“We need to go back to what the Founding Fathers and Mothers had in mind: a citizen-legislator—somebody that comes here, tries to get results, and then goes home and lets the next person try.”
enator David Perdue (R-Ga.) took office in January, 2015. Prior to being elected to the Senate, Mr. Perdue spent decades in the private sector, rising to CEO of Reebok and later Dollar General. His 2014 Senate bid was his first run for political office, and he has emphasized his business background both as a candidate and as a United States Senator. Since taking office, Senator Perdue has supported infrastructure projects such as the deepening of the Port of Savannah, as well as fiscal accountability issues including pressing for an audit of the Department of Defense. He frequently works closely with President Trump. Senator Perdue joins Merion West’s editor Erich Prince to discuss his experience as a businessperson-turned-politician, bringing private sector concepts to Washington, and his strong support for term limits for members of Congress.
Senator Perdue, good morning. Looking forward to discussing some of this intersection of business and politics. A number of business people have made that transition to politics. You’re one of them. This is the age of President Trump, but there have been others from Michael Bloomberg to Carly Fiorina. What are some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed between when you’re looking at politics as a businessperson while you’re still in the private sector to now being on the inside of things?
We have a great form of government, a representative democracy. The problem is—in Washington right now—it’s more focused on the process than getting results. When I ran, I basically had one message, and that was: “Washington is broken. If you want different results, you have to send a different kind of person.” And we now see that I got elected on that same message, and so did Trump. And Trump’s getting those results now. So from a business perspective, having priorities, due dates, and accountability are alien concepts in a bureaucracy that’s out of control in the way Washington is right now.
My dad told me always, “Take whatever your point of view is and understand and read and learn what the other side is saying.” That helps you compromise when you get there. Being in business, you don’t ever get to do things your own way. You have to find ways to compromise. People in politics don’t understand that. I think right now—the word “compromise” is not a dirty four-letter word. It’s a part of the assumption that the Founding Fathers and Mothers had when they created this representative democracy. That somehow, we fight and differ and all that, but at the end of the day, we come together and find middle ground and move on. And that’s what I’m hoping we can bring. We’ve seen some examples of that. The Dodd-Frank bill that was passed last year is a perfect example of that. It’s a bipartisan bill, and it removes the most onerous part of Dodd-Frank. So I’m hopeful that with enough business people coming now, we can bring a sense of urgency and focus on getting results.
One particularly striking example is these efforts surrounding the deepening of the port of Savannah, which I understand has been an important issue in Georgia. You described the difficulty these “career politicians” have had in the past twenty years in getting that accomplished. Does this project finally getting done speak to some of this more results-oriented business approach that you were just mentioning?
It’s a perfect example. When I met with President Trump—this is early in his presidency just after he was inaugurated—we talked about how to grow the economy. And that’s important because long-term you need to do that in order to deal with the debt. You need to do other things, but growing the economy is part of it. And part of that—the first year was regulation, energy, taxes, and Dodd-Frank. And the second year was supposed to be immigration, trade, and infrastructure. I told him early that he had a perfect example in Savannah of an infrastructure project that had a high return on investment— 7.3 to 1—and Congress had been trying to get that done for seventeen years at that point. President Trump stepped in; now we’ve had full funding for two years, and this next year in the President’s budget funds it again. So we’re now looking at the completion of that within the next year or so. The deepening of the port in Savannah, is the perfect example of what I’m talking about.
I wanted to mention that because you mentioned that in the business world, decisions are made on this basic concept of return-on-investment. But maybe sometimes this doesn’t transfer as much to certain government decisions. Are there other areas that you think could benefit from looking at things in that frame of reference of return on investment?
Return on investment is important in the business world because you are trying to give a return to your investors. That’s equity investors, your bond holders, and also to protect the jobs of the people who work for you, so you can provide goods and services to your customers. It’s part of what capitalism is. Every aspect of the federal government could use an audit to look at it that way. And the perfect example of what we’re talking about is when President Trump came in, we also made him aware that in 1991, Congress put a law on the books; this is a federal law that requires a president to provide Congress with an audit of the Department of Defense. Not one president, Republican or Democrat, since 1991 when that thing became law, has provided an audit.
When President Trump understood that, he said, “Of course, we’ll have an audit.” And one year to the day almost, after he made that decision, the Department of Defense provided an audit, our first ever in the history of the U.S. And it’s giving us a roadmap as to how to eliminate redundant agencies, unnecessary spending, and a good example of that is in this year’s appropriation request, the Department of Defense actually eliminated $4 billion of programs that they don’t want to spend money on. The irony is that if we don’t get that appropriated, a new continuing resolution will force them to spend that money even though they don’t want to. And this is part of the madness that goes on in the appropriation process. But the Department of Defense audit, I think is a great example of this results-oriented management that President Trump is bringing.
I guess that’s an interesting point that you’ve made that presidents—Republican nor Democrat—had looked at it before when we think of fiscal responsibility as an issue that’s important to both parties, especially important to Republicans. And you’re saying that President Trump is the first one to double-down and actually do it?
He doesn’t talk about the debt a lot in public because he’s working on all the things that would address it: growing the economy is one; we’ve got to fix the budget process; we had a joint select committee last year directing that. We’ve got some things that could become law this year. I hope to help and change some of that. But we have to get at Social Security, Medicare, get rid of redundant agencies, and arrest the spiraling nature of our healthcare cost, not just the insurance. But right now, funding the government is a broken mechanism here in Congress. Only four times in the last 45 years since the ‘74 Budget Act was put in place has Congress actually funded the government before the end of the fiscal year. And to get past that deadline, they used 186 continuing resolutions. Every time they do that, it just cripples the military. So it causes expenses to go up, morale to go down, readiness to go down, and the delay is hurting the programs that we need to do. We only have nine working days between now and 31st of July. Why is that important? Because we have a state work month in August where traditionally, the Senate goes back to the state, and works with local constituents. It’s a tradition for the last 50, 60 years. When we come back from that, we’ll have about ten working days between when we come back and the end of the fiscal year. So as I sit here today, we don’t have one appropriation bill done, and we’re pushing now to get Defense and HHS done right away. And I think we’ve got a chance to do that in the next two weeks.
And, Senator Perdue, I remember last year you were very involved in pushing to reconsider this August recess due to these appropriation bills and judicial appointments. I saw a piece in The Hill in the past few days that this is again on the table this year that you are may be spearheading this effort to potentially do something about the August recess.
We wrote a letter last year, and 16 people signed that one. We’re working hard this year to try to avoid that because we need to work in the state and spend time with our constituents. But if we don’t get the government funded, we don’t have a choice. If we get Defense and HHS—you know, Republicans typically want defense protected, and Democrats typically want domestic spending protected, so they are the two bills that get put together. And we’re very close on the numbers. There are some policy riders that need to be worked on, but I think we can get there—just like we did on disaster relief and like we did on the border, humanitarian supplemental appropriation. I think we can get that done.
The problem is that we have to get at it right now. We actually put a bill in to help fix this whole process, Erich, and it’s called the Fix Funding First Act. It’s a placeholder to show in the Senate—at least what we’ve been working on for the last four-and-a-half years to try to fix the budgeting process. It changes the fiscal year to match the calendar year. It establishes a bi-annual budget instead of this annual stuff that we’ve been doing. A lot of people in the business world look at it that way. It gives the budget the force of law; right now it’s just a resolution and doesn’t mean a thing. We want to change that. We want to create consequences for Congress if we don’t get it done on time. Like in the states—most states—if you don’t get the budget done in the 45 days that the legislature is in session, nobody goes home. We believe we need to bring those sorts of consequences to Washington.
And lastly, Washington’s never had a strategic plan. We believe the budget committee in the Senate should be providing a five-year strategic plan. We’ve never had one. Every business that’s results-oriented has that. It drives the budgeting process, and we need to go to that here. So I’m very hopeful that there’s a growing number of people in the Senate anyway that are focused on trying to find a better way to fund the government and do away with all this drama every year.
And you make a good point that in August, you are supposed to be doing work in the states with constituents. And I think that’s under-reported: that when the Senate is not in session in Washington, senators are still working.
Yes, that’s right. I’m on Armed Services, and I was on Foreign Relations beforehand. So there’s a requirement for a good bit of international travel. For example, I’m the chair of this Subcommittee on Seapower. So I’m hoping to go out to the Pacific and see how the new national defense strategy is being implemented in the Navy—and find out what their needs are and provide some oversight, really, as to how this money is being spent. This is a major thing that nobody ever talks about, but it’s a major requirement of being in the U.S. Senate. I’m proud to say that under Trump, we are moving in the right direction in those areas, but we need to make sure we keep our hands on top of it.
I was speaking with your colleague Senator Isakson a couple of weeks ago, and he was talking about his trip to Iraq with Senator Duckworth; these international trips are very important in any cases.
That’s right. If you look at people who are really trying to bring results to the United States Senate, that travel is then very very productive. For example, I now have a relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel because I made trips there and have had these substantive conversations. The chairman of the Judicial Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress in China has visited me personally. I’ve made trips over there. I’m hoping to go to China again soon to add depth and breadth behind the administration’s trade conversations. Having lived over there, I have acquaintances and business associates over there from the time when I was there. We have to find time to do it; August is generally the time a lot of that is being done, in addition to meetings with constituents.
So switching gears a bit, when you first ran for the Senate, you indicated that this was your first time running for office and that that was a good thing. And in a related vein, you, Senator Cruz, Senator Lee, and some others have sought a constitutional amendment on term limits, a position that President Trump has variously articulated support for, as well. What are your hopes for term limits? This is an issue that comes up from time to time all the way back to 1994 and the Republican Revolution.
We need a few hours to talk about this one, Erich. This is close to my heart. This was the first day of my time in the U.S. Senate—the very first day I put a term limit bill in. Two terms in the Senate—that’s 12 years; that’s a third of somebody’s career almost. And then six terms in the House, so you don’t have people up here for 25 and 30 years. A lot of people would argue with that. I’m asking for an open and honest debate about it, but we’re not going to get it.
So a constitutional amendment that is driven from the states, unfortunately, looks like it’s going to be necessary. There is that effort underway; I’ve tried to encourage the House of Representatives in Georgia to actually bring this bill up. I’ve been unsuccessful so far, but we are still trying to do that. Look, here’s the problem: this is a late 20th century development. The Founders never imagined the rise of a career politician. It was too onerous; it took John Adams a month to go from Boston to Philadelphia, for example. So they never saw this. They were citizen-legislators the way most states are set up today. It wasn’t until the Senate began to be elected instead of being appointed by the states in 1913 that they changed that.
I’m the 37th person in this line in my seat in the U.S. Senate. The very first person was named William Few from Savannah. 37 [senators]: that averages about six years per person for being in the Senate. Only two people in my chain have been here longer than ten years in the last century: Richard Russell and Sam Nunn. And they were both [from the] second half of the 20th century. This is something that’s been a manifestation as of late—and not something the Founders had in mind. We need to go back to what the Founding Fathers and Mothers had in mind: a citizen-legislator—somebody that comes here, tries to get results, and then goes home and lets the next person try. You know—I was criticized when I ran, Erich, for breaking the line. Somehow, people got in their heads in the last half of the 20th century that somehow this is a career, and there’s a career path for becoming a U.S. Senator. That’s not what the Founders had in mind at all.
I understand that at the end of May, you spoke to Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and President Trump notably captured a larger share of the Hispanic voters than Governor Romney in 2012. Some commentators have recently observed that perhaps Hispanic voters aren’t necessarily going to be a reliable constituency for the Democrats. For example, [Hispanics] tend to be more pro-life and more in favor of certain conservative values. What are your thoughts on potentially the Republican Party’s efforts to bring in more Hispanic voters?
First of all, this is where the national media really misleads people because with all of the hoopla around border security this President is trying to achieve, like every other President before him has. This has been misreported. This was a great meeting; I’ve had many meetings in Georgia with the Hispanic business committee. I’ve got a lot of friends in that community; I’ve worked with them before in my career. The Hispanic community in Georgia is a growing and vibrant community. It is very integrated into our fabric and a tremendous part of our economy.
There are a lot of things in their community that are consistent with our voice. The real reality though is they are smart. They see that the Democratic Party’s big central government, socialist policies have all failed from the New Deal to the Great Society, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare; all of them have failed them. President Trump comes in and talks about the sanctity and security around our borders and so forth. He wants people to come in legally and gave a proposal to bring in the 1.8 million DACA recipients and give them a pathway to citizenship. And he’s also created an economy that is benefitting the Hispanic community as well as all the people who are working. Six million new jobs since President Trump was elected. And in the Hispanic community, we had the lowest unemployment and the highest median income ever measured. I can’t think of another president who’s done more for the American Hispanic community than President Donald Trump. So I’m looking at the agenda that is working on right now. I believe that the ethos of most people that I know of Hispanic origin—they’re pro-life, they’re pro-family, they work hard, and they really do take care of their children, their family, and so forth. I just think that the values our Founders had in mind: economic opportunity for everybody, fiscal responsibility, limited government, and individual liberty are very important for that community. So I don’t look at it as a separate community. We’re going to do well with them in this upcoming election, hopefully, for the very reasons that we’ve been talking about.
I appreciate your time this morning, Senator Perdue. Thank you for an interesting conversation.
Erich, thank you.