Feb 21 2011
By Will Rahn
While the battle over Gov. Scott Walker’s budget raged in Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, the state’s newly elected junior senator, was waiting to get back to work in Washington. “Why are we shut down this week?” he asked rhetorically about the recess.
It’s a fair question: The latest continuing resolution, the legislation providing funds to keep the government operational, expires on March 4. If Congress cannot agree on a new resolution by then, America will face its first government shutdown since the Clinton administration — an outcome that Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid will almost certainly blame on Johnson and his Republican colleagues. “Obviously they’re playing games with this process,” Johnson said. “I didn’t come here to play games.”
One of the new class of Tea Party-backed Republican senators, Johnson is a hard-line economic conservative eager to start cutting spending. Instead, with Congress out of session, Johnson is forced to sit on the sidelines as the nation’s focus turns to Madison and his friend Scott Walker.
“They’re definitely ginning up protester support,” Johnson said when asked if he thinks the Obama administration is involved with the protests in his home state. The White House says they have nothing to do with what’s going on in Madison, but Johnson was quick to dismiss their claim. “I’ve talked to people on the ground and they estimate probably half the people there are probably from out of state. One person there called it the world’s fair of left-wing protests. I think the national party, the national unions, have got a great deal with what’s happening in Wisconsin. They’ve definitely inserted themselves in the process.”
Johnson sees the struggle in Wisconsin not so much as a question of organized labor’s rights to collectively bargain, but simply a question of whether or not his state can close a massive and growing deficit. Walker’s budget, in his view, is really about restoring “balance” and allowing local municipalities greater discretion in how they spend their money. He said that, as their pension burden grows under the current system, school districts are forced to either raise property taxes or lay off workers. According to Johnson, Walker and his allies in the legislature are really just trying to provide local municipalities with “greater flexibility” to deal with rising costs.
“I respect anybody who works hard to build a life for themselves and their families,” Johnson said. “The issue here is that Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion-a-year deficit and Scott Walker was elected to seriously address that. And he is seriously addressing that. I commend him; I commend the Republican state legislators for actually not shirking their duty here. Sixty percent of the state operating budget is comprised of salaries and benefits. If you’re trying to close a $3.6 billion deficit you have to address them somehow.”
While Wisconsin grapples with its own fiscal woes, Johnson sees a fight brewing in Washington along the same lines: “This year’s budget deficit will be $1.6 trillion. Depending on what spending figure you use, that’s going to be somewhere – we’ll be borrowing 43 to 47 cents of every dollar we spend. It’s a very serious issue. We can’t ignore it anymore.” He said he thinks his primary role “as a new kid on block” in the Senate “is to highlight how urgent, how dire the situation is fiscally so we bring a seriousness of purpose to attacking these problems.”
When asked if he’ll advocate for deep cuts in entitlement spending, Johnson said that entitlements need to be made a part of the discretionary budget (“I’ve never understood why Congress, why the administration, absolves themselves of reviewing those programs”) and that a spending cap and balanced budget amendment are the keys to getting the deficit under control. After that, everything must be looked at, “including defense, including entitlements.”
For all the respect Johnson clearly has for the governor, he also sees any talk of a Walker presidential run as premature. “From my standpoint, I do like the model of the governor running for president because you have the executive experience, but I think this is way to early,” he said, and believes that Walker would agree that it’s too soon. “He is devoting his passion to solving the fiscal situation in Wisconsin, and I’m just hoping the people who voted for him will provide him that support and will let him know, let the state legislators know that their behind him.”
Does the senator think the governor will be successful? “I sure hope so,” he said. “It sure sounds like he’s well on top of the situation.”
“He’s sounding calm, he’s sounding resolved,” Johnson continued. “That’s what he — that’s what we all need to do. The people who were elected to solve these fiscal issues have got to remain strong and resolved.”