Hannah Whisenant / Rivard Report
The lawmakers categorized the political moment as not only "dramatic" and "tumultuous" but difficult, as it has proven hard to maintain unity within their parties amid cyber threats from Russia, missile tests from North Korea, and border and trade arguments occurring under President Donald Trump's new administration. Midnight tweets from the president and calls to withdraw from accords or trade agreements with other nations add to the turbulence of the times.
“Certainly in Washington I’ve never seen a higher level of intensity and drama, and it’s like watching a reality TV show half the time,” McCaul said during a bipartisan panel discussion with Castro on Wednesday at the Frost Bank Tower’s Plaza Club. "As policymakers, you want to be united as Americans in the Congress, and these are challenging times."
The event was hosted by the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, a nonprofit that has been a strong proponent of rail service between Austin and San Antonio, and moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard.
McCaul, a Republican representing the 10th Congressional District of Texas that stretches from Austin to the Houston suburbs, is Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, which deals with international and domestic terrorism, cybersecurity, and airport and border security.
Castro, considered a rising star among Texas Democrats, represents District 20, which covers a large portion of San Antonio and Bexar County. Castro serves on the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees and has worked on legislation with McCaul before, particularly on cyber issues.
Both Castro and McCaul are aware that tensions are high between U.S. and Mexican officials as they work to update the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In a place like San Antonio, where NAFTA plays a key role in the local economy, the topic of trade takes center stage. This week, both Congressmen will travel to Mexico on separate trips to deal with issues concerning immigration, trade, and border security.
Castro is leading a Congressional delegation to Tijuana on Saturday to visit a halfway house for deported veterans, and McCaul will be flying to Mexico City on Sunday to chair the U.S.-Mexico Inter-Parliamentary Group and talk about the bilateral relationship.
"NAFTA will be one the key areas of discussion, as well as border security and energy," McCaul said. "NAFTA, for the state of Texas, has been a very positive thing. Our economies are intertwined and interdependent, so to scrap the agreement would be a job-killer for Texas."
McCaul and Castro agree that the trade agreement is part of what stitches the Texas economy together but acknowledge that NAFTA should be reviewed and updated. Particularly when it comes to sectors like technology and energy, McCaul said, the U.S. should take advantage of Mexico's energy industry reform and invest in the energy market.
"All of this is very much a work in progress, and we'll see where how it comes out, but we have to do everything that we can to preserve the strength of our trading relationship with Mexico because it has been a godsend," Castro said.
"Texas does more trade with Mexico than any state in the nation, and Texas does more trade than any state in the nation, and that's part of the reason I've also been concerned when the president has berated Mexico about paying for the wall, scrapping NAFTA, or a 20% import tax."
Texas companies that have supply lines in Mexico would suffer greatly if the import tax became a reality, Castro added.
"If we give a country like China an opening to do what they've done in other parts of the world like Africa, whatever foreign aid or assistance we take [away] from Mexico ... China will be more than happy to go in there and fill that void," he said. "Mexico has options for where to buy their products."
McCaul said that even though Mexico is Texas's largest trading partner and considered a friend and neighbor to the south, the two countries must work together on securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
"When it comes to the U.S.-Mexico border, I think the communities down there want to know that it's secure, but I don't think the answer is a a 30-foot concrete wall but integrated technology, personnel, and good intelligence – in addition to physical barricades," McCaul said. "How do you define the wall? That's what we're debating. I think you're going to see a combination of things ... put together."
Once the border is further secured, McCaul said he is confident that the topic of immigration reform will take center stage.
In Castro's view, the ongoing investigation of the Trump Administration's possible connection to Russia and Russia's alleged meddling in the presidential election has consumed Washington, distracting lawmakers from formulating meaningful legislation. In addition, recent acts of terror like the May 22 Manchester bombing show just how important it is to strengthen alliances in Europe to avoid similar events from happening in the U.S.
"Strength of alliances around the world and our intelligence sharing matters now more than ever," Castro said, since terrorism has become a completely different kind of threat due to technology.
McCaul agreed with Castro, adding that the U.S. is working closely with Europe to get terrorism watch lists and gather intelligence.
"[Terrorists today] use the internet to exploit, recruit, train, and radicalize," McCaul said. "That's something we need to deal with, but their latest message is not 'Come to Syria' anymore. It's 'Don't come to Syria' and 'Kill wherever you are by whatever means you can.' This is a very difficult threat to stop."
Although terror threats are a constant fear around the globe, McCaul said that Trump's implementation of a travel ban barring citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States "was not so great."
"I would have done it a little differently," McCaul said. "I would have ramped up vetting in high-threat areas ... not an outright ban."