Earlier this year, freshman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) was one of eight senators who signed a letter promising to place a hold on any bill that does not comply with comply with five very broad criteria. Yesterday, in his maiden speech on the Senate floor, Johnson went even further — implying that America would be better off if every single senator had the power to unilaterally veto legislation:
The genius of our Founding Fathers’ vision was rooted in their recognition that more often than not, government was something to fear. Government necessarily limited individual freedom, and therefore, government itself must be limited; its potential for growth, highly constrained. During America’s first century, this vision was largely upheld. The last century, however, has been an entirely different story.
In 1902, the federal government spent 2% of the nation’s gross domestic product. State and local governments spent 5%. Government was close to the governed. The size, scope, and cost of the federal government was constrained by the Constitution’s enumerated powers. . . . Th[e Senate] played a key role in limiting federal government expansion. Debate in the Senate was unlimited. The cloture vote did not exist. . . . All that changed in the 20th century’s second decade. The Senate adopted the cloture vote, and America adopted the 16th Amendment.
“Cloture” is the only procedure which can be used to break a single senator’s filibuster of a bill. So when Johnson pines for the days when the cloture rule did not exist, he appears to be suggesting that each of the Senate’s 100 members — even Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who opposes child labor laws, FEMA, food stamps, the FDA, Medicaid, income assistance for the poor, Medicare and Social Security — should have the authority to unilaterally veto any legislation they want.
Johnson’s nostalgia for 1902 is even more bizarre. In 1902, the average annual income was less than $17,000 a year and average life expectancy was 47 years. So in Ron Johnson’s paradise, most Americans didn’t need a federal retirement program like Social Security or Medicare because they were almost certainly dead before they reached retirement age.
In fairness to Johnson, he does indicate later in his speech that post-1902 legislation addressed “real problems” like monopolies — so he probably would not roll back every single one of the laws that Congress enacted in the last 103 years. Indeed, it’s doubtful that he could succeed in repealing just one law under the any-senator-can-veto rule that he appears to endorse in his speech.