Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is blunt when it comes to President Obama’s recent Cabinet nominees. “It is just in your face. He is going to dig his heels in even further. It is not a good sign,” he told me in telephone interview this morning. On Chuck Hagel he says, “I think it will be a tough confirmation fight.” He contends that Hagel, Jack Lew and other nominees demonstrate that “the president is selecting people he ideologically identifies with and not designed to work cooperatively with Congress.”
To give him his due, Johnson figured that out long before Obama’s second term. “I’ve never felt President Obama negotiated in good faith. He got his health-care law he wanted. He is going to dig his heels and protect his gains.” When it comes to entitlement reform and fiscal restraint more generally, Johnson says, “He has zero credibility. On the fiscal cliff, he got on the tax side the increases he wanted.” Johnson says that “as soon as he gets it, the next thing he says is we need more taxes,” and, even worse, that he “won’t negotiate about the debt ceiling.” As to the latter he says, “It’s delusional. He has to go to Congress.”
Johnson also says that anti-gun legislation is not going to get jammed through. “People say they want a middle ground. We are at the middle ground. We have plenty of gun laws,” But, he concedes, “at least they are looking at a wider range of causes [for mass killings]. But if they are going to rush something through in 30 days, I don’t see it happening.”
Johnson, not surprisingly, given his business background, has long advocated a unified strategic plan for the GOP to prioritize goals, figure out how to communicate with the public and get what it can with a Democratic president and Democratic majority in the Senate, something Republicans sorely need. He is a staunch fiscal conservative who ran in the heyday and with the support of the tea party movement. But he is also a savvy realist. “First of all, we need to set expectations. President Obama is president. Harry Reid is Senate majority leader.” With Democratic resistance to any meaningful spending restraint, he says, Republicans “can’t lead Americans to believe we can solve this situation. We can make sure they understand President Obama has no intention and no plans to reduce the debt.”
Johnson is right. After hyping big standoffs with the president, Republicans have inevitably retreated, only to annoy their base and embolden the president. Johnson says it is crucial to make clear what the GOP is up against. “We simply do not have a good-faith negotiating partner.”
Part of the problem comes from irregular budget processes and secret negotiations that inevitably fail and make the GOP look bad. “I’ve been on the budget committee for two years,” he says. “Do you know the number of times we have voted on a budget, had mark-ups? Zero.” He looks at the debt ceiling, the sequestration and the end of the continuing resolution in tandem. “I don’t want to play brinksmanship. The House should pass legislation so when we start this time to say we can hold the line, we can hold the line.” He says Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) had the right idea in favoring legislation that would prioritize spending in the event we hit the debt ceiling. He says it should be renamed something like the “We do not default on the debt” act. If a procedure is set up to guarantee that bond holders and Social Security recipients can get paid, Johnson thinks the GOP will have a much better argument on debt reduction. He favors the “Boehner rule,” $1 of cuts for every $1 the debt is increased.
Johnson argues there is no shortage of savings available. He cites a 2011 Congressional Budget Office study updated in 2012 that laid out potential cuts. That report made clear:
Without significant changes in the laws governing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, those factors will boost federal outlays as a percentage of GDP well above the average of the past several decades — a conclusion that applies under any plausible assumptions about future trends in demographics, economic conditions and health-care costs. Unless the laws governing those programs are changed — or the increased spending is accompanied by sufficiently lower spending on other programs, sufficiently higher revenue, or a combination of the two — deficits will be much larger.
Johnson combed the report and found trillions in potential cuts in mandatory and discretionary spending. He wouldn’t support all of them, but the notion that we have cut government in any meaningful way can fairly only be said about the federal government’s first priority, national defense. Johnson is candid about the public’s willingness to embrace spending cuts. “Americans on a macro-level agree with us, but then if you ask what should we cut, the answer is virtually nothing.” He stresses that the keys to any progress are communication with the public and political pressure on lawmakers and the president.
Johnson’s advice should be heeded. Set expectations. Develop a communications plan. Take away the default threat while making clear which spending disciple the GOP favors and what the president favors (virtually nothing on the domestic side). In the end, however, people get the government they deserve. Unfortunately, it is one in which two major actors, the Senate and White House, won’t act responsibly on spending.