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Ohio Republican Rep. Bill Johnson On Trump's Address To Congress


President Trump's speech to a joint session of Congress last night saw him lay out his policy agenda and bring a message of unity around a theme of rising from the ashes.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force. Over 43 million people are now living in poverty. And over 43 million Americans are on food stamps. More than 1 in 5 people in their prime working years are not working. We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years.

MARTIN: We're going to hear now how that message resonated with a member of the Republican Party. Congressman Bill Johnson is a Republican representing Ohio's 6th District in the southeastern part of that state. He is in our studios. Good morning. Thanks so much for being with us.

BILL JOHNSON: Good morning, Rachel. Good to be with you. Thanks.

MARTIN: Did you hear what you were hoping to hear last night both in terms of tone and substance?

JOHNSON: Well, I heard a lot of optimism. You know, the people that I represent along the Ohio River, that's Appalachia. And that's a part of the country that has suffered from infrastructure neglect. You know, we've got places in our district that don't even have broadband internet connectivity here in 2017. That's a big deal. High unemployment in places. So a belief that the American dream can be reignited for them is very, very important. And I think they heard a lot of that optimism last night.

MARTIN: Had you been craving a more positive tone from this president?

JOHNSON: Well, we certainly have seen evidence of that, you know, in what he's done since he came into office. Now, this was his first time really to come out and go above the chatter of opinion and rhetoric, to go directly to the American people, to talk to all members of Congress at the same time.

So I think we have to ask ourself the question, you know, do we want to go back to what we see playing out in the national media and the back and forth from both sides? Or do we want to do go forward with the very, very optimistic views that we heard last night?


Congressman, what did you make of the president's suggestion that he could support bipartisan immigration reform?

JOHNSON: Well, I think we've been calling for bipartisan immigration reform for a long time. And I kind of like that idea because, you know, we've got a - we don't have a birth rate in our country that's replacing the aging retiring workforce, 10,000 baby boomers a day going on the retirement rolls. We need an immigration system that works.

INSKEEP: But he did not specifically mention something that has been part of bipartisan plans in the past, and that House Republicans have opposed, and that would be a path to citizenship or some kind of legal status for millions of people here illegally. Could House Republicans support that as part of a bipartisan compromise?

JOHNSON: Well, I think - and it's a good question. And it's a good point. I think what House Republicans could support is an immigration system where people come here the right way. You know, I had never termed it what he did. But I think an immigration system based on merit or need is certainly something that could be looked into. We need scientists and physicians and computer scientists and those kinds of folks because we've got a lot of those folks leaving the workforce. And they're not here anymore.

INSKEEP: But not a path to citizenship, not ready to go there?

JOHNSON: Well, there is a path to citizenship now.

INSKEEP: Oh, I mean people here illegally, wouldn't go for that, or?

JOHNSON: Well - and there is a path for those folks. And that is to do it the right way. And so I think we could support that.

MARTIN: I want to bring in another voice to the conversation...


MARTIN: ...NPR's Scott Detrow, who was also watching the speech last night.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Yeah. I had a question for you. Did you hear anything different in terms of President Trump's big message in tone last night compared to his inaugural address?

JOHNSON: Wow. That's a good question. I thought his inaugural address was good. But I think what we heard last night particularly around unity, what Rachel mentioned at the very outset of our conversation here, you know, his call for us to stop looking at life through political and ideological lenses and start thinking and looking at one another as Americans first, I think that resonated with everybody. I can tell you, when he turned around and recognized Ryan Owens' wife...

MARTIN: Navy SEAL, yeah.

JOHNSON: ...It was one of the most emotional things that I have - I've ever seen. And the American people understand that.

MARTIN: Let me get to a couple more policy issues while we've got the time. I want to ask you about infrastructure. The president has talked a lot about a big boost for an infrastructure plan, trillion dollars he wants to spend on that investment.


MARTIN: President Obama also proposed a big infrastructure plan, got a lot of resistance in Congress because it was so expensive. So how do you make sense of that?

JOHNSON: The expense is still an issue. The big difference between what President Obama proposed and actually executed and what President Trump is proposing is what we saw during President Obama's term was very little, I mean, a very small percentage. I want to say somewhere in the 15 to 20 percent actually went toward things that we consider infrastructure - roads, bridges, energy pipelines, broadband internet build out, those kinds of things that are infrastructure.

MARTIN: So you think President Trump's plan is going to tackle more salient infrastructures?

JOHNSON: I think so. And he's going to involve the legislative branch in making sure that those projects are targeted to those places of need around the country because there is a lot of need. But we've got to find a way to pay for this, Rachel. There's no question about that. And that's where we have to eliminate waste, duplication in the federal government. And the president's going to have to work with us to try and find those places where we can trim the cost.

MARTIN: What did you hear about repealing and replacing Obamacare last night?

JOHNSON: I liked what he had to say, yeah.

MARTIN: He didn't offer a lot of specifics.

JOHNSON: Well, he didn't offer a lot of specifics because he's depending on the House Republican plan, which he has - what he said last night was pretty much in line with what Speaker Ryan is proposing.

MARTIN: And that pleases you that he seemed to embrace that?

JOHNSON: Absolutely it does because, you know, I represent a district that, for example, our governor opted to go into Medicaid expansion. And so we've got now thousands, tens of thousands of Ohioans that are on Medicaid that were not on Medicaid before.

MARTIN: You'd like to keep it that way?

JOHNSON: Well, we've got to figure out a way. Well, the governors want it back. And we would like to give it back to the governors. I mean, my governor, Governor Casey, wants it back. Other governors do, too. But we need to do that in a way that no one is left behind. The end result has got to be a health care system that works for everybody.

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. Republican Bill Johnson. He represents Ohio's 6th District. We were also joined by NPR's Scott Detrow, who is also in the studio with us. Thank you so much, congressman.

JOHNSON: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing.