EVERETT, Wash. – House Speaker Paul Ryan came to a town hall with workers at Boeing’s biggest airplane factory today to talk about taxes, but he also had to address another T-word: Trump.
The moment came when a Boeing worker noted that her company put a high value on respect, transparency and ethical behavior.
“I don’t know that every person sees that from our president right now. So my question for you, Speaker Ryan, is: How do you see yourself personally influencing, and are you confident that you can influence the president?” she said.
“It’s a day-by-day deal,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “I’m kind of joking.”
Then he turned more serious, lambasting “repulsive bigotry and racism in this country.”
“We can never get normal with this,” Ryan said. “We must always, every single time, stand up and repudiate it and condemn it unequivocally, every time.”
Ryan was clearly referring to this month’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., which touched off a controversy for President Donald Trump when he said that “both sides” were to blame for the resulting violence, including the death of a counter-protester.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who shared the town hall stage with Ryan, seconded Ryan’s sentiment. “Our commitment to integrity, our commitment to diversity and inclusion, to respecting our teammates – that’s what makes this business work,” he said.
Ryan didn’t criticize the president directly. “We have different speaking styles, clearly,” he said. “We’re in constant contact to try and put together a shared agenda which we agree on.”
Trump wasn’t as reticent about attacking Ryan today. In a series of tweets, the president faulted the speaker as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not including a measure to raise the national debt ceiling in legislation aimed at helping veterans.
“Could have been so easy – now a mess!” the president said on Twitter.
In response to a worker’s question, Ryan said he had no doubt that a deal on raising the debt ceiling would be struck by the Sept. 30 deadline.
“There are many different options in front of us on how to achieve that,” he said. “We’ll do that, because this is about paying the bills that we already racked up, making sure we pay our debts.”
The nuts and bolts of tax legislation, and of building airplanes, were high on Ryan’s agenda for today’s visit to Everett. After taking a tour of the 767, 777 and 787 production lines and chatting with workers, Ryan used the town hall to make a strong pitch for a Republican tax reform plan.
He said the GOP’s plans to reduce corporate tax rates and facilitate tax-free repatriation of foreign earnings would bring faster economic growth and more jobs – a message that he tailored for his Boeing audience.
“We are taxing this business, these planes, your jobs in this country at a much higher tax rate than our foreign competitors tax theirs,” Ryan said. “And when we tax ourselves a whole lot higher than our foreign competitors tax theirs, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.
“So, Airbus: 20 percent tax rate. China … is it COMAC? the Chinese manufacturer … 15 percent tax rate,” he continued. “You know what the tax rate here is? 35 percent. That puts us at a huge competitive disadvantage. I’m just in awe that in spite of all that, you’re still doing so well.”
Ryan said he and his fellow Republicans were aiming to enact their tax plan by the end of the year.
Muilenburg agreed wholeheartedly with Ryan on lowering corporate taxes. “This pro-business environment is a big deal,” the CEO said.
However, the two men were less simpatico on another issue of importance to Boeing: the fate of the Export-Import Bank, which helps guarantee loans for the purchase of U.S. exports.
Boeing sees the Ex-Im Bank as crucial to its price competitiveness with archrival Airbus, but Ryan and other Republicans have criticized it as an example of crony capitalism. Trump’s nominee to head the bank, former U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, has been among the harshest critics.
Ryan dodged a question about the bank, focusing on other strategies to promote exports.
“The biggest thing I think we can do to help a business like this: Get our taxes fixed, get our regulations fixed, and open up markets,” he said. “Those things right there reduce the need for those kinds of financing mechanisms.”
Muilenburg signaled that the debate would continue. “We’re going to continue to work together on Ex-Im Bank,” he said, adding that boosting the bank and pursuing broader economic strategies were “compatible objectives.”
Ryan’s Boeing visit was part of a West Coast swing that also included a stopover at Intel’s headquarters in Oregon on Wednesday. The speaker marveled at the technology on display at the Everett plant. “I wish every American citizen could come here,” he said.
One of Ryan’s tour guides was Kevin McAllister, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
“This was about our people, our workforce, showing off what they do every day and how important technology is, and how we’re transforming this factory,” McAllister told GeekWire after the tour.
Not everyone was thrilled about Ryan’s visit to one of the country’s most Democratic-leaning regions. A group of about a dozen protesters demonstrated outside one of the Boeing plant’s main entrances, with an oversized Trump Chicken balloon planted along the side of the road.
In an open letter to Ryan, Washington’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, noted that “science and innovation are our strongest allies for growing our economy and improving our quality of life.”
Inslee touted the Evergreen State’s commitment to protecting the environment, taking action on climate change, raising the minimum wage, providing other benefits for workers, and fostering diversity. He challenged Ryan to address what he called “an alarming level of divisiveness” in politics.
“Something has to change,” Inslee wrote. “You have the power to help bring about that change. As the most powerful member of one of three co-equal branches of our federal government, you have the power to speak forcefully against the president’s hateful rhetoric.”