Where the Senate Health Care Bill Fails

By Ron Johnson

New York Times

June 26, 2017



Speaking at a rally for his wife’s presidential campaign last year, Bill Clinton called Obamacare “the craziest thing in the world.” As he put it, “The people who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.”


Mr. Clinton was right, and it’s why Republicans have been pushing to repair the damage done by Obamacare for so long. Our priority should be to bring relief, and better, less expensive care, to millions of working men and women.


Unfortunately, the Senate Republican alternative, unveiled last week, doesn’t appear to come close to addressing their plight. Like Obamacare, it relies too heavily on government spending, and ignores the role that the private sector can and should play.


As an accountant with more than 30 years’ experience in manufacturing, I assure you the private sector is much more effective at solving problems. Concepts like the “KISS” principle (“keep it simple, stupid”), pursuing continuous improvement and root-cause analysis are core ideas in private-sector problem-solving. From what I’ve seen in six years in office, these concepts are foreign to government.


The decades-long health care debate is an example. Layer upon layer of laws, rules and regulations have made our health care-financing system a complex mess, separating patients from direct payment for health care.


As a result, patients neither know nor care what things cost. We have virtually eliminated the power of consumer-driven, free-market discipline from one-sixth of our economy.


The primary goals of any health care reform should be to restrain (if not lower) costs while improving quality, access and innovation. This is exactly what consumer-driven, free-market competition does in other areas of our economy. Look no further than how laser eye surgery went from exotic to affordable during the years it was not covered by most insurance.


Washington believes that the solution to every problem is more money. But throwing more money at insurers won’t fix the lack of consumer-driven competition, combined with government mandates that artificially drive up the cost of care and insurance.


Obamacare imposes enormous taxes and plans to spend nearly $2 trillion over the next 10 years to decrease the number of uninsured, mostly through Medicaid but also through taxpayer-subsidized exchanges. In doing so, Obamacare has largely destroyed an already struggling individual health insurance marketplace. It does this by mandating high-cost provisions as standard for every insurance policy, then forcing a small percentage of the population to shoulder the cost. These are the people Mr. Clinton was talking about.


Prior to Obamacare, the individual market was already challenged by unequal tax treatment, which forced the forgotten to pay for insurance with after-tax dollars. The simple solution would have been to equalize the tax treatment, but President Obama chose to spend trillions and artificially increase premiums unaffordably. The result: Too many of those individuals who are “busting it” and who responsibly carried insurance can no longer afford it, have dropped coverage, are paying a penalty and are taking a huge risk.


Once again, a simple solution is obvious. Loosen up regulations and mandates, so that Americans can choose to purchase insurance that suits their needs and that they can afford.


Like many other senators, I had hoped that this was where things were headed during the last several weeks as the Republican bill was discussed. We’re disappointed that the discussion draft turns its back on this simple solution, and goes with something far too familiar: throwing money at the problem.


The bill’s defenders will say it repeals Obamacare’s taxes and reduces Medicaid spending growth. That’s true. But it also boosts spending on subsidies, and it leaves in place the pre-existing-condition rules that drive up the cost of insurance for everyone.


Instead, we should return more flexibility to states, to give individuals the freedom and choice to buy plans they want without Obamacare’s “reforms.” And we should look to improve successful models for protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions, models underway prior to Obamacare, such as those in Maine and Wisconsin.


Only then can the market begin to rein in the underlying cost of health care itself and reduce the cost of taxpayer subsidies.


We are $20 trillion in debt. The Congressional Budget Office projects an additional $129 trillion of accumulated deficits over the next 30 years. A truly moral and compassionate society does not impoverish future generations to bestow benefits in the here and now.


Republican leaders have told us the plan unveiled last week is a draft, open to discussion and improvement. I look forward to working with Senate leadership and the president to improve the bill so it addresses the plight of the forgotten men and women by returning freedom and choice to health care.

Originally published here in The Hill on Sept. 22, 2016.

Thanks to swift action by law enforcement officers, no innocent American lives were lost in the string of terrorist incidents last weekend. A knife-wielding attacker in a Minnesota department store was shot by a brave off-duty officer. Authorities swiftly identified, then caught, a suspect in bombings in New York and New Jersey. It was great police work. The men and women who risk their lives to protect us deserve our gratitude.

But what they face is disconcerting. America experienced multiple attacks with multiple bombs in a city that suffered the worst attack our nation has ever endured, as well as what appeared to be a “lone wolf” intent on mayhem in a small city in the heartland that until now saw terrorism only at a distance.

But will these attacks be largely forgotten and ignored months from now? As I travel my home state, I ask Wisconsinites if they remember the name Samy Mohamed Hamzeh. Few do. But just last January, he was charged with planning to slaughter people at a Masonic center in Milwaukee. “If I got out after killing 30 people, I will be happy 100%,” he was recorded as saying.

This must not become the “new normal,” yet the list of targeted cities grows: St. Cloud, Minn.; New York; Elizabeth, N.J.; Seaside Park, N.J.; Milwaukee; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; San Bernardino, Calif. This threat is real, growing, metastasizing and evolving.

More than two years after President Obama stated America’s goal toward the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — defeat it — we have made little progress. As CIA Director John Brennan told Congress in June, “Our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.” ISIS, he said, remains a “formidable, resilient, and largely cohesive enemy.”

This is the result of inadequate leadership and lack of commitment to the goal. The Obama administration has failed to act effectively against the root cause of these attacks, which is ISIS and Islamic terrorism. I liken it to finding that a swarm of bees has settled in your back yard. Instead of eliminating the hive, Obama is merely poking it with a stick, stirring it up, dispersing the swarm, and allowing the bees to set up new nests. His airstrikes have not wiped out ISIS. They’ve made it harder for would-be fighters to travel to ISIS’s Middle East stronghold, so now we see ISIS telling sympathizers to “kill where you are.”

As long as ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliphate exists, it will continue to inspire attacks. As long as ISIS is not seen as losing, young men will believe it is winning — and they will detonate pipe bombs in streets and stab people in malls.

ISIS must be destroyed. An effective effort will start with American leadership — the kind of leadership then-President George H.W. Bush displayed in 1991 during the first Gulf War, clearly stating the objective and assembling a committed coalition of the willing. It is underappreciated today that our allies bore 85 percent of the cost and contributed 200,000 troops to that successful effort to free Kuwait. We must destroy ISIS, and if America leads effectively, we won’t have to defeat them alone.

The objective should be clear: deny ISIS any territory, destroying the “caliphate” that provides inspiration to its believers. We must then relentlessly hunt down terrorists wherever they have found safe haven. This is not a quick and easy task. We are engaged in a generational struggle.

Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq was a strategic blunder of historic proportions. He failed to learn the lessons that history taught us in Germany, Japan and South Korea: After a victory, a stabilizing force of America’s troops is needed to consolidate the peace our soldiers’ sacrifices had gained. Iraq was, as Joe Biden said in 2010, a success. Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated and a stable, peaceful country was a realistic possibility.

Then we bugged out, and ISIS arose from the ashes of what was a thoroughly defeated al Qaeda. Now ISIS’s disciples have slaughtered Americans at a Christmas party in California and a nightclub in Florida, and tried to do so in a mall in Minnesota and a Masonic center in Wisconsin.

To be clear: I do not blame the president, I blame Islamic terrorists. Obama stated the correct goal but has been deficient in laying out a strategy and fully committing to success. I doubt that will change before he leaves office, so the burden will be passed to our next president.

Defeating ISIS is only the first step, but one we must take if we ever hope to come out from under this cloud of constant threat. 

Originally published here in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 12, 2016.

Last summer, I saw just what was at risk from regulatory overreach when a young Milwaukeean testified at a hearing of the Senate committee that I chair, sharing her story of adversity, compassion and commitment. Justine "Justice" Shorter told how her eyesight faded to legal blindness when she was a student at Milwaukee's Messmer High School — and how the school responded.

Messmer is a Catholic school that educates many students in Milwaukee's groundbreaking parental school choice program. It does this on a voucher that delivers a fraction of the funding that the city's public schools get. On its own, Messmer couldn't afford the costly adaptive equipment Justice would need. Donors stepped in, but Justice pointed out the crucial role Messmer played: "That technology, coupled with love, support, attention and time that I received from the staff at Messmer, allowed me to truly thrive and excel."

Justice was testifying at a hearing last July examining the success of Milwaukee's school choice program — and how these schools had been affected by a years-long federal investigation. More than 25,000 Milwaukee children use the program to attend schools that their parents pick. As Justice said, those schools should know that the state funding that parents use will complement, not complicate, the education of children with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Justice was complicating it. By last summer, its probe of the choice program had run four years without finding any wrongdoing.

The Obama administration's hostility to school choice programs is well known. The administration tried defunding a program in Washington. It conducted legal warfare against one in Louisiana. School choice opponents, many of whom are allies of the administration, for decades had tried to kill Milwaukee's choice program. I and many others worried that the Department of Justice's probe was fueled by politics.

We had reason to worry. The Obama administration has an undeniable pattern of using regulatory overreach and intimidation to further its political aims. The president is unilaterally rewriting immigration and labor law by his infamous "phone and pen." Lois Lerner used the power of the IRS to systematically target President Barack Obama's political enemies.

The Department of Justice closed its school choice investigation in December 2015 without ever finding wrongdoing. It did so after the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which I chair, sent three letters asking about the scope, reasons and findings of the probe. No answers existed to some of my questions, and the department refused to answer the others. It did not come to Milwaukee to explain itself to the people whose schools it endangered.

I have been involved in improving and supporting both public and private schools since before I ran for office. I have heard over and over for six years from Wisconsin families about how they value the power that school choice gives them to find better opportunity for their children.

Those families' stories motivated me to offer an amendment to the bill that appropriates money to the Department of Justice — an amendment to close off the discredited legal excuse the department used to drag out its probe. My amendment simply requires the American with Disabilities Act to be followed as written; to be used as intended. The amendment does not restrict the government's current authority to investigate discrimination. It only keeps the federal government from expanding its power beyond what the law provides.

It stops the Obama administration from reopening this front in its attack on school choice. The damage this administration has done to the rule of law and our constitutional protections is so grave that it sometimes seems abstract. But that damage hurts individual Americans, and, in Milwaukee, we can see that it endangered a fundamental need — education.

"We all should be able to make the very best choices for ourselves, our families, our future," Justice testified. She's right. My amendment is aimed squarely at protecting Wisconsinites' right to make those choices.

Originally published here in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 12, 2016.

I'm proud of how Sen. Tammy Baldwin and I worked together, at least for a while, to fill judicial vacancies on Wisconsin's federal courts. That kind of cooperation is what voters have a right to expect, and I've pursued it in good faith every step of the way.

The history of how our cooperative effort was derailed provides valuable insight into why filling the current Supreme Court vacancy has become so highly politicized.

In January 2009, President Barack Obama was sworn into office with Democrats controlling the House of Representatives and enjoying a filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the Senate. That same month, a vacancy opened on the federal district court for Wisconsin's Western District. It took Obama eight months to nominate Louis Butler to fill it — a judge who had twice been rejected by Wisconsin voters.

In January 2010, a vacancy opened for Wisconsin's seat on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Six months later, Obama nominated Victoria Nourse, a former Senate aide to Joe Biden with no judicial experience and little connection to Wisconsin.

All that time, Senators Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl were members of the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority. They could easily have filled both those vacancies, but they failed to do so. Those two nominations died when the 111th Congress ended.

Only days into the 112th Congress, Obama renominated Butler and Nourse without consulting or receiving input from Wisconsin's new senator — me. By asking me to approve these two holdovers, the administration completely disrespected the voters who elected me. Those Wisconsin voters deserved a voice, so I did not release the holdovers for consideration by the Judiciary Committee.

But I did immediately reach out in good faith to Kohl to establish a judicial nominating commission with equal representation from each senator. For two years, he steadfastly refused to accept a fair nomination process, so those vacancies remained open.

Baldwin replaced Kohl, and, to her credit, she accepted a fair process, agreeing to a judicial nominating commission with three representatives appointed by each senator. Nominees would need support from at least five of the six commissioners. The bipartisan compact worked beautifully, filling the Western District vacancy as well as a vacancy that opened on Wisconsin's Eastern Federal District Court.

Our commissioners then began working on the appeals court vacancy. We worked on this last because it was not a judicial emergency and we knew there would be a smaller pool of applicants. Because of the smaller pool, our commissioners were unable to agree on the minimum required number of candidates — four.

I offered to waive the four-candidate requirement and consider the two who had received at least five votes from commissioners. Baldwin refused this accommodation and instead breached the compact, violated the confidentiality of the process and submitted all eight candidates who had been interviewed by our commissioners. She sent the White House applicants who received only one or two votes, and one who failed to receive any vote, even from her own commissioners.

She blew up this process on May 8, 2015 — only six days before former Sen. Russ Feingold announced his candidacy. Mere coincidence? I doubt it. Immediately after Baldwin stopped our cooperative process, liberal writers began a well-coordinated attack, accusing me of obstructing the nominating process.

I immediately contacted the White House to say I would consider the two candidates who had received at least five votes from Wisconsin's judicial commission. The White House waited eight months, until Jan. 12, 2016, to nominate Don Schott. By all accounts, Schott is a well-respected and well-qualified attorney — but with no experience as a judge. He has made political contributions to Feingold and Baldwin and to Obama.

I have interviewed Schott and reviewed his FBI file. He comes highly recommended as a person of integrity, and I have "signed the blue slip" to recommend that the Judiciary Committee consider him.

Baldwin's partisan decision to blow up our bipartisan process, and the White House's foot-dragging have put Schott's nomination in jeopardy. Throw in the politics that have unnecessarily erupted over the Supreme Court vacancy, and the outcome is impossible to predict.

I also have recommended to the White House that Obama should nominate the other qualified candidate, Richard Sankovitz, to fill the vacancy that recently opened on the Eastern District Court. I sincerely hope the president accepts my recommendation.

I do not control the process for either the appeals court or Supreme Court vacancies. Those decisions are under the jurisdiction of the Senate Judiciary Committee. According to the Constitution, the president nominates and appoints justices with the "advice and consent" of the Senate as a co-equal branch of government.

The advice of the Senate Republican majority is to let the American people decide the composition of the Supreme Court. Instead of a lame duck president and Senate nominating and confirming, a new president and Senate — elected by the people only a few months from now — should make that important decision. I can't think of a fairer or more democratic process.

Originally published here in the Duluth News Tribune on Feb. 3, 2016.

If you want to hear about a federal program that has succeeded — maybe too well — you should hear what Wisconsinites tell us and our staffs about the return of the gray wolf.

The wolf justifiably spent the better part of three decades on the Endangered Species List, an extraordinary level of protection that allowed a remarkable increase in the population of this top-level predator across a third of our state. Wolves have responded so well they are no longer hunting just for deer and they are no longer living far from humans.

Farmers tell about routinely losing cattle to wolves. Worse, they feel they have no control over a growing threat, said Mark Liebaert of South Range. A member of the Douglas County Board, Liebart also is the treasurer of the Wisconsin Farmers Union board of directors. He hears from many northern farmers alarmed by increasing wolf attacks on their livestock.

Liebaert farms cattle not deep in the north woods but only 15 miles from downtown Superior. Wolves hunt his cattle, and they are not frightened off by humans.

“They have spread,” he said. “They’re into agricultural areas.”

That is an effect of the extraordinary rebound that led wildlife experts in the U.S. Department of the Interior, as far back as 2011, to determine that the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes no longer was endangered. The population was “fully recovered and healthy,” President Barack Obama’s secretary of the Interior said.

This federal “delisting” meant that state wildlife agencies could begin to manage the population so the wolf’s ongoing role in the ecosystem did not come at the expense of farmers, loggers, sportsmen and people who simply live in the northern third of Wisconsin. Numbers have been growing so rapidly that the quota-limited, state-sanctioned wolf hunts during the winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14 resulted in just more than 500 wolves being legally harvested.

The rapid growth in wolf numbers is also why so many people across the state are angry that in 2014 a judge in Washington, D.C., overruled the wildlife experts and returned the gray wolf to the Endangered Species List. The judge’s decision ignored science and took the management of the wolf population out of Wisconsin experts’ hands. It left Wisconsinites with no say.

“People can’t walk their dogs” safely in rural areas, Liebaert said. They fear losing beloved companions “because the wolves come out of the woods.” Farmers seeing their livestock attacked can do nothing.

“I could legally shoot my neighbor’s dog if it were harassing my cattle,” he said, “but I cannot shoot a wolf that’s killing them.”

Proper wildlife management can prevent that kind of absurd situation. It means that wolves and people can get along. The first step is to return to the course that the U.S. Department of Interior deemed appropriate: delisting the gray wolf. That’s why we’ve each led congressional efforts in the House and Senate by introducing bills last year and pursuing legislative action to do just that. Just last week, Sen. Johnson filed an amendment to an energy policy bill to accomplish the same thing.

This amendment’s language does not modify the Endangered Species Act nor does it stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from returning the wolf to the endangered list if its experts determine the population is again in need of such protection.

We agree with Wisconsinites who say future gray wolf listing decisions should come from experts in Wisconsin, not judges in Washington.

All of us can agree it’s important to protect our environment — and that a crucial part of the success we’ve seen has been the protections given by the Endangered Species Act to wildlife populations that have needed it. But we need to recognize a win. The wolf belongs in Wisconsin, but so do farmers and rural residents. Federal policy should accommodate both.

Originally published here in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 2, 2015.

WASHINGTON — The "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" — Obamacare — has completely failed to live up to its name. As a result, I will vote yes when the Senate votes Thursday to repeal most of its harmful provisions using the budget reconciliation process.

Americans were repeatedly assured by President Barack Obama and his Democrat supporters in Congress that if they liked their health care plans, they could keep them. Instead, millions of Americans were not protected and their policies were canceled. PolitiFact was right to brand this promise the 2013 lie of the year.

Americans also were promised they could keep their doctors. That was a lie. Americans buying plans on Obamacare's government-run "exchanges" are discovering that the networks of providers are often narrower, with fewer choices.

And Americans have seen no evidence that the "Affordable Care Act" has made health care more affordable. The evidence points in the other direction.

One of Obamacare's most disgusting provisions is the special treatment granted to members of Congress and their staffs . Unfortunately, my lawsuit failed to overturn this outrage. I have declined the benefit, so my wife and I buy coverage in Wisconsin. Our premiums increased 38% last year. Our quotes for next year are 10% to 30% higher — and we lose all out-of-network coverage.

Others suffered greater harm. A Spooner woman, 60, wrote me to say she was paying $276 a month for her individual post-retirement plan just before Obamacare. Now, her premium under Obamacare is $662 a month, and it will increase to $787 in January. Because she and her husband responsibly saved for retirement, they don't qualify for any Obamacare subsidy.

A Washburn woman's family policy under Obamacare currently costs $918 a month with a $6,300 deductible. It is rising to $2,398 a month. She can cut that to $1,306 if she accepts a $9,000 deductible — "an astounding total of $24,672 before our insurance pays one dime. That's simply not sustainable for our family," she writes. She is right.

There's more than anecdotal evidence. A report from the Manhattan Institute found that the average cost of the five most affordable health plans available in each county in Wisconsin for a 64-year-old woman averaged $354 a month in 2013. For 2016, that average increased 85%, to $655. Young people fare worse. The same report found that the pre-Obamacare average for a 27-year-old man was $92 a month. In 2016, it will have increased 148%, to $228.

Obamacare is not making health care affordable.

Obamacare's complexity doesn't help. It needlessly adds costs to providers that are passed on to consumers. The law itself has over 380,000 words, but the regulations it's unleashed are far more voluminous. Last time I checked, Obamacare's regulations totaled approximately 19 million words. My dermatologist has had to add three full-time data inputters and his caseload is 90% of pre-Obamacare levels — further anecdotal evidence that Obamacare is increasing costs and reducing access.

Earlier this year, Milwaukee-based Assurant Health, a leader in individual insurance plans, blamed Obamacare as it went out of business. Anthem Blue Cross will no longer sell plans on the Obamacare exchange in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties. The largest U.S. health insurer, UnitedHealth Group, just announced it's considering withdrawing from Obamacare exchanges nationwide. Rather than reducing the power of large insurers and health care providers, the law has increased their power by encouraging consolidation. That means fewer options for patients.

Obamacare has taken health care in exactly the wrong direction. I didn't like the status quo before Obamacare. Too many federal rules and too much federal money already suppressed the competition that leads to lower prices and higher quality in every other field. Obamacare only worsened those trends.

We need to take American health care in a different direction, toward a free market. We need to devolve power away from Washington and give freedom and choice back to doctors and patients. That starts with repealing Obamacare. I hope the president signs the bill we pass. If he refuses, our repeal is a marker for what a Republican Congress will again pass in 2017 under an administration that is willing to admit the harm done by Obamacare.

Nov. 28th, 2015

Originally published here in the Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 28, 2015.

This time of year I am fortunate to live near a variety of family-owned businesses where I can purchase holiday treats for family and friends who have a sweet tooth like me. Among my longtime favorites in Oshkosh are Oaks and Hughes chocolates, as well as Caramel Crisp on Main.

But there’s another reason at Thanksgiving to think about small businesses, whether you’ve got a sweet tooth or not: Small Business Saturday.

Our country faces serious challenges, and the No. 1 solution that helps address all of them is economic growth. That solution relies on renewed faith, strength in families, strong communities, and work — and small businesses provide those ingredients. Supporting them this Saturday, rather than skipping from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, is a good way to make a difference this year.

You know these businesses, and it’s my hope that more of us than ever will continue to be faithful to them. They’re the one-of-a-kind spots on State Street in Madison, the quaint shops all over the North Woods, and the well-known storefronts on Main Street in your hometown. Shopping at small businesses means supporting local business people — the folks who spend their money in your community and who contribute to local causes. It also means supporting the people who fire up an important but undervalued jobs engine.

About one in five jobs in Wisconsin were created by a new business 5 years old or less, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses made up nearly 98 percent of all employers in Wisconsin.

I’ve had the opportunity to see many small businesses up close as I’ve traveled across our state — places like Rural Route 1 Popcorn in Montfort, Towne House Restaurant in Darlington, Door County Coffee and Ice Cream Shop near Carlsville, Fish Creek’s Not Licked and the famous Wilson’s Ice Cream in Ephraim.

Small Business Saturday is a reminder of the many industries that are fueled by small businesses. During Manufacturing Month in October, for example, I had the opportunity to tour 10 different manufacturing facilities. They varied in size, but they all had to start small. My experience starting a plastics manufacturing company in 1979 confirms to me the truth of what Vince Lombardi once said: “The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

People who aspire to build things, create products and provide services we all value know the hard work involved in building a business that creates the well-paid jobs that everyone desires.

Ultimately, we need to make it easier to start a business and grow those that already exist. I’m focused on getting Washington out of the way so the Wisconsinites on Main Street can put more people to work.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll consider Small Business Saturday an opportunity to spread a little holiday cheer, support folks in your community, and add fuel to an important economic engine. Every little bit helps, whether it’s at a jewelry store, a sporting goods retailer — or a favorite chocolate shop.

With the holiday season upon us, please remember to support your local small businesses.


Sept. 11th, 2015

"Instead of accepting the West’s outstretched hand of friendship for the benefit of the Russian people, Putin took advantage of our good intentions to consolidate his hold on power."

Originally published here in The Ripon Forum, Sept. 11, 2015

In 2009, the Obama administration “reset” relations with Russia, an attempt at unilateral withdrawal and concession to curry favor and gain cooperation from Vladimir Putin’s regime.  Unfortunately, the reset has proved to be a miserable failure because Putin respects only strength and is adroit at perceiving weakness and fully exploiting it.

Two years after that reset and within a few months of becoming a U.S. senator, I saw this first-hand.  In April 2011, I traveled to Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia with a congressional delegation led by Minority Whip Jon Kyl, a knowledgeable head of the Senate’s National Security Working Group.

Twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the purpose of the trip was to gain insight into the challenges facing these nations that have been well described as a “belt of freedom and democracy” buffering the rest of Europe from Russia.

What we saw was summed up by what our delegation wrote: “The process of developing democracy and building a free-market economic system after 50 years of communist subjugation is hard enough. But having to deal with a large and menacing neighbor bent on sabotaging their efforts makes it all the more difficult.”

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the West reached out to include Russia in the promise of a Europe whole, free and at peace.  Billions of dollars from the West were invested in Russia, multinational organizations were expanded to include Russia, and military cooperation and disarmament treaties were agreed to — all in an effort to help make the world a safer place.

But instead of accepting the West’s outstretched hand of friendship for the benefit of the Russian people, Putin took advantage of our good intentions to consolidate his hold on power.   Instead of looking to that “belt of freedom and democracy” with an attitude of cooperation to achieve mutual prosperity, Putin viewed success in those nations as a threat to his control.  He correctly calculated that if the breakaway republics succeeded with freedom and democracy, the long-suffering Russian people would begin demanding the same, and his grip on power would be loosened.

Instead of accepting the West’s outstretched hand of friendship for the benefit of the Russian people, Putin took advantage of our good intentions to consolidate his hold on power.

His undermining of these fledgling democracies has been longstanding, persistent and highly effective.  The legacy of corruption within public institutions is difficult to overcome in the best of situations.  Putin does everything he can to maintain and exacerbate that corruption.  His use of propaganda is pervasive, and the West has done little to respond.  His propaganda’s lies are outrageous, but without effective rebuttal, they have become the accepted reality.

Two years after that trip in 2011, I joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, serving as ranking member and, now, chairman of its European Subcommittee.  I have taken multiple trips to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.  I have seen how the pressure that Putin has been applying in Eastern Europe has increased significantly, as evidenced by his most recent military aggressions.

Putin invaded Georgia in late 2008 as the West was distracted by the financial system meltdown and a U.S. presidential election.   In 2011, I stood at the new “border” of South Ossetia, just 33 miles north of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, looking through binoculars at the Russian guard post.  It was a bizarre and sobering experience to witness concrete evidence of a post-Cold War Russian invasion.

Quick and resolute reaction by the Bush administration and our European allies during the Georgia invasion halted Putin’s advance, but he has not withdrawn.  Similar to the “frozen conflict” in the Russian backed Transnistria region of Moldova, Putin consolidated his gains and then patiently waited for his next opportunity to seize for Russia what the Soviet Union once controlled.

Unfolding events in Ukraine and the Middle East combined to present that opportunity.  The brave protesters of the Maidan succeeded in overthrowing Putin’s puppet in Ukraine, a result Putin was loath to accept — and one that he didn’t.  With the new Ukrainian government struggling to overcome decades of corruption and failed communist policies, with its military purposely hollowed out by Putin’s puppet, and with the West distracted by the deteriorating conditions in the Middle East, especially in Syria, Putin made his move on Crimea.

With an overwhelming military presence already located at Russian naval bases, the takeover of Crimea was met with virtually no resistance, prompting Putin to set his sights on a larger target, Eastern Ukraine.   In testimony before our committee, experts described Putin’s actions as an invasion consisting of 15,000 Russian troops on Ukrainian territory.  President Obama should utilize the authority passed unanimously by Congress to supply lethal defensive weaponry to the courageous Ukrainians fighting for their territorial integrity and freedom.

As Putin advances, the Obama administration continues to talk about offering Putin “off ramps.” To prevent even greater destabilization in Europe, the West must realize that Putin isn’t looking for “off ramps.” He’s only biding his time and looking for the next “on ramp.”

May 29th, 2015 

“It would also give America an informed choice in the 2016 election between Obamacare and an affordable replacement.”

Originally published here in USA Today, May 27, 2015

Americans went to the polls in November 2012 unaware that President Obama's assurance, "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it," would be crowned "Lie of the Year" by PolitiFact. A year later, millions of Americans lost health care plans they liked and could afford while also losing access to doctors they knew and trusted.

It is difficult to hold a rational political argument based on predictions. Besides, former governor Mitt Romney, author of "Romneycare" in Massachusetts, was particularly ill-suited to make the case against Obamacare. As a result, repeal and replacement of Obamacare was not the central issue of 2012.

Now that Obamacare has been implemented and Americans can judge both the good and the bad in it, it should be a central issue in the 2016 elections. The upcoming decision in the King v. Burwell case at the Supreme Court could force that political debate.

Because Obamacare was sloppily written and unlawfully implemented, millions of Americans using federal exchanges could lose their taxpayer-funded subsidies. A bill I have authored would protect patients — and give America an informed choice in the 2016 election between Obamacare and an affordable replacement.

The Preserving Freedom and Choice in Health Care Act would allow Americans to keep their current health care plans, including Obamacare, and their taxpayer subsidies through August 2017. It would restore to Americans some of the freedom Obamacare denies them.

My bill repeals the individual mandate, ending penalties on Americans exercising their right not to purchase insurance. It repeals the employer mandate, allowing employees to work full-time instead of being forced into part-time work.

Finally, it eliminates mandated coverages that have driven up the cost of health care and forced millions to lose health care plans they liked and could afford.

Unlike the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, this transitional piece of legislation would live up to its name, reverse many of the negative unintended consequences of Obamacare, and pave the way for full replacement in 2017.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is the author of a leading alternative to Obamacare.

May 22, 2015 

“The best response we’ve heard comes from Mr. Johnson and has broad support among Senate Republicans.”

Originally published here in the Wall Street Journal.

How to prevent a legal victory from becoming a political defeat.

We often ask Congressional Republicans how they prefer the Supreme Court to rule in the ObamaCare subsidies case—as a matter of politics, putting aside the law. The smarter ones usually demur, because they know the risks are real, the damage is potentially large, and many of their colleagues are complacent even at this late hour.

With a ruling in King v. Burwell approaching in June, there are troubling signs that Republicans in Congress are headed for another friendly-fire massacre that ends in a victory for President Obama. To borrow the novel idea of Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, this time Republicans would be smarter to try to win the inevitable debate with a unified and politically defensible strategy.

If the High Court upholds the plain text of the Affordable Care Act and vacates the insurance subsidies in the 37 states that did not establish their own exchanges, the White House will try to turn the disruption to its advantage. Some 7.7 million people are now part of the entitlement in those states, and their largely Republican Governors will come under intense industry and constituent pressure to restore the subsidies by joining ObamaCare.

In private, the Governors are petrified that dysfunction in Congress will force them into a lose-lose trench. If they set up a state exchange, they’ll be pilloried by their GOP base. If they don’t, they’ll be blamed for cutting people off medical care.

Yet a view has taken hold among some conservatives in Congress that the danger from King is overblown. The conceit is that the GOP can blame the White House for any disruption, and the public will agree. So do nothing for now and wait two years for a Republican President, who will repeal ObamaCare, sign a replacement and usher in a glorious future.

This do-nothing caucus points to an estimate by Brittany La Coutureand Doug Holtz-Eakin of the American Action Forum that if Congress fails to act the labor market would add as many as 237,000 jobs and 1.3 million people would join the workforce. The reason is that ObamaCare’s employer mandates and other regulations that harm the incentive to work are conditioned on the subsidies. If the subsidies are withdrawn, so are these economic cement shoes.

That may be true over time, but the immediate and persistent headlines through Election Day in 2016 will be about people who have lost or can’t afford their insurance. GOP Governors need a better argument to survive than claiming that things will get better in 2017. And all Republicans need a better response than blaming Mr. Obama and telling Americans to suck it up.

House and Senate working groups are trying to reach a consensus about a GOP contingency plan, and a particular point of contention is whether to extend the subsidies in some form for some period of time. This week Budget Chairman Tom Price came out publicly in the negative, the highest-profile Republican so far.

Mr. Price is a thoughtful health-care leader among Republicans and his office says he’ll support a transitional safety net for those currently receiving subsidies. But without cash, it’s not much of a safety net and doesn’t address the immediate problem. Some money is needed to offset the ObamaCare rules and mandates that drive up the cost of coverage. Many people of modest means simply can’t afford ObamaCare’s overinflated policies without subsidies, and insurance contracts don’t change overnight.

The best response we’ve heard comes from Mr. Johnson and has broad support among Senate Republicans. In the event the Court overturns the subsidies, Mr. Johnson proposes a straight extension of the subsidies through August 2017 for anyone enrolled as of this summer. That insulates people who through no fault of their own would suddenly be victimized by ObamaCare.

In return, he’d restore to states the freedom to deregulate ObamaCare’s central planning diktats and offer more policy choices to consumers. Over time, the subsidies would be less necessary as markets healed.

Mr. Johnson’s plan will disappoint those on the right who think any concession to political reality is ObamaCare Lite™, but he is acknowledging that the law can’t be repealed immediately. For the time being, his plan would move policy in the right direction on the continuum to markets from government. The 2017 deadline guarantees a health-care debate during the presidential campaign and would lend the winner a mandate.

President Obama may refuse to sign any subsidies-for-deregulation deal, and he and Hillary Clinton may think they can win by refusing to compromise. But in that case the Johnson plan gives Republicans an answer that is easy to sell and understand, and liberals would then need to explain why they’re willing to deny health insurance simply because they want more political control over insurance.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to reach a consensus, and perhaps Republicans will unite when the time comes. But their track record is less than reassuring, and better to plan ahead than count on panicky improvisation. It would be a tragedy if a legal victory turned into a political defeat and perhaps even a rout in 2016 because Republicans couldn’t settle on a clear, simple political strategy.