In the News: Blog

By Craig Gilbert

Thursday's first meeting of the Senate's Tea Party Caucus attracted four Republicans, and Ron Johnson was not among them. 

The freshman Senator will not be joining the group at this time, an aide said.

"I sprang from the Tea Party and have great respect for what it represents," Johnson said in a statement. "The reason I ran for the US Senate was to not only stop the Obama agenda but reverse it. I believe our best chance of doing that is to work towards a unified Republican Conference so that's where I will put my energy." 

In other words, Johnson does not appear to be interested in being part of a faction that may directly challenge the party leadership or prove divisive within the GOP caucus. His statement suggests that's a tactical decision, not a statement about his commitment to the Tea Party agenda (63% of Johnson voters last fall supported the Tea Party movement, according to the Wisconsin exit poll).

The four Republicans that were part of the inaugural meeting of the Tea Party Caucus in the Senate were: Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas.

At the meeting, DeMint thanked voters for electing three other GOP senators who have identified with the Tea Party movement but haven't joined the Tea Party caucus: Johnson, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey and Florida's Marco Rubio.

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By Christopher Murray

Now that Congress is back in session the final committee rosters are finally beginning to take shape.  With large numbers of new members, many of which campaigned to radically change how Washington works, an interesting dynamic to watch is how these folks will fit into the permanent and often change-resistant legislative structure.  Traditionally, plum committee assignments are given to those members who “earn” them through working on behalf of their party’s interests in ways such as fundraising and voting consistently with the leadership.

This norm has historically been especially strong on the Senate side where members vigorously protect their prerogatives, especially when confronted with ambitious newcomers.  In the Senate “club” it is often advised that freshmen walk softly and learn how to do the job before they set out to upset the apple cart.

Nowhere is this more the case than on the Appropriations Committee.  While the recent Congresses have seen a rise in partisan voting and a general decline in civility, appropriators have acted to ensure that their panel is the last bastion of an older, more genteel, Congress.  With the responsibility of doling out billions of dollars to thousands of projects, the Appropriations Committee has historically rewarded bipartisan deal-making as opposed to ideological warfare.  Members of both parties would carve up the federal pie, send money home to the constituents, and everyone would be happy—and re-elected.

Things may, however, be changing for appropriators.

The first sign of change came with the movement to ban earmarks.  While earmarks have been common across committees, they have been the modus operandi for appropriators.  When the House GOP set about choosing the new chairman of the spending panel, the candidates went out of their way to pledge fealty to the anti-earmark, pro-austerity wave that was running through the caucus.  Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the ultimate winner, will have the unenviable task of weaning his panel, including himself, from the old way of doing business.

On the Senate side, word comes that an unprecedented six freshman have been appointed to the committee.  As Mitch McConnell, himself a prodigious earmarker, tries to keep pace with his colleagues across the Capitol he must balance the enthusiasm of his new members with the inherent conservatism of the Senate.  An examination of these new appropriators reveals a mix of establishment-type Republicans, coupled with a dash of Tea Party flavor.  Four of the six come to the panel with long periods of previous congressional service.  Illinois moderate Mark Kirk served on the House appropriations panel during is five terms so his assignment, despite the fact that he’s a freshman, doesn’t seem unusual.  Further establishment ties can be seen in Missouri’s Roy Blunt who served in the House leadership as Whip and Indiana’s Dan Coats who has a decade of previous Senate service on his resume.  Though a solid conservative, Kansas’ Jerry Moran demonstrated a strong pragmatic streak during his seven terms of House service.  North Dakota’s John Hoeven comes to the Senate having served a decade as the state’s governor.  While all of these five are freshman they would seem to fit the mold of past appropriators in terms temperament and style.  They’ve all served numerous years in government and have demonstrated a willingness to protect local interests.

The one wildcard assignment is Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson. A political unknown prior to his campaign against Russ Feingold, Johnson was an unapologetic carrier of the Tea Party banner.  During one of their debates, a surreal point/counterpoint on Atlas Shrugged broke out which surely left many of the viewers befuddled.  It will be interesting to watch how Johnson approaches his new perch on Appropriations.  Surely Tea Partiers hope he will follow the lead of another Wisconsinite who received a coveted Appropriations spot early in his career, former Representative and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Mark Neumann.  A member of the class of 1994, Neumann rankled many in his party with his willingness to attack Republican spending priorities, to the point where he was kicked off the committee by then chairman Bob Livingston.

Interestingly, Senator Johnson was absent from yesterday’s kickoff of the Senate Tea Party Caucus.  Arguing that he is more interested in working from within traditional GOP channels, Johnson’s absence raises the fear among many on the right that he is going to settle into the role of an insider.  Whether his assignment to the Appropriations Committee is a further example of this is yet to be seen.  What is undeniable is that the committee, long a reservoir of log-rolling and back slapping, has undergone a dramatic degree of change.

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By Gabriella Schwarz

Republican South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint introduced legislation Wednesday to fully repeal the health care reform legislation passed last year and signed into law by President Obama.

DeMint's action comes on the same day Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, began procedural steps to force a vote on a separate repeal bill in the coming weeks.

DeMint, a leading force in the Tea Party movement and founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, said Republicans are "standing with the American people who are demanding we repeal this government takeover of health care."

"American families and businesses are struggling and it's our duty to respond quickly to their calls to repeal this bill and push for solutions that will make health care more affordable," DeMint said in a statement.

The DeMint bill proposed in the Senate has 38 Republican co-sponsors, and is the latest step by the GOP to keep promises made during the midterm election, which included a vote on health care.

A repeal bill passed the Republican-controlled House in January, and both political parties are now jockeying for control of the issue ahead of the 2012 elections. While Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch who is up for reelection in the next cycle is a co-sponsor of the DeMint bill, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who is also up for reelection, is not.

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refuses to bring DeMint or McConnell's repeal bills to a vote, Republicans will likely introduce amendments attached to other bills aimed at altering various aspects of the health care law, Republican Senate aides have said.

Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson urged Reid to schedule a vote soon.

"The House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted to repeal Obamacare," Johnson said in a statement. "The Senate has an obligation to vote on a straightforward repeal bill as well, so the American people can see who opposes this destructive legislation, and who supports it."

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By John Gizzi

If President Obama felt he could get any support among Republican senators for key items in his State of the Union address last night, he was mistaken.

Almost to a person, lawmakers among the 47 Republican senators who talked to Human Events following the President’s speech to Congress were highly skeptical of Mr. Obama’s call for freezing non-defense domestic discretionary spending after he has already raised that spending to new levels.

As was the case among House Republicans, the toughest criticism among the senators came from the freshmen Members who are attending their first State of the Unoin message.

“I was pleased he said he’ll support the bill ending earmarks,” new Sen. Kelly Atyotte (R.-NH) told us, but she quickly added:  “The proposed freeze on domestic spending does not go far enough, not at all, especially after he has already raised the same spending by more than 20%.  We should not just be freezing spending but cutting it—and going a lot further than we are.”

Ayotte said she grades the President’s address “C+.”

When Human Events asked Ayotte’s fellow freshman Ron Johnson the same question, the Wisconsin senator simply laughed and said: “I’m not a teacher.”

Johnson went on to give the President good grades for what he called “soaring rhetoric” but then said he would have to “wait and see if his actions met the rhetoric.”

He was sharply critical of Obama call’s for a domestic spending freeze because “we’ve got to take this debt very seriously and that means a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and the straight-jacket caps I want to apply to spending.

The Badger State Republican, who was in private business until his dramatic upset of Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold last fall, was also skeptical about Obama’s call for greater deregulations.  As he put it, “We’re over-regulated as it is and right now, his regulators are in overdrive.”

Ohio’s freshman Sen. Rob Portman was most succinct, when he said: “It was a good speech, but the problem not the rhetoric but the action.  And the action he has taken so far has not increased jobs at all.”

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By Brian Bolduc

In a conference call with the press this morning, Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) and GOP chairman Reince Priebus praised their fellow Wisconsinite, Rep. Paul Ryan, for his response to the State of the Union last night.

Priebus called Ryan’s speech “right on” and pointed to yesterday’s vote in the House to let Ryan set non-defense discretionary spending to 2008 levels as a sign of the congressman’s trustworthiness. “Paul’s contrast to the president’s message is based more on reality than platitudes,” he said.

Although some conservative pundits have criticized Ryan’s message for lacking specifics, Johnson defended Ryan’s performance. “He’s actually had the courage to put forward a plan,” Johnson said, referring to the congressman’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which the senator called a “starting point” for impending budgetary discussions.

Johnson also voiced skepticism over the president’s proposal to freeze non-defense discretionary spending for five years. “The problem is at what level do you freeze spending?” he asked. “I’m afraid that spending freeze falls far short of what we need to do to get spending under control.”

Johnson did express support, however, for the president’s suggestion that Congress pair an elimination of tax loopholes with a cut in the corporate tax rate. “We absolutely do have to benchmark our tax rates against those of other countries,” Johnson affirmed.

The Republican National Committee organized the Wisconsin-focused call in response to news that President Obama is visiting the Badger State today. “My suspicion is Barack Obama’s math does not add up without Wisconsin being in his column,” Priebus mused. For his part, Priebus is heading to Florida today to meet with the host committee of the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa.

The rookie Johnson also had some advice for the president. “I would say concentrate on what we need to do to keep spending in control. That for any official is going to be the best path for success in 2012.

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By Molly K. Hooper

A freshman GOP Senator said on Saturday that President Obama needs to focus on the root cause of the nation’s economic woes, not the symptoms.

Self-proclaimed citizen legislator Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) argued that big government is behind the ballooning deficits, high unemployment rate and bloated debt.

“Huge deficits, slow economic activity, high unemployment, and woefully inadequate job creation are severe symptoms of the problem. They are not the root cause. The ever expanding size, scope, and cost of government is. This is what we must address. This is what I hope the president has come to realize,” Johnson said in the official GOP response to the president’s weekly address.

He continued, “I hope the president and his allies in Congress accept a simple truth: big government is blocking job creation, not helping it. The sooner Washington ends its dependence on more spending, the sooner our economy will see real growth.”

Johnson, who defeated longtime incumbent Badger State Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, said that he bring the perspective of “someone who’s been creating jobs, meeting a payroll, balancing a budget and living under the rules, regulations and taxes that politicians … impose on the rest of us.”

The former plastics manufacturing plant owner underscored that point, “unfortunately, when it comes to creating jobs, government is rarely helpful. Government tends to make it harder and more expensive to create jobs. We need to make job creation easier and cheaper.”

The president made a quick trip to Wisconsin earlier this week, following the Tuesday night State of the Union Address, which centered on the nation’s economic situation.

In the nationally televised speech, the president spoke of making “investments” in the economy.

Johnson indicated his concern, though, that Obama will not take the steps that Republicans feel are necessary to jump-start the economy such as “allowing taxpayers and businesses to keep more of their hard-earned dollars, and providing them the freedom to invest where they choose.”

“Unfortunately, I’m afraid he means more government spending and more government control. The lesson we all should have learned from the pitiful results of the $814 billion stimulus bill is that growing government does not grow our economy or create long-term, self-sustaining jobs. It is the private sector that creates jobs,” Johnson said.

The freshman senator noted that Congress and the president will tackle these issues head-on in the near future with the impending need to raise the national debt ceiling.

“The issues of spending, deficits, and the debt will be central in the upcoming debate over the 2011 spending bill and the need to raise the debt ceiling. This will be the moment of truth when talk and rhetoric must be turned into action and tangible results. Real reductions must be part of the solution,” Johnson said.

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By Craig Gilbert

Senate Republican Ron Johnson's new committee assignments are: appropriations; budget; homeland security and governmental affairs; and aging, it was announced Thursday.

In an interview in early January, Johnson had expressed interest in both appropriations and budget. He said Thursday that he had also requested the committee on homeland security and governmental affairs, which deals with national security issues as well as having broad oversight responsiblities.

"What I asked leadership and conveyed to them was my desire to learn as quickly as possible and on as broad a range of topics as possible. I'm pleased that I got the ones I was asking for," Johnson said.

Johnson is one of six GOP freshmen on approriations, a committee that historically was a sought-after assignment because it allowed members to direct spending to their home states. But Johnson, who got elected on a message of smaller government and less spending, said he was advised by his Senate mentor Tom Coburn of Oklahoma that appropriations was a good place to pursue an agenda of spending cuts.

"I think appropriations gives you a broad overview of what the government is spending money on and hopefully you have influence in controlling that," said Johnson in an interview, saying his agenda on the panel is to "not spend money."

On the aging committee, Johnson will serve under fellow Wisconsinite Herb Kohl, who chairs that committee.   

Kohl also serves on appropriations, meaning both Wisconsin senators will serve on both the appropriations and aging panels.

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By John McCormack

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, like Marco Rubio, comes away from his trip to Afghanistan with a stronger commitment to victory in that war. “We’ve sacrificed so many lives and so many dollars in this effort and it’s such an important effort in terms of our national security, we have to see this thing through. And I honestly believe if we see this thing through, I believe we can do it,” Johnson told reporters today.

He said he's "far more hopeful" about the situation in Afghanistan following the trip than he was before. “In all honesty I’ve just come away far more hopeful," said Johnson. "I think we’ve made more progress than people are aware of in the States.”

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By Elizabeth Brotherton and Alison McSherry

’Tis the season for Super Bowl bets.

Republican Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) are wagering on the upcoming Feb. 6 game between football teams from their home states.

In the event that the Pittsburgh Steelers win the title, Johnson will give Toomey an assortment of Wisconsin cheese, bratwurst and beer. But if the Green Bay Packers are victorious, Toomey will supply Johnson with a sandwich from the Pittsburgh-based shop Primanti Bros.

While the game is still almost two weeks away, the trash talk has already begun.

“I’m sure Sen. Johnson would enjoy some of Pittsburgh’s best sandwiches, which taste just as good as the upcoming Steelers’ victory,” Toomey said in a release.

Oh no he didn’t!

Johnson took the opportunity in his response to flex his political muscles and tease Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who he says lost a bet last Sunday when the Chicago Bears fell to the Packers in the National Football Conference championship.

“Being frugal and a fiscal conservative, my first thought was to simply re-gift the Chicago Style Pizza and Illinois beer that the Packers helped us win from Senator Kirk,” Johnson said in a release. “But that wouldn’t highlight the fine products made in Wisconsin.”

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By Larry Bivins

Sen.-elect Ron Johnson is a far cry from the country-bumpkin character played by actor Jimmy Stewart in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," though Johnson’s election to the Senate could be considered as stunning as the selection of Smith to replace a deceased senator was in the 1939 film classic.

Johnson is a polished, pin-stripe suited, well-spoken businessman, whereas Jefferson Smith was a naive, impressionable nature enthusiast who led a Boy Rangers club. Johnson is a millionaire. The fictional Smith was of modest means.
But what they have in common is the dearth of legislative and political experience brought to their new roles as members of the United States Senate.

On Wednesday, Johnson, 55, will embark on his maiden voyage in the upper chamber of Congress when he takes the oath of office in a swearing-in ceremony that will be attended by his wife, Jane; daughters, Carey and Jenna; son, Ben; and father, Dale Johnson, along with other family and close friends.

In a recent interview, the Oshkosh Republican reflected on the responsibility he took on when he decided to run for the Senate and the challenges before him now that voters have given him the job.

Johnson acknowledged that for at least the next six years, his life will be "totally different."

"My background for the past 31 years has been building the same business in Oshkosh," said Johnson, who has entrusted his plastics manufacturing company, Pacur LLC, to his younger brother, Barry.

"I’ve never been involved in any type of elective office. I’ve had an awful lot of community involvement, volunteering on boards, that sort of thing. But this will be something totally different, no doubt about it."

Getting accustomed to how the Senate works and how to be effective can be frustrating, even for seasoned legislators. For political neophytes like Johnson, it can be downright daunting, experts say. Just learning the significance of the vote bells requires more than a little patience. Then, there is that tricky maze of a tunnel underneath the Capitol, connecting it to Senate office buildings. But if he doesn’t want to walk, he can hop on the subway.

"What he can expect is a sudden and deep immersion in all kinds of things that are pretty much alien to him," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "That includes figuring out the rules of the Senate and figuring out the lingo."

Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report newsletter, said what Johnson is about to experience is nothing short of "culture shock."

"It’s going to be very interesting to watch him navigate this crazy place that is the Senate that is full of rules, some of which make no sense," Duffy said. "At the same time, I’m interested in seeing how much he brings his business background to bear - where does he find that line between what he campaigned on and what’s the best deal he can get."

Some of what Johnson must learn includes floor procedures and protocol, and what measures require a majority or two-thirds vote or 60 votes. And he will learn that he may not always have a chance to speak on the Senate floor when he has something to say.

"Some things about the bureaucracy, office budgets, franked mail are probably not going to make a whole lot of sense to an accountant," Duffy said, referring to Johnson’s education and business background. "He’s got a lot to learn. I know the whole (freshman) class is considered a bunch of outsiders, but he’s really the outsider here."

Johnson and the other Senate newcomers got a sample of what’s in store during a weeklong freshman orientation two weeks after the Nov. 2 election, in which Johnson toppled Democrat Russ Feingold, an 18-year incumbent. Johnson, who avoided media during the week, said it was a valuable experience.

"We got to meet an awful lot of senators," Johnson said. "They did a very good job of briefing us on things like ethics, the employment laws, the number of services available to senators in terms of making sure you’re following the ethics rules."

Johnson campaigned on a theme that was a mantra for many conservative candidates: Rein in government spending, fix the economy and repeal the health care law. Johnson pelted Feingold on his support for health care legislation and derided the Democratic incumbent as a career politician.

The senator-elect said he decided to enter the race to challenge Feingold after President Barack Obama signed health care reform into law. Johnson said he believes the law will not only ruin the nation’s health care system but also explode the deficit.

"So I stepped up to the plate to see what I could do in terms of contributing to bringing fiscal sanity to this government," Johnson said. "We are bankrupting this nation. We’ve got to reverse course."

During the campaign, Johnson said he was just what the Senate needed, someone with an accounting and manufacturing background.

"I think Washington needs the perspective of people who actually make things, manufacture products, who understand really what the incentives and disincentives are that are created by legislation, by rules and regulations, by the level of taxation," Johnson said. "I’ve been living with the consequences of what Congress has been doing for the last 31 years."

One soon-to-be colleague who appreciates the perspective Johnson can bring is Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has agreed to be Johnson’s Republican mentor. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee, will help Johnson along from a Democrat’s point of view.

"He brings no political experience, and that’s a positive," Coburn said. "He brings common sense and world experience from having run a successful business. He was willing to put his business on hold to come in and try to make these changes."

Coburn said he expects Johnson to be a quick study in the Senate.

"In six months," he said, "he’ll learn everything he needs to know."

Johnson has begun making good on his promise to push for fiscal control. During orientation week, he and several other incoming Republicans joined Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., in calling for a moratorium on earmarks, funding targeted for projects in lawmakers’ districts. Johnson also sided with DeMint in pushing for a delay in the consideration of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

DeMint, a tea party favorite who endorsed Johnson and a host of other conservative Republican candidates in the midterm elections, has a reputation as a flame thrower.

"Each issue will have its own pros and cons, and they’ll also have certain people with whom you form alliances," Johnson said regarding his support for DeMint’s initiatives. "I ran on the elimination of earmarks. You need to govern the way you ran as a candidate, and I totally intend to do that."

Critics, however, say Johnson already is starting to backtrack on some campaign rhetoric, arguing that while Johnson attacked Feingold for being on the side of special interests and lobbyists, he turned to homeland security lobbyist Donald Kent Jr. to run his Senate office.

Johnson said he sees no contradiction in the move and challenged the accuracy of a Washington Post story about Kent’s hiring.

"I don’t think I ever even mentioned the word ‘lobby’ during our campaign," Johnson said. "As someone who’s been in the private sector for my entire adult life, I need to hire somebody who understands and can help me navigate through Washington. I want people with very high integrity and also high intelligence, and I think I’ve certainly found that in Don."

Johnson’s association with DeMint indicates he will be the kind of conservative he said he would be during his campaign, said James Simmons, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. But Simmons said he expects Johnson to be a lot more low-key than DeMint.

Johnson is "fairly laid-back and soft-spoken," Simmons said. "Even though he’s conservative, he’s much like Herb Kohl in terms of his personal characteristics."

Simmons said he believes that Johnson is sincere when he says he doesn’t intend to be a career politician, that he wants to help get the nation’s fiscal house in order and then return to Oshkosh.

"On the other hand," Simmons noted, "Washington is addictive."

Political experts say that while Johnson’s goals are noble, he faces a political reality in Washington that has confounded others determined to change how things are done here. The question for Johnson, they say, is whether he can adapt to consensus-building as one of 100 senators after having had people react to the snap of his fingers as a private company chief executive.

"You can do well if you’re interested in making something happen and you’re good at developing interpersonal relationships and willing to work across the aisle," Ornstein said. "It helps if you have some sense of how to build consensus and build coalitions."

Johnson said that although he is a newcomer, he has not been in the dark about what goes on in Washington.

"I’ve been watching what’s happening here in Washington for a very long time, so I don’t come into this naive," Johnson said.

How long he stays in the Senate, Johnson said, will depend on how successful he is in accomplishing his goals. But he maintained that he considers himself a citizen-politician.

"I look at it this way: I signed up for a six-year stint," Johnson said. "If I’m effective, we’ll make that decision, I suppose, five years from now on whether I will go for re-election. The promise I made at the convention is I will never vote with my re-election in mind. My task right now is I’ve got to figure out the neighborhood. I’m the new kid on the block, and I’ve got to figure out this town and see how I can be effective."

Cook’s Duffy said that while Johnson may have been faulted for bringing on Kent, she believes he has his head on straight and ultimately will meet the challenge of not being consumed by the culture of Washington.

"Once he gets acclimated -- and every newcomer deserves the chance to do that -- I think he’s going to be a pretty good senator," Duffy said. "I think he knows what he doesn’t know."

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