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Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) talks with reporters while walking to the U.S. Senate chamber for a vote March 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Senate continues to debate the latest COVID-19 relief bill. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) talks with reporters while walking to the U.S. Senate chamber for a vote March 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Senate continues to debate the latest COVID-19 relief bill. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) talks with reporters while walking to the U.S. Senate chamber for a vote March 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Senate continues to debate the latest COVID-19 relief bill. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Eric Litke
By Eric Litke March 11, 2021

Johnson flips position on last-minute bills now that Dems are in charge

If Your Time is short

  • Johnson forced a 10-hour reading of the 628-page American Rescue Plan bill in part because he said the Senate hadn't had time to read the bill.
  • But in 2017, when Republicans controlled Congress, Johnson made no such objections when a sweeping tax reform package came up for a vote in the Senate just after the text was finalized, in some cases with handwritten amendments in the margins.

The American Rescue Plan proposed by President Joe Biden hit an unusual roadblock in the U.S. Senate from U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

Breaking from Senate norms, the Wisconsin Republican forced the entirety of the 628-page bill to be read aloud on March 4, 2021, a task that took Senate clerks more than 10 hours to complete.

Johnson offered a series of explanations for the maneuver, most centered around the bill’s $1.9 trillion price tag.

  • On Twitter as he raised the objection on March 4: "I just objected to skipping past the reading of the Democrats’ 628-page bill that was just introduced minutes ago. If they’re going to add nearly $2T to the national debt at least we should know what’s in the bill."

  • On Twitter the day before: "Since more than 90% of this ‘COVID relief’ bill is not even related to COVID, I think we need a full reading of the bill. Yes, it could take 10 hours but the American people deserve to know what's in it." (That description is exaggerated, by the way. About 85% is related to the pandemic, one nonpartisan group says.)

  • In a WIBA radio interview: "We need to keep this process going so we can highlight the abuse, how this is not COVID relief, how this is a boondog(gle) for Democrats."

  • And Johnson told USA Today it was "important" to delay the process and read the bill aloud because "so often we rush these massive bills" which few lawmakers have time to read. 

Taken together, we see Johnson’s central complaints are about how the money is spent and the speed with which the bill came together. Johnson tweeted that he "finally got a hard copy of the bill" about an hour into the reading.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, was among those who raised an eyebrow at Johnson’s actions, suggesting they didn’t align with how Johnson approached a similar situation when Republicans held the congressional reins.

And this is hardly the first high-priced bill to move through Congress relatively quickly. 

So we’re breaking out our Flip-O-Meter and digging into the archives to see if Johnson’s actions line up with his past approach to such legislation.

Our requisite reminder: We’re not measuring whether any change in position is good policy or good politics. We’re just examining whether a public official has been consistent in his or her stated views.

A look back to 2017

This is the third federal stimulus bill of the COVID-19 pandemic, following bills — passed under President Donald Trump — that spent $1.7 trillion in March 2020 and $915 billion in December 2020.

But the most apt comparison given the size and timing of the bill may be the 2017 tax cut package passed by a Republican-run Congress early in Trump’s term.

The 2017 bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, was introduced in the House of Representatives on Nov. 2, 2017, and passed the Senate on Dec. 20 — a span of 48 days. Biden’s rescue plan was introduced in the House Feb. 24, 2021 and passed by the Senate on March 6, a span of just 10 days. But you could also count the lifespan as beginning when Biden proposed the bill, there were 51 days before the Senate passage.

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(The House ultimately adopted Senate changes and passed the rescue plan March 10, sending it to Biden for a signature.)

Regardless, the key point of comparison here is not how long the bill was discussed, but how late changes were made — since that’s the point Johnson made while demanding a reading.

Johnson and other Republicans objected they didn’t have enough time to read the bill before considering it. U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters he supported forcing a reading, and U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he was "absolutely supportive" of the move because few senators had read the whole text.

Those complaints are echoes of 2017, but with a party reversal.

Here’s the CBS News account of the Dec. 1, 2017, runup to that vote, when senators received a late copy of the bill that included hand-scribbled amendments in the margins:

Senate Democrats were outraged Friday night after Republicans unveiled the 479-page text of their tax overhaul shortly before the bill went to the Senate floor for a vote.

The short timeframe, Democrats complained, left them no time to read all the provisions in the hefty legislation. Those hundreds of pages included new amendments and some handwritten notes that were nearly illegible. Republicans want to move the bill through swiftly, after Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Friday announced the chamber had the votes to pass the legislation.

"Not a single member of this chamber has read the bill," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said on the Senate floor. "It would be impossible."

The Los Angeles Times noted the bill, a sweeping tax reform package with repercussions for nearly all Americans, was passed without any Democrats in the chamber. The paper contrasted the high-speed process to the tax reform bill under President Ronald Reagan, which was crafted "on a bipartisan basis over more than 18 months."

Johnson voiced no objections to the speed of the 2017 bill, which he voted for.

"I’ll be voting yes on tax reform. Appreciate Senate leadership and @POTUS willingness to work to close the gap between pass-throughs & C corps," Johnson tweeted on Dec. 1, 2017.

The only news release he issued at the time simply praised "improved treatment for pass-through entities," a setup through which business owners pay individual income tax on business earnings rather than a business paying corporate income tax directly.

Johnson also voted in favor of the two prior stimulus packages under Trump, without requiring a reading or objecting to the pace of passage.

Our ruling

Facing a lengthy Democrat-backed bill that was finalized shortly before a Senate vote, Johnson lodged an objection that forced the 628-page bill to be read aloud in its entirety. 

In various statements he said he objected to how money was being spent and senators not having enough time to read the bill.

But Johnson had no issue supporting a bill that was similarly finalized at the last minute in 2017. That time it was Democrats objecting to the speed at which Republicans were pushing through legislation.

That’s a complete change in position, or as we call it, a Full Flop.

Our Sources

Ron Johnson, tweet, March 3, 2021

Ron Johnson, tweet, March 4, 2021

Ron Johnson, tweet, March 5, 2021

Mark Pocan, tweet, March 4, 2021

Wisconsin State Journal, Sen. Ron Johnson pledges to set up roadblocks for $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, March 5, 2021

USA TODAY, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson forces Senate to read all 628 pages of Biden's COVID bill aloud, March 4, 2021

Congress.gov, H.R.1319 - American Rescue Plan Act of 2021

Congress.gov, H.R.1 - An Act to provide for reconciliation pursuant to titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018

CBS News, Democrats outraged over Senate GOP's last-minute tax bill reveal, Dec. 1, 2017

Jon Tester, tweet, Dec. 1, 2017

Los Angeles Times, GOP tax bill is latest example of Senate leader Mitch McConnell breaking the norms he often espouses, Dec. 3, 2017 

Ron Johnson, news release, Johnson Ensures Lower Rate For Pass-Through Businesses, Dec. 1, 2017

Ron Johnson, tweet, Dec. 1, 2017

Email exchange with Ben Voelkel, spokesman for Ron Johnson, March 10-11, 2021

Email exchange with Usamah Andrabi, spokesman for Mark Pocan, March 9-10, 2021

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Eric Litke

Johnson flips position on last-minute bills now that Dems are in charge

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