GWEN IFILL: The debate over spending and budgets is providing the first real test for many lawmakers who got elected by pledging to change the way Washington does its business.
Chief among them is Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who ran and won in 2010 on a promise to slash the federal budget and now is co-founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus.
We talked on Capitol Hill shortly after the president finished defending his budget plan at that White House news conference.
Sen. Paul, welcome.
SEN. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.): Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: So, the president says his new budget is applying a scalpel, not a machete, to the problems in the budget and to the deficit and to the spending. Is that satisfactory to you in any way?
SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, I don’t think it matters whether it’s satisfactory to me. I think it’s whether it addresses the problem.
And we have enormous problems with our debt. Our debt is approaching 100 percent of our gross domestic product. Our whole economy is equal to our debt now. That’s a real problem. One of the things that I think really got me about his budget when I saw the proposals — it — some of it’s a 10-year plan — he’s going to spend $46 trillion over 10 years, just the mind boggling nature of that number.
But it’s also going to double the amount of debt. When he came into office, there was $8 billion in debt, and I complained about the Republicans. I’m one of the few who ran in the primary saying Republicans weren’t doing a good job.
He’s going to leave office, if he wins another term, with $27 billion. He’s going to triple the debt during his period of time. And it’s not just whether it’s Democrats versus Republicans. It’s can the country sustain that level of debt?
GWEN IFILL: Well, you mentioned the fact that — that some of your Republican colleagues aren’t necessarily as, how do we say, committed to this idea as you are. You have proposed $500 billion in cuts in the deficit, something some of your Republican colleagues think is kind of draconian.
SEN. RAND PAUL: Yes.
And the amazing thing is, is, you know my response? It’s only a third of one year’s problem. That’s how big and how bad things are, that my proposal, which many people think is too dramatic, is only a third of one year’s problem.
But the way I look at it is, is that the problem with balancing the budget or reducing the debt is, you can’t look at this much of the budget. The president said he wanted to freeze spending, and everybody says, well, that sounds good. But he wants to freeze them at inflated levels, but only this much of the budget.
The Republicans are the same. They want to freeze it at 2008 levels, but they still want to freeze this much of the budget. It’s why you have to look at military spending, you have to look at non-military discretionary fund spending, but ultimately, you’re going to have to look at entitlements. Entitlements are half of the budget. And we’re spending more than we bring in. It’s adding to the deficit.
GWEN IFILL: How does your point of view square with what some of your colleagues have said and even what the president had said this week about — we saw Reps. Boehner and Cantor, McCarthy go to the House last week. We have seen your Kentucky Senate seatmate, Mitch McConnell, go to the White House.
And they all come away saying the same thing the president said today, which is, we have got to find common ground on this. We have got to find a way to find — get in the same boat without tipping it over, which is the way the president put it.
Do you agree with that?
SEN. RAND PAUL: I think we need to find common ground, but I think both sides haven’t woken up to the enormity of the problem.
You cannot fix this problem — if you eliminate non-military discretionary spending, which is all they’re talking about, this small part of the budget, if you eliminate it, which nobody is proposing, you still don’t balance the budget.
And I don’t think we’re on a path towards balancing the budget. We’re not a path towards reducing the debt. We’re on a path towards still exploding the debt on both sides, Democrat and Republican. So, I think we are still in the awakening process to how severe the problem is.
GWEN IFILL: One other thing nobody seems to be particularly interested in, but which you say you have a plan in your hip pocket on, is Social Security, entitlements.
SEN. RAND PAUL: Right.
GWEN IFILL: One of the words you use to describe what it would take to cut Social Security is willpower. Can you describe to me what you mean by that?
SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, I think what it’s going to take is, first, we acknowledge there’s a problem. And, you know, when the campaign was going on, I would laughingly say, you know what? They have blamed me for a lot of problems, but I’m not responsible for the baby boom. I had nothing to do with the baby boom. But it happened.
It’s a demographic thing. We have all these people getting ready to retire because people had large families after World War II. That’s nobody’s fault. It’s just a fact. But we can’t pay for them now because we have less workers.
We have a plan. We haven’t gotten all the things tied together yet, but it will come out within a week or two, that will talk about gradually raising the age on those 55 and under. You can do it over 30 years. You probably have to gradually raise it to 70. And you will probably have to have means testing. We’re trying to figure out exactly where that means testing has to occur.
But it will fix Social Security in perpetuity, forever. You just have to acknowledge we’re living longer. But it’s tough, because everybody wants something from government, but they have to understand there are consequences to getting something from government if it has to be borrowed.
GWEN IFILL: Everybody wants something from government — perfect segue.
GWEN IFILL: You go home every weekend to Kentucky, a state which got $30 billion in agriculture money from the federal government.
SEN. RAND PAUL: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: And yet you’re suggesting cutting that money. What do people say to you? Do you have to account for that to your constituents?
SEN. RAND PAUL: I — yes, I’m not getting too much bad feedback.
I’ll give you an example. I met with a university president. And we sat down. And, in the beginning, he had a list of earmarks. And he said, “My senators have gotten me these things.” But he looked at me and he said: “You know what? I know you’re not going to do earmarks, and I am an American first.”
I mean, I really — that struck home to me. “I’m an American first. I realize that, while my job is to advocate for federal money, I realize that we have this enormous debt and we’re borrowing it from China and all these other countries, or we’re printing it at the Federal Reserve.”
And he says, “I know it can’t go on the way it’s been in the past.”
So, I think people are really — I think, actually, the people in Kentucky or the people across America are much more ready than they are here. And I think there’s always a disconnect or a lag between public opinion and the people here. People here are very cautious, because they want to keep their job.
But people out there say, there are problems. They want leaders who will stand up. So, I — I think it actually won’t even hurt me politically to stand up and be bold.
GWEN IFILL: What about people who live in other countries which are traditional allies of ours, like Israel, where you suggested…
SEN. RAND PAUL: Right.
GWEN IFILL: … that our foreign aid should be cut there as well?
SEN. RAND PAUL: Right.
I suggested all foreign aid should be cut. And it’s interesting that about 70 percent of the American people agree with me. I put it in terms like this. Does it make any sense for me to borrow money from China to give it to Egypt? Or does it make any sense to give money to corrupt leaders, autocrats and dictators, who steal their people’s money?
My dad likes to say, we take it from poor people in America to give to rich people in Third World countries. Look at Mobutu or Mugabe, these people who have stolen from their people. They don’t have running water and electricity, but they have vast wealth in diamonds and rubies and gold. But it’s all expropriated by these leaders.
And we send money to try to help people in Africa, but it’s stolen right off the top by the leaders.
GWEN IFILL: But…
SEN. RAND PAUL: That’s not to say there aren’t good things we could do, but it shouldn’t…
GWEN IFILL: But that’s not necessarily true in — among — in countries like Israel, who are…
SEN. RAND PAUL: I would say there’s less — there’s probably a lot less corruption. There’s probably waste when you give to governments across the board, but probably less corruption in some of the other countries.
But still, it’s a question of, where does the money come from? And there are two bridges that we’re trying to build, one in Cincinnati and one in Louisville. And I tell them we’re short of money. But maybe if we were giving less money away overseas — I mean, we saw a bridge collapse in Minneapolis. You know, we have infrastructure needs.
So, I’m not against all government spending. I’m just saying we have got to retrench and we have got to save enough money that we can spend it at home before we provide for people overseas.
GWEN IFILL: Do any of your colleagues ever take you aside…
GWEN IFILL: … any of your constituents, but especially your colleagues here in Washington, and say, slow down, just slow down; you just got here; we can’t do everything at once?
SEN. RAND PAUL: Usually — I think it’s actually been the opposite. Most of them have come up to me, and, you know, they — there’s a gentle ribbing that they may not agree with what I’m doing. But most of them, I think they see the enthusiasm and the zeal for trying to, you know, fix problems.
And they may not agree with the timetable or how much the budget cuts are, but, at least on my side, the people I see in the Republican Caucus, I think they are conservative. They want to balance the budget. But I provoke them by saying, yes, you’re for a balanced budget amendment, but what are you going to cut?
You know, because they don’t want to talk, not — and, you know, not everyone, but some of them don’t want to say, well, we’re going to cut here, here, here, because it will make us unpopular. And I say, well, the people want to know how you will do it. And you lose your credibility with the media and everybody else if you don’t say, I will cut some spending.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
Sen. Paul, thank you very much for joining us.
SEN. RAND PAUL: Well, thank you for having me.
GWEN IFILL: We’ll have the view from the liberal side of the spectrum tomorrow night.