Interview with Senator Rob Portman

Interview with Senator Rob Portman

By The Situation Room - February 15, 2011

YELLIN: The budget battle is now in full swing, and not just over next year's spending plan. There's still no budget for this year, but House debate is underway and Republicans are swinging an ax at spending, vowing to slash $61 billion from the 2011 plan.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is here to talk about it all, and you should also note he was also budget director under President George W. Bush.

So you are an expert, sir, in these matters. Thanks for being with us.

First, straightaway, isn't this a fool's errand? We're talking about the 2011 spending gap. Isn't it a fool's errand bringing these cuts in when you know Democrats won't accept them?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: Well, I don't think so. I mean, this is happening because last year the Democrats did not put forward a budget, so there is no budget, as you say. Therefore, the government is running on what's called a continuing resolution, which is last year's spending.

And what Republicans are saying in the House and will soon be saying in the Senate when it comes over to the Senate in a couple of weeks is that we need to get the spending under control, this type of spending.

The annually appropriated spending for domestic programs has gone up about 24 percent in the last two years. That doesn't include, by the way, the stimulus funding or other funding which would take it up to about an 80 percent increase.

So as Americans families have tightened their belts, as businesses have learned how to do more with less, the federal government has grown a lot. And so the question is do you want to go back to the pre-crisis level of about 2008 or do you want to lock in all that higher spending, and that's really the debate here.

YELLIN: But, sir, -- but both sides agree that you need to make cuts, the issue is where are the cuts. And right now the White House is now threatening a veto of this measure if it cuts too deeply, and Republicans, many in the House are dug in.

So the bottom line is you could face a government shutdown. Is that what we're walking up to here?

PORTMAN: Well, I hope not and I don't think it's going to happen, because, as you say, I hope both sides realize we do need to make reductions in spending.

I will say, I like your optimism on that because the president's budget came out for 2012 and beyond, that starts in October of this year, and it does not have cuts. It has a freeze in spending; some programs are increased, like high-speed rail, others are reduced.

But I would hope the administration is getting the message not just from the November elections, but from the experts here in Washington, the Congressional Budget Office, the people who are following this at the Office of Management and Budget, which is that under the president's own budget the debt doubles in the next 10 years.

We have the largest deficit in the history of our country, the largest debt we've ever had, and it's affecting our economy today and certainly mortgaging the future for our kids and grandkids.

So I hope you're right that everybody is focused on how do you not just have a freeze, but actually reduce some of the spending.

YELLIN: Right. Well, in fairness, the president's budget also would see some serious cuts in specific agencies, but it doesn't make an overall cut in amounts of spending.

PORTMAN: That's true. It's -- it's a freeze.

YELLIN: Let's --

PORTMAN: In this area, it's a freeze on about 12 percent of the spending. In other areas, it goes up.

YELLIN: For one moment, let's stay on the stop gap measure that's being debated right now in the House. Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said something today. He said that if 200,000 new federal employees lost their jobs, quote, "so be it."

Do you share his view?

PORTMAN: Well, no, what I think he was saying is that we need to right size the government and what happens in terms of federal employment needs to follow whatever is the right thing to do for our country's future. So in the last few years we've lost, I don't know, about 3 million private sector jobs, and yet federal government jobs have increased.

So I think he makes it an interesting point there that we do need to figure out because of the fiscal crisis that's at our doorstep now how to do more with less in the federal government just as the private sector has had to do.

And, you know, the question is what is that going to this lead to in terms of federal employment. Nobody knows yet. The president actually has proposed, if you know, freezing salaries of federal employees.

So I think both sides realize, I hope, as you said earlier, we have got to get the spending under control. It's about our economy today, it's about the future for our kids and grandkids and that's going to have to include --

YELLIN: Well, let's look at the future here.

PORTMAN: -- everything.

YELLIN: Let's look at the future. President Obama has said that, you know, he does think that it's possible to essentially cut a deal and reign in the budget. Here's a little bit of President Obama from his press conference.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let's face it, you guy are pretty impatient. If something doesn't happen today, then the assumption is it's just not going to happen. All right.


YELLIN: Now he's talking about the press, that we want to see cuts, cuts, cuts --

PORTMAN: I know, but you know, I think you all are representing the American people, which is, yes, we are impatient. All of us are, as taxpayers and citizens. We're impatient to see the government --


YELLIN: But, sir, let me ask you, you have been on the other side of this equation --

PORTMAN: -- begin the fiscal house back in order.

YELLIN: You have been on the other side of this equation, you were a budget director. Don't you know that they have to be careful for political reasons?

PORTMAN: Well, look --

YELLIN: Just bottom line.

PORTMAN: -- the president just issued his budget, which is a 10- year vision for where the country ought to go. He had an opportunity there, Jessica, to layout a reasonable way to get spending under control, to deal with not just this annual spending we talked about, which is 12 percent of the budget, but the bigger picture, which is the mandatory spending, the entitlement programs. He chose not to do it. He took a pass. As the said in "The Washington Post" editorial today, he ducked the tough issues.

YELLIN: And, sir --


PORTMAN: It's time for us to get serious on some --


YELLIN: But, sir, your administration --


PORTMAN: -- for the president to say, you all are impatient, yes people are impatient for him to lay out a vision that makes sense. And if he doesn't do that, it's very difficult to move forward.

YELLIN: Sir, your administration, the Bush administration, racked up $1. 3 trillion in deficit. So how can you slam the president for something that your administration never took on?

PORTMAN: Well, I was the budget director four years, and on this very week four years ago, I proposed a budget that was balanced over five years. And that was because, frankly, at that time period, we had a relatively low deficit, it was $161 billion, so one-tenth of today's deficit, and we had pretty good revenues coming in because the economy was doing well, the tax relief had worked to grow the economy. This was before the financial crisis.

But, you know, I know this is tough and it's difficult to be in a position of presenting a budget because you're never going to please everybody. But the fact remains, the president has been very eloquent about talking about the problem and yet his solutions don't meet the challenge, and we need that. We need to have a vision on how to move forward on a bipartisan basis to solve this problem. I hope we'll see that in the coming weeks.

YELLIN: We'll look forward to seeing how it unfolds.

Thank you so much, Senator Rob Portman.

PORTMAN: Thanks, Jessica. Thanks for having me on.


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