Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

About That Deficit, Sen. Johnson

Debt was Ron Johnson’s obsession -- until he helped Trump create the biggest deficit in 75 years.

By - May 8th, 2018 01:21 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Senator Ron Johnson

Senator Ron Johnson

Ron Johnson was a self-proclaimed “citizen legislator” who decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. He was Mr. Smith going to Washington, the political neophyte who would bring purity to politics. “There are people like me,” he told conservative talk radio host Vicki McKenna, “that got elected in 2010 that actually have a backbone. And we’re just trying to do as much as we possibly can to inject that spine into the rest of Washington to make a stand.”

And the stand that needed to be taken was on the federal deficit. His “first task is to save our nation from bankruptcy,” he soberly explained. America’s freedom is being threatened by “unsustainable levels of spending and debt.”  

“What you’re going to hear me ask, in hearing after hearing, is what’s a debt crisis going to look like for an average individual?” Johnson told the Journal Sentinel. “I’m not trying to scare people. I wish we weren’t in this situation.” He warned of possible Greece-like riots in America over the deficit. “That’s what’s ahead of us!” 

He was a businessman who would bring fiscal discipline to Washington. The sad truth was that most people in government are well-intentioned but just not good with numbers, he noted in a speech to the Aspen Institute. “Washington D.C. doesn’t have an ideology problem; it has a math problem,” was his message to the Superior Telegram not long after he was first elected. “We’re bankrupting America,” he told the Green Bay Press Gazette. “The United States Senate hasn’t done anything to address that fact” and the economy “is in a coma” because of this.

Johnson became Washington’s premier deficit scold, with endless charts on America’s debt and a Power-Point presentation he foisted on members of both parties. His predecessor, Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, had been famous for his listening sessions in every county. Johnson turned those into lectures on the deficit. 

“Both privately and publicly, the senator talked about only Obamacare and the debt and deficit—issues that, while important to Republicans, represented only a few of the issues that confront a senator daily,” a 2015 story in the National Journal noted. “Some Republican leaders reported hearing the same presentation on the subjects—delivered via PowerPoint—three times.”

Mark Graul, a long-time Republican strategist in Wisconsin, told the publication that Johnson was “so hyperfocused” on the debt that he “did have a little bit of blinders on” and missed some of the other things that he should have been paying attention to…You can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

It is striking to read through Johnson’s press releases from his first few years in office. “Our country is going bankrupt, we shouldn’t be going home on a holiday,” Johnson (R., Wis.) said at a press conference in 2011 condemning the Senate’s vacation over the July 4th weekend.

“We must break the cycle of Washington’s business as usual that is bankrupting America,” he thundered in his July 27, 2011 “Statement on Continuing Debt Crisis.” 

“Simply put, we are committing intergenerational theft,” he charged in his Nov 16, 2011 press release. “It is immoral and it needs to stop.”

“The national debt is by far our biggest national security threat,” he warned in a February 13, 2012 press release blasting President Barack Obama’s proposed budget.  

Over and over he vilified Obama for his lack of leadership. “the Obama administration is leading America down the path of economic disaster,” he warned in a September 4, 2012 press release about the deficit.

“America and its future generations suffered a loss today,” he eulogized in his October 16, 2013 statement on a new debt ceiling deal, and Obama proved he is “more than willing to increase the debt burden on our children and grandchildren.”

Month after month the drum beat continued, relentlessly pounding his message of deficit doom. And then, about three years into his first term, Johnson began to speak less of the deficit and more of all those other issues Graul noted. Mr. Deficit was learning to walk and chew gum at the same time. “Him moving away from the PowerPoint presentation probably allows him to connect more with voters,” as Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, told the National Journal.

Still, it remained a key issue for Johnson — until Republican Donald Trump became president. Obama had inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression, with falling tax receipts and a need for fiscal stimulus to prevent a total meltdown of the economy. Trump had inherited an economy with low unemployment and robust jobs growth, but showed no interest in reducing the deficit. Yet there were no dire press releases with Cassandra-like warnings from Wisconsin’s prophet of deficit doom. 

Worse, the man who frequently argued that American needed to think 30 years ahead on budgeting, offered no criticism of the proposed Trump tax plan’s longterm impact on the deficit and his vote helped assure its passage. 

“The number one component of a solution to many of America’s problems is robust economic growth” his press release hailing the bill’s passage noted. “Passing pro-growth tax reform that allows American business to compete globally is a necessary step. No major piece of legislation is ever perfect, but this bill is a significant improvement over our current tax system.”

But whatever the impact on the economy, the tax breaks passed are so massive they assure historic deficits.  As Reuters reported: “The national debt is on track to approach 100 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2028, said the nonpartisan CBO, which analyzes legislation for Congress. ‘That amount is far greater than the debt in any year since just after World War II,’ CBO said.” It forecast a cumulative deficit of $11.7 trillion for 2018-2027.

As for the idea the economy would improve, Johnson has insisted for the last eight years that a high deficit is terribly injurious to the American economy. “Major damage was done” to the economy by the tax plan, as the fiscally conservative Peter G. Peterson Foundation noted of the deficit that is being created. 

As for the idea the huge giveaway to corporations would cause companies to expand operations or hike wages, there is not much evidence of that. Even before the plan was passed, companies had predicted the giveaway would result in more stock buybacks, mergers and acquisitions, which is exactly what has happened.

Johnson has also touted “regulatory reform” under Trump, suggesting it has led to a 3 percent rate of GDP growth in recent quarters, which can help solve the deficit problem. He is presumably referring to the second and third quarters of 2017, which were awfully early in Trump’s tenure to credit to the little he had accomplished by then, and are in any event well behind the highest quarters under Obama — 4.6 percent and 5.2 percent in 2014.

Johnson, by the way, did have one objection to the tax plan, the fact that it didn’t provide a tax break to “pass-through” companies — businesses whose profits are distributed to their owners and taxed at rates for individuals. Johnson succeeded in getting a tax break for these entities. As it happens, Johnson’s family-run plastics manufacturing business is one of the beneficiaries. 

So the bad news for someone with Johnson’s world view is the deficit will soon be far higher as a percent of the GDP then when he claimed it was destroying our nation. But the good news is along with all the bigger corporations in America, Johnson’s company benefitted from the massive tax breaks that were passed.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

18 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: About That Deficit, Sen. Johnson”

  1. Terry says:

    Ron Johnson is just another lying, scheming, Big Government Nanny State republican charlatan. At least he got himself and the Billionaires and corporations a nice huge tax cut, paid for by the working and formerly middle class. What a fraud. Just like all republicans.

    Dump Johnson

  2. Lou Kaye says:

    At least Paul Ryan knew when to quit. Well before Johnson, Ryan held town halls with Heritage Foundation charts depicting wild high projected deficits and debt under liberal policies with democratic congresses. I’ll never forget how he repeated the words, “high taxes and regulations increase cost on businesses and those costs are then reflected in higher prices we pay for goods for services.Now with substantial corporate tax cuts and Trump’s executive orders deregging, store prices and insurance seem 20% to 30% higher then before and with 1% and 2% increases in pay, wages can’t keep up with Trumflation. American workers have actually taken a huge hit under Trump and Ryan’s “reforms.”

    Like Ryan leaving, Johnson should seriously consider resigning before his time is up. That would be best for America.

  3. Eric J. says:

    Republicans : The deficit is a ” NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE ” ( During Obama’s term).

  4. tom says:

    Just more republican hypocrisy from two ideological idiots. Both of these guys are in way over their heads. Ryan will go down as the worst speaker in decades famous for enabling the racist, sexual predator, and serial liar Trump. Ryan is a poster boy for party over country.

  5. Dennis says:

    That’s why you don’t elect business that think they now everything but know only one thing. Make myself wealthy.

  6. Troll says:

    First, of all we have a spending problem more then a tax problem. Second, state treasury coffers in almost all the states are up under Trump in the first quarter. Third, the top 20 percent of high earners are paying more in a percentage of taxes then the bottom 80 percent. Fourth, the working poor benefit a lot from this plan. $2000 tax credit per child. Slowing growth of utilities, food and rents due to the corporate tax cut. We Energies just announce returning a dividend to rate payers. Fifth, economically the first quarter is the slowest quarter yet we hit around 2.0 percent. Bruce is already poo-pooing a tax cut after one economic quarter.

    Another question should be asked. How will local and state Democrats explain all this new tax wealth flowing into their government coffers? Will they say its Obama? Does Obama get credit when people of color can find jobs under Trump’s first and second year but not under Obama’s presidency?

  7. Timothy J Haering says:

    “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” – Anton Ego

    Bruce, we love hyperbole. Yours here is as lively as Johnson’s fiscal scripture. But your average spineless Senator is probably more valuable than our criticism designating him so. Sure, he discovered that DC reality turns GI Joe into Gumby. But he was an itty-bitty bit more genuine than St. Russ. MY only question: Since he forgot about his Precious Bodily Fluid – the life-and-death debt and deficit — will he also forget his promise not to run again?

    You know, I wrote the above after only reading half your column. After finishing your Johnson roast, I am compelled to quote Al Czervic: “This steak still has marks from where the jockey was hitting it.”

  8. Thomas says:

    Posts 6 & 7 are feeble efforts to discredit critics of Johnson, Ryan and Trump. Bruce is charged with hyperbole when much of his piece involves quotes from Johnson. Lessons in empty hyperbole are offered routinely by Trump. Only Trump and a few of his most rabid fans do not see this. The “value” of Johnson, Ryan and Trump involves negative #s. Critics of these men are necessary to alert the public to the damage they are doing.

  9. Republicans never objected to more spending on war, er, defense. What they object to is spending money on improving the livelihood of the American people, particularly those on the bottom of our racialized class structure. Republicans, and many Democrats, actually want a warfare state, not a welfare state. I’m with the Scandinavian model.

  10. Thomas says:

    Yo, Hagedorn, the Scandinavian model is worthy of attention. Some of them live in places where winter is long and summer is short. Some of them live prosperously in cities below sea level. The above notwithstanding, polls often site Scandinavians as among the most content and happy people on our planet. They must be doing something right.

  11. Troll says:

    10#…Scandanavia seriously? A lot of immigration there. Are trying to make the point that white people can get along.

  12. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Obama said that deficits do not count so he did 10 trillion. April was the biggest month in history for revenue, for country, so we must grow out of deficits.

  13. old baldy says:

    “Obama said that deficits do not count”

    Actually Dick Cheney said that. Poor try, wcd.

  14. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Obama believed him. Fact is that we cannot cut our way out we have to grow our way out.

  15. old baldy says:

    wcd:

    Pretty strange stance for someone that claims to be a “conservative”. And I doubt Obama believed much that Cheney had to say.

  16. Eric J. says:

    THIS IS NOT A FACT :”Fact is that we cannot cut our way out we have to grow our way out”

    -We’ve been doing this since the last Republican / Bush 2008 depression. My 401 K tanked and was restored due to Obama.
    -We could have had an unpaid for / unfunded tax cut during everyone of Obama’s years in office.Why didn’t Paul Ryan et al propose one then? ( ,,,,,,” my goal is to make Barack Obama a one term President” )
    -Republicans can never again claim to be deficit hawks-What a joke

  17. Thomas says:

    The well deserved knocks on WCD’s post reinforce my suspicion that there is nothing conservative about him. WCD is a hell-bent reactionary, informed largely by a fantasy of a day in yesteryear when unregulated capitalism rewarded all hard working, self-reliant people with prosperity. History suggests that unregulated capitalism results in abuses by robber barons and their like.

    In addition, WCD routinely whines about Obama era deficits, apparently ignorant that our national debt nearly tripled in the Reagan era. The most financially conservative president in recent memory was Bill Clinton. Can we stop allowing reactionaries to call themselves conservatives?

    Hiding under a cloak of conservatism, Trump is exploding our national debt. If he is conserving anything, that which he saves will likely find ways into his shaky business interests.

    Our political language has degenerated into 1984 on steroids. We can correct this degeneration by refusing to let reactionaries call themselves conservatives and by refusing to allow the word liberal to be used as a negative. Derived from Latin, the word liberal means generous. There is something wrong with a culture that is offended by generosity.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us