Inside the mind of the Tea Party: Sen. Ron Johnson talks to Salon

Sen. Ron Johnson says that Obama is "scare-mongering" -- and a debt limit breach should be "no cause for concern"

Published October 8, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Ron Johnson                (Reuters/Jason Reed)
Ron Johnson (Reuters/Jason Reed)

The government shutdown’s first week closed with House Speaker John Boehner telling reporters that a “clean” debt ceiling bill to avert default without other concessions wouldn’t make it through the Senate, let alone the House -- and Senate Democrats moving to put such claims to the test. As Salon’s Brian Beutler reported, Harry Reid’s next move could be a gambit that would allow the president to raise the debt limit while letting a majority of Congress cast symbolic votes against it – an idea first pitched by Mitch McConnell.

Salon discussed the potential Senate maneuvering and the prospect of default with Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the Tea Party-backed businessman who ousted progressive favorite Russ Feingold in the 2010 midterms. In our interview Monday night, Johnson pledged to vote against allowing an up-or-down vote on either a “clean” debt ceiling increase or Reid’s potential alternative, and urged the White House to start “trying to calm the markets” rather than “scare-mongering” about the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling, which he said “doesn’t have to be Armageddon if you did a little planning ...” What follows is a transcript of our conversation.

Would you vote for cloture on a clean debt ceiling increase?

What I’ve consistently said is that if they bring a continuing resolution at the levels, the spending levels that President Obama signed -- and Harry Reid, and I think it was 45 Democrat senators voted for -- the only other thing I would at this point require is you have to attach to that an amendment that would make sure that Congress and their staff does not get unequal treatment under the law. Under Obamacare. In other words, a rejection of that Office of Personnel Management ruling that grants that special treatment.

So that’s your position on a continuing resolution.


What about on a debt ceiling increase?

Well, debt ceiling’s totally different. Debt ceiling is something that, you know, any time the president asks for the authority to increase the debt ceiling, the debt burden on our children and grandchildren, I think that requires a pretty serious discussion, robust debate. And at a minimum we should include in that debt ceiling, you know, further – some kind of fiscal discipline, or some kind of reform for the entitlement programs so those things are more solvent, can be saved for the very same kids and grandkids that is gonna shoulder the burden, that are currently paying the bills.

So if Democrats in the Senate bring a clean debt ceiling increase, would you vote against letting it come up for a vote?


And if they bring a –

Now and again, I would have to see what all is in play in terms of, frequently I am willing to bring things up for cloture. But you know on that basis, because I know 51 could pass it, I would block cloture. Yeah.

So you would block cloture on a clean debt ceiling increase.

Right. Because otherwise they’d be able to pass it clean. I would not let them do that.

And if Sen. Reid tried to raise the debt ceiling using a process like the one that McConnell had suggested in 2011, where the president would have the authority to raise the debt ceiling and then Congress with a two-thirds majority could veto it, is that something you would also vote against cloture on?

Probably. That was not – that did not provide the type of accountability we need. But remember: That was attached to other reforms that actually did limit the growth in spending. So again you’re kind of throwing a hypothetical. That wasn’t just – what happened in 2011 wasn’t a clean increase in the debt ceiling that way. That was part of an overall deal that actually did result in about $2.1 trillion of actual spending restraint. So it’s quite a bit different than I think the question you’re asking me right here.

So if what the Democrats brought to the floor was just to give the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling, but –

I would oppose. I would oppose that.

-- but allow Congress to override with two-thirds, you would vote –

No.  Congress would not have the votes to override, so that’s basically granting President Obama the authority to raise the debt ceiling without any fiscal discipline, no additional reforms to the long-term entitlement programs that simply aren’t sustainable. No, I wouldn’t support that.

And you would vote against cloture on that?

I would vote against it, right.

And so would you –

Because voting for cloture in that instance would be voting for the bill because Democrats would be able to pass it.

And would you personally initiate a filibuster on that?

I don’t think I would have to do it personally. I think there would be a lot of us that would not support cloture on that.

And the report that the Treasury Department came out with that said that if the U.S. does not raise the debt ceiling in time that there would be a catastrophic effect on the economy –

I think that’s – I think that’s highly irresponsible for the Treasury Department to be issuing those kinds of, I mean scare-mongering reports. The Treasury Department, I think the secretary of the Treasury, I think the president of the United States ought to be trying to calm the markets, rather than scare them. The president really ought to be leading here. And they really ought to be passing something like the Full Faith and Credit Act, or a no-default bill which would guarantee the prioritization of tax revenue coming in and spending to ensure that we don’t default. There is absolutely no reason at all for this type of government to default even if we don’t increase the debt ceiling. So I think it’s highly irresponsible of this administration to be doing the type of scare-mongering they’re doing on this issue.

So if we come to … Oct. 16 and the debt ceiling has not been raised, should the markets be concerned at that point?

Not if you had a responsible administration. There would be no cause for concern. We have more than enough revenue flowing to the federal government, if the spending was properly prioritized, there’s no reason whatsoever to default on any of the debt.

And I, I utterly reject the administration’s claim that this isn’t about new spending, that we’re just paying off old bills. Well, well, the reason you have to increase the debt ceiling is because of new deficit spending. If we weren’t running deficits, if we weren’t spending more than we were taking in, there would be no reason whatsoever to increase the debt ceiling. So if you manage things properly – and listen, I’m a business guy, I’ve got to prioritize spending in all my business career to prevent my business from going bankrupt. The federal government has got to start doing that eventually as well.

And there – again, so if you properly prioritize spending, there’s no reason that we should be talking about some kind of catastrophic market event or some kind of catastrophic economic event. With responsible leadership, that – we shouldn’t even be talking about that. That – in other words it doesn’t have to be Armageddon if you did a little planning, if you were responsible about this.

And the view that congressman Yoho stated, that not raising the debt ceiling could “bring stability to the world markets,” do you agree with that?

Well, I don’t believe during our last debt ceiling debate, in – the big, the big last - the last big one in the summer of 2011 – I don’t believe we got a debt downgrade because we had a messy debate. I think we had a debt downgrade because creditors are looking out long-term and realizing, “Huh, the U.S. just blinked again, they kicked the can down the road, they’re not solving the problem.”

So I think the thing we really have to be concerned about is the long-term debt and deficit issue that we’re not in any serious way addressing. So to me that is a far greater risk, the long-term problem. You know, it’s not a 10-year budget window problem – we’ve got a 30-year demographic problem. You know, all of these promises made without adequate provision to pay for them. And that’s what I’m far more concerned [about] than some – you know some event over one particular increase in the debt ceiling.

So is it correct –

Again, that I believe can be managed responsibly without creating some kind of crisis or some kind of economic calamity. Again, I just – I cannot emphasize enough how irresponsible I think it is that the Treasury secretary or the president of the United States is talking that way. They should be trying to calm the markets. Let me emphasize that again.

So is it correct then to say that not raising the debt ceiling could “bring stability to the world markets”?

I mean that’s kind of a loaded question there. Handling the -- all of – you know, by failing to lead, by failing to act responsibly, by failing to address our long-term debt and deficit issue, you know that’s, that’s destabilizing. That’s adding a lot of uncertainty. So in a combination of not addressing it and also not increasing the debt ceiling, that increases that uncertainty.

So again, the way this is being handled across the board here by the U.S. government – and this is one of the points I also try to make – is I really want Americans to be looking and believing what their eyes and ears are telling them here. You know, look, look at the dysfunction of the last five years. Look at the debt burden we’ve heaped onto our kids and grandkids. You know, watch very carefully the next days and weeks and months at the dysfunction. And then ask yourself a question: Is this, the federal government, is this something that you want to continue to grow? Do you want its influence and control over your life to increase? Do you actually want the federal government to take over a greater share of your healthcare, and have more input into your healthcare decisions? I think that’s a really bad idea, and that’s what we’re seeing play out right now.

So would it be bad for the economy to not raise the debt ceiling by the 17th?

Not handling it responsibly, not addressing our long-term debt and deficit issue, is bad for our economy. The federal government, by being so irresponsible, so dysfunctional, is harming our economy. What we should be doing is responsibly addressing the primary drivers of our debt and deficit issues. And that’s something this administration has utterly refused to do. That is what is causing the uncertainty. That is in the end what will decrease our debt rating if we don’t start grappling with it. It’s not just a momentary event one way or the other, whether we increase the debt ceiling at this particular moment in time. There’s no reason that not increasing the debt ceiling at a particular date should cause any kind of economic calamity. There’s no reason for that whatsoever, if it’s handled responsibly, which it doesn’t sound like the administration’s willing to do – which in itself is irresponsible.

And so –

OK? OK? We can keep going round and round on this. I think I’ve given you the answer. I really have to go … Goodbye.

By Josh Eidelson

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