Green Bay Press Gazette: Johnson's mission: Tame federal deficit

Anyone who engages Ron Johnson in a discussion about the federal budget better be prepared for an earful about the dangerous fiscal trajectory the nation is on and an eyeful of colorful charts and numbers to back up his dire warnings.

If there is one thing that has stood out about this U.S. senator in his first year, it is that he is an accountant by trade. The Oshkosh Republican rarely misses an opportunity to burnish that image.

Consider this opening response in a recent interview with the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation about why he was seeking a leadership position among Senate Republicans:

"I am a citizen legislator with a background in accounting and a lifetime of experience operating within the private sector," Johnson said. "I understand budgeting, how the private sector really works and how jobs and general prosperity are created. I have a real-world understanding of how government regulatory and tax and spending policies impact small to medium-sized businesses and the greater economy."

Johnson, 56, tells everyone he came to Washington to do two things: stop deficit spending and repeal the health care law President Barack Obama signed in March 2010. His rookie year in the upper chamber of Congress is marked by his emergence as one of the more fiscally conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill, even voting at times against the will of his own leaders because for him the numbers didn't add up. He has carved a niche as a deficit hawk.

"I did come here with a real seriousness of purpose," Johnson said during a recent interview in his sparsely decorated office in the Russell Senate Office Building.

Johnson, who ran a plastics manufacturing business before being elected to the Senate in November 2010, quickly earned respect among his GOP colleagues as a no-nonsense newcomer. Even before Johnson had taken office, party veterans were welcoming the private-sector perspective he would bring to their caucus.

Critics, however, portray Johnson as an inflexible partisan who contributes to the political gridlock that has come to define Congress.

"In a short time, Ron Johnson has proven to be one of the most hyper-partisan and extreme politicians in Washington, D.C.," said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Rather than focus on solutions that will create jobs and help the middle class, Sen. Johnson is a driven ideologue who exacerbates dysfunction in Washington and poorly serves the people of Wisconsin."

Dysfunction is a term Johnson often uses himself to describe Congress and particularly the Senate. He rails about the Senate's inaction on dozens of bills passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives. But he hurls his sharpest criticism at the Senate's failure to pass a budget plan. By his count at the time of the interview, the Senate had not passed a budget in 960 days.

"To me, that's jaw-dropping," Johnson said. "And it has not gotten the publicity it really deserves."

Bringing the spotlight

That's not for lack of effort from the political novice from Wisconsin, who reveals he had never been to the nation's capital before choosing to challenge Democrat Russ Feingold for his Senate seat.

In a dramatic display of his contempt for the Senate's budget inaction last June, Johnson blocked a resolution in support of the rebellion in Libya against dictator Moammar Gadhafi. During a floor speech, he threatened to withhold support to move forward on Senate matters unless lawmakers began to devise a plan for reducing the nation's then $14.3 trillion debt.

By objecting to unanimous consent, a parliamentary procedure often used to address noncontroversial issues, Johnson had the power to shut down the Senate. He later said he was trying to draw attention to the seriousness of the debt crisis.

"We are facing such a challenge to start grappling with this that of course it's frustrating when we're not addressing the problem," Johnson said. "What is also quite frustrating here is there are still far too many people who don't even acknowledge the problem, let alone work in good faith to start addressing it, and that's got to change."

So Johnson has spent much of his first year poring over budget numbers and trying to convince the naysayers of the gravity of the nation's fiscal situation. He totes a folder of charts that show trends in spending and debt accumulation. One shows federal spending increasing to $3.6 trillion in 2011 from $1.9 trillion in 2001.

"I devote an awful lot of my time distilling information and working on trying to find those gold nuggets that describe our fiscal situation so that people can actually understand them," Johnson said. "As an accountant, I think I'm pretty good at distilling the most important pieces of information, the key indicators."

Johnson's obsession with federal spending and the debt led him to run for the fifth leadership spot in the Senate Republican hierarchy. Though he lost on a 25-22 vote, his spirits were buoyed by the support he got in just his first 11 months as a member.

Among those supporters was Dan Coats of Indiana. Coats was one of two senators who gave nominating statements for Johnson.

Coats said he and Johnson had similar reasons for running for the Senate; and that he backed the Oshkosh businessman out of an appreciation for "the intensity of his engagement and desire to make needed changes. I also thought that leadership needed an outside voice."

Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another Senate freshman, said he also believed Johnson had much to offer at the leadership table. He said he was an early supporter of Johnson, whom he got to know during a tour of Afghanistan. Rubio said he was impressed by how hard Johnson works.

"He has a special level of work ethic that sets him apart," Rubio said. "It's only a matter of time before he winds up in leadership, and he has a very bright future in the United States Senate."

Continuing 'the mission'

Since coming to Washington, Johnson has played the outsider card on virtually every hand. But his bid for leadership and the purchase of a $1 million home near his Capitol Hill office suggest otherwise.

As a freshman senator from the minority party, Johnson has no legislative accomplishment to point to in his first year. He is the author of legislation that would impose a moratorium on federal regulations. He also has introduced a bill to reduce the size of the federal work force. And he has suggested $1.4 trillion in budget cuts.

Johnson's voting record shows a tendency to buck Senate GOP leadership. He was one of only 10 senators who rejected a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, a compromise reached between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Johnson also voted against the agreement negotiated last August to give the federal government more borrowing authority to avoid a default on the national debt.

Johnson said his votes reflect the promises he made during the Wisconsin Republican Convention in 2010 that became the launching pad for his successful campaign.

James Simmons, a political expert at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, describes Johnson's first year as unremarkable. He said Johnson's tendency to vote against leadership shows he is not a team player. He said Johnson's legislative proposals lack substance.

As he mulls over the upcoming year, Johnson seems resigned to an even slower pace in the Senate as presidential politics overshadows everything else.

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