The Johnson Treatment
What Does Ron Johnson Want and Why Might He Screw McConnell?
The Wisconsin conservative doesn’t like the tax bill—or the way his party left him for dead in his reelection bid. And now, he’s billing them for it.
There was no Rose Garden ceremony to greet the passage of a tax reform bill in the House on Thursday.
Republicans weren’t about to repeat the mistake of prematurely dancing in the end zone, the way they did after passing an Obamacare repeal bill last May—only to then watch it die in the Senate.
“We’ve got a long road ahead of us,” Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged after passage. Indeed they do.
With a 52-to-48 majority in the Senate, GOP senators can afford to lose only two votes to pass anything (with a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence). This doesn’t sound terribly daunting, until you consider the cast of characters that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must wrangle.
McConnell starts off with a maverick named John McCain, a northeastern moderate named Susan Collins, and an iconoclastic libertarian named Rand Paul. On top of that, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake deserve special care, inasmuch as they were publicly attacked by President Donald Trump and may not be anxious to do him any favors. Both men have expressed concern over increasing the deficit.
Complicating matters, on Wednesday, Senator Ron Johnson became the first Republican member to publicly oppose the tax plans in both the House and the senate. “If they can pass it without me, let them,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I’m not going to vote for this tax package.”
A little backstory is in order here. Johnson, a wealthy man who made his fortune in the packing business, has always been irascible, but his orneriness has peaked since winning reelection in 2016. Johnson is probably the only politician I’ve ever heard of who won an election and was mad about it. He is angry that Republicans left him for dead in a campaign they wrongly assumed was a lost cause. And he seems determined to spend the next six years making them live to regret it.
To be clear, Johnson’s move jeopardizes Republicans’ chances of passing even one major legislative accomplishment in 2017. Sure, he says he wants to “fix” the tax bill so that he can support it. This sounds like a modest request, until you consider that it’s impossible to address every concern of 52 Republican senators, not to mention the fact that any changes made to accommodate one senator (who should already be a “yes” vote) have the very real possibility of alienating another senator.
Johnson’s primary concern seems to be that corporate tax rates would be slashed to 20 percent, but the benefits for pass-through businesses wouldn’t be quite as generous. This strikes me as a fairly left-wing argument about fairness. Johnson seems willing to jeopardize this fleeting window of opportunity to finally cut corporate tax rates because pass-through businesses aren’t getting quite the same good deal. It’s understandable why someone with a business background would be concerned about this issue. (Johnson was formerly CEO of Pacur LLC, which is a pass-through entity.)
But when it comes to passing legislation, this is what is called making the perfect the enemy of the good. To which I say this: Good luck passing tax cuts for anybody if Democrats take the House next year (a distinct possibility). Then, you’ll be stuck at a 39.1 percent corporate tax rate (the current rate, when you count federal, state, and local taxes).
It matters little that Johnson will probably vote for tax reform in the end. During the run-up to a healthcare vote, Johnson publicly blasted Mitch McConnell. He ultimately voted for the motion to proceed, but only after holding up the bill and engaging in a tense conversation with McConnell on the Senate floor. The bill ultimately failed, and his contribution certainly didn’t help.
Not only do these distractions take time, they risk upsetting the delicate balance of an already fragile bill that has been cobbled together in the hopes of garnering 51 votes. As Jonathan Chait noted recently, “Johnson is going to make party leaders spend more money or more time. And they don’t have much of either to spare.”
There’s also a psychological component here. The House just passed a tax reform bill in impressively efficient fashion. Republican senators might have kept their powder dry. Instead, Johnson has broken the seal and created a permission structure for others to publicly complain.
A few of these senators like being the center of attention. They want to be seen bucking their own party. There’s no way that John McCain and Susan Collins are going to let Johnson have all the fun. There’s no way they’re going to be outflanked by… Ron Johnson.
If this passes the Senate, I suspect it’s going to be messy. Don’t count on the senate passing tax reform as quickly or quietly as Paul Ryan’s House just did.
And don’t uncork the champagne just yet. They never promised us a Rose Garden.