Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Nobody’s senator but theirs: Ron Johnson’s backroom dealing shows who he’s working for. It’s not you.
A blockbuster scoop by ProPublica on Wednesday makes crystal clear who Ron Johnson represents: He is the senator for the ultra-wealthy.
The exposé details how Wisconsin’s Republican senator ensured that his wealthiest donors made out like bandits in the massive 2017 tax bill that GOP leaders marketed as a “middle-class tax cut.”
Thanks to Johnson’s demands, it wound up delivering a huge portion of its billions in savings to just 82 of America’s wealthiest families. And the senator’s top donors — billionaires Diane Hendricks and Dick and Liz Uihlein — were with Michael Bloomberg at the very top of a short list of those who gained the most.
Though he tried to defend himself on Wednesday, Johnson’s secret, closed-door maneuvering on the tax bill is one more reason he’s unfit to represent Wisconsin citizens. The sooner he’s removed from office, the better for our democratic republic.
In 2017 as President Donald Trump’s administration was rushing to get the massive tax cut through Congress, Johnson surprised the president and other Republicans by saying he’d vote “no.” The tax cut wasn’t sweet enough for “pass-through companies,” he argued — businesses that pass their profits directly to owners, ProPublica found through emails and other records.
The pressure campaign worked. Trump personally begged Johnson for his support, and the authors of the legislation boosted the tax cut for pass-through businesses, allowing them to deduct up to 20% of their profits.
Johnson also carried water for real estate developers after another of his donors, Milwaukee businessman Ted Kellner, complained that developers like himself wouldn’t get a big enough tax break from the bill. Johnson forwarded Kellner’s letter to Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, and in the final version of the bill, developers got the same generous tax break.
Johnson’s deal-making showered eye-popping benefits on his two biggest donors — Hendricks, who owns ABC Supply Co. in Beloit, and the Uihleins, Schlitz Brewing heirs who own the Uline packaging company in Pleasant Prairie.
Using tax records it obtained of the wealthiest Americans, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news service, found that in 2018 alone, the tax deal helped deliver $215 million in deductions for the two families. Of that, Johnson’s intervention saved the Uihleins $43.5 million in 2018 and Hendricks about $36 million. The donors could reap more than a half-billion dollars in tax savings from his changes over the course of the tax cut’s eight-year life span.
In 2016, as Johnson faced a tough race against former Sen. Russ Feingold, the families had contributed a combined $20 million to groups supporting Johnson’s reelection.
They got quite a return on their investment — Johnson proved to be the best senator money could buy.
Republicans claimed that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — what Trump called his “big, beautiful Christmas present” — would goose economic growth and result in a simpler, fairer system.
What it actually did, according to a study by Treasury economists, is hand out most of the tax savings to the richest 1% of Americans. They got nearly 60% of the savings — and most of that went to the top 0.1%, ProPublica found. These are the people who benefit most from our interstate highways, our national defense, our financial system safeguards and our other shared public services — even as some do all in their power to pay as little as possible for them.
These are the people Ron Johnson truly represents and works for — even as he panders to people who are less well-to-do yet continue to believe in Trump and his promises to shake up the status quo and “drain the swamp.” Johnson knows he needs the former president’s less wealthy supporters in Wisconsin if he decides to break his earlier promises and run for a third term next year.
But what is more defensive of the status quo than secretly helping the very richest families get even richer? What is further from draining the swamp than writing laws that enrich yourself and your biggest campaign donors?
This is the same senator whose utter disregard for scientific evidence and responsible behavior led him to use his taxpayer-financed bully pulpit to repeatedly tout unproven treatments for COVID-19 and cast doubt on life-saving vaccines.
This is the same senator who carried water for Trump as the defeated president lied repeatedly about the election and tried to overturn it.
This is the same senator who was ready — along with Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas and the rest of the Sedition Caucus — to oppose Congress’ official certification of the verified Electoral College vote on Jan. 6.
This is the same senator who after the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol claimed the insurrectionists were “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break a law.”
However, this same senator said he would have really been concerned about the violent Jan. 6 assault against police, Congress and our nation’s Capitol had the insurrectionists been members of the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than the white supremacists, Q-Anon conspiracy believers and Rebel flag-waving Trump supporters they were.
Johnson has never made a secret that he supports big business and the wealthy. Still, the audacious nature of the secret deal-making outlined by ProPublica is breathtaking.
Johnson couldn’t be bothered to support a bipartisan infrastructure investment this week, which aims to repair the nation’s deteriorating roads, bridges and ports; replace lead water pipes in cities like Milwaukee; and bring high-speed Internet to areas of Wisconsin and rural America that badly need it.
The senator is willing to work hard, and even stand up to his party’s leader, when it comes to doing the bidding of a few extremely rich patrons. When it comes to working for the good of the many more average Wisconsin citizens he represents? Not so much.
Johnson’s priorities are all wrong — and they’ve been all wrong for this entire term.
Former Sen. Herb Kohl, who financed his own campaigns, used to have a slogan: Nobody’s senator but yours.
Ron Johnson has put a new spin on that: Nobody’s senator but theirs.
It’s time to actually drain the swamp and fire Sen. Ron Johnson from public office.
Editorials are written by the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Editorial Board, which operates independently from the network’s news departments across 11 state communities.