NEW YORK — Mitt Romney’s (R) plan to pursue an ambitious legislative agenda if elected president and to campaign aggressively to help Republicans regain control of Capitol Hill appears destined to generate friction with a Congress poised to remain in Democratic hands following the 2008 elections.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Roll Call on Monday, Romney — a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination — discussed what his presidency would mean for relations between the legislative and executive branches, and how he’d like to see politics conducted in Washington, D.C., if he succeeds President Bush in the White House.
The former one-term Massachusetts governor spent four years dealing with an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, and he professes a preference for compromise over confrontation. But legislative priorities that include tax cuts, preserving the USA PATRIOT Act and immigration reform — and Romney’s intention to help Republicans win seats in the 2010 elections — seem tailored to spark a battle with Congressional Democrats.
“Where I have been successful, it has been the result of first, lining up support among my Republican minority, making sure we’re all on the same page, and that we’ve had a good chance to air our concerns and that we can stand together,” Romney said during a 30-minute interview while traveling between two campaign stops in Manhattan.
“And then, No. 2, working with the leadership of the Democratic majority in each house on a sometimes combative and sometimes collaborative basis — but to express our views to one another, to do so in a civil way, not to be personally abusive.”
Observers of Romney’s gubernatorial administration say his claims of bipartisanship to achieve legislative success ring true in some cases, but false in others.
On budget matters, Romney routinely vetoed Democratic spending priorities, only to see those vetoes promptly overridden by the Legislature. He also ran into a brick wall on attempts to overhaul how state government was run and often quarreled with Democrats over taxes. But Massachusetts insiders say the former governor does deserve the credit he gives himself for working with legislative Democrats to reform health care policy.
“I would say it was a mixed bag,” said Michael Jonas, editor of Commonwealth magazine, which covers policy and politics in the Bay State. “There was a good bit of time when he was at odds with the Legislature on the budget. But health care was for real, and a clear example of his ability to work across the aisle.”
An Ambitious, Contentious Agenda
If elected president next year, Romney, a multimillionaire businessman before being elected governor in 2002, would upon his inauguration in January 2009 move to address a handful of contentious issues that both require Congressional approval and seem primed to run afoul of Democrats on Capitol Hill. And although it is not among Romney’s immediate goals, he said he would welcome the opportunity to repeal the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
Romney said his immediate goals would be overhauling health care to ensure all Americans have insurance; implementing middle-class tax cuts; and reforming national education policy. Additionally, Romney would move to end illegal immigration and stem the proliferation of Congressional re-election gold, otherwise known as “earmarks.”
Romney’s health care fix would shun government mandates in favor of solutions that rely on the private sector, while his package of middle-class tax reductions would free households earning up to $200,000 from paying any taxes on savings interest, dividends and capital gains.
Romney’s signature economic proposal is heavy on tax cuts — proposing to both implement new reductions and continue those passed under Bush. Romney said he wants to cut taxes paid by corporations and individuals, make Bush’s tax cuts permanent, and eliminate the “death tax” — something the president tried but failed to accomplish.
“The most important thing is to rein in spending,” Romney added. “I have a commitment, and that is that non-military, discretionary spending should be capped at inflation less 1 percent. If I get appropriations above that level I will veto them.”
Romney also said he wants to “redirect” the money spent on homeland security to focus on preventing an attack, as opposed to responding to one — a move sure to be protested by most Democrats, who feel not enough has been spent on first-responder personnel during Bush’s tenure.
To increase his chances of having his agenda passed, Romney plans to campaign hard to help Republicans retake control of Congress next year, something he said he believes is possible. The former governor also said he would work hard to increase Republican representation on Capitol Hill in the midterm elections of 2010, a gamble that paid off for Bush in 2002 but also resulted in a souring of relations between him and Congressional Democrats.
In the previous cycle, Romney and his wife, Ann, donated $500 each to 25 Massachusetts Republican legislative candidates and also kicked in $10,000 each to the state GOP. The couple donated a total of $26,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee; $4,000 to then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.); and $2,000 each to the re-election campaigns of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri (R).
The former governor said he expects to donate considerably this cycle and looks forward to appearing with Republican House and Senate candidates on the campaign trail next year if he secures the GOP nomination, though he said he would not automatically stump for candidates just because they have an “R” next to their name.
“I would love to have people of like-mind, and like-philosophy, who love America, and have the right principles, get elected to Congressional and Senate seats,” Romney said. “It’s important for the leader of the party to campaign for other members of his party across the nation. That’s part of the job.”
Willing to Be the GOP’s Sheriff
Romney is quite critical of his party and indicated that as leader of the GOP, he would be far less lenient on Members of Congress who engage in unethical and unlawful behavior than Bush and Republican Congressional leaders have been. He said Republicans lost control of Congress last year because the GOP “let down the American people” in a variety of ways.
Republican Members did not restrain spending, preferring instead to greenlight pork-barrel projects for electoral expediency even though doing so went against the party’s principle of smaller government, Romney said, while the Bush administration failed to provide the kind of “thorough, button-down, effectiveness” in managing the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and Hurricane Katrina that voters have come to expect from Republicans.
“The ethics failures from Republican legislators was also disappointing and disgusting,” Romney said.
Romney declined to discuss the ethical foibles and illegal behavior of any specific Member. But he did not shy away from the notion that the GOP needs to better police itself and said that as president, he would be willing to act as the party’s sheriff.
“I think we were less than fully effective in communicating to our own members the standards that we expected them to live by and the corrective actions that we expected them to take,” Romney said. “When you become elected to the United States Senate, or the Congress, or to the presidency, we expect you to live by a higher standard.”
Romney said he has studied the effects of BCRA and concluded that it should be completely rolled back. One of the chief sponsors of campaign finance reform, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), is one of Romney’s rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, as is former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who supported the reform bill when he served in the Senate.
Romney said BCRA has resulted in 527s gaining too much political influence over elections, at the expense of candidates and political parties. He favors a system that allows individuals to contribute whatever amount they want to political candidates and parties, but that requires full disclosure of such donations.
“I’d like to see McCain-Feingold repealed,” Romney said flatly. “There’ve been many efforts to reduce the influence of money in politics. McCain-Feingold made things worse, not better.”
However, the Massachusetts Republican appears inclined to maintain the new ethics laws that prevent Members from taking privately funded trips and prevent Congressional staffers from accepting meals and gifts from lobbyists or entities that employ lobbyists.
Romney said lobbyists don’t affect government negatively per se, noting that there are many who lobby on behalf of “good special interests.” The problem, he said, are earmarks and the interactions they encourage between lobbyists and Members, and lobbyists and staffers.
“I think that having information available to people about the meetings and the influence of lobbyists is also an important factor,” he said. “Certainly, where lobbyists are providing financial benefits — expensive tickets, free air travel or dramatically reduced air travel, or other gifts and largess — that is something that has to be restricted.”