During last week’s Congressional recess, Sen. Pat Toomey stopped by The Sentinel in Carlisle to discuss recent issues in Washington.
Below are excerpts of that conversation, condensed for length.
On his vote in favor of disapproving President Trump’s national emergency declaration, intended to obtain additional border wall funds:
TOOMEY: I don’t see it as part of a larger break with the President. For me, every issue that comes down, I look at and address substantively and if I think the President is right, I’m working with the President, and if I think he’s mistaken, then I’m not. On trade policy, for instance, I’ve been an outspoken opponent of most of what the President is trying to do, and obviously I disagreed with him on the national emergency declaration.
Ironically, the difference had nothing to do with the border wall itself. I support building additional lengths of border wall — I don’t think we need all 1,900 miles but we do need more than what we have today. What I objected to was the source of funds the President wanted to use because that was inconsistent with Congressionally-passed legislation and I think the separation of powers is important. The President could have all the money he asked for, actually more than the $5.7 billion he asked for, using sources that were appropriated and were approved by Congress and I think that’s what he should’ve done.
I think some have mischaracterized this and it’s easy for people to misunderstand the nature of the vote. It’s not a vote to say there isn’t an emergency at the border; it’s not a vote to say I don’t want to build a border wall. It’s a vote to say the President should use the funds that Congress has made available for this purpose through various mechanisms and should not use the national emergency declaration as a way to circumvent Congressional intent with respect to spending.
There is a bigger related idea that I think of this as a part of, and that is the idea that we should reverse the trend that has been underway for decades of Congress delegating ever more authority, Constitutional authority that is supposed to be vested in the legislative branch, and shifting that over to the executive.
On his vote to condemn the Kashoggi killing, but not to invoke Congress’ war powers regarding U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen:
TOOMEY: So we had a vote on this a few months back and then we had one a week or so ago. A few months back there was a resolution where the vast majority of the Senate voted, and I voted, in favor of a resolution, the purpose of which was to send a message to the administration that they did not handle the assassination of Kashoggi well. I do believe the administration mishandled that.
Last week, the question was, to sort of simplify it and put it in layman’s terms, whether the U.S. should support Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen. In my view, we should, and I did not vote to end that. Civil wars are always brutal, always horrendous. In the absence of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, it will be worse, in my view.
For instance, our involvement there, a big part of it has been training and intelligence for the Saudi Air Force to help them identify targets and spare civilian targets. I am told by military leaders that I trust and respect that it is a fact that before we were involved, Saudi planes rarely came back [with] their bombs. But after our involvement, it is routine for them to come back [with] their bombs, because our protocols require a much higher level of certainty that the target you’re going to drop a bomb on is in fact a military target and is not going to result in collateral civilian harm, and we’ve been able to instill that.
That’s just one example but it’s an example of why I think our involvement in that war is a good thing from a humanitarian point of view, and it’s good for the geopolitics of this. Saudi Arabia, for all its significant flaws, is an important counterweight to Iranian ambition in the entire region, which is very, very antithetical to U.S. interests, so it does make sense under certain circumstances to support Saudi Arabia.
The Sentinel: Do you think the President should have to affirmatively justify the action — I think that was the vote a few months ago – or that Congress should have to use its war-making powers, just in principle, regardless of the on-the-ground situation?
TOOMEY: I would prefer we be operating under and Authorization for the Use of Military Force, what we call and AUMF. The only AUMF that I’m aware of for the entire region goes back to shortly after 9/11, I think. That is long overdue. The nature of that threat has changed, it has evolved enormously from the time we went into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power. So I do think we should do a new AUMF.
On what President Trump’s end goal is for his border wall promise, beyond the $5.7 billion project that is being fought over currently:
TOOMEY: I know there’s more that the president wants. I don’t know exactly where that ends. My view is that you don’t need, on a 1,900-plus mile border, you don’t need a wall for the entirety of that because there are natural physical barriers, that as a practical matter, preclude traffic.
My view is, let’s leave that to the border patrol folks, these are the experts. We pay them to police this border and to keep it secure, and when they tell us that they need physical barriers in certain areas, my inclination would be to defer to their judgment and given them the resources.
By the way, the bill that passed with an appropriation of about $1.4 billion for the wall — which is only part of the funds that are available to the President — it also had, I think, $22 billion for non-wall border security measures, like training personnel and electronic surveillance, more [asylum] judges, more inspections. There’s a lot of enhanced border security that is happening, which I support.
On President Trump’s chance of being nominated for re-election by the Republican Party:
TOOMEY: He’s the only bet. There’s no path to a primary victory for anyone else. The President’s approval rating among Republican primary voters is extremely high, well into 80s [percent range], and so there’s no path to victory for a challenger in a primary. If somebody decides to do it, it’s a losing proposition.
The Sentinel: If someone were to come in — a Jeff Flake, Larry Hogan — do you think that would significantly alter the nature of the race?
TOOMEY: No. I think they’d come, in they were to, and get crushed in a primary. President Trump wins the nomination and it’ll be as if they’d never run. Now if there’s a well-funded third-party candidate, that’s a different thing, but that’s to be seen.
On the risk of abandoning the “deficit hawk” mantle under President Trump’s deficit increases:
TOOMEY: I think it’s a substantive problem, but at the moment it does not appear to be a political problem. I think that’s mostly because the economy is very strong, and counter-intuitively, inflation is low and interest rates are low. It’s hard to point to the specific problem being caused by a deficit that’s too big, in my view, and debt that’s too high.
Now I think many people look at that and say “we’re okay at the moment but it’s a matter of time before this catches up to us,” and I think that is true. But these sort of forward-looking projections are rarely drivers in elections. So right now, I think it’s a substantive problem but I don’t think it’s a big political problem.
On the Federal Reserve’s lowering of GDP projections, and the risk to Republicans’ promise that tax cuts would be revenue-neutral:
TOOMEY: I think we’re on track for the economy to produce more revenue for the federal government post-tax reform than we would have generated had we not done it. The reason is it doesn’t take much extra economic growth to generate a lot of revenue. If you just do the math, our revenue is somewhere around 17 percent of GDP, so every dollar you add to GDP, 17 cents of that goes to the federal government.
We just had a really strong year, and I’m acknowledging that this year and next year might be a little slower, but they’re going to be a lot better than the 1.9 percent that the government was projecting. I think it’s a lot more likely that we’ll be closer to 3 percent than we will be to 1.9, and that difference is huge in revenue to the government.
Now, people will say that in 2018 the tax reform was in effect, and we brought in less revenue than was projected, and that’s true – although we did bring in more revenue than the previous year, seldom is that acknowledged—but it’s also true that we brought in less than was projected to come in prior to tax reform.
This was no surprise. The nature of the tax reform we did, by design, especially the provision that allowed businesses to fully expense capital expenditures, that was guaranteed to cause a relative dip, a dip relative to projections, and it did. I think we’ll get to a steady state in that regard very soon. So I think we’re still on track to bring in more revenue than we would if we hadn’t done the tax reform.
On President Trump’s budget proposal, which would increase defense spending by around $33 billion, or 5 percent, but slash domestic social spending, including cuts to Medicaid, Social Security, student loan programs, and other initiatives:
TOOMEY: It’s very consistent with what Republicans have said for a long time. National security is the federal government’s number one responsibility, and we were under-funding our national security significantly for a number of years and we need to rebuild our military. I’m firmly convinced of that and we’ve got really good analysis to back that up.
So that requires a significant increase over the depressed levels we’ve had as a result of the Budget Control Act. Unfortunately, our Democratic colleagues, they say “well, we’ll go along with that but only if you increase domestic social spending by the same amount.”
What’s the logic behind that? You have a genuine need, I can point to the specific reasons why we have to spend more, and how much more on our military in order to achieve our strategic objectives. That doesn’t cause a need for some huge increase in transfer payments. In fact, when the economy is strong like it is now, you’d think there’d be less need for welfare payments and these kind of transfer payments.
So the President has, I think to his credit, said “I’m not interested in going along with that deal.” Just because we actually do need to increase military spending we’re going to increase other spending for which there isn’t the same need. I do think that’s a pretty traditional Republican view of it, and that’s what the President has laid out.
On the politics of the recent shutdown, and if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should have brought the funding bill to the floor despite the President’s veto threat:
TOOMEY: No, because I don’t think it would have accomplished anything. By the design of our government, this is a three-party negotiation — House, Senate, and the White House. And in the Senate, since we need 60 votes to do any funding bill, it’s both parties that are involved regardless of who’s in control nominally.
So I think it’s reasonable to say let’s sit down and hash this out. We’re all going to have to find something we can live with, even if we don’t like it, and that’s the only way forward. So rather than making political statements and sending bills that are going to get vetoed, let’s just get this resolved.
I have always supported and strongly support legislation that would preclude the possibility of a government shutdown. What it would simply do is if you get to the end of a fiscal year, and there is a portion of the government that has not yet been funded by an ordinary appropriations bill — whether that’s the whole discretionary spending part of government or just a subset — you just have an automatic continuing resolution that would kick in on October 1.