Republican Spat Exposes Party’s Divisions
Fight between Sensenbrenner and Ron Johnson over Obamacare is fascinating, revealing.
“Never underestimate the GOP’s ability to lose focus on a shared enemy and start their own internecine war.” So says one local Republican, when asked about the dust-up between Wisconsin’s 5th District Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. Though the two Republicans both oppose Obamacare, they have turned a disagreement over tactics “into a pissing match that is so far into the weeds of political and procedural complexity,” the Republican observer complains, “that all 90 percent of the public knows is that they are fighting, not what they are fighting about.”
The controversy erupted after Johnson announced he was suing the Obama administration and its Office of Personnel Management for deciding the government could continue to make employer contributions to the health insurance plans of the 535 members of Congress and their staff. Johnson contends this violates the Affordable Care Act and gives lawmakers special treatment other Americans don’t enjoy.
Sensenbrenner has never been one to mince words, but he seemed to go out of his way to blast Johnson, calling this a “frivolous” lawsuit that had little chance of succeeding. If that’s true, you might have thought Sensenbrenner would let the issue go, but he instead accused Johnson of engaging in a “political stunt” and suggested the senator “should spend his time legislating rather than litigating.”
In response, Johnson was far more mild-mannered, saying “I have always respected Congressman Sensenbrenner, but I am disappointed and puzzled by his disagreement with me.”
As far as Johnson’s chances with this lawsuit, the conservative National Review published a column saying Johnson won’t succeed and Johnson’s lawyer Rick Esenberg wrote a rebuttal published in the same publication arguing the contrary.
One gets the sense that for the conservative intelligentsia at the National Review, Johnson doesn’t measure up intellectually. They might not agree with former Democratic consultant Bill Christofferson’s description of the senator as “RoJo the clown,” but they do share his scorn for Johnson as a political thinker.
Though Johnson slammed Republican Ted Cruz of Texas “for what he portrayed as Cruz’s flawed strategy of attempting to defund Obamacare,” Andrew McCarthy wrote in the National Review, “it soon became painfully apparent that Johnson had no strategy of his own to mount any meaningful opposition to the law. He had no answers, and barely a coherent thought, when grilled on the matter by (syndicated radio show host) Mark Levin. Now… Johnson has decided that filing a lawsuit is the way to go. . . . thereby demonstrating that he still has no serious strategy — other than to engage in the very sort of grandstanding the Republican establishment accused Cruz of.” Ouch.
But Johnson’s effort is supported by the Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity, which has helped fund Tea Party groups. The AFP website says it “applauds” Johnson’s efforts to end the “special treatment” of members of Congress.
Establishment Republicans have looked for ways to prevent Tea Party candidates from challenging incumbent Republican members of Congress from the right, and opposed Cruz’s futile attempt to shut down the government in opposition to Obamacare. Johnson allied himself with the GOP establishment in opposing Cruz but seems to be operating on his own with this lawsuit. Back in 2012, a story in Roll Call suggested Johnson’s relationship with other senators was a bit strained.
The fact is, Republican members of Congress greatly benefit from the federal subsidy of their healthcare. So do their staff members, who are often very well-paid and very close to their bosses with the families of each sometimes becoming friends. This is one kind of governmental spending that Republicans like.
Sensenbrenner’s statement condemning the lawsuit suggested it could cause a loss of good staff on Capitol Hill: “Success in the suit will mean that Congress will lose some of its best staff and will be staffed primarily by recent college graduates who are still on their parents’ insurance.”
As Jack Craver of the Cap Times has suggested, this defense of good benefits for public employees seemed “strangely similar” to the arguments of those fighting the elimination of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.
Stranger still was Sensenbrenner’s on-air argument with Sykes. It’s rare indeed for any conservative Republicans to argue with Sykes, who operates as their cheerleader. Another Republican I interviewed described this as a “jump the shark” moment for a congressman who is a classic example of the comfortable Washington insider known for his travel junkets.
Sensenbrenner is reportedly not close to Grebe, head of the Bradley Foundation, which has funded an endless list of conservative, Republican-leaning organizations. The foundation also funds the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which in turn bankrolls a publication edited by Sykes. And the Bradley Foundation funds the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, run by Esenberg, which does legal work on conservative causes. Sykes and Esenberg are clearly leading the cheers for Johnson’s lawsuit.
Johnson may have antagonized some GOP colleagues with his lawsuit, but he has helped himself politically. At a time when just 13 percent of Americans approve of Congress, you could hardly pick a more popular issue than a suit attempting to take away a congressional benefit which is not available to most Americans. As for Sensenbrenner, the long-invulnerable, one Republican predicts that his stance on this issue might embolden someone in the party to challenge the congressman — from the right, of course — in the GOP primary.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s oft-stated rationale for opposing Obamacare has taken a big hit. Johnson repeatedly told the tale of surgeon John Foker, who saved Johnson’s new-born daughter with a heart procedure he had devised. “Johnson has said repeatedly that he believes that if Obamacare had been around at the time, John Foker would have never been around to save his daughter, because Obamacare would have scared Foker and the rest of our best and brightest into other fields of work,” notes liberal blogger Jud Lounsbury.
But it turns out that Foker supports Obamacare and is “a professor at a public university, the University of Minnesota’s medical school, got most of his training at the U of M, and performed the surgery on Johnson’s daughter at the U of M’s Medical Center,” Lounsbury writes. And the procedure he used on Johnson’s daughter was originally developed “in the socialized medicine countries of Brazil and France.”
“In other words,” Lounsbury concludes, “Foker was trained by the government, was a government doctor when he did a government-developed procedure in a government hospital, and now says he likes Obamacare.”
I sent a copy of Lonsbury’s column to Sen. Johnson’s office and asked for any response he might have to the particulars of Lounsbury’s column. His press secretary Melinda Whitemarsh Schnell sent this brief statement from the senator: “I have nothing but wonderful feelings about Dr. Foker. I love the man. He saved my daughter’s life. I’m trying to save a health care system.”
The Journal Sentinel ran a brief mention of this at the bottom of a story about Johnson’s speech defending his lawsuit without quoting Lounsbury’s conclusion. I’d argue the information needs to be shared with readers.