Friday, July 1, 2011

Ron Johnson's Radical Policy Shift that's Hijacking the U.S. Senate

[So this post is pretty much a stream of consciousness reaction to the op-ed Sen. Johnson published today. Skip down to the graph below if you want to get right down to the good stuff on Johnson's ridiculous new budget policy. It's so absurd that even Johnson himself was talking trash about it just two weeks ago. No time for editing, 'cuz there's drinking to be done this weekend.]

The BizTimes has an op-ed submitted by Ron Johnson that tries to explain the temper tantrum he threw on the Senate floor earlier this week. Turns out that was just the beginning of a week-long celebration of the filibuster:
Earlier, Johnson objected to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's call to take up a resolution authored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would allow the U.S. to continue its military support of the NATO-led effort against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

He also thwarted the Senate Finance Committee's attempt to meet Thursday on trade agreements. And on Tuesday, he blocked a request for unanimous consent to let senators speak without a quorum call.

In a floor statement, Johnson said the debt is "the single most important issue facing this nation" and the economy "is in a coma" because lawmakers have failed to tackle the issue.
So, clearly this is all part of so kind of roll-out to brand Johnson in the same vein as a Jim DeMint-style obstructionist (and has nothing to do with Johnson's recent financial disclosure issues -- wink, wink).

But back to the op-ed. So far as I can tell, this is the first opinion piece Johnson's released since hiring former Journal-Sentinel book reportist Paddy Mac, so one would guess the results would be a marked improvement over earlier efforts. Alas, no.

The style is informal, even conversational -- an odd tone to use in what is a regional trade magazine. It doesn't fit the audience and looks like it was originally written for publication in the State Journal or Journal-Sentinel, but was refused by the editors, likely because of line like this:
The President's budget - the one he presented several months ago to great fanfare, remember that?
Yeah, dude, remember that!?! Maybe I was wrong: this could very well be the speech Johnson planned on giving to his 40th high school reunion.
It was 4 ¼ inches thick, 2,400 pages long. Who knows how many thousands of man hours that document took to produce? It was going to be the solution to our fiscal problems.
Yes, bills are long, feature many numbers and difficult legal language. This is the job you signed up for.
But it was so unserious, it would have added over $12 trillion to our nation’s debt.
$12 trillion? Really? The total budget deficit is about $14.3 trillion -- and somehow an annual budget that includes $3.7 trillion in spending is going to nearly double the deficit? In fact, the figure Johnson cites is additional debt over the course of the next decade (though it certainly sounds like all that debt is gonna us all at once) and the $12 trillion figure is actually debatable. The CBO puts the figure at just under $10 trillion. Ezra Klein puts the number closer to $7 trillion (though I think this was before the CBO revised their initial estimates), which is a lot close to the additional $6 trillion dollars in debt Rep. Paul Ryan's plan would accumulate during the same time period. Of course, Johnson supported Ryan's plan, so what's a few trillion dollars among friends?

But no one wants to hear bad sales figures! The point of this communique isn't Budget Deficit = Bad, it's Washington = Broken, which becomes apparent right around these graphs:
Instead of rolling up his shirt sleeves and personally tackling the number one problem facing this nation right from the beginning, President Obama delegated his role in sporadic negotiations to Vice President Biden.

Now that those talks have broken down, the President is finally getting personally involved in this process. But what kind of process is this – a few people, talking behind closed doors, far from the view of the American public? Is that the process that is going to decide the fate of America’s financial situation, of our financial future? Is this how our government is supposed to work?

I don’t think so. Of course not.
And this is coming from the guy who's threatening to shut down senate business without making clear what it is he's demanding. This article would seem like a pretty good place to outline those demands, wouldn't it? But it's apparently too much to ask Johnson to suggest televised meetings, releasing minutes or even letting a pool reporter sit in on negotiations. A hallmark of Johnson's missives to the masses has been an utter lack of solutions to the problems that concern him. This piece is no exception.

In fact, the vagueness of Johnson's complaints suggest that he's not so upset about the openness or seriousness of the budget talks so much as he is by his exclusion from them. If that's the case, then Johnson will surely be the first freshman senator ever to have his genius stifled by the archaic rules of a body that operates on seniority. Might as well take the ball and go home, because who needs solutions when there's folksy wisdom to dispense!
As a manufacturer, I know if the process is bad, the product will be bad. Business as usual here in Washington is a bad process.

Business as usual is bankrupting America. It must stop.
I may be projecting here -- OK, I am completely projecting here -- but Johnson's retreat to his bona fides as a manufacturer are starting to get so repetitive that they remind me of the classic "Tom Foley, Motivational Speaker" SNL skit, only instead of "living in a van down by the river" we get a "manufacturer from Wisconsin" as the appeal to authority intended to end the argument. Actually, the influence of early '90s sketch comedy is pretty apparent in this whole section of the op-ed, because Johnson really turns up the folksy with his Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer impersonation:
America is simply too precious* to subject our financial future to Washington’s “business as usual.” Now I'm pretty new here, and I don't pretend to understand everything that makes the Senate work (or maybe more accurately, doesn’t allow the Senate to work). But I do know the Senate runs on something called unanimous consent.
Now, if you're thinking that the only thing missing from this mise en scene is the image of Joe and Mrs. Tax-payer sitting around the kitchen table, eating some apple pie and balancing their checkbooks, you're in luck!
So 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. I will begin to withhold my consent.
The Senate needs to pass a budget. It shouldn't be that difficult. Families do it every day. A husband earns $40,000. A wife earns $40,000. Their total family income is $80,000. That's their budget. That's what they can afford to spend. American families figure out how to live within their means.
Wank, wank wank...
The federal government should be no different. A budget is a number. We should first pick one number, and then a set of numbers, that won't let America go bankrupt.

So let me start the process by throwing out a number: $2.6 trillion. This is $800 billion more than we spent just 10 years ago. That is the amount that President Obama, in his budget, says the federal government will receive in revenue next year. If we only spent that amount of money, we would be living within our means.

What a concept, huh?
There's really nothing like punctuating a poorly explained thought with a condescending huh? to make the reader feel like he must be retarded for not understanding what was inadequately detailed in the first place, huh?

We've touched on this proposal before, albeit briefly. Johnson made this recommendation on the august bandwidth of the Daily Caller a couple of weeks ago. It's about as unserious a policy suggestion as he mocked the Obama budget for being at the very beginning of the op-ed. I mean radically unserious. Even Johnson himself couldn't help but marvel at the length, girth and impressive number of hours devoted to the creation of Obama's budget. What does Johnson offer as a rebuttal? An incomprehensible chart:

Johnson's budget calls for reducing the total amount of spending by the federal government by close to 30%. OK, so what gets cut? Are we looking at a 30% across-the-board reductions (even in Medicare)? Are we just going to eliminate certain programs, cabinet departments and the like? If so, which ones? And how much money is the state of Wisconsin going to lose with this plan? We're already a donor state, sending close to $7 billion worth of federal tax dollars to other states every year -- how much more is it going to cost the very people Johnson represents? None of this is explained in Johnson's graph.

And none of it has to be because Johnson has come up with a brilliant solution to his problem of determining what stays and what goes: divert the burden of proof:
If we want to spend more than $2.6 trillion, Members of Congress and members of this Administration should go before Congressional committees and openly justify what they want to spend, how much they want to borrow, and how much debt they are willing to pile on the backs of our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren.
This sounds a lot like a kind of earmark reform in the shape of a hybrid C-SPAN/reality show -- call it "Groveling for Dollars!" or whatever. This should scare the living hell out anyone interested in seeing the United States Senate, you know, work. Johnson seems to be equating cutting the deficit with ending earmarks when the dilemma is entitlements, which his nifty little chart doesn't seem to cut at all. The big green block representing Social Security isn't any smaller in his "Debt Ceiling Budget" than it is in any of the others; and what was once four separate orange, yellow, blue and purple blocks, each representing four different spending areas, is now one giant red block essentially signifying "everything else." Even if we eliminate all of the discretionary spending to the tune of $500 billion, there's still another $400 billion Johnson needs to cut from somewhere.

At least I think that's what the chart is saying. Again, it really must be one of the least helpful visual aides I've ever encountered.

But before we get too thick in the weeds of budget numbers here, let's take a step back and look at the big picture here because something very interesting has happened in the twelve days between Johnson's article in the Daily Caller and his piece in the BizTimes -- and if you blink you might miss it.

Here's the key graph from the DC. Emphasis added:
President Obama’s FY2012 Budget estimates the federal government will receive $2.6 trillion in revenue next year. This is $800 billion MORE than the $1.8 trillion President Clinton spent in his FY2001 Budget. $2.6 trillion would easily cover all interest on the debt ($256 billion), 100% of Social Security ($760 billion), and still leave almost $1.6 trillion (only $200 billion less that Clinton’s ENTIRE FY2001 budget) to be allocated among essential defense, security, health, and safety spending. It would not be pleasant operating under a “Debt Ceiling Budget,” and no one is recommending it, but it would not have to be a crisis if we develop a “Plan B” (See chart).
Johnson doesn't really have much to say about what his "Plan B" is. This seems like a pretty significant omission, but one we'll have to save for another day because Ron Johnson is now advocating a policy that just two weeks ago he said "no one is recommending" and "would not be pleasant operating under."

This is a radical shift in policy. Johnson is basically planting his flag on a hill he dismissed as unrealistic just days earlier. If this is what he's demanding, then that's some pretty big news, both in terms of the absurdity of the demand and the infantile nature of his presentation. Rather than doing the hard work of meeting with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, winning allies, building a consensus and adjusting desires on the basis of realities, Johnson is just throwing a fit.

So there's a lot of irony in Johnson's office these days. He calls the President's budget unserious, then offers his own proposal in the form of a sketch made by an intern on the back of a cocktail napkin. He says the opposition party isn't willing to "roll up it's sleeves," but seems to think that grinding the work of the Senate to a halt by refusing to offer consent is putting in a good day at the office. Give me chastity! Give me constancy! ... But not yet.

The question that arises from all of this is: what changed?

There are two obvious answers to this question. The first is that Johnson has a new ghostwriter who's fingerprints are all over this piece. Compared to earlier op-eds, this one actually has a logical structure that flows from point to point, uses subtle imagery without merely recite numbers roboticly. The paragraphs are compact and frequently single sentences, the calling card of a recovering journalist. The condescension is vaguely familiar even in it's subdued form. Welcome aboard the U.S.S. Ron Johnson, Paddy Mac!

The second are the recent financial disclosure issues Johnson's been negotiating. There's a tendency to attribute a Wag the Dog-esque conspiracy to such circumstances -- that Johnson's recent theatrics are merely a diversion to distract the public from ethics concerns -- but I don't really buy this theory so much.

I'm more inclined to believe Johnson's recent rhetoric is a symptom of impatience. The Senate runs on a slow burn, which requires a lot of patience and a genuine love for deliberation. Johnson was definitely not known for either of these traits when he served on the local PIE Council, where he (allegedly) appeared uninterested in opinions that did not jive with his own and frequently solved impasses by cutting checks, thus leading to Charles Murray's memorable visit to Oshkosh.

Time is such a funny commodity in politics largely because there's never enough of it, except when you're in the U.S. Senate when there's frequently too much. If you read the histories of the great Senators -- from Calhoun and Clay up to LBJ and Ted Kennedy -- they all seemed to be experts at killing time in a constructive fashion, usually by building relationships with colleagues, while letting the senate move at it's own pace. It's part of what's referred to as "respecting the institution of the Senate."

I can only imagine the collective "What the fuck?" that dropped from the elder statemens' mouths when they heard the news that a freshman would not be offering his consent.

Johnson is staking his political fortunes on his ability to cut the deficit, or to at least have a hand in doing so, but the tactics he's using to get his way are so radical that the risk in using them vastly outweighs the reward. His "Debt Ceiling Budget" is a fantasy and his petulant posturing is embarrassing. It's entirely possibly that 18 months from now, he'll find himself in the majority party and in a position to move things along on a more agreeable time table. Now should be the time to build the relationships that can hep push through an agenda during the next Congress.

Acting like a diva on the Senate floor isn't going to do that.

* Again with the use of the word "precious" to describe American abstractions -- am I the only one who finds this choice of words really weird?

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