Senator Ron Johnson joined me this morning:
HH: Yesterday, 9 Republican Senators asked Mitch McConnell to open the Senate 24/7. They sent him a letter. One of those 9, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, joins me now. Good morning, Senator, welcome, it’s good to have you, and congratulations on this letter. I agree.
RJ: Good morning, Hugh. Yeah, I’ve actually been calling for this before we were sworn in for this Congress. I come from a manufacturing background, and you know, our limitations are machine time. So in plastics manufacturing, you run your equipment 24/7. And that’s what I proposed way back in January that we ought to run the Senate, when it’s appropriate, more on a 24/7 time schedule to get the administration staffed, and get tax reform and health care reform and infrastructure and all of these imperatives actually passed.
HH: Has the Leader responded to your letter?
RJ: We believe he has, but the proof will be in the pudding. We’ll see exactly what our work week’s going to be like, and what legislation we’ll be bringing up. The other thing I would suggest is I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying that we should use Harry Reid’s precedent. Remember, Harry Reid was the one that employed the nuclear option. There’s only one nuclear option. He employed it, changed the rules of the Senate, or changed the precedent in the Senate. So now we can change the rules to 51 votes. So I suggested we change the rules on nominations. Let the committees do their work. They do a great job vetting nominees. And then allow a limited amount of time on the floor. I think in that op-ed I said two hours. I’d limit it to five minutes if I could get that agreement. Just bring them up to the Senate and vote on them so we don’t waste valuable floor time staffing the administration.
HH: The Reid Rule, people don’t understand, the Reid Rule is that the rules of the Senate can be changed by simple majority. That’s the Reid Rule. And I agree with you. You ought to move this along, especially with regards to judges. But I also have to ask you a pointed question. A lot of this delay is because of your colleague, Bob Corker, has a hold on 8 ambassador nominees. Why are we allowing Republican chairmen to put holds on administration nominees?
RJ: You’ll have to check with Senator Corker, but there’s so many other nominees we could move forward. I won’t say that’s necessarily a killer. Hopefully, the administration, whatever Senator Corker has is, has an ask to release those nominees. Maybe he can work out a deal with the administration. But there’s so many other nominees we could move forward. And let’s face it. It’s primarily the Democrats that are being the obstructionists here, so let’s put the blame where it really is most, who’s most responsible for, and that’s Democrats forcing us to turn to 30 hours of debate way too often on nominees.
HH: Senator Johnson, with all due respect, that was a dodge. The problem in the Senate is multifaceted.
HH: It’s a dysfunctional body, and Senator Corker is part of the problem. So why don’t you get together as a conference and say we’re all knocking this off? No one is putting a hold on anybody. We are going to do the job we got elected to do. Why not call him out in the caucus?
RJ: Hugh, yeah, Hugh, I’m not going to disagree with you. You know, I want to, for my part, I you know, bring nominees through my committee as quickly as possible…
RJ: …and get them to the floor and get them confirmed, because I believe, and I don’t care whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican president. Presidents have an enormous task. They deserve to have nominees that they choose…
RJ: …to serve in their administration.
RJ: First of all, Hugh, it’s absurd. There’s more than 1,200 administration officials that require Senate confirmation. I think you can knock that down to 100 of the key administration officials, the secretaries, the primary deputies, that type of thing. And it is absurd that we’ve let it get this out of hand.
HH: Well, I agree with you. I just point out that it’s impossible to call for reform unless, if your own house is not in order, so I’ll leave that to you. Let’s move on to substantive stuff. The Lamar Alexander-Patty Murray deal appears to me to be dead, because Republicans didn’t get anything out of it. What is your opinion of the Alexander-Murray deal?
RJ: Well, for my part, I recognize there are two hurdles. In the Senate, we have to get Democrat support to pass something with 60 votes. But another hurdle is the House. And I’ve been working with the very noteworthy House members, moderate and conservative, on a very reasonable proposal to also fund these CSRs, the cost-sharing reductions. First, you have to understand that if we don’t fund the CSRs, taxpayers will be out even more money in terms of their support for premium tax credits, because premiums will increase, and the forgotten men and women of Obamacare, the people that are out there busting it, working, they’ve been priced out of Obamacare markets, they’ll be even further priced out of Obamacare markets. So I’m in support of funding the CSRs, but we need some meaningful reform out of it. So I was so close to having a bicameral introduction of this, and you know, and then the Alexander-Murray struck their deal, and people have gotten pretty gun shy. But let me just tell you, Hugh, what was in mind. We would force insurance companies to roll back premiums that were increased because of their assumption that cost-sharing reductions wouldn’t be paid. We would have waived the penalty, the individual penalty, for 2017. We would have delayed enforcement of the employer mandate. Right now, you have about 90,000 businesses about to get a penalty, a notice of penalty, worth about $5 billion dollars. We would have allowed both catastrophic and short term limited duration plans to be sold to individuals, give people the freedom to buy these insurance options without the Obamacare penalty. We would have expanded the use of HSAs, other HRAs, allow people to deduct more, to contribute more, and there’d be no penalty for that, and they could use those funds to purchase some of those new insurance options in greater price transparency. All these things are incredibly reasonable, and I think if Murray-Alexander were to embrace some of these things, they might get a deal that could actually pass the House as well.
HH: But that brings us back to the good being the enemy of the perfect, and the bad being the enemy of everything. I think Alexander-Murray is bad. It’s just a simple giveaway of money, and it may costs more money, but there needs to be give from the Democrats in the Senate before it even gets through the Senate. Do you see any possibility of Senate Democrats actually working to get a deal on the table that might, I, just get to conference is what I think, but you’ve first got to get through the Senate. Is there anything going to get through the Senate on health care before the end of the year?
RJ: You know, I’m crossing my fingers, but Hugh, this is why I was working with the House. I wanted the House to move first, show the American public hey, we recognize reality. We’re going to be more than reasonable, and really put pressure on Democrats. Are you serious about your rhetoric that you actually do want to repair the damage done by Obamacare? Or is it simply rhetoric? And I do fear that you know, what’s being talked about in the House, the Senate right now, the compromise, is just not even close to the type of reforms we need to bring insurance premiums down. That’s what we really need.
HH: So let me translate that. Let me translate that for the benefit of the Steelers fans, Senator Johnson. We’re not dealing with Packers fans here. We’re dealing with Steelers fans. I hear you saying there isn’t going to be any change to the law this year with regards to health care.
RJ: No, I’m going to do everything I can. I want to get the House to move first, or at least get Democrats to realize what we’re proposing in the bill I’m working with the House is more than reasonable, actually would restrain insurance prices, bring them back down. And those are the minimal types of reforms we need if we’re going to, if we can convince Republicans to pour money into markets that we know will never be stable without massive taxpayer infusion.
HH: I get that, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, so again, I’m translation Johnson here for Steelers. Alexander-Murray is dead, am I right?
RJ: Well, that’s, when you hear all the rhetoric coming out of the House, it sure does seem dead.
HH: And does, and so is it dead in the Senate as well?
RJ: I have no idea. I have no idea what my colleagues are going to do. Listen, Hugh, we are going to start getting insurance rate increase announcements. And they’re going to be pretty shocking in terms of the size of those. They’ll put a lot of pressure, politically, on members of both the House and Senate to act. I want to be sure that when we, if we do fund these cost-sharing reductions, we get real market reforms that address some of the root causes of the faulty architecture of Obamacare.
HH: Go Ron Johnson, go. I mean, that’s what I want, too, but I just don’t see it happening. And so if you had to give it a probability, is it a 10%, a 5%?
RJ: Well, I can’t do that, but it’s really about freedom and choice. If we were out there talking about freedom and choice for Americans in health care, there’d be a better chance of trying to win the argument.
HH: I agree, but…
RJ: But, yeah…
HH: But right now, we’re not. Now we’ve got to switch to taxes, because we’ve only got three minutes left. Is the budget going to pass today?
RJ: Oh, I’m quite sure we’ll pass the budget, yes. So that sets us up, gives us the ability to pass a tax plan without Democrat support. It would be nice if Democrats would join us in trying to grow our economy with common sense tax reform, but again, they do seem to be the obstructionist party, so we need to give ourselves this capability of doing it on our own if they won’t join us in our effort.
HH: Now the President is reported this morning to be urging the House to simply pass the Senate budget, thereby enacting it into law. What do you make of that?
RJ: I think that probably would be the thing to do, because what the budget is all about is giving us this tool to pass tax reform. Now let’s be honest. I mean, a ten year budgets, they’re just an aspiration. They’re really no better, they’re no good, better than the paper they’re drawn up on. Even the one year outlays are generally ignored, because some awful deal is done at the very end of the year. So budgets primarily are all about is giving the majority party the ability to pass something with just a mere majority. But so that’s the reality.
HH: But I’m genuinely…
RJ: I don’t like the reality, but that’s the reality.
HH: I’m genuinely confused, though. Is there sufficient detail in the Senate budget to rewrite the tax code? I mean, does it keep the casualty loss? Does it suggest transition periods for the state and local income tax deduction? I mean, is the President right?
RJ: Oh, no…
HH: …that you can just pass the budget?
RJ: Listen, all the budget does is you set up this reconciliation procedure and structure the committees to do all the work, so that there’s really no detail. There’s very little detail that…
HH: That’s what I thought.
RJ: …that’s what you find in the budget.
RJ: Yeah, no…
HH: So this story that there is no path to just vote on the Senate budget. There still has to be a detailed law, right?
RJ: Oh, yeah. I mean, and that’s been my disappointment is where is our tax plan? You know, I’ve got Plan B. If the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means can’t get their act together and actually tell us what the full plan is, I’ve been working on one for months. It’s been largely ignored, but you know, I’ll support any kind of pro-growth tax reform. But it is time for us to show the American people what our full tax plan is.
HH: Senator Johnson, do your colleagues get that the American people look at the House and the Senate, and you guys have been there for nine months, and you have accomplished nothing, actually, other than the Congressional Review Act laws of substance, and getting Neil Gorsuch and some judges on, nothing, and that there is no, there is no tax plan, there’s no deal, there’s no details, there’s no plan out on Obamacare, there is nothing, because you’re staffs try to do everything, and they never talk to the public? They never put anything out there.
RJ: Well, I know some do, maybe not all. And you know, certainly on health care, one of our problems is we had far too many Republican Senators that had promised to repeal Obamacare, and then when they had their chance, they refused to do so. So no, I’m not a real fan of this place, Hugh. I think you probably understand that. This place is unbelievably frustrating. I come from the private sector. It’s hard to convey the dysfunction of Washington, D.C., which is why we shouldn’t grow it. I mean, I think conservatives are on the right side of history here. We want to limit government. We want to start shrinking its size, its influence over our lives. Unfortunately, there are too many Republicans that are happy to grow it.
HH: Let me get a last comment from you, Senator Johnson. The President just tweeted out Uranium deal to Russia with Clinton help and Obama administration knowledge is the biggest story that fake media doesn’t want to follow. Do you agree with him?
RJ: It’s certainly a big story that was never covered by the media. There are all kinds of stories. You know, let’s face it. The Obama administration was not adequately vetted. They weren’t adequately covered in terms of the disasters that they enacted, and the mess that they really left for this next administration. It’s just never publicized, because the press kind of likes Democrats.
HH: Do you think there is criminal wrongdoing in the Uranium deal from what you have seen?
RJ: Oh, there’s real possibility, and it does need to be further explored and investigated.
HH: What about the Comey letter, the May memo before the July decision? Does that give you qualms, Senator Johnson?
RJ: Absolutely. My committee is trying to get the unredacted testimony from those FBI agents to get more information. There’s a number of committees trying to get to the truth on that as well.
HH: Last question, do you believe that the existence of that draft memo undermines Jim Comey’s testimony to the extent that it might go into question its truthfulness before the Senate?
RJ: Yes, I always thought the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails was never designed to really get to the bottom of it. I thought it was always designed to exonerate her. So that…
HH: Then that would…
RJ: …It seemed obvious to me, and now we’re getting more and more evidence that was probably in fact the case.
HH: Then that would put the former FBI director in peril of having perjured himself, would it not?
RJ: He might be in trouble.
HH: Senator Ron Johnson, always a pleasure, good luck in getting those reforms. Go talk to Bob Corker about being the example that sets the way, because if we get our own house in order, maybe people will pay attention to us. Thank you, Senator.
RJ: Will do. Take care.
End of interview.