Mike Braun defeated two Republican congressmen and a Democratic senator to win his Senate seat in Indiana last year. The Jasper shipping executive sat down with Zach C. Cohen in his Capitol Hill office last week to talk about the impact of tariffs on his industry, Democrats’ advantage on health care, and fellow GOP senators’ opposition to reform. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What has surprised you most about Washington since taking office?
I knew it’d be a different dynamic, of course, from being a main street entrepreneur and building my business over the years. I never had a board of directors, and it turned into a large national company, so I had the freedom to make moves quickly. … This, of course, would be the antithesis of that.
You’re on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, where Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray just released draft legislation trying to tackle health care costs, surprise billing, drug prices. Do you anticipate that that could pass the Senate?
Some of that stuff may get bipartisan support. … It could be the single biggest thing that keeps us from depleting the Medicare trust fund. … Democrats—I think most of them want to just radically change the system. And I think they’ve probably got public sentiment slightly on their side, because it’s broken.
You entered office in the middle of the longest shutdown in American history. You had a few bills aimed at preventing future shutdowns. Is that something that you want to bring up again as we near another funding deadline? Those kinds of things will be mostly for discussion because everybody has casual discussions like those ideas. But when you talk about not doing a budget and then not getting a paycheck, you’re going to lose a lot of the interest [laughs]. I’m curious to get your thoughts generally on President Trump’s threats to close the border, install tariffs, generally change trade.
I thought tariffs, even though I didn’t like them, made sense against [China]. I even thought they were OK to use as [a] stick to kind of get [the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement] to where it is now, and I thought that happened actually a little quicker than what I figured it would—so short-term pain for long-term realignment or gain. And if you stick by those principles, that always works. It’s just most people just don’t have the stomach to put up with much pain in the short run on anything.
Your shipping company, Meyer Distributing, actually has a few suppliers that have operations in places like Mexico and China. Are you worried about the economic impact?
No, because first of all, I’ve got close to 1,000 suppliers, and 25 percent of the stuff we sell, roughly, is made overseas. I think anybody that took more than 25 percent of their production capabilities and put them overseas had to be careful, especially if all those eggs were in the Chinese basket. That’s risky. … We didn’t want to distribute stuff where we got dependent on if it was all coming from a place like China. … In other words it’s a wake-up call to realign your supply chain [in China] and a lot of other countries.
Your 2018 opponent, former Senator Joe Donnelly, has a new political nonprofit, One Country Project, with the idea of helping Democrats reach out to rural communities. I’m curious what you think about that.
He could try that, but I think Donnelly should probably switch to become a Republican. … Rural America generally doesn’t want more government. It doesn’t want more, I think, of what they’re offering.
Throughout your campaign, you were known for always wearing blue shirts, like you’re wearing now—no tie. Did you have to buy a bunch of white shirts and ties with the new job?
I did … have to buy a few shirts. … I don’t really wear a tie until I have to go into the chamber.
Are there any particular issues that maybe weren’t a priority for you until you got here that you’d like to start focusing on?
I knew what I wanted to focus on. It was reforming the system. … Because I see the demographics and everything over the next four to eight years kind of favoring Democrats until we come up with a way to hold the health care industry accountable—reform it without going into Medicare-for-all. And I believe that would put Republicans back into a strong spot to where we can maybe win 60 seats. But we’d have to be real forceful on showing that we took the industry on. I can’t see more than 10 Republicans that really would like to do that, because most kind of roll over.