Journal-Sentinel: After quiet start, new lawmaker makes waves

By Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel

July 2, 2011

Washington – A very voluble Ron Johnson is behind his Senate desk – standing, not sitting – warming to the subject that animates him most: the “bankrupting” of America.

“Everybody’s in a kind of state of denial right now,” says Johnson with a mix of urgency and exasperation. “We really are on the brink! . . . People don’t talk about it. People don’t listen. We’re human beings. We’re living our lives. We don’t want to hear bad news.”

No senator in recent Wisconsin history has come into office so focused on one set of issues, one message and one task: shrinking the federal government.

If Johnson’s new job is complicated by his political inexperience, it is simplified by the single-mindedness of his mission.

“That’s been my entire focus since I’ve been here,” he says.

After a quiet start to his Senate career, the freshman Republican is suddenly making waves, just as the issue that got him elected – federal spending – comes to a head in Washington.

Last week he announced a campaign to tie up Senate business over Democrats’ failure to pass a budget. He forced a procedural delay in a vote on Libya. He threatened to block the Senate’s Fourth of July recess, which was later canceled.

“I have been here for six months, and the U.S. Senate has accomplished virtually nothing,” says Johnson.

With a showdown looming over the national debt, he and like-minded spending hawks see a one-time tactical opening to force seismic budget concessions.

“This is really our moment to take a stand,” says Johnson.

Elected last year in a tea party tide, the Oshkosh businessman is still a political work in progress, a first-time legislator feeling his way through the institution and filling in the blanks on issues (such as foreign policy) that he isn’t used to dealing with or talking about.

“I’ve never done this before. I’m an accountant. I’m a plastics salesman. I’m a citizen-legislator,” Johnson said during a recent conference call with several thousand constituents back home. “It does take a little time to try to get your sea legs underneath you here.”

But in his preoccupation with spending, regulation and debt, in his oft-expressed faith in the free market, in his acute alarm about the fiscal future, Johnson is exactly as advertised last fall.

It’s what he talks about when he goes on Fox News, CNBC and talk radio, deriding President Barack Obama’s role in the budget debate (“He’s just phoning it in.”), the inertia of Washington (“This place is broken.”), the ways of Congress (“The Senate is such a very bizarre place.”) and his own party’s past failure to enforce austerity.

“Republicans still remember how they got slaughtered back in ’95 when they shut down the government for a little while. There are still a lot of people around from back then, and they’re scared,” Johnson told conservative radio host Vicki McKenna of Madison last month. “That’s why elections matter. There are people like me (now). There are people that got elected in 2010 that actually have a backbone. And we’re just trying to do as much as we possibly can to inject that spine into the rest of Washington to make a stand.”

It’s what dominates his encounters with constituents – especially those seeking federal funding.

When a group from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin came to the senator’s office last month to discuss children’s health programs, Johnson repeatedly steered the conversation back to belt-tightening, politely informing his guests that his “first task is to save our nation from bankruptcy,” even though “people on my side of the aisle . . . get slaughtered” for trying to rein in spending.

Against the grain

When Johnson arrived in the Senate, his party gave him the two committee assignments he wanted most, budget and appropriations. Wisconsin and Illinois are now the only states with two senators on the appropriations panel, historically a plum assignment. In the old days, it would have meant more federal dollars heading back home.

But the 2010 election altered that legislative culture. Johnson joined appropriations not to appropriate but to cut spending. He was one of only four appropriations members to vote against a defense spending bill in April. He was one of only eight senators to oppose a February bill to modernize the air traffic control system. He was the only Republican from a high corn-producing state to vote against ethanol subsidies June 14.

In taking a hard line on spending, Johnson believes he is up against not only much of Congress, but human aversion to hard choices and news media neglect.

“Look at what happens on the national news over and over and over again. (It’s) ‘What’s the horse race in the Republican (presidential) primary?’ OK, sure , fine, interesting, blah-blah-blah,” said Johnson, during a series of interviews in recent weeks for this story.

“How many people do you think know what the federal government spends in a year?” he asks.

Johnson has made it clear that convincing voters of the dangers of a debt crisis – of the potential for fiscal ruin – is an overriding objective for him. It’s a predicate to winning public support for making government smaller.

“What you’re going to hear me ask, in hearing after hearing, is what’s a debt crisis going to look like for an average individual?” Johnson said in an interview this spring. “I’m not trying to scare people. I wish we weren’t in this situation.”

On McKenna’s show last month, he warned of possible Greece-like riots.

“That’s what’s ahead of us!” he said.

Firm on debt ceiling

On a personal level, Johnson comes across as even-keeled and at times self-effacing; on a political level, self-certain and unswerving. Republicans back home say he’s shown a commitment to conservative causes and a willingness to engage on divisive issues. He taped a robo-call to voters for Justice David Prosser in the April 5 Supreme Court election, defended Gov. Scott Walker’s most controversial initiatives and backed Paul Ryan’s plan to overhaul Medicare.

Johnson has taken a staunch conservative line on judicial appointments, blocking consideration of two Obama court nominees, Louis Butler and Victoria Nourse, and voting against the president’s choices for solicitor general and several judgeships.

With an early August deadline pending for raising the debt ceiling, Johnson has drawn a line in the sand on a defining political issue, vowing to vote no unless “we actually fix the problem” – meaning structural reforms such as spending caps to bring deficits down.

It’s a high-risk game of chicken for both parties. The debt ceiling is the legal cap on the amount of money the government can borrow. The need to raise it is the product of steps Congress has already taken – spending hikes and tax cuts.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says failing to lift the debt ceiling is a “self-defeating” tool for reducing the debt, predicting it would spook the markets and as a result drive up interest rates, thereby boosting deficits.

Congressional Budget Office director Doug Elmendorf calls it a “dangerous gamble.”

Johnson has repeatedly argued in recent weeks that those warnings are overblown.

“We don’t have to fear not increasing the debt ceiling,” he said on Fox recently.

If Democrats say it’s irresponsible for Republicans to vote no on the debt ceiling, Johnson says it’s irresponsible for the White House not to plan for that contingency. He got 22 GOP colleagues to sign a letter to the president urging him to do just that.

“To assume you’re going to get an increase in the debt ceiling – I’m talking to people. I think it’s a bad assumption,” Johnson says.

In recent weeks, the senator has promoted what he calls a “debt-ceiling” budget, arguing that even with a halt to borrowing, the government could still use its general revenues to pay its core obligations – interest on the debt, Social Security benefits, military operations – and temporarily forgo a lot of other spending.

“I’m the only one talking about actually operating under a debt-ceiling budget,” says Johnson, who likens the impact on federal spending to a company “losing a customer that’s 30% of your business. It happens to business all the time. . . . Why is government immune from that?”

‘Ticking time bombs’

Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois contends a debt-ceiling budget would be “disastrous.”

At his news conference last week, Obama scoffed at the idea.

“This is the equivalent of me saying, ‘You know what, I will choose to pay my mortgage, but I’m not going to pay my car note’ . . . Now, a lot of people in really tough situations are having to make those tough decisions. But for the U.S. government to start picking and choosing like that is not going to inspire a lot of confidence,” the president said. “Which bills, which obligations, are we going to say we don’t have to pay?”

Johnson asserts it’s Democrats who are “playing with fire” by not doing more to curb spending, including health care entitlements such as Medicare, which he calls “ticking time bombs.”

“I’d rather have a few payments skipped and actually have the (spending) problem solved versus never having the payments skipped and have this problem kicked down the road,” says Johnson.

Johnson says he still hopes a deal can be reached. And he has so far declined to sign a conservative pledge, promoted by South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, to oppose any debt ceiling deal that isn’t coupled with a balanced budget amendment.

Johnson says the pledge is too restrictive, preventing lawmakers from backing any “grand bargain” on spending cuts that lacks a balanced budget requirement.

“It kind of takes you out of the solution,” says Johnson.

His mentor in the Senate, fiscal hawk Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, says the institution can be an exasperating place for someone like Johnson.

“Look, he’s highly frustrated,” Coburn says of his colleague. “The Senate isn’t a fulfilling place if you want to try to get things done to fix the country. (But) you have two options. You try to change things or you go home.”

Coburn says Johnson’s non-political background makes him an effective opponent of spending because it frees him from the election calculus that drives most members. Johnson calls it “liberating.”

Wisconsin Democrats, meanwhile, already question Johnson’s effectiveness, calling his legislative profile this year minimal.

“He’s the invisible man,” said Democratic chair Mike Tate, before Johnson’s attention-getting talk last week.

Johnson says he deliberately kept his head down when he took office because he wanted to listen and learn.

“This is . . . the major leagues here. You do have to take a few moments to sort of learn the system, understand the players, build relationships. If I come out of the blocks . . . a fire-breathing dragon, I’m just going to be dismissed,” says Johnson. “You have to first start gaining the respect of your colleagues as a thoughtful individual, someone who’s not going to just blather on (about) whatever you hear on talk radio.”

The senator says it’s “game time” now and his issues are on the table. He has stepped up his TV appearances (Fox News is his most frequent destination), begun to do more local and national press, and is now using the potent parliamentary tools an individual senator has to make himself heard.

Last month, Johnson was hosting his fourth in a series of telephone “town halls” – mass conference calls with voters in different regions of the state, publicized through automated phone calls to people’s homes.

The first call he fielded was from a self-described conservative complaining that Republicans weren’t tough enough in the budget debate.

“Why don’t they fight back?” the caller complained. “Don’t roll over and play dead!”

Johnson told him not to worry.

“I have no intention of rolling over and playing dead,” he said.