By Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel
Freshman Republican Ron Johnson gave his maiden speech on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, remarks that lasted roughly seven minutes and reflected the central theme of his 2010 campaign – alarm over the long-term growth of government.
“We have racked up enormous debt and now the bill is coming due,” said Johnson, who said he waited until now to speak in the spirit of Senate tradition that freshmen spend time on the job before engaging in floor debate.
Johnson said that 100 years ago, “the individual was pre-eminent and government’s role was modest and pedestrian.”
He singled out two early 20th-century developments that he said paved the way for the federal government to dramatically expand: the adoption of the 16th Amendment that made the income tax constitutional; and the introduction of the cloture rule in the Senate, which allowed for a supermajority of senators to end filibusters and cut off unlimited debate on legislation.
Johnson said government grew “in reaction to real problems,” but complained that the combined size of local, state and federal government was approaching that of nations in Western Europe.
“We haven’t reached that tipping point yet but we are extremely close,” said Johnson, who said he grew up in an America where “hard work was valued, personal responsibility was expected and success was celebrated, not demonized.”
“I am sad to say what I have witnessed during my lifetime is a slow but steady drift, and I would argue over the last two years, a lurch, toward a culture of entitlement and dependency. This is not an America I recognize.”
Johnson said the fight over this year’s budget has been an argument over a “few billion dollars,” when “our problem is a thousand times larger than the current debate.”
In an interview later, Johnson said he thought the country’s fiscal problems were so big that they “will not be fixed on a partisan basis.”
In singling out the cloture rule and the income tax as enablers of government growth, Johnson said he was not proposing they be abolished. But he suggested the filibuster has served as a legislative brake and bulwark against one party overreaching and getting rid of it “would be a tragedy.”
In the interview, Johnson indicated he was leaning against the bipartisan spending agreement reached last week by the White House and congressional leaders on funding the rest of the fiscal year, amid reports that some of the savings reflect accounting maneuvers rather than actual cuts in programs.
“Are these things real cuts?” Johnson asked of the $38 billion package of budget reductions.
“I’m going to have to be really convinced to vote for that right now,” he said.