Fast Forward: Q&A with Senator Johnny Isakson
A Senate veteran’s take on the new administration and what’s ahead for Georgia.
Georgia’s senior senator, Republican Johnny Isakson, 72, has spent much of his life in public service – as a state legislator, a member of the U.S. House and, since 2005, a U.S. senator. He is a Cobb County resident and UGA graduate who ran his family real estate business for many years.
In the Senate, he chairs two committees, Veterans Affairs and the Select Committee on Ethics, and sits on three others: Foreign Relations; Finance; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He has a reputation as a hard-working straight-talker willing to reach across the aisle.
Isakson talked to Georgia Trend’s Editor-At-Large Susan Percy in his Atlanta office as the new Trump Administration was settling in – with two Georgians selected for Cabinet positions, Sonny Perdue as secretary of agriculture and Tom Price as secretary of health and human services – about old issues, new policies and how Georgia is likely to fare.
Following are edited highlights of the interview.
GT: Are you optimistic about the next four years?
Isakson: I’m always optimistic, and the older I get the more optimistic I get.
GT: What are you hearing from constituents about the early days of the Trump Administration?
Isakson: There’s a very good feeling on the part of a lot of our constituents that we have somebody elected president who is actually going to do what he says he’s going to do.
GT: What’s your reaction?
Isakson: As a part of the government and a member of the U.S. Senate, I think the executive branch needs to understand that it is one-third of the government, not 100 percent. You have a Congress, and you have the courts. I think we’d have been better off if some of these executive orders had been vetted to us before they went public. We were caught red-handed without knowing any details – particularly the heads of the departments that need to execute the game plan. You’ve got to have your Cabinet secretaries fully briefed in advance.
The speed with which it’s been done left some vetting undone. Some changes probably need to be made to some of the executive orders, like the immigration order. But I have to give President Trump credit because in 10 days he’s taken almost every major point he ran on and executed it by executive order.
GT: What do you see as the most pressing issues for Congress?
Isakson: The growing debt is something we have got to pay attention to. We’re getting ready to bump up the debt ceiling. We’ve got to get to the process of reducing rather than increasing our debt. That’s something I’ve worked on very hard with the biennial budget proposal.
GT: Anything specific to Georgia?
Isakson: There is no question that the biggest issue is the Port of Savannah, which has just announced a 12-plus percent increase in volume and business for the most recent reporting cycle. It’s got to be widened and deepened to 47 feet. We got the authorization done 19 years ago. We finally got the appropriation from the federal government beginning two years ago, because of [Gov.] Nathan Deal’s leadership, by forward-funding the state’s share. We’ve begun the process, so we’ve got to shepherd that process through.
GT: Are you comfortable that the new administration is aware of the importance of the Savannah port?
Isakson: There’s no question the new administration is.
GT: Let’s talk about the Affordable Care Act.
Isakson: The Affordable Care Act turned out not to be so affordable. It was supposed to lower premiums by about $2,500 a year, but they have gone up astronomically. It was supposed to improve care, but of the 20 million people who did get insurance that did not have it, so many of them – the only insurance they could get was the Bronze policy, which had a $5,000 to $10,000 deductible, which most of them couldn’t pay. So they had an insurance policy that was catastrophic, but the challenge for them was getting the money to pay the deductible so they could get to the insurance.
GT: Does everything in the law need to be scrapped?
Isakson: We did the right thing during the campaign to talk about repealing or replacing Obamacare – or the Affordable Care Act. I’m on the Health Committee, the committee most of the legislation will go through. We’re already working with Chairman [Sen. Lamar] Alexander to fine-tune, so we keep the things that are good.
GT: What are the good things?
Isakson: Doing away with the pre-existing condition [exclusion] and [letting] people up to 26 years old stay on their parents’ insurance.
GT: What do you want to change or eliminate?
Isakson: To get out of the federal government’s writing mandatory health benefits that go into every policy. Most people don’t understand the biggest change that impacted the cost of insurance was the mandate on states from the federal government in terms of what had to be covered. As a 72-year-old man, I’m paying for birth control, paying for lots of things I don’t need anymore or my wife doesn’t need anymore. We need to return to states’ regulation of insurance and get the federal government out of that business but ensure that the federal government is a partner in saving the pre-existing condition and making sure all kids up to 26 years old can stay on their parents’ insurance as long as they are living at home.
GT: What do you think will actually happen?
Isakson: The most likely scenario is passage of repeal by 100 days [into the Administration] and replacement by 200 days – with repeal being the trigger for replacement. You never lose coverage, but you have a change in the way coverage is mandated and a change in what government authority is in charge.
GT: Do you support that?
Isakson: I support repeal as long as we do replace it at the same time. You see enough cases where Congress makes one promise one year and changes it the next. We need to deliver on the promise of replacing Obamacare while we’re repealing it.
GT: Let’s talk about immigration. It was on people’s minds during the campaign and in the early days of the Trump Administration.
Isakson: Let me take the macro side of that issue first. We have an obligation to protect our borders and the safety of our citizens. The 9/11 hijackers – all 19 of them got into this country, 15 of them on student visas issued by the State Department. Obviously, the vetting wasn’t very good. Our first obligation is to make our borders safe and secure but accessible.
GT: Talk a little more about accessibility.
Isakson: We are a nation of immigrants. I am a second-generation American. My grandfather came from Sweden in 1903. My father was born [here] in 1916, but had Anders Isakson not immigrated I wouldn’t be here today. So I am very proud of what he did and very proud of our immigration laws. I think immigration is a very important asset. But it needs to be managed based on need – for employment and things like that. Raise and lower your immigration needs based on the needs of your country. But whatever you do, you should properly vet people so you know you are letting people in the country who should be let into the country. That’s the macro.
GT: And the micro?
Isakson: The president’s executive order [in late January] lacked the proper vetting of the departments that would have to enforce it. We’ve had a couple of “Oh, by the ways” since it was put out. You want to have those come up before you put it out to the public. We all need to be on the same team – the members of Congress, the president and everybody else – if you’re making major policy announcements.
GT: I’d like to hear you talk about foreign policy, especially our relationship with Russia.
Isakson: I’m one of the 13,000 people who was present at the speech President Reagan made in Atlanta in 1986. He was on his way to Iceland to meet with the Russian premier. That’s when he established “trust but verify.” That process has served America well. The best example was the START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] established under the Reagan Administration; it came up under the Obama Administration for renewal. We have reduction in warheads and a verification system. It’s about trusting each other to reduce our warheads but having a mechanism to verify it, so it’s actually done. If you don’t have a mechanism with Russia to verify it, they are probably going to find a way to go around the rule or around the promise.
GT: Is Russia best viewed as an ally or adversary?
Isakson: Russia is a giant international power – not as big a superpower as they once were. Their strength lies primarily in the natural resources they have in terms of oil and gas. A lot of that’s diminishing because the prices are suppressed, which is why you see Putin more outgoing in terms of some of the things he’s doing.
Russia is a force to be dealt with, a potential adversary that needs to be treated that way, but also a potential friend in certain cases that needs to be treated that way. In terms of terror, the United States and Russia are on the same page. We want to make sure we put an end to it.
GT: How about U.S.-Israeli relations? Are they in a good place?
Isakson: They never need to be in a bad place. Israel is the United States’ best friend in the world, and we are theirs. To have a country that is your friend in the Middle East is a huge asset. We can’t let UN resolutions weaken the relationship Israel has in the world. I worked very closely with Samantha Power, the past ambassador to the United Nations, and I look forward to working with Nikki Haley to see that our relations with Israel stay just as good as they have been.
GT: From your vantage point as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, give us an overview of the VA and its hospital system. It has had some well-publicized problems.
Isakson: The first thing to recognize is that the VA health system is the second largest agency in the federal government. The only thing bigger is the [Department of Defense]. When you see news stories about problems the VA has, you have to take into account that it’s a management nightmare. We are trying to make improvements. I think in the last two years with the Veterans Choice Act, the Veterans First Act, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act, we’ve addressed a number of problems, but we’ve got a ways to go.
GT: What else is needed?
Isakson: We need more accountability, a better system of hiring and firing in the VA, so there is an accountability mechanism. We need to continue to reach out to expand the access for our veterans.
Isakson: I am a proponent of allowing veterans to go to doctors in their communities (or at the VA, whichever they want) and the VA covering the costs, reimbursed at Medicare rate. That would add a tremendous amount of access for veterans, reduce the cost of continuing to house offices for VA officials and focus on the VA mission, which is delivering healthcare, not building buildings.
GT: What will it take to make that happen?
Isakson: An Act of Congress signed by the president of the United States.
GT: Are you optimistic that will be accomplished?
Isakson: I am. We’re not going to privatize the VA. We’re going to enhance the access to care to all veterans. Remember that every one of those vets signed up to risk their life for all of us. Not a one of them got conscripted or drafted. Every one of them volunteered and was promised a package of benefits, of which healthcare is one.
GT: You’ll be working with the new VA secretary, David Shulkin.
Isakson: Shulkin has been at the VA for 18 months under Bob McDonald, and he has done a good job.
GT: The tone of Congress over the last few years has become increasingly rancorous. Does that worry you?
Isakson: Read a book called America Afire, about the presidential race of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams. It makes what we’re talking about look like petty politics. The difference in today and 1800 – everything that happens today you know about instantaneously. Time has a way of cooling things down a little.
If you keep your eye on the ball and stay focused, you get things done. I think the press too often likes to report on rancor, discord, the loudest voice – but, in fact, the person in there working hard flies under the radar, and the American people benefit.
GT: You and Saxby Chambliss worked together very closely when he was a senator. How is your relationship with Sen. Perdue?
Isakson: David Perdue and I have a great relationship. He won a very highly contested race. He was very open and solicitous to me from the very beginning, and I’ve done all I could to help him. The Senate is a culture. There’s not a rulebook for how you behave. There’s a lot of local knowledge and a lot of experience that makes a lot of difference. David and I communicate every week. We talk all the time. We differ from time to time as good people always will, but never differ against each other – maybe on an issue or two. We try and match up our strengths to make sure the people of Georgia benefit from our committee assignments and the work we do in the Senate.
GT: We’ve seen a lot of demonstrations and protests in the early days of the Trump Administration, some outside your office here.
Isakson: That’s what’s so great about our country – in the end it’s about the people we represent, not about the representatives of the people. We had 17,000 calls, protesters out front, phones ringing off the hook. We had to bring extra people in. People are very engaged, as they almost always are. Engagement is generally issue-specific. [Early on] it was about some of the confirmation of appointees – some people liked them, some people didn’t. Immigration is going to be important.
GT: Do citizens’ protests and phone calls have an impact?
Isakson: The louder they are about issues they care about, the more responsive government is. I don’t see a protest as a negative, I see it as an opportunity.
GT: Anything else?
Isakson: There are so many bright spots for Georgia that it’s hard to calculate. The main business of agriculture is strong, getting stronger. Our capital city of Atlanta is big and getting bigger. Our transportation infrastructure is second to none. Our educational system is improving every day. Our population is growing. If you look at trends in Georgia, they are good; and Georgia’s future is going to be even better.