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U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan wants to lower tariffs as high as 700 percent on our agricultural products sent to Japan.

The Janesville Republican touts scientific research as the best response to climate concerns, yet warns entitlement reform is needed to create “fiscal space” for other spending.

Ryan isn’t endorsing Gov. Scott Walker or anyone else in the likely Republican field for president, though he’s excited by the governor’s high profile.

“He’s quenching a thirst that’s out there for someone fresh, new and innovative — and someone who has guts,” Ryan told the State Journal editorial board during a meeting Monday.

Here are highlights from our conversation with the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade, tax, retirement, welfare and health care laws:

Q: You were just in Tokyo?

A: Yes, I just got back. The reason I went there was because we’re in the middle of negotiating a trade agreement with 11 Pacific nations. And this represents 40 percent of global GDP. Getting this right means we are helping to write the rules of the global economy, especially with respect to Asia. It’s really a question of whether China writes the rules or we, along with our allies including Japan, write the rules. This is very important if we want to be in the driver’s seat of the global economy for the 21st century. It’s also very important because 96 percent of the world’s consumers live outside this country. If we want to have good jobs and a faster growing economy, we need to make more things here and sell more overseas. And that means we need to break down the barriers that make it hard for us to sell our products overseas. ... Our competitors are going around knocking down barriers for their products. If we don’t do the same, we’ll be blocked out.

Q: What do you say to those who contend lots of working-class people will lose jobs?

A: We will if we don’t do this. It’s the opposite. We’re already a very open system. These countries can sell their products into our country, but we don’t have equal access to their countries. This is about us getting equal access to those markets. ... The other point is, trade agreements get us fair trade. They get us the rules that work for us. If you add up all the countries we have trade agreements with, we have a manufacturing surplus. If you add up all the countries we don’t have trade agreements with, we have a massive deficit. So when we get a country to agree to a trade agreement with us, we get them to play by our rules — to have the rule of law, enforceable contracts, lower barriers, open markets. ... This is why a Democrat, Barack Obama, and a conservative, Paul Ryan, agree that this issue is important for our economic well-being.

Q: So where are you at with some of your tea party members who are more protectionist, or the Democrats?

A: It’s weird. These things kind of go like that. They come full circle. So we’re in the middle of negotiating what we call trade promotion authority (TPA). And what that is is an attempt to get Congress involved on the front end of trade negotiations, rather than the back end. There’s nothing that stops a president from going out and getting a trade agreement on his own, and then just plopping it on the desk in Congress and saying, “Here, take it or leave it.” Then we’ll probably tube the deal, right? We’re more likely to kill it. TPA says: Here are the guidelines you need to follow to have a trade agreement that we will consider. You need to be transparent along the way. Let Congress in on negotiations. We can participate in the negotiation rounds if we want to. We can look at all the various negotiating text. And then in exchange we’ll give an up-or-down vote on the agreement at the end of the day, so the countries that we are negotiating with know they should give us their best and final offer. This is what was really clear to me from talking to the Japanese. They won’t give us their best offer if they think Congress will just undo it. If they think it’s the final sale, they’ll give us the best offer. We have like 700 percent tariffs on some of our ag products in Japan. We are closed out of their agriculture markets in many ways, and some in manufacturing. This is our chance and opportunity to get our products into their markets.

Q: How close or far are we from a vote?

A: We’ll have TPA this spring.

Q: You think you can get that?

A: Yeah. I’m negotiating with Ron Wyden and Orrin Hatch, the Democrat and the Republican (respectively) in the Senate. We’re getting very close to that.

Q: And you’ll need considerable votes from both parties?

A: Yeah. It’s not easy. Trade is never easy. ... Trade promotion authority basically gets trade on the docket. Then the actual agreement that Obama is negotiating (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), we would vote on it in the fall, because we require it to be viewed for 90 days so you can look at the agreement and then have the vote.

Q: Higher natural gas and oil production is great for energy independence. How concerned, though, are you about climate change?

A: Well, look at it this way: Are we going to be a fossil fuel dependent economy for the medium term? Yes. Our entire economy is wired for that. So should we get it from the Middle East, or should we get it from ourselves? And natural gas is cleaner fuel. You can get into this modeling debate about climate change, and I think the jury is out as to the cost and benefits of these ideas. I do not like cap and trade because I think the costs far outweigh the benefits. So why don’t we get our own oil and gas, and why don’t we put money into basic research so we can research our way to better, cleaner energy.

Q: What do you think of a revenue-neutral carbon tax?

A: I don’t like that either. I think these tax-and-spend ideas are the wrong way to go. They hurt economic growth. They’re very regressive. They hurt people who rely on disposable income solely — the poor. And they make our manufacturing industry much less competitive. So why don’t we get faster economic growth, more upward mobility, help increase people’s take-home pay, and finance research to innovate ourselves to come up with better technology. This is Madison, Wisconsin. We’re good at researching stuff. So why don’t we just research.

Q: Why can’t we invest more as a nation in research?

A: Because entitlements are taking the fiscal space up. Right now you need health care. You need retirement. You need the basics. And the basics are our entitlement programs that are on a dangerous trajectory of going bankrupt. We’ve got to improve these entitlement programs so they are solvent and so that they are affordable.

Q: Is that too difficult for Washington to do now?

A: Obama won’t do entitlement reform with us.

Q: Like raising the retirement age by a year?

A: Yeah. He won’t do that. I’ve been for that for years. He won’t do that.

Q: So hang on until 2017 on that?

A: Yes. Some of these things you’re going to have to wait until 2017. Because some of these things — let’s just take age, for example. These programs were written in the last century when life expectancy was much lower than it was today, and they weren’t designed to last as long as they are now, which is a good thing — people are living longer. So we have to get these programs to reflect this longevity. I’ve always said that. I know it’s not politically popular. But it’s just math, and we should acknowledge that. I would means test these programs because wealthier people can afford more, and they ought to be more of a safety-net program.

Q: How often do you get to talk to the president?

A: He doesn’t talk to us that much. The last time I talked to him was August, I think. I talk to his Cabinet. He just doesn’t do congressional outreach. He doesn’t do it well. He doesn’t do it often. He’s just not that kind of a president, which I think is one of his biggest shortcomings.

Q: Was Bush good at that?

A: Yeah. He was real good at that. So was Clinton.

Q: Will you endorse in the Republican primary for president, and might it be Scott Walker?

A: I announced I wasn’t running in the beginning of the year because I want to get stuff done. I’m chairing a committee that has a huge footprint that can make a big difference. And I have a young family. But the day after I announced I wasn’t running, (Republican National Committee Chairman) Reince Priebus announced I was going to chair the presidential trust. That’s the fund that prepares for the general election for the nominee. ... Because I’m chairing that effort, I have to be neutral.

Q: What does Scott Walker need to do?

A: I’m not going to get into that. Scott and I are good friends. We talk about this occasionally. He knows my opinion on the issue, and I’ll give him whatever advice I can to be helpful to him.

Q: Would you be open to being a VP pick again?

A: You can’t have two Wisconsin guys on a ticket. It doesn’t work like that.

Q: What if Walker isn’t the nominee?

A: It’s just not something I’m giving consideration to.

Q: Will you be appearing anywhere with Walker during his campaign?

A: I don’t know. I can’t endorse. But Scott’s my friend, and I’ve made introductions. A lot of members of Congress have asked me to meet him. They’re very excited about Scott’s prospects. They’re excited to get to know him. So I’m putting together a list to give to Scott because there are a lot of people who want to meet him in Congress who don’t know him. Things like that I can help him with.

Q: When you were running as VP with Mitt Romney, were you asked these questions like “Do you believe in evolution?”

A: I don’t know if I got that one. But I got all of that. What they do, no offense, what the media do, what you do, it’s darts to the head. It’s all catch ya, it’s all gotcha. And I don’t take it personally. It’s just they’re going to run you through your paces to see if you can do well.

Q: I don’t remember you having any problems with it.

A: No. But I’ve been in Congress for 17 years. And I’ve been a federal guy. I’ve been doing nothing but foreign policy and federal policy forever. I’ve been defending my budgets for a long time. So I’m used to it, and it’s not new to me. But for people who are new to the federal stage, (the media is) just going to do that.

Q: So what did you say when they asked if you believed in evolution?

A: I don’t want to get into that because I don’t want to be used in some story comparatively or whatever with Scott. I want to be helpful to him. And that’s not helpful to him.

Q: Do you think Gov. Walker is exceeding expectations so far?

A: I don’t know if I would say exceeding expectations. I think Scott has a very good chance. And I think he’s quenching a thirst that’s out there for someone fresh, new and innovative — and someone who has guts. And he’s clearly got that. Say what you want to say, the guy has guts. And I think that that’s refreshing to a lot of people. And there’s a desire out there, and I think he’s filling that. It’s a long ways between now and the nomination. And I think Scott has put himself in a very good position to be very competitive.

Q: Even with you on the ticket, Republicans just can’t seem to win Wisconsin in a presidential race.

A: It’s hard.

Q: Why is that when, in the midterm, we’re a red state?

A: We haven’t gone red (for president) since ’84. And (back then) everybody did, and they sort of conceded Minnesota to be nice to Mondale. I was 14 then, so I don’t remember it in great detail. I don’t know the answer to that question.

Q: Did you spend enough time here when you were on the ticket?

A: The problem is you’re running all around the country. I don’t know the answer. It is a vexing one. You would think, like Ohio and some other Midwestern states, we’d be very competitive. But it always seems to escape us at the end. There’s a progressive streak in this state. You know it all too well in Madison. That just runs deep.

Q: What about 2020? 2024? You’d run for president again someday.

A: Yeah. I might. But right now I can make a huge difference where I am, and I can be home on weekends. I was at St. John Vianney and St. William (schools in Janesville) yesterday for two of my three kids’ basketball games. That’s a big deal to me. And that’s where I need to be.

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