Originally published here by the Wall Street Journal on July 23, 2020.

A near-record 158.8 million Americans were employed in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then the novel coronavirus brought parts of the economy to a screeching halt. As of June, 142.2 million people were employed, a reduction of 16.6 million, or about 10.5%. Recent economic forecasts have predicted a decline in gross domestic product of between 4.6% and 8% for 2020. The damage from Covid-19 has been significant, but not catastrophic.

Congress authorized $2.9 trillion of Covid-19 relief, which represents 13.5% of 2019’s U.S. GDP. No one knows exactly how much of the Covid relief has been spent or obligated, but 60% ($1.75 trillion) seems to be a consensus figure in Congress. Let that sink in. We’ve authorized enough spending to replace 13.5% of annual economic output, and more than $1 trillion of it hasn’t yet been spent or obligated.

So why is Congress rushing to pass at least $1 trillion more? For Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, $1 trillion isn’t enough. The House has passed an additional $3 trillion in Covid-19 relief, which would bring the total to $5.9 trillion, 27.5% of GDP. Again, employment has declined 10.5%, and respected estimates of GDP decline are 8% or less. Why should Congress provide financial support greater than the reduction in GDP?

When President Obama entered office, the total national debt was $10.6 trillion. I was elected as part of the tea-party movement, which was concerned that debt had grown to $14 trillion during his first two years as president. Nine years later, the debt stands at $26.5 trillion and will be close to $28 trillion by the end of this fiscal year. Is no one concerned about how much of our children’s future is mortgaged?

When Congress passed the $2.9 trillion in March, there was a great deal of uncertainty and a danger of economic collapse. Congress had to act quickly and demonstrate that sufficient financial support would be provided. But we’ve weathered that storm and now have much more information.

For example, a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine based on serological testing showed that the number of Covid-19 cases could be six to 24 times the number reported. Applying these estimates to the most recent U.S. case fatality rate (CFR) of 3.6% yields an infection fatality rate (IFR) between 0.15% and 0.6%. Oxford’s Center for Evidence-Based Medicine has been predicting an IFR for Covid-19 between 0.1% and 0.41%.

The nine-year average IFR for seasonal flu in the U.S. is 0.13%, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The IFR in a bad flu season (2010-11) was 0.176%. I am not playing down the tragedy of the coronavirus. But there is no need to continue broad economic shutdowns with fatality rates in these ranges.

Treatment is improving, as evidenced by the reduction in case fatality rates. With a growing list of better therapeutics and the development of a possible vaccine, one can imagine a more optimistic economic future that doesn’t require another $1 trillion in debt-financed spending.

And just because Congress has waited until the end of July doesn’t mean the new proposed relief package has been properly deliberated. Possible elements of the package are only now being discussed publicly.

Since the Small Business Administration has disclosed recipients of Paycheck Protection Program loans greater than $150,000, news reports have revealed that the PPP lacked basic controls that any future program and expenditures must contain. Loan forgiveness shouldn’t be granted to organizations that have the ability to repay. A simple fix would require repayment of PPP loans to the extent a taxpaying entity has taxable income for 2020, or a tax-exempt organization has increased net assets.

There is no doubt the PPP was a lifeline to many organizations and their employees. But there’s also no doubt many groups that received loans—and will almost certainly have those loans forgiven—didn’t need them. As the largest single expenditure of the Cares Act, the PPP deserves more scrutiny. The Main Street Lending Program should also be reviewed carefully.

Remember, we don’t know how much of the $2.9 trillion allocated for economic relief has been spent. Congress hasn’t conducted sufficient oversight of its previous handiwork. Doesn’t it make more sense for Congress to evaluate what has been spent, determine what worked and what didn’t, and then redirect the balance based on what Congress finds? We shouldn’t authorize another dime until we do so.

Originally published here by the Wall Street Journal on May 31, 2020.

Without dispute, the Paycheck Protection Program has helped some struggling businesses stay afloat. To date it has provided $511 billion in forgivable loans (essentially federal grants) to millions of distressed businesses and organizations. But because the application didn’t require an effective demonstration of need, there is also little doubt that a significant number of businesses that weren’t in danger of going under also received these grants.

Although the economic devastation from Covid-19 is shocking, many businesses continue to operate profitably—and obtain PPP loans. Of the businesses that received money in the first tranche of PPP spending ($342 billion) only 8.9% belonged to the hard-hit accommodation and food-services sector, which includes hotels and restaurants. More than half went to professional, scientific and technical services; construction; manufacturing; wholesale trade; transportation and warehousing; finance and insurance; and mining. Did all the businesses that received PPP loans in these categories truly need them?

The program’s primary objective, as stated by its sponsors, was to provide financial support to employees by keeping them connected to their employers, regardless of whether there was work for them to perform. This helped accomplish a corollary goal of reducing the number of people seeking unemployment benefits. But with 40.7 million Americans filing initial unemployment claims in the past 10 weeks, it’s hard to claim that PPP and the Cares Act were as effective at limiting layoffs as we had hoped.

With the House passage of a $3 trillion “Phase 4” relief package, now is the time to evaluate seriously the $2.9 trillion we’ve already put into law—particularly given that less than half that amount has been spent or obligated. Before we authorize another dime, we should determine if there are better ways of spending the remainder.

PPP loans were disbursed, for example, based on the assumption that 75% of the loan would provide financial support for eight weeks of payroll. Because many employers who took the loans didn’t retain enough employees to spend all that money within eight weeks, the House just passed a bill that would extend the period in which companies can spend PPP funds to 24 weeks.

I’m not opposed to this change, but it’s not the only one that’s needed. Congress also should enact reforms that will prevent future funds from flowing to organizations that don’t need them. This crisis is far from over, and pressure will build to authorize even more spending. Our ability to expand federal debt is not unlimited. Any funding must be carefully distributed.

We’ve already disbursed $511 billion through the PPP, and the proceeds have been spent on payroll and other qualified expenses. Still, it has left many businesses asking what they’ll do next. The program was designed to help small businesses bridge short-term shutdowns. It isn’t suited to long-term suspensions. If the U.S. economy is to recover as rapidly as possible, we need to redesign and repurpose a portion of the $2.9 trillion already passed. One glaring example: We should stop paying people more to stay unemployed than they made working.

When the PPP and Cares Act were passed, no one knew how this crisis would unfold. As we get a clearer picture, it’s necessary to make adjustments. We now know that until an effective therapy, cure or vaccine becomes available, fear of Covid-19 will preclude certain otherwise viable businesses from reopening. To survive the shutdown, some may need a plan to close all or a portion of their businesses temporarily, and all will need sufficient capital to reopen. Neither the PPP nor the rest of the $2.9 trillion relief packages adequately address this need.

Starting with the PPP, Congress should make sure any additional funds appropriated for small businesses are provided only to organizations that need them by requiring a demonstration of need—such as the percent of revenue lost because of the crisis so far. PPP loan forgiveness should also be based on an entity’s ability to repay, measured by its 2020 after-tax income. The program was intended as a lifeline, not a profit protector or enhancer. No one should be allowed to make money off it.

Finally, Congress needs to design a program that combines loans and grants to restore capital to the full spectrum of viable nonpublic businesses. Many businesses are caught in the middle—they either don’t qualify or have run out of PPP funds, and they can’t afford to recapitalize with 100% debt. But a federal grant of $10,000 an employee—similar in size to the PPP’s eight weeks of payroll, and conditioned on an ownership restructuring using a standardized employee stock-ownership plan—combined with a loan the business could support, would enable many to reopen. Providing the ways and means for viable businesses to reopen will be the key to faster economic recovery.

Originally published here at Real Clear Politics on April 1, 2020.

On Sunday, a friend forwarded me a link to a video made by a New York doctor, David Price.  I encourage everyone to watch the video.  From his front-line experience in the nation’s coronavirus hot spot, Dr. Price gives us sound advice, makes the disease a little less scary, and gives us hope by empowering us. He helps put things into perspective as we weigh the human costs of the disease and our response. 

What makes the video so powerful is that Dr. Price is one of the heroes treating COVID-19 patients almost exclusively, and he’s not scared.  Instead, he’s confident he will not catch the disease because he knows how to prevent it.     

Price’s advice: COVID-19 is transmitted primarily from the hands to the face.  So be aware of your hands at all times. Keep them clean by washing often and using hand sanitizer. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE.  If you’re sick or vulnerable, isolate yourself.  In order to prevent overwhelming our health care system, go to the hospital only if you’re short of breath.  Maintain social distancing.  Feel free to use a face mask, primarily to train yourself NOT TO TOUCH YOUR FACE. But aerosolized transmission is far less common, so you don’t need an N95 face mask. Reserve those for front-line health care workers.  

The reason I am highlighting Dr. Price’s video is because it is important that we don’t become gripped with fear or allow panic to sweep our society.  No one wants to underreact, but there are substantial short-term and long-term costs to overreacting.  

Last Friday, President Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to help workers, provide needed liquidity to businesses, and support health care and cures. This is in addition to two previous emergency spending bills totaling more than $112 billion.  This financial cost is enormous, but we must also recognize the potential human toll of economic destruction.     

Last year, approximately 48,000 Americans committed suicide and an estimated 67,000 died of a drug overdose.  That level of individual despair occurred in a strong economy with near record-low levels of unemployment in virtually every demographic. Imagine the human toll if we shut down the economy indefinitely and unemployment reaches 30% or higher, as the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank now predicts.  

The president, his team, governors, and other public officials throughout America are having to make tough decisions with incomplete information. It’s impossible for them to get it just right. They have the best of intentions, and they deserve our support. There will be plenty of time later for the necessary oversight of what went right, what went wrong, and why — even though we were adequately forewarned — we weren’t better prepared. 

For now, all of us as individual citizens need to do our part. That starts with taking our situation dead seriously and following Dr. Price’s good advice to do everything we can to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19.  We don’t have to shut down our entire economy to accomplish that.  In fact, it is essential that we keep as much of it open and operating as we can.  

It is entirely appropriate that we identify nonessential businesses that pose a risk of spreading COVID-19, and keep them closed until this passes.  Congress passed the CARES Act to help ensure that workers and their employers get the financial support they need to survive so that business can eventually reopen and their employees get back to work. 

But does anyone doubt that hospitals and grocers need to remain open? And if they do, all the businesses that support hospitals and grocers must continue to operate.  Consider the entire supply chain for just those two vital businesses: You start to comprehend that most of the American economy is essential and must remain open.  Agriculture and food processors, drug and medical supply manufacturers, packaging and packaging material suppliers, warehousing and distribution businesses, trucking, gas stations, oil drilling and refining — the list goes on and on. The good news is that if a front-line doctor is confident that by practicing good personal hygiene and proper social distancing he won’t catch COVID-19, we should be safer if we follow those guidelines as well. 

We are all watching in horror the awful and mounting toll of COVID-19.  But we are also inspired by the quiet and resolute heroism of first responders and front-line health care workers like Dr. Price.   

We should also greatly appreciate every American who continues to go to work each day, despite the risk, to make sure our society can continue to function at the level we now so urgently need.  As long as many Americans exhibit this kind of courage in dealing with the coronavirus, we can be confident that we will get through this together and united.

Originally published here at FoxNews.com on May 3, 2018.

Tariffs aren’t the only issue on the table when it comes to U.S.-China relations. That fact was a major takeaway from our recent trip to China, where we met with some of the country’s top business and political leaders.

The United States has been a consistently dominant economic force in the world for over a century, but China is catching up. It isn’t the country it was as recently as five years ago. With a middle class of over 400 million, China is certainly past its days as a “developing” nation, although it prefers the world doesn’t see it for what it is – the world’s second-largest economic and military power.

America’s outdated view of China could result in lost opportunities, or even worse, dangerous miscalculations or complacency. That needs to change. America’s leaders need to wake up. We must have a long-term plan to compete and deal with China’s rising economic and geopolitical influence.

One of China’s greatest strengths is its ability to plan decades into the future. This is especially apparent in the development of its innovation economy, which is beginning to rival – and in some cases surpass – that of the United States.

China is home to four of the world’s 10 biggest Internet companies measured by market capitalization. Its consumer marketplace is becoming both cash- and card-free, replaced by mobile phones.

When it comes to Internet connectivity, China is beating the U.S. in the race to 5G. With 30 to 40 percent of its students studying engineering – compared to America’s 6 to 7 percent – China is training its next generation with the skills necessary to beat the competition in the 21st century global economy.

China is attempting to leapfrog America in the innovation economy. The threat of it surpassing us as the world’s largest economy is not “if,” but “when.” Economists estimate that it could happen in the next 10 years.

China’s economy is not the only thing that is growing. It is militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea and constructing military bases at foreign ports. It is building modern warships, satellites, missiles and other weaponry.

In addition, China is actively jamming U.S. military aircraft from these outposts. Despite not being involved in any large-scale military conflicts, China’s military budget has soared and is now only surpassed by that of the United States.

China has no plans to slow its growth or restrain its quest for power and regional dominance. If America wants to maintain its influence in the world and protect its workers, consumers, businesses and values, the U.S. must act now to remain competitive.

This means America must take a page from China’s strategic playbook and start thinking in terms of decades, not the next quarter.

The top priority of our trade relationship, both short- and long-term, should be holding China accountable for its blatant theft of American companies’ intellectual property, unfair trade practices, and lack of accountability within the country for bad actors. Reciprocity is key. If we cannot demand Chinese companies operating in America hand over their technology, neither should China be able to make such a demand.

Fairness is also critical. America cannot accept a 25 percent tariff on our automobile exports to China while China sends its automobile parts over with just a 2.5 percent tariff.

Finally and most importantly, U.S.-China relations must not be a zero-sum game. Long-term stability between our two nations depends on the ability of each to pursue its full potential peacefully. We should seek agreements that produce “win-win” solutions for both countries.

The United States fosters an environment for limitless innovation and encourages creativity, problem-solving and technological developments to flourish. This has been a trademark of American life from its beginning.

When America was founded, China possessed the world’s largest economy. However, our country’s ingenuity, commitment to freedom and the rule of law, and sheer grit have propelled the U.S. to the top of the world’s economic and military ladder.

We must not be complacent. The United States must act now by developing a long-term strategy to deal with China. This is a top priority. Otherwise, America may have to settle for second place.

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.