Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck says he mostly supports President Donald Trump's actions in Syria and Afghanistan last week, but believes that the president's proposed defense spending boost is too high and the Pentagon needs to run a more efficient Department of Defense.
Taken together with Trump's proposed infrastructure spending increases, Buck also says the national debt will take a hit.
"We need to stay technologically and militarily ahead of China and Russia in particular," Buck told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. "But we can't outspend them to the degree we are and maintain an economy in this country that is going to be strong."
The congressman, who represents northern and eastern Colorado, is a member of the deeply conservative House Freedom Caucus. He recently put his fiscally conservative views in print, in a new book titled, "Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse than You Think."
"I'm in the swamp," acknowledges the two-term congressman, "I'm not denying that at all. There are some people who are in the swamp and they think they're in a hot tub. And there are other people who are in the swamp and they realize it is corrupt and dangerous and they want to reform it."
Click on the audio link above to hear the full conversation and read the transcript below.
Ryan Warner: Congressman, thank you for being with us.
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck: My pleasure.
RW: We are going to get to your book in a moment. But I want to start right down in the swamp, as you refer to it, and what Congress is up to when the recess ends. One of the big priorities for many Republicans in Congress is an overhaul of the tax code. As that process gets underway, what's the biggest make or break element for you?
KB: Well I'll tell you the tax code should and probably will come after the healthcare bill. There has to be savings in the healthcare bill before we can figure out what the reductions in tax rates will be, both for corporations and individuals. I am studying right now the Border Adjustment Tax. I think, again, depending on how high that tax, the Border Adjustment Tax, is will really determine some of the support or lack of support for tax reform bill.
RW: Would you explain in layman's terms what the Border Adjustment Tax is.
KB: Sure. It is a tax on products that come into the country. It's different than tariffs. But most countries have a tax system that taxes imports but doesn't tax exports and gives their manufacturers an advantage. America has been playing on an unlevel playing field for decades now and to try to level that playing field, Congress is considering a Border Adjustment Tax which would tax imports and try to rebuild some of the manufacturing in this country.
RW: Wouldn't that make cheap goods from abroad more expensive, especially on families that rely on cheap goods to, I don't know, stock their cupboards?
KB: Not necessarily on food, but you're absolutely right, on clothing and other items and that's the downside of the Border Adjustment Tax. It would encourage domestic production of those items, and discourage importation of those items. There's really a trade off. The lower level wages, we expect to see an increase in those wages as a result of more manufacturing in this country. At the same time, there may be, and there probably will be, an increase in the cost of goods, even if they're manufactured in this country, there may be an increase in the cost of goods.
RW: You see so much of this interrelated, this Border Adjustment Tax, tax reform in general, the Healthcare Bill. Why don't we talk about the Healthcare Bill. So it had a rather high profile failure on its first go around in the house. What will be different the next time around?
KB: Well I don't agree with your term failure. I don't think it failed. It is going through a process right now. It was set for a vote, it was pulled, not the first time and it's not uncommon for bills to be pulled. It is going to continue to go through a process and I think it will get stronger before it is actually voted-on on the floor. I think there will be substantive changes to the bill.
RW: You said after the bill did not make it to the floor, you said that you would have supported it in the form that it existed. But you've talked about savings there. How do you save money without kicking people off of Medicaid, for instance, or maybe you don't? Talk about that.
KB: Well the concept is that as the federal government passes this onto the states, there will be a block grants that go to the states but taking out the federal bureaucracy from the program, allowing the states to regulate the program in a more efficient and effective manner, will save money. If there are able bodied individuals on Medicaid, the state can enact a work requirement for those individuals if they don't have childcare responsibilities or other responsibilities in the home. The states have more flexibility and therefore, more savings.
RW: A group of republican business owners and farmers is lobbying now for comprehensive immigration reform, and these are folks who are meeting in your district. What would you support in that arena?
KB: Well I think the American people have consistently rejected comprehensive immigration reform. I think you're not going to see comprehensive, in other words, one bill come out that takes care of this entire mess that has been created by Republicans and Democrats over the last 30 years. What I anticipate is that we will see border security as an initial step in the process. The second step is the worker programs, a wide variety of worker programs so as we secure the border and as we work on the guest worker and other programs, then I think you're going to see our Congress in the third phase address what to do with folks who are in this country without proper documentation right now.
RW: Congressman Buck, when you talk about border security, naturally the question of the wall comes up. This is the wall that then candidate Trump spoke a lot about on the campaign trail and that now President Trump would have to implement at costs of anywhere between $20 and $70 billion, the estimates vary widely for sure. Do you support building a wall?
KB: I support securing our southern border.
RW: How much would you be willing to spend on something like that?
KB: I have no idea until I see the plan, but it may be that we use satellite technology. It may be that we use physical structures. It may be that we increase personnel. Whatever it takes to make sure that we have a southern border, and frankly, we need to do a better job on our northern border. We need to do a better job in our ports in this country.
RW: I did not hear in that an open embrace of a literal wall.
KB: What you hear is a wall represents security. I am in favor of security and it can come in many different forms.
RW: What do you think of President Trump in general right now?
KB: Well, I have been supportive of the President in his selection of a Coloradan for the United States Supreme Court. I think Neil Gorsuch will be a great justice on the Supreme Court. I have been supportive of the President in his selection of his cabinet. I think it goes a long ways to draining the swamp when you bring a Secretary of Education in who is from outside the system and will look at the Department of Education and determine what needs to be done to return power to the states and how much money should we be spending in it, in education at the federal level. I think he's done the same thing with the EPA. He's done the same thing with the Office of Management and Budget, so many agencies.
RW: We're going to talk about your book, Drain the Swamp, in just a moment but I want to ask one more policy question, specifically foreign policy. On the campaign trail, candidate Trump touted a more isolationist policy but in the last two weeks, the President has taken the offense in Syria and Afghanistan. He has signaled a willingness to get involved in North Korea. Is that the right approach do you think?
KB: Help me understand what you mean by the word, isolationist. What I heard the President talk about was America first.
RW: I think that there was an impression, if you looked at his stance on trade, if you looked at his attitude towards NATO that he saw perhaps less engagement, not more. Certainly his proposed cuts to diplomacy might reflect that, and increased military spending, but in general, to the meat of that question, which is his stance in Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, do you support the avenue he's taking?
KB: I do and I'll tell I think it has been a limited and message sending role at this point. I think he has sent a message to North Korea, "Enough's enough." I think in Syria what he did was he said, "We will not tolerate a country gassing its own people," and seeing these pictures of children was absolutely horrifying. I hope that when we get back from this break the President and the administration come to Congress and talk to Congress about a use of force in Syria. I think before President Obama sent ground troops into Syria he should have had that use of force, and I think it's a mistake by Congress not to have addressed that issue.
RW: Your new book is called, Drain the Swamp, which was also one of President Trump's rallying cries on the campaign trail. The subtitle is, How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think. Can you help me understand the contours of "The Swamp?" What puts you out of the swamp and others in? Is the swamp a way actually just of talking about, I don't know, like your opponents?
KB: I'm in the swamp. I'm not denying that at all. There are some people who are in the swamp and they think they're in a hot tub. There are other people who are in the swamp and they realize that it is a place where swamp critters hang out and it is corrupt and dangerous and a lot of us want to reform it. I have to say that I have signed on to a number of bipartisan bills. I've had a number of democrats and republicans sign on to my reform legislation. I've started a reformer caucus with a congresswoman from New York and we have a Noah's Ark rule; that for every republican that joins, we need to get a democrat to join, and a democrat joins, we need to get a republican.
RW: As we wrap up, I want to talk about another caucus. You're a part of the Freedom Caucus. This is a group of very conservative law makers. You are among them who wield a good deal of power on Capitol Hill these days. There's no real published list of members. No place where the public can go to easily learn who you are, what you stand for, how is that not part of the swamp? Why not be more transparent?
KB: Well it is up to individual members to acknowledge whether they are part of the Freedom caucus or not, but there is no requirement, and nor do I think there should be. I think that a lot of frank conversations are very helpful to getting things done in Washington DC, so when we talk about transparency I think it's really important when we're talking about finance and other areas, but the by-laws of any particular caucus, whether it is the Congressional Black Caucus, or the Freedom Caucus, I think those are issues that stay within the caucus and that the members work on, and the results of their activities, I think, are what's important.
RW: Finally, you write about Congress actively avoiding solving problems, and it being an unpleasant place, infested with special interest, weighed down with fundraising requirements, as you've reflected here. If that's the case, why do you work to stay in an institution that, it seems you, I don't know, do you fundamentally disrespect it?
KB: Did you ask me if I fundamentally disrespect it?
RW: Yeah, and once you answer that, why you are a part of it.
KB: Sure, I disrespect the corruption. I disrespect the dysfunctional nature of the things that happen in Congress. I stay because if people like me leave, then the swamp doesn't have that voice or voices that are trying to make the changes necessary to really, in my view, save this country. We can't survive with $20 trillion in debt and growing. Last year we had $600 billion of deficit spending, we don't have a major war, we don't have a major recession, and that's just absolutely embarrassing. So, I don't intend to stay very long, but I do intend to stay and do my very best to reform the system.
RW: You say we don't have a major war. I think some might say that the War on Terrorism that was declared many years ago, is a form of a low grade war in many different theaters.
KB: Well, you can make the same argument for the Cold War, but the fact is that, the Vietnam war, and the Korean War, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, all had price tags that we could associate with. The war on terror is a national security effort and an international security effort with a much lower price tag, and a much longer frankly, time period to it. Much more vague, but you're right, it is costly to protect Americans from foreign terrorists and domestic terrorists, but it is not what I consider a well-defined war.
RW: Then you see President Trump proposing an increase in military spending, he has talked about major transportation and infrastructure spending as well. Talk to me about how that relates to debt.
KB: Well it's concerning frankly. I don't know how we're going to pay for some of the things that we're talking about spending money on. One of the things that is clear to me, is the military has to become more efficient, it isn't just a matter of throwing money at issues. We need to stay technologically ahead of China and Russia in particular, but we can't outspend them to the degree we are, and maintain an economy in this country that is going to be strong, and be able to do that for the next 20 or 30 years. So the infrastructure spending, while we have some infrastructure needs, we're going to have to find ways to do that, and I would suggest that the long term effect of the tax reform package, when it does start producing more revenue, is the way to deal with the cost of the infrastructure needs in this country.
RW: Congressman Buck, I want to thank you for your time.
KB: Thank you, been a pleasure.