Ron Johnson Seeks Common Ground in the Numbers

Although he is relatively new to the Senate and to politics, Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson is making waves on budget issues. Over recent months, the tea-party-backed conservative has emerged as the numbers point man for a group of GOP senators who are holding private deficit reduction talks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other administration officials.

The senators say the foundation of those discussions is a search for some common ground with the White House on defining the scope of fiscal issues, including how government spending and the national debt will progress over the coming decades.

Johnson authored a long-term forecast that depicts the cumulative deficit growing from $7 trillion in the next decade to $107 trillion over the full 30-year period.

Johnson discussed his efforts to raise the profile of deficit reduction in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

Q. Most attention to budgets in Congress is on the 10-year window. What do you hope to accomplish by putting together long-term debt projections and seeking agreement on the accuracy of these estimates?

A. Most people do understand, they’ve heard of, 12-step programs to solve a problem. And the first step in any one of those 12-step programs is to first admit you have a problem. And we have far too many people here in Washington that really aren’t coming to grips and truly are not admitting, maybe not even to themselves but certainly not to the American public, the extent of our problem here. When you start taking a look at the long-term budget problem, it gets far more severe in the second and third decade.

Until you agree on the numbers, until you agree on the depth of the problem, until you describe it accurately, you’re not going to find solutions to the problem. In manufacturing, it just becomes part of your DNA, when you have a problem, to try and analyze the problem, do root-cause analysis. Otherwise you’re just papering over. You’re just solving symptoms all the time.

Q. Many Democrats want to stimulate economic growth now and postpone deficit reduction until later. What do you think of that approach?

A. Well, their definition of stimulus hasn’t worked. The best way of stimulating the economy is trying to get government as much as possible out of the way. And I’m not opposed to government. But our government has gotten way too expansive, has gone so far over its enumerated powers and really what is healthy for a global economy.

Q. The deficit is shrinking in the short term. Does that make it easier to agree on a long-term deficit reduction package?

A. I think it probably makes it more difficult. I think it makes it easier for politicians here in town to firmly put their head in the sand and deny its existence.

The White House plan is predicated on the fact that we have a $4 trillion problem — pretty well the definition from Simpson-Bowles. So we’ve taken care of about $2.5 trillion. We really do have a $107 trillion problem.

Q. When do you think the debt limit will be addressed? Do you think it will be tied to a continuing resolution for government funding in fiscal 2014 or to something else?

A. We keep hearing that debt ceiling being pushed off. If past is prologue, it will be solved at the very last minute, which would be real tragic.

I thought it was a mistake to suspend the debt limit. We should have increased it, but we should have gotten something in return. What we should have gotten in return was a bill attached to that must-pass piece of legislation which would have said there will be no more defaults.

Q. Do you mean a measure that would prioritize debt payments?

A. Yes, basically, so if we don’t increase the debt limit we’re not going to be defaulting on our obligations. We’ll prioritize the payments of those things to make sure we don’t go into default.

Also part of that component would be, let’s use those trust funds to fully pay off Social Security recipients, fund Medicare to the point that it is funded through those trust funds, to ramp down people’s concern about it, so that we can maintain the pressure on the political class here to come to grips with this. Because we aren’t coming to grips with it.

From my standpoint, what I would envision would be smaller increments of debt ceiling just to keep pressure on the political class here in Washington.

Q. Are you concerned about an adverse reaction from the financial markets as a result of a standoff over the debt limit?

A. Sure. And that’s why I want to pass a law that will alleviate that concern. I don’t think there would be if there were a no-default bill where all the global creditors would realize we are a secured creditor, we are going to get paid.

Q. How are the talks going with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other administration officials? Are you making any progress in reaching agreement on long-term debt projections?

A. It would be a violation of our agreement to really talk about what’s happening in talks.

I truly appreciate President [Barack] Obama reaching out to us and having dinner with us. It’s really what’s established this. I’ve always said that if Americans could have been a fly on the wall collectively during those dinners, I think they would have been heartened by the conversation. It was complete, it was genuine, it was frank and that’s what the talks have been as well.

They are continuing. I think that’s a good sign.

Q. Do you feel good about the talks?

A. Yes. I hear all the time you’ve got to compromise. I’m willing to work with anybody that’s willing to first acknowledge the problem and work with me in good faith to fix it.

But I tell you what works a lot better: Rather than the first intention is, let’s bludgeon this guy into agreeing with me and force him to compromise, figure out what you agree on. Let’s address that.

We go at this totally backwards. I want to figure out what we agree on and let’s pass that stuff.

Q. Do you think the agreement in the Senate to vote on some presidential nominees while leaving filibuster rules in place could provide some momentum to reach a fiscal deal?

A. We can hope so, but again, I didn’t reach the agreement. What was disappointing about it was, on the flip side, there was no guarantee by the Democrats or the majority leader to not bring this issue up again

Q. You say Americans have an addiction to a growing government, which is producing an unsustainable debt. How do you sell people on your vision of a scaled-back government?

A. The only hope really is providing information. And that’s really what I try and do. You’ve got to inform, persuade. You’ve got to win the argument. Everything I do — the analogy I use is I’m trying to grab America by the lapels: Do you understand what you’re doing?