $1.3 trillion deficit. He said he’d pass immigration reform. He hasn’t proposed anything. He said we’d have tax reform. Again, nothing.”
We move on to defense sequestration. He’s blunt: “It's a bad idea. [Defense Secretary] Leon Panetta, to his credit, said it would hollow out our military, be ‘devastating’ to defense of our country.” He thinks Congress has until September to come up with an alternative set of cuts. He contends that the specter of defense sequestration is already having an effect on production lines and contracts, even if alternative cuts are subsequently found. Because it will be more expensive if we have to restart projects, the sequestration, he says, already “will cost us more.”
His big complaint with sequestration is that when he talks to military officials about how to accomplish this, “They tell me there is no strategic plan.” He says that it is “ridiculous” to say Republicans haven’t been willing to cut defense. He points to the reductions developed by former defense secretary Robert Gates that were developed over months and years. But that’s a far cry from what would happen with sequestration. "It’s not based on a [strategic] plan. It’s not well thought out.”
I ask him why the supercommitte failed. He lists three factors. “The time frame was too short.” Basic tasks like scoring couldn’t be accomplished by the November deadline, he says. In addition, he contends that the threat of sequestration worked against a deal. “It wasn’t the Sword of Damocles,” he said. Instead, Republicans saw that there was a mechanism that would cut spending without raising taxes, and Democrats saw the opportunity to cut defense. But most important, he says, “The Democrat members on the committee — they got no cover from the White House. Zero.” Without that, Democrats were not going to step out on a limb.
Republicans argue that what is needed is a new president. Portman has been a forceful surrogate for Romney and was helpful in putting Ohio in Romney’s column in the primary. He insists that Romney understands that the country is at a “watershed moment” and will make hard decisions on taxes, spending and entitlements.
Does he think Romney can carry Ohio? He smiles. “Yeah. In Ohio people are ready for change.” He points out that Romney’s promise to bring people together to solve problems “is close to the message President Obama had last time.” Now Obama has gone negative and is blaming others. “I think people are tired of that,” he tells me.
If Romney called to ask him to be VP, would he accept? “I can help by doing what I did in the primary, working my heart out for him,” he says. But couldn’t he help Romney as VP? He deflects again: “He’s going to need people here [in the Senate] to get things done.” But he’s not saying no, right? “It [the vice presidency] isn’t my objective,” he says in non-Shermanesque fashion. Those close to Portman say he’s convinced that the VP selection is out of his hands and that he needs to keep his focus on the Senate.
In any event, he seems sanguine. With a new president and new policies, he says simply, “I’m convinced if we do the right things, it will be an American century.” That sounds pretty much like what Romney is saying.