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Ron Johnson gets off to a slow start in D.C. while dodging the press
Our man in Washington

Johnson reads to children in Madison last week.
Johnson reads to children in Madison last week.
Credit:Phil Ejercito
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In late June, with a crisis looming over the country's debt ceiling, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) took a stand on the Senate floor.

On June 28, he threatened to bring the Senate to a screeching halt if the body didn't make progress on a budget plan.

Johnson said he would withhold his consent on issues before the Senate. That would drag out proceedings indefinitely and require a two-thirds majority to overcome his objection in order to do anything.

"Unless we receive some assurance from the Democrat leadership that we will actually start addressing our budget out in the open, in the bright light of day, I will begin to object," Johnson said on the Senate floor. "I will begin to withhold my consent."

It was the first time the freshman senator had attracted notice on the Senate floor, and he spoke with tea party righteous indignation. He quickly backed down from his threat, but he grabbed, at least for a moment, the national spotlight. He eventually voted against the agreement that raised the debt ceiling.

Johnson, who won a stinging upset over Democrat Russ Feingold last November, has been mostly silent since taking office. He has proposed just one bill and has had seemingly little impact on the nation's governance.

"He's not an active legislator in terms of writing legislation, forming coalitions and addressing his colleagues on the floor," says Barry Burden, political science professor at UW-Madison.

Nancy Mistele, a tea party activist, isn't disappointed by the slow start. She says Johnson has done a great job of articulating business owners' concerns. "I see somebody who is really doing his best to take on Washington."

The 56-year-old Johnson was virtually unheard of in political circles before last year, when he ran against Feingold, the popular progressive Democrat.

Johnson became a millionaire with his plastics manufacturing company, Pacur, based in Oshkosh, where he lives. Running as a no-nonsense businessman, Johnson was embraced by tea party activists. His platform contained two major goals: repealing President Obama's health care reform and eliminating the deficit through spending cuts.

The campaign was supposedly self-financed. Johnson spent nearly $9 million of his own money unseating Feingold. But he raised eyebrows this June, when he paid himself $10 million in "deferred payment" from Pacur. Some accused him of scheming to get around campaign finance laws in doing so.

Of the 12 freshmen senators elected in 2010 (11 of whom are Republicans), Johnson has introduced the fewest bills. Rand Paul of Kentucky has introduced the most, at 20.

Wisconsin's other senator, four-term Democrat Herb Kohl, introduced 26 bills this session. Johnson has co-sponsored 54 bills introduced by colleagues, though none have become law.

Says David Canon, political science professor at UW-Madison: "[Johnson] clearly is not pushing much of a legislative agenda."

The slow start is reminiscent of the Senate of old, Canon says, when freshmen senators served a period of apprenticeship.

"You were supposed to be seen and not heard for a while," he says. "Some of the older guard in the Senate appreciate that." Today, senators typically are active from the get-go.

Johnson has largely toed the party line, voting with the GOP 92% of the time. In contrast, Feingold voted with his party 78% of the time; Kohl, 88% of the time.

Burden says that Johnson is aligning himself in the Senate with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina). "DeMint's become kind of a godfather for tea party candidates and now presidential candidates," Burden says.

The bill Johnson introduced would forbid U.S. agencies from implementing any new regulations until the unemployment rates drops to 7.7%.

In a press release announcing the legislation, Johnson's office wrote: "According to the White House, we're now into the third year of the Obama 'recovery.' But job growth is anemic, and companies are still laying off workers. You would think that Washington would be focused on job creation. Instead, the White House is intent on adding new layers of job-killing regulation."

Andrew Reschovsky, an economist at the UW-Madison's Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, says that idea "comes out of left field."

"I'm stunned," he says. Reschovsky says the measure is bizarre given that the recession followed a financial meltdown that happened largely because of a lack of market regulation. "It shouldn't take a lot to convince people that an untethered financial system can be a disaster."

He says the bill is also disconnected from basic economics. While some regulations might make the cost of business more expensive, they don't affect whether there is a demand for a product or service.

"There have clearly been some silly regulations that make it harder to start a new business," Reschovsky adds. "But most of the regulations that might affect you and I starting up a business in Madison have to do with Madison and are not federal regulations anyway."

Reschovsky gives low marks to another idea that Johnson supports: a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

"The federal government plays a unique role in our economy that economists refer to as stabilization, trying to prevent, not always successfully, big swings in our economy," he says. "A balanced-budget amendment that says year after year you can't run deficits would really tie the hands of the government and be painful for everyone."

Johnson's office declined repeated requests from Isthmus to speak with the senator about his goals and impressions of Washington, a city he'd never been to before being elected.

The refusal to speak to the press doesn't surprise Burden.

"He ran a campaign that was pretty controlled. It became really restrained," Burden says. "There weren't a lot of freewheeling conversations where he was able to make mistakes. The strategy was to develop two or three talking points and stick to those."

Johnson's efforts to avoid the press continued during his visit last week to Madison. Not only did the senator's office not announce his visit, but staff members at each of his three offices (in D.C., Milwaukee and Oshkosh) wouldn't or couldn't say where he was going to be on the trip.

It turns out he made three official stops. One was an appearance on Vicki McKenna's conservative radio talk show. Another was a fundraiser with the Young Republicans of Dane County at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Donations were $50 and up, and the event was closed to the media.

Isthmus caught up with Johnson at Access Community Health Center on Park Street, where the senator read to about a dozen children to highlight the Reach Out and Read program. Cornered by two reporters after the event, Johnson reluctantly answered a few questions outside the clinic.

He defended his call for a moratorium on regulations, saying, "I'm not anti-government. We need regulations. But it gets to a point where it starts to strangle the economy."

Recently, Johnson has started getting attention for things he's opposed. Aside from threatening to grind the Senate to a halt, he has also blocked the judicial nomination of Victoria Nourse, a UW-Madison law professor, to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

A group of legal scholars from around the country wrote a letter protesting Johnson's maneuver, calling it "an unbreakable one-person filibuster."

Nourse's nomination came six months before Johnson was elected - and that's why he says he's opposed it. Johnson says Feingold and Kohl should have pushed through the nomination when they had the chance.

"I had no voice in that nominating petition," he said outside Access Community Health Center. "The voters that supported me deserve a voice in this process."

Canon says Johnson is playing risky politics. "Anytime you're choosing an obstructionist route like this, you do run the risk of alienating your colleagues," he says. Still, it's one way to assert yourself in the Senate: "There are some senators who made a career by objecting to everything. You do get a fair amount of power that way, because so much operates on unanimous consent."

Mistele says that, for now, Johnson is a lonely presence in Washington. But a critical mass of tea party faithful could change all that.

"I'm very hopeful that come the 2012 election, Ron's going to find a whole lot more friends in Washington."

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