JACOBSBURG, Ohio — Why talk to just one congressman when you can talk to two?
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) had some help on the campaign trail Thursday when House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) joined him in this southeastern Ohio town to campaign for the freshman and for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
The two held a “Coal Country Stands With Mitt” event at the Smith Township Community Center and met with about 20 voters, who peppered the pair with questions about the Obama administration’s energy policy (more on that later).
After the event, 2chambers spoke with Johnson and Upton about partisan gridlock, the looming “fiscal cliff” and fight to replace automatic budget cuts in January and whether Romney can win the Buckeye State.
The conversation — arguably the most spirited and substantive of the trip thus far — appears below and was edited for clarity and length:
2chambers: Congressman Johnson, six years ago today two of my colleagues came to this district and wrote that Charlie Wilson was about to win his first race for Congress. He’s now the former congressman trying to get elected again. How have things shifted so dramatically here in the last six years?
Johnson: Well I think jobs and economy is a big issue. And the people in this district are a lot smarter than Congressman Wilson gives them credit for. They don’t want San Francisco values and politics here. Before I ever got involved on the political scene, he already had a reputation of voting strongly with Nancy Pelosi.
He wants to tout his 105 votes in opposition that took him four years to accumulate. With 3,422 “yes” votes, that’s a 98 percent voting record [with Democrats]. And that’s not what the people in this district want to see. They’re really, really upset with Congressman Wilson for voting for the health-care law. They told him not to do it, but to use his quote, “It’s a way of directing the American people to accept something that’s good for them.” As if Washington knows what’s good for them.
2chambers: So how did Republicans flip this race two years ago?
Johnson: “I’m not going to pat myself on the back, but I can tell you that it was a lot of hard work. I was born and raised on a two-wheel wagon rut mule farm. I followed my granddad behind the mule until I was 13 years old. I was not daunted by the vast expanse of this district. I’m up at 4 a.m. most days, on the road way before sun up. I get home way after bed time. That was a way of life for me on the farm, that was a way of life for me in the military and the country is too important not to fight.
It took a lot of work, I’ve got a great team, but the people of this district deserve representation and they didn’t feel that they had that before.
2chambers: You’re both members of the least popular, least productive Congress in modern history. I’m curious what you say when you’re asked about it by voters.
Upton: But I would counter that by saying that we did most of the appropriations bills, and the Senate did zero. We passed a budget, they didn’t take it up.
Johnson: Two of them.
Upton: Going back to the years I worked for President Reagan, that drives the whole legislative process. It dictates what the roadmap is going to be for the appropriations process. Speaker Boehner had an open process on pretty much every bill. If you had a germane amendment, you could offer it. We’ve had more than 600 votes this year, but then it goes over to the Senate and not much is there.
2chambers: On the flip side th e Senate would tell you that they’ve sent bills to the House that were ignored.
Upton: What’s more important than an appropriations bill?
2chambers: A farm bill?
Upton: Farm bill – we’re going to do that, and we should. But they didn’t get it done until late June. Not a lot of time left in the legislative process. But that needs to be done. And I think that it will happen when we come back.
Johnson: One of the problems that you have with the Farm Bill that people are so concerned about is that from the last time that the Farm Bill was enacted in 2008, you’ve seen a 90 percent increase in that 80 percent part of the bill that has nothing to do with farming. And when you’re approaching the fiscal cliff like we are, it makes it difficult.
It’s not that we don’t want to do a Farm Bill – I’ve opposed my leadership, because as a farm boy myself, I think our famers need a Farm Bill.
I was asked that same question about there years ago, by a Washington, D.C. reporter, who said, Republicans blame the Democrats, Democrats blame the Republicans. I said, I gotta tell you that I take offense to that issue, especially as hard as the Republican-led House has worked the budgets that we’ve passed, the more than 40 jobs bills that we’ve passed that sit languishing in the Senate.
The way our system works, it takes the House putting up a bill, the Senate putting up a bill, getting it together in conference. You can’t negotiate when there’s only one person at the table.
Upton: We’ve passed some really big bills and there’s not a peep out of the White House, because they want to run on a “dysfunctional Congress.”
I’ll give you an example: We worked for a year on prescription drug user fees. It passed 387 to 5. It passed by a similar margin in the Senate. It impacts millions of jobs, we had all the stakeholders involved.
You’d think this is something that the administration would like, maybe worthy of a Rose Garden ceremony. Not even a photo comes out when he signs the bill in July.
We’ve done a number of things, but there’s been a concerted effort to not promote some of the things that have moved on a bipartisan basis.
2chambers: What is the one thing you wouldn’t support in a redo of the sequestration budget plan? Is there one thing that’s absolutely unacceptable to you as part of a new deal?
Johnson: That’s an interesting question.
Upton: We need an agreement that resolves the issue, which means that everything is going to be on the table.
Upton: Yup, I mean, the November election will determine what that “everything” is.
My sense is that we’re not going to get to the cliff and fall off. We’re going to get close to the cliff, but at the end of the day we’re going to have something that prevents us from going over, and the November election is going to decide what it is.
I was on the supercommittee, and I’m reading the [Bob] Woodward book -- but I’m not in it, because I didn’t talk to him – we came close to an agreement, I felt, that would have forced real tax-reform. The [Pat] Toomey plan was out there that was going to lock in the rates but jettison a lot of the deductions, particularly in the top two brackets, raising revenue in return for entitlement reform for non-seniors, and real firewalls on spending. And we came so close to getting it done. I would sense that at the end of the day, we’ll end up with something along that line that will prevent sequestration from happening.
Johnson: You have to look back at the budgets that we did pass. It began the process of tax reform. We began the process of closing some of those loopholes. There’s a way to increase revenue without just arbitrarily saying take more from job creators. You get people jobs, you put more people to work that pay into the system. That’s how you increase revenues. I agree with Fred, I don’t get a sense that there’s anyone that I’ve talked to that wants to see the sequestration go forward as it is. It’d be devastating to the Department of Defense, the hundreds of thousands of jobs it would cost. But the degradation of our defense structure would be worse.
2chambers: Do you need Mitt Romney to do well in this part of the state in order to win?
Johnson: Gov. Romney certainly helps my race, but I think conversely that I help his race as well, because the people of this district, I’m very in-tune with. And we’ve been out in this district a lot. We’ve got a reputation of working hard, the people know that. So I think that they see the battles that I’ve fought for the coal industry, for the oil and natural gas industry, opposing the health-care law that’s crippling business.
There’s no doubt that the better Romney does across the state the better everyone does down the ticket.
Upton: Bill, do you expect to run ahead of Romney here?
2chambers: Thank you for asking my question.
Johnson: That’s hard to say. I won in 2010 by almost six points and nobody expected that to happen.
2chambers: What do you make of the three or four polls since the weekend showing that the president is pulling ahead in Ohio?
Johnson: I think you have to consider the source of the polls and the media bias being applied to the polls. You have to be careful – we saw the same thing happen in 1980, Fred alluded to it earlier with Ronald Reagan. I went to bed the night of Ronald Reagan’s election convinced that there was no way he could win and woke up pleasantly surprised that it was a landslide victory.
2chambers: Then what does Romney need to do to ensure that he wins Ohio?
Johnson: Get that message out there that it’s about jobs. In my district, 14 of my 18 counties are in the top one-third of Ohio’s most unemployed counties. We have 88 counties – the highest 27 counties, 14 of those are mine. Over half of them. So it’s about jobs and the economy here.
Upton: It’s the same as my district in Michigan, jobs and the economy, it has been forever.
2chambers: But didn’t Romney spend the entire summer discussing job creation and the economy and he’s still trailing?
Johnson: Well, again, consider the source of the polls and who they’re polling.