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Transcript: The Early 202: Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.)

MS. ALEMANY: Good afternoon and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Jackie Alemany, author of the Early 202 and a congressional correspondent for The Washington Post. My guest today is Senator John Boozman, the senior Senator from Arkansas and dean of the Arkansas Delegation. He’s here to discuss the status of the Biden economic agenda, what Republican senators want in it. But first let’s begin with food production. Senator, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us today at The Post Live.

REP. BOOZMAN: Hi. Well, thank you, Jackie, so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

MS. ALEMANY: So, all eyes right now are on the cargo ships anchored off the coast of California. So, we’ve got to talk about the supply chain issues that we’re seeing specifically with regards to trucking. You are supportive of legislation to help train additional truck drivers to move goods more rapidly across the country. How do you think that this is going to alleviate the supply chain bottleneck that we’re seeing?

REP. BOOZMAN: Well, we’ve got a huge problem on the ports. In the past, we’ve had problems periodically on the West Coast. Now, we’ve--it’s a real concern because we’ve got it on both coasts right now. And nobody really seems to know how to alleviate the problem. One of the--one of the solutions is not only for the port problem but just moving commerce in general, is to try and get more truck drivers. And when you look at the numbers that they’re going to need, you know, as we go forward, the numbers are really staggering. So, one thing I’d like to see is make it such that with training and this and that, there’s no reason that those that are younger than 21 could not start driving on an interstate basis. They do this in the military and have done it in the past in our nation. There’s no reason that this would not help alleviate the shortage.

MS. ALEMANY: And trucking in general, outside of the supply chain bottleneck, is important for agriculture in terms of moving food across the country. How would additional truckers help farmers in the agricultural community?

SEN. BOOZMAN: Well, it’s just--it’s one of those chokepoints. As I go around Arkansas, as I go around the country, there’s two things that people talk to me about. They talk to me about labor, and they talk to me about the supply chain. And labor is just difficult. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to hire truck drivers. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to hire engineers on a train, people that work in restaurants. So, this just goes on and on.

So, because of that, we really are in a crisis situation. So, this is something that we have to address, investing with the truckers. Not only do they need drivers, but I was visiting with an individual the other day, he had 30 trucks that were sitting idle because they couldn’t get any parts. So, these are things that we’ve got to be addressing. And to be honest, I’d like to see us addressing some of these things rather than what we’re spending a lot of time on right now.

MS. ALEMANY: And one of the pay-fors that have been floated by Democrats in order to fund the social spending package that’s being hashed out that might potentially look like $1.75 trillion is a step-up basis on farms. You have been vocal and outspoken against this as a pay-for. How would this affect farmers?

SEN. BOOZMAN: Well, it would affect them so, so very negatively, because the farmers have a tendency to have land, have assets in that regard but are very, very cash poor. So, we have an excellent economist on the--on the minority Ag staff, and I said, John, tell me how this would affect farmers. And so, he got a bunch of graphs and charts and made it such where even I could understand it, and it wasn’t good. So, I said, ask somebody else to do a study and tell me what they think. Get the best people in the country. They asked Texas A&M to do that study. Dr. Outlaw did it.

What they found was that 92 of the 94 farms that they’ve been studying for decades, 92 of the 94 would be affected. The two that weren’t, they had a model where they leased everything. So, they really didn’t own anything. But those 92, the average was $720,000 that they owe in addition if some--you know, if you had a situation where you had an inheritance. So, this is a huge thing because of the farm community rising up, even the most liberal, the most progressive farm groups in the country, all of them basically said no, you know, we just can’t do this. And I think that’s pretty much taken off the table right now. I hope it is.

MS. ALEMANY: And I’m wondering what else you think Congress and the president himself can do to end the supply chain crisis.

SEN. BOOZMAN: Well, I think we have to address it and just making it such that we have people working around the clock on the ports and things like that simply isn’t good. So, it’s--we really need to make it such that this is an all-out, almost like we’ve done so many other things. This is almost like a vaccine situation. Just an all-out call to arms in the sense of how can we figure hit out, you know, how can we break through it. And it would be such that if we can--if we can solve the labor issue and the supply chain issue, I think the economy is really poised to burst out. But it’s not going to do it as long as those two things are hanging over.

MS. ALEMANY: And I want to get to the VA and the issue of veterans' healthcare. A large percentage of veterans were concerned about getting the vaccine, especially because their spouses or the spouse of their caregiver wasn’t eligible at the same time. You and Senator Jon Tester authored legislation to improve access for vets to get the vaccine. What is the status of that bill?

SEN. BOOZMAN: You know, we talk a lot about Democrats and Republicans having, you know, a relationship that’s not a good one. But this is a great example, working with--for our veterans, making sure that they’re getting the care that they need. So, what we found was when we were going home visiting the people during the pandemic, you had a situation where the veteran was able to get a shot but the caregiver wasn’t, or the spouse wasn’t. And so, we asked the VA about that, and they said, that’s right. So, Senator Tester and I actually got some legislation together and were able to get that fixed. You’d think that they would have the administrative power to do that. But it’s such that they didn’t, but Congress acted. So, I think that’s a great example that we can work together. And it’s also a great example that there are many issues in Congress that traditionally Democrats and Republicans do a good job at solving problems.

MS. ALEMANY: And just last week you had sent a letter along with other members of the Republican Party to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee--sorry, you and the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee sent that letter to Secretary McDonough on implications that the vaccine mandate might have on the VA workforce and the ability of the agency to provide services to veterans if employees are let go because they chose not to receive the vaccine. Have you heard a response from the administration yet on that issue?

SEN. BOOZMAN: No, we’re actually going to meet with the secretary in the--in the near future and discuss that with him. But we’ve worked so hard to get the veterans backlog down. Also, the VA is like everyone else. Labor is difficult.

And I’m a person--I’ve had the shot. I’m in the process of getting the booster. I believe in the vaccine. I think people ought to take it. On the other hand, I’m not in favor of mandates. People--a certain percentage of people just go the other way. So, I’m in favor of education. I’m in favor of giving them a carrot rather than the stick. But this is a complicated thing. You know, a good percentage of our medical providers, a good percentage of our nurses are not vaccinated. So, it’s not just people that, you know, of a particular ilk. It really does cross society.

So, if we’re not careful, if we just come down in a heavy-handed way and do this, my concern is, is that we won’t be able to provide the healthcare not only for veterans but for lots of folks throughout the country. But now we’re talking about veterans, and then also making sure that we’re not going to create a tremendous backlog that we’ve worked so hard to diminish because of the fact that we simply are not going to have a labor force. So many--so many people are baby boomers that are at the age where they’re thinking about retirement anyway. These are just stressors that push them over the edge. So, I hope that’s not going to be the case, but I think it is a great concern. We’re seeing that--you know, indications of that all over the country. It seems like, you know, some of our fire departments, our police departments--again, nurses, doctors, providers, all kinds of folks--I’ve heard from a lot of people in the military, pilots. So, this is something that we need to address, and I would like to see us, again, encourage people to get vaccinated, but I don’t think it should be mandatory from the federal government.

MS. ALEMANY: But I’m wondering what else you think can be done to convince people to get vaccinated at this point other than move to these more punitive measures in order--as an impetus since, you know, the administration has already given people a good chunk of time along with providing counseling and answering--providing ample time to answer questions that people might have on the vaccines still.

SEN. BOOZMAN: No, I understand, Jackie. It’s a difficult situation. I’ve got--I’ve got friends that are dear friends, I’ve got family that simply don’t want to be vaccinated. And again, it’s all walks of life. I’m sure that you’re in the same position, you know, that you’ve got friends and family that simply don’t feel like they’d like to take the vaccine at this point. A lot of women are concerned that it might affect their childbearing capacity, or this or that. You know, it’s a complicated thing. But I don’t think that we do ourselves or do the country a service in penalizing people that simply don’t feel like that they’d like to do that.

MS. ALEMANY: Yeah. Just yesterday, actually, a friend surprised me by telling me that they weren’t vaccinated, and this person in particular happens to be deep in conservative media. But that’s a whole separation conversation. But I want to ask you about the U.S. Postal Service--

SEN. BOOZMAN: Jackie, you’ll find people that aren’t deep in conservative media. I mean, this is--this is something that runs a real gamut of society.

MS. ALEMANY: Well, I want to ask you about the U.S. Postal Service’s plan to get into banking. The USPS wants to study if they should offer banking services--a measure you vehemently opposed. Many are asking why we would give them more to do when they can’t keep up to their current demand of mail. What’s your reaction to this?

SEN. BOOZMAN: I think you just summed it up. You know, they struggle doing what they’re doing, and so I would really encourage if we’re going to spend more resources on the Post Office--and I’m a great supporter of the Post Office. So, I’m against this, but I’m very much in favor of the Post Office.

We’re in a situation where, you know, there’s places all over--in fact, Arkansas is a good example. You’ve got 75 counties. Fifty of them lost population. That would be true throughout much of the country. Rural areas, they really depend on the Post Office. Newspapers depend on the Post Office, and the list goes on and on. Economic activity that they produce is great. I just don’t think that they need to get into the banking industry. We’ve got banks. We’ve got credit unions. We’ve got all kinds of different vehicle, and we might need to--if we’re having problems, we might need to encourage them to come out with different products or different ways of serving the public. But I don’t think that the Post Office is the ones that ought to be doing it.

MS. ALEMANY: And before we get--move on to your reelection efforts, I wanted to ask you one more question about the VA. As a doctor, you are also trying to overhaul the VA to make it more accessible to women vets. For example, the VA greatly lacks women-focused services such as gynecology experts and mammography. You are the lead sponsor on legislation to remove barriers for women to be treated at the VA by helping them get the care they need. Why has the VA failed to adapt for women vets on its own?

SEN. BOOZMAN: Well, the VA’s doing a much better job. If you look back not too long ago, predominately the veterans' health, the veterans' system in general was built for males because overwhelmingly that’s who served. We had many women that did serve, but overwhelmingly it was a male-dominated entity.

Now, in the last several years we’ve got so many women in service that are just doing--not a good job, they’re doing a tremendous job. And now, we also have a number of female veterans. So, it wasn’t too long ago that you’d go into the--maybe the VA hospital and if a woman was standing there, somebody might come up and say, you know, can I help you find your husband, not knowing that they were actually a veteran. So, the VA’s worked really hard to get away from that. They’re doing a much better job. But we’re trying to push them even further.

So, myself, Senator Tester, again working together, created the Deborah Sampson Act, and that’s really gone a long way. I’m working with Senator Wyden now on a thing called the--it has to do--the Service Act. It has to do with making sure--what we’re finding is, is that women that served in areas where there were toxic chemicals, burn pits, things like that, they’re having a much higher instance of breast cancer at a much younger age. So, we’re making sure that the VA is recognizing that and then lowering the standards as far as the age and things so that we can get them screened earlier.

We’ve also got a bill called the MAMMO Act, and we’re working with that bill to make sure that not only are they going to get screened and at an appropriate early age, but what this says is you’re going to do the screening, plus you’re going to have the finest equipment in the world to make sure that the screening is done appropriately, that we’re up to date. So, these are good things. The VA is moving rapidly in that direction. Still got some work to do, but another example of Democrats and Republicans working together to make sure that we take care of our veterans.

MS. ALEMANY: When do you expect some of these bills that you’ve mentioned, especially particularly the ones you’ve worked on with Jon Tester, to ultimately pass?

SEN. BOOZMAN: I think we’ll get these things passed before the end of the year. We’ve got an excellent chance of doing that. As you know, legislation just takes time, you know, to get through, and we’ve got all of this stuff going on that’s kind of taking the oxygen out of the air. But I think we’ve got a good chance. These are things that again are just common sense, that are just good for people. So, not tremendously expensive or anything like that. It wouldn’t matter if they were, because it’s something that we need to do.

We always have to remember when we’re talking about veterans, we’re not talking about "gimmes." These are earned benefits. They’re willing to serve, male or female. We need to take care of them.

MS. ALEMANY: And former President Trump endorsed you in your reelection bid. What does his endorsement mean to you?

SEN. BOOZMAN: Well, President Trump’s very popular in Arkansas, and so, I appreciate the fact that he did endorse me. I voted with him most, almost all the time in the sense of the issues that came about. Because of that, we had--we did a lot. We had the best economy we’ve had in 50 years. We rebuilt the military to a large extent, took care of our farm community, took care of our veterans. So as a result, I’m very proud of his support, and it will be helpful to me in my reelection.

MS. ALEMANY: And I’m wondering, you know, in this reelection campaign, how close to the former president do you feel like your policies and rhetoric needs to line up on some of these more divisive issues that we’ve been seeing, like election integrity and relitigating the results of the 2020 election?

SEN. BOOZMAN: Jackie, I don’t--I don’t think it makes any difference. What I’m doing is talking to the people of Arkansas, and they’re talking to me. As I said earlier, they’re concerned about labor issues. They’re concerned about the supply chain, and now they’re getting very, very concerned about inflation. So, these are the things that I’ll be talking about. These are the things that I’m working on that really are huge things for our country. And so, that’s where we will be spending our time, and I think that’s, you know, what the people of Arkansas appreciate that we are focused on the issues that are near and dear to their heart and really do make a huge difference.

MS. ALEMANY: But we have seen this issue of what Republicans are calling election integrity become one of the more galvanizing issues for the party going into 2022 and 2024. I guess I’m wondering where you stand on that, and you know, how you feel about Republicans who have yet to acknowledge or who have reversed course on acknowledging Biden’s presidential win.

SEN. BOOZMAN: Well, again, I think that what we ought to focus on is what I just said. And so, in regard to the election, President Biden is the president, and I respect that. The other--the other question that I hear of besides labor and the supply chain is who is actually running the White House. So, there’s concern in that regard. So again, these are things that we need to be concentrating on.

MS. ALEMANY: Who do you think is running the White House?

SEN. BOOZMAN: You know, I don’t have any idea. Do you?

MS. ALEMANY: I think--

SEN. BOOZMAN: It’s funny.

MS. ALEMANY: I’m just wondering what in those conversations is what people are speculating.

SEN. BOOZMAN: I don’t think they know. I mean, you know, they’re wondering who President Biden relies on heavily, and I think there is a lot of speculation in that regard--not only among people in Arkansas that, you know, pull me to the side and say, John, who’s really running the show. But I think that’s true when I talk to my Senate colleagues also. I mean, that’s kind of the question that’s out there right now.

MS. ALEMANY: It is, but the Democrats are at the same time still on the precipice of potentially passing some historic legislation that President Biden himself has been deeply involved in the negotiations of.

SEN. BOOZMAN: Well, they’re trying to. There--it’s a rocky road, and we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out. I think Virginia is going to make a big difference in that. The closeness of the race there, the closeness of the race in New Jersey. I think the country is more--some are center right, some are center, some are center left, but they’re not as far left as what is coming out of the White House right now.

And because of that and because of the inflation tendencies which, again, a lot of people are blaming on the $1.9 trillion, all of the money we’ve been spending--you know, so because of that, we’ll have to wait and see, you know, how it winds up in regards to some of the policies that they’ve been proposing. I don’t think America’s ready for the cradle-to-grave, the massive spending and taxing. You mentioned the pay-fors. Stepped up basis was on the table. I think that’s probably been taken off. Increasing capital gains for land exchange. This thing about if you have $10,000--and recently, it was $600 in your bank account that you made--you know, you had $600 worth of transactions in your bank account, well now 10,000, I think the average American is at 61,000. People don’t like that, the idea of hiring 89,000 new agents and spending $80 billion additional, they understand that that’s all about coming after them. So, these are the kind of things I think that Americans, whether they’re in New Jersey or Virginia or Arkansas, are really starting to push back on.

MS. ALEMANY: So, if Democrats ultimately do pass the bipartisan infrastructure package, which was supported by a number of Republican senators, and the social spending package this week or next week, will you think that that’s a success for the president?

SEN. BOOZMAN: I don’t think it’s been a success. I think--I think that discussion, not the infrastructure package but the other package, which started out $6 trillion, pared down to 3 1/2, now they’re down to 1.75. But, no, I think the idea of all of the taxes that were on the table, the other tax that they were talking about doing with billionaires where you were going to tax unrealized gains, American people are smart enough to know that when they--when we institute an income tax, it was 1 percent to 7 percent. The senator got up and said before you know it, you know, we’ll--this will be 10 percent. He was essentially told, you know, he was crazy and that that would never happen.

So, the public is very, very leery of these things. So, I don’t--I don’t think it will be a victory. It certainly doesn’t appear to be that way based on what we’re seeing in Virginia and based on what we’re seeing in New Jersey. All of this factors into that.

MS. ALEMANY: And I just want to revisit what we had just talked about just to make sure we’re not peddling any conspiracy theories here, but in terms of when you said that people are wondering who is running the White House, can you elaborate a little bit more on that?

SEN. BOOZMAN: I’d just say, you know, who are the--who are the--who are the most intimate advisors, you know, again, with the things? What is so unique with this process, Jackie, is right now I’m the head Republican on agriculture. Agriculture has always been a very, very bipartisan thing. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats. It’s about regions of the country. The South has its need. The Is--Indiana, Iowa--California is different, our Great Plains. All of those are different. And it’s about commodities. It’s about--it’s about sugar. It’s about cotton, all of these things, and the stakeholders. All of this is being done.

There was $135 billion worth of agriculture spending in this bill. I wasn’t consulted a bit. No Republican was. No stakeholder was that I know of. Everybody--I’ve asked--I’ve talked to most of the farm groups in America in the last two or three months. I’ve asked them. So, this is coming from the White House. And most Democrats aren’t being consulted, not just with agriculture but with the entire package. So, this really is unique. And because of that, you don’t get good legislation. You get unintended consequences, which I think we’ll see in the future, which will not help them at all.

MS. ALEMANY: And before we run out of time, I wanted to ask you one more question. We’ve got a big election tomorrow in New Jersey and Virginia. I’m wondering what if Glenn Youngkin does win in Virginia tomorrow, what you think it means for the Republican Party heading into 2022.

SEN. BOOZMAN: Well, I think that we have to be careful, because, you know, that doesn’t mean that people will be voting for Republicans. It’ll be voting--they’ll be rejecting what the Democrats are trying to do right now. And so, Republicans need to get ready. They need to have good solutions to their problems that we’re facing. We need to present that to the public so that they’ll be voting for us rather than against the administration and what’s happening right now. But this will be a big bellwether. I think we all agree with that. And as a result, it really, I think, will influence the behavior of the Democrats with some of the things that they’re trying to do. But Republicans, we need to do a good job of expressing what we’re for, not just what we’re against.

MS. ALEMANY: And unfortunately, Senator, we’ll out of time for today, so we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us.

SEN. BOOZMAN: Thank you, Jackie. Thanks for having me.

MS. ALEMANY: I’m Jackie Alemany. And as always, thanks so much for joining us today. To check out what interviews we have coming up this week, please head to WashingtonPostLive.com to register and find out more information about all of our upcoming programming. Thanks so much again for joining us.

[End recorded session.]

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