Johnson praises tax bill, but says more could be done for businesses

Senator also talks about bill on federal whistleblowers

Leader Photo by Greg Mellis U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson talks about the tax reform bill signed into law in December during a visit Friday to The Shawano Leader. Johnson said he likes the tax cuts offered in the bill but felt it didn’t do enough to cut the tax rate for a majority of American businesses.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles addressing issues from The Shawano Leader’s recent interview with U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson about what the federal government has accomplished in the last year, and what he hopes will be accomplished in the future.

The recent bill to provide tax cuts to Americans is not U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s ideal fix to the country’s tax system, but it’s a good start to what he hopes to accomplish in easing economic burdens for people and business.

“It wasn’t my vision of tax reform. I would have done things differently,” Johnson said. “I don’t have any doubt that it’s made American businesses more competitive, which is what I said is the number one priority that we had to achieve.”

The Wisconsin senator discussed the tax reform bill dominating news coverage across America recently, along with other key issues from the past year, in an interview with The Shawano Leader on Friday. Johnson visited several media outlets that day to relay what’s going on in Washington to his constituents.

Johnson noted other countries have dropped their tax rates in recent decades to attract potential businesses inside their borders, but the United States hadn’t accomplished sweeping reform of the tax code since the 1980s.

“President (Donald) Trump definitely ran on tax cuts to the middle class, and he delivered,” Johnson said.

A main reason why the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was not perfect for Johnson was because it did not give as much of a break to pass-through businesses, 95 percent of all businesses by the senator’s estimation, that it gave to larger corporations. He noted that 1.3 million Wisconsinites work for pass-through businesses.

The act reduced the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 39 percent, but an attempt to reduce the tax rate for pass-through businesses to 25 percent didn’t succeed, Johnson said, leaving a large gap between the percentage corporations and mom-and-pop shops pay in taxes.

“Unfortunately, we constrained ourselves to a $1.5 trillion budget number, and we were doing $2 to $2.5 trillion of tax reform within that $1.5 trillion,” he said. “There’s a lot of complexity to tax reform.”

As for individual taxpayers, they can expect to see the difference in the amount of income tax they pay in February, Johnson said. He cited a study indicating the average household will be able to hold onto about $4,000 more of its earnings.

Although the act has “jobs” in the title, there was nothing in the way of specific job programs, Johnson said. He noted that the federal unemployment rate is about 4.1 percent currently.

“I remember going through econ courses and learning that 5 percent is considered full employment,” Johnson said.

Whistleblower protection

Johnson, along with Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, were able to push a bill granting stronger protections to federal whistleblowers, especially those within the Veterans Affairs system. Trump signed the bill into law Oct. 26.

Johnson noted that the federal government already had protections in place for whistleblowers, but they didn’t go far enough in certain instances. The protections didn’t help Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick, a whistleblower at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin, who committed suicide after he was fired for questioning excessive prescription practices there.

Kirkpatrick’s brother, Sean, testified for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — which Johnson chairs — in September 2015 about that the VA’s retaliation against Kirkpatrick, and Johnson later released a report detailing the failures at the Tomah facility.

That investigation prompted Johnson and Ernst to sponsor the whistleblower protection bill, which strengthened penalties against those who retaliate against whistleblowers, adds protections for probationary employees that were not already covered under previous law, and makes sure federal employees know about specific whistleblower protections.

“There have been laws on the books for 100 years making it unlawful to retaliate against federal employees, and yet it’s prevalent,” Johnson said. “It’s rampant. It’s just unbelievable.”

Difficulties in legislating

While the Republicans have control of both houses on Congress, the Senate doesn’t have as large of a majority, so while the House has been able to approve legislation with just the GOP in favor, the Senate does not have the same ease.

Johnson cited the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act as an example where the GOP control of the Senate faltered. It only took a few Republican senators disagreeing with aspects of the measure to keep the GOP from getting any repeal through the Senate.

“We don’t have control like the Democrats had,” Johnson said. “We control the House because a majority controls the House, but in the Senate, you have a majority, but you don’t have control.”

Johnson pointed out that the GOP has the slimmest of majorities in the Senate — 52 GOP votes when the tax reform and the whistleblower bills were passed in 2017, and only 51 this year with Alabama electing Democrat Doug Jones in a special election in December. That has required more efforts to gain consensus than in years past, he said.

“It’s not easy. We’re talking about local issues and local situations,” Johnson said. “It’s one of the reasons why I have greater faith in local government.”

Johnson noted he’s not a fan of the federal government, but he’s trying to do his part to reduce its interference, regulation-wise, in local lives. He wants to see Congress cut back on its regulation and give decision-making power back to local and state government.

“One-size-fits-all doesn’t work with the federal government,” Johnson said.