Only one person can say he defeated a sitting majority leader in the House of Representatives: Republican Rep. David Brat, currently in his first term representing the 7th district of Virginia.
Brat shocked the nation when he beat former Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a June 2014 Republican primary. Brat focused almost exclusively on doing something about illegal immigration and reducing federal debt. He won comfortably, 55.5-45.5 percent. Before the election, pollsters projected he would lose by up to 40 percent.
Less than two years later, the presidential election has given rise to similarly historic circumstances, with nontraditional candidates surging largely by emphasizing a need to restrict immigration. Brat said he is proud to observe that the mood in his district served largely to foreshadow the mood nationally.
"When I brought immigration up over a year and a half ago, I was openly mocked and ridiculed," Brat said. "The media would call me names. None of that is happening anymore.
"You now have about 70 percent of Republican voters expecting a strong answer on this issue, so I think it's easy to see who was right," he added. "There's a huge anxiety hanging over the American people right now, and they want to hear someone answer credibly on that issue."
Washington Examiner: You were the first one in history to defeat a sitting majority leader. Do you think that served as a precursor to the presidential election that we've been witnessing?
Brat: I think it's a precursor in the sense that the American people are waking up to a whole host of issues, from national security to foreign policy to fiscal crises, refugee crises, immigration, I think our district was there ahead of time. But I do think it was very similar.
If you look at the presidential race, the top issues are the same. Foreign policy, national security, immigration and maybe jobs. So my district contained the founding DNA. My district has been steeped in this, they're attuned to this. I do think our district caught the bug by about a year.
Now you're seeing a very similar phenomenon in the presidential race, and a new energy where you have about 70 percent of voters going for outside candidates.
Examiner: Do you think your colleagues in Congress have an appropriate sense of the national mood after watching how the last year has unfolded, or are they still a bit mystified about what's happening?
Brat: I think there's a growing awareness, though if you look at the budget we just passed, I don't think there's a great enough awareness. We did not deal sufficiently with foreign policy, national security, amnesty or refugee issues.
But I think folks know in their own districts, things are changing dramatically, there's a new grassroots awareness. In D.C., everyone is still doing calculations on keeping it all very calm and safe for the presidential election. I don't know if that's a viable option right now, when you have 70 percent of folks going for outsiders, I don't know if things will keep calm. People are very upset, and they want to see action, particularly against President Obama's executive overreach.
Examiner: Under the FY16 budget agreed to by Speaker Ryan and President Obama, the Congressional Budget Office projects that the deficit is going to increase by 24 percent to $544 billion. It increases spending by 6 percent to $3.9 trillion. That's 21.2 percent of annual gross domestic product, and it's estimated to reach 23 percent within a decade. Why did Speaker Ryan agree to that budget?
Brat: So Speaker Ryan has been out in public saying we lost our leverage. He's admitted that the budget process was a crap sandwich. [Former Speaker] John Boehner called it cleaning the barn. They're acknowledging a self-inflicted wound dealing with our strategy on the budget. Why? We lost our leverage.
We started debating [Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi after we announced that we would never shut the government down or defund anything. It was an all-or-nothing proposition because we didn't do 12 appropriations bills. If you do 12, it's possible to carve out little pieces and defund them without threatening the entire government.
That was what led us into losing our leverage to the extent that we did. The solution is getting back to regular order in the appropriations process, and there is some good news there. When we held the congressional Republican retreat in Baltimore, Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell both said we're going to do 12 appropriations bills in the coming year. That will help us regain our leverage.
But when you have 247 seats, the most Republican seats we've seen in a long time, to have lost your leverage in the first place is just a huge strategic planning error.
Examiner: Did you have a good sense, coming out of the Baltimore conference, that everyone was on the same page?
Brat: Yes. The big thing for me is, I promised my constituents that I would serve principles and put my promises down on paper. We're getting closer to that.
Speaker Ryan said that by this spring, we'd have down on paper big, bold conservative reforms dealing with comprehensive tax reform, Obamacare replacement and significant entitlement reform. We basically have a four-year window to get that started, or the nation will face serious consequences in ensuring these programs continue for the next generation.
So the overall sense, one is that we're going to solve big problems in the year after the presidential [election]. And again, we've funded the government through September, so we've given up some of our leverage this year. So there's a balancing act going on, and that's, I think, what most people came away with.
Examiner: You say the country has four years to enact entitlement reform without any significant wrinkles. How problematic is it going to be if that doesn't happen in four years?
Brat: Well, the four-year window is a political window. Number one, we're assuming we're going to win the presidency. If we don't, we're going to have a hard time doing anything.
The reform needs to start immediately in that four-year window, and Speaker Ryan has said as much. We need an ambitious agenda in year one. If you don't get it done then, you lose momentum, and it's going to be difficult to do that much heavy lifting.
For entitlements, all of those systems are going to be insolvent in 2032 or so. We have $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities right now, and more baby boomers retiring. If we don't take action, those systems are going to be insolvent for the next generation. If you wait five years, it gets even harder. If you don't have a Republican president, it may be impossible.
Examiner: If you were president, what would your next budget proposal to Congress look like?
Brat: I won't say if I were president, but if I were in charge for a day, I would put tax reform at the top. We have too many firms leaving the country. We need tax reform to stop these inversions and to stop the bleeding of companies leaving the U.S.
Second, you need to immediately promise to the American people, on paper, that the budget is going to be balanced in at least 10 years. Instead of breaking the budget caps like we did this time, we have to stick to them.
Right now, two-thirds of the budget is on the mandatory spending side. One-third is discretionary. We've made some progress on the discretionary, but on the mandatory, we haven't even begun. That's where these huge issues lie, and we have to crack that open. Otherwise the next generation won't see those programs.
Finally, we have a widely agreed estimate that there is $1.7 trillion in regulatory overreach burdening the economy. It's real. You cannot keep adding on Dodd-Frank, Obamacare and EPA regulations, and overloading small businesses day by day.
Examiner: Going back to immigration, that's a big issue for you, and also in the presidential race. Why doesn't congressional leadership bring it up more?
Brat: We don't address it because, after Mitt Romney lost, the Republican autopsy report that was issued said that if you engage in that topic, you'll lose some voters. I think they got it exactly backwards.
It's now a national security issue. There are reports that ISIS has attempted to come across our southern borders. Immigration is no longer just about the "cheap labor" argument. In the autopsy report, Republicans kind of veered off into the Democratic way of thinking in trying to break people down into subgroups. But 70 percent of Republican voters now are just fuming over this spectrum of issues, from foreign policy to national security to immigration.
The autopsy report's interpretation is just very much off the mark. I talk with folks from every group across my district, and if you say you're going to enforce the law equally across all people, no one has a problem with that.
The day you say that in order to be compassionate you can't enforce the law anymore is the day you lose the country. So I hope leadership on both sides starts listening to the American people.
Examiner: One district over from you, two men were arrested at the Richmond International in January for allegedly trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. One was a U.S. citizen, and the second was a legal permanent resident. What does the U.S. need to do about these individuals who are trying to leave to fight with foreign terrorist groups?
Brat: The first thing we need to do is fight against the president's executive overreach. Part of the problem is that our own governors and legislators at the federal level aren't aware of what the president is doing on immigration and refugee issues. This is not an exception to the rule, this is part of a pattern. There are a thousand open terrorism cases across all 50 states right now, according to FBI Director James Comey, and those are just the people we know about.
Examiner: National security officials are in consensus that the vetting process for refugees is not going to be 100 percent accurate. What implications should that have for U.S. policy?
Brat: I signed on to Rep. Brian Babin's bill, out of Texas, which would put an immediate pause on refugees from all hot spots, not only from Iraq and Syria, but from Morocco through Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have to get the vetting straight.
We have the most sophisticated vetting system in the world. The problem is we have no data in that system. That's almost comical, the fact that we have no data to vet the very people we want to check on. For Comey to say that people are not a national security threat, he has to be able to vet them and there has to be data.
Examiner: Do you think the president's relationship with Iran has fueled the degeneration of its relationship with its neighbors?
Brat: Yes, it's not just Iran. We've been in a difficult position with the collapse of Iraq, which is not really a nation-state anymore. It has three key regions. That left Iran as the sole hegemonic power in the region.
That is a reality, so the question is, what is President Obama's strategic plan to deal with Iran? That's his number-one job description, and he's getting an "F." He has no coordinated strategic plan.
It's no surprise they've been shooting missiles at us in the Strait of Hormuz, straight out of the "Top Gun" movie. Where will we draw the line, if anywhere?
We are losing credibility not only with Iran, but all of our allies in the region and everyone else.
Examiner: Which of your colleagues in Congress do you most admire?
Brat: My mentor is Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. I'm honored to be friends with him, and the House Freedom Caucus, which he chairs. They're great folks trying to do the best they can for the country.
Jordan has been a mentor beyond belief. He called me early on, and I lucked out somehow getting him to be my mentor. He gets along with everybody in his district, always smiling, knows policy backward and forward, has a way of communicating it to people in a way that makes sense, works well across the aisle, works well with leadership. I'm watching him and learning by the day.