U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson tells WisPolitics he voted for the USA Freedom Act because he "recognized reality," despite his belief that limiting NSA monitoring of citizens' telephone calls "is hampering our ability to do effective intelligence gathering."
The House bill, co-authored by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, received 57 votes late last week, three votes shy of what was needed to advance the legislation after it had already cleared the House. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., favors a re-authorization of the full Patriot Act, leaving the Senate in a last-minute scramble as some provisions in the law are set to expire.
Johnson said "it's a shame the way this debate's gone," but added "because of mischaracterizations, if the public opinion wants that program shut down, it will be."
Johnson said he hopes to vote for a future bill that "gives us more transition time" to make sure the U.S. government can do "queries" to get information to "shut down some very real plots." He called members of the NSA "true patriots" who defend Americans' freedom in a similar way as the military.
Johnson spoke with WisPolitics.com after addressing members of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, where he minced no words on matters ranging from Cuba to regulatory relief.
Johnson described the need to streamline the process for large construction projects to obtain permits and overcome environmental hurdles part of an overall fight against laws that hamper economic growth.
He lamented what he called a "cultural attitude" that "government is good and business is bad," giving as an example the animated "LEGO" movie, in which the villain is called "Lord Business."
"That's done for a reason," Johnson said. "They're starting that propaganda, and it's insidious."
Johnson told MMAC members that some projects take up to eight years to overcome environmental concerns and achieve permits. Some pending legislation seeks to cut that timeframe to two years or less.
Johnson said he and other supporters are seeking stories from business leaders who want fewer layers of regulatory hoops.
"We actually had the chancellor of the UW-Madison come to our office a few months ago to ask for regulatory relief from the U.S. government," Johnson said. "Happy to help her, I told her, 'Welcome to the party.'"
Johnson had praise for President Obama, however, when members of the audience questioned Johnson's support for the Trade Promotion Authority bill.
"This is our only chance," said Johnson. "If we had not done this, trust me, under a Republican president, we would not get trade promotion authority. The only reason we're getting this is President Obama was willing to fight for it and we got enough Democratic support in the Senate to pass it."
Johnson called for heads to roll at the Tomah VA hospital.
"You've got to fire bad people," he said. "If you've got bad actors who continue to do harm and they're not fired, it sends a really bad signal within an organization. We're trying to give the VA the authority to do that, whether they want to or not."
Asked about Cuba, Johnson repeated his assertion that Obama overstepped his authority by re-establishing trade with the country. Johnson said he admitted that 50 years of embargoes did not resolve prior conflicts but said the U.S. ought to "ratchet up sanctions" against Cuba, just as it should with Iran.
Asked about how to stem illegal immigration, Johnson called border security "a big old mess, a witch's stew" and blamed poor border control on "our insatiable demand for drugs."
Johnson said that of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., "8.1 million are working -- and working hard." Johnson called for making those individuals legal "guest workers," adding that "We will not get Americans to fill those positions, there's no way, because we tell all of our kids to get a four-year degree."
U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson continue to be at odds over the process to fill a vacancy on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Baldwin earlier this month sent the White House eight names to be considered for the spot formerly held by the late Terence Evans, drawing Johnson's ire. He in turn contacted the White House last week to say he would only support the two candidates who received the support of five of the six people serving on the commission he created with Baldwin to vet judicial candidates.
"It is unfortunate that Senator Baldwin chose partisanship and politics over what is in the best interest of the people of Wisconsin," Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said. "However, I remain committed to the process that has been highly successful and I agree that, even with a decreasing caseload, it is time to fill the Seventh Circuit seat."
Johnson encouraged Baldwin, D-Madison, and the White House "to take this recommendation seriously and to refrain from further obstruction of this process."
Baldwin spokesman John Kraus accused Johnson of stalling efforts to fill the seat since he joined the Senate more than four years ago.
Last year, the commission the two established selected eight applicants for interviews, and its charter calls for four to six finalists. But only two received the necessary support to become finalists.
In December, Baldwin wrote the commissioners asking them to redouble their efforts to find four to six candidates. In January, the commissioners said they could only agree on two, and Baldwin sent the White House the names of all eight who were interviewed.
The eight are: Timothy Burns, David Jones, Anne Kearney, Beth Kushner, David Lucey, Richard Sankovitz, Donald Schott and Dean Strang.
"One thing is clear, there has been a court vacancy for 1,961 days and Senator Johnson seems content to stall the process," Kraus said. "Senator Baldwin believes it is important that action be taken to put a judge in place to serve. That is why she has sent to the White House eight finalists from the bipartisan commission."
Congress faces two major deadlines, with a third lurking around the corner and a fourth, artificial one put into place.
And at the center of the action are Wisconsin delegation members.
Congress has until month's end to reauthorize -- or let expire -- some of the most controversial domestic surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which was enacted in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It has the same scant four legislative days to extend federal highway and transit funding. It has until June 30, which seems like months away in the current congressional time warp, to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank or force the more than 80-year-old credit finance institution to shutter
But before that, the Senate now apparently only has until the Memorial Day recess to decide whether to give President Barack Obama so-called "fast-track" authority on trade deals.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned colleagues on Monday that they would have to deal with all but the Ex-Im Bank this week or give up their pending recess, which is scheduled to begin Friday.
"Senators should know that I'm quite serious," McConnell said. "I would advise against making any sort of travel arrangements until the path forward becomes clear." Later he clarified that he meant all three priorities had to be cleared before he would let the Senate adjourn.
Further complicating matters is that House and Senate GOP leaders aren't on the same legislative page. Last week the House overwhelmingly approved Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's tweaks to the domestic surveillance programs that would curtail the National Security Agency's authority to collect telephone "metadata" from Americans' phone records in bulk. But the Senate refused to take up the measure authored by the Menomonee Falls Republican.
McConnell doesn't just want the Senate to consider the USA Freedom Act; he wants lawmakers to approve an outright extension of the surveillance programs, including roving wiretaps, the so-called "lone-wolf" provision and the phone records' dragnet. See more below on U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson's tentative support for the Sensenbrenner measure.
On the trade front, McConnell wants Congress to approve Trade Promotion Authority, or "fast-track" authority, which allows a president to present a trade deal to Congress for simple up-or-down approval with no opportunity for amendment. A majority of Democrats--with Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, being a notable exception-- oppose doing so. And bipartisan filibuster threats against the legislation abound in the Senate, which last week blocked the bill from coming to the floor.
However, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, TPA's House champion, swears he can find the House votes to pass it if the Senate can.
"We will have the votes," Ryan said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "We're doing very well. We're gaining a lot of steam and momentum."
One proposed amendment to TPA in the Senate would reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank, which would further jeopardize the underlying bill's chances, especially in the House. There are major divisions within the GOP over allowing the bank to continue operating. Congress used to routinely extend the bank's authority but now many conservative Republicans rail against the government credit agency, saying it picks corporate winners and losers.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, is the bank's most powerful opponent. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Weston, a subcommittee chairman, last year was noncommittal about the bank's fate but now backs his chairman and opposes reauthorizing it, according to his office. The only other Wisconsinite on the panel, Milwaukee's Gwen Moore, has sponsored legislation to keep the bank open.
"The moment we let it expire, is the moment we lose thousands of American jobs," said Moore spokesman Eric Harris. "That's a big problem. Democrats are aligned on this."
Less controversial, but nonetheless somewhat problematic for McConnell, is the matter of highway funding. McConnell has proposed only extending contracting authority for another two months. Democrats howl in opposition, but are likely to ultimately go along with it. The House is expected to easily pass its own version of a two-month extension this week.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, who harshly criticized then-primary opponent Joe Leibham for holding a fundraiser with former Dem lawmaker Bill Broydrick, is doing one with the lobbyist and his wife in DC today.
An invite obtained by WisPolitics.com shows the power lobbying couple are holding a dinner to support Grothman, R-Campbellsport.
Grothman said there was no hypocrisy in doing a fundraiser with Broydrick after criticizing Leibham for doing the same. He said that while it was an issue in the GOP primary, he is now representing the entire 6th CD.
"Now that I'm a congressman, I think it's important for Wisconsin businesses to see me get re-elected, and Bill and Cindi represent a lot of Wisconsin businesses," Grothman said.
Bill Broydrick declined comment when contacted by WisPolitics.com.
The July 2014 fundraiser Bill Broydrick hosted with Tommy Thompson and some of the former guv's aides for Leibham became an issue in the three-way primary for the 6th CD. Duey Stroebel ran a TV ad that slammed Leibham for "taking money from the same insiders who are funding Mary Burke's campaign against Scott Walker." Grothman likewise criticized Leibham over the event.
Grothman said today he has instructed his fundraiser not to set up events involving those representing the payday loan industry, rent-to-own, cigarette companies, Goldman Sachs or Native American gaming.
"Those are my restrictions," he said. "I've known Bill and Cindi a long time, and they represent a lot of Wisconsin businesses."
The House plans a vote this week on Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's USA Freedom Act, only days after a key federal appeals court ruling.
Sensenbrenner's bill would alter and reauthorize some of the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Just last week a federal appeals court ruled the intelligence community's domestic phone records database is illegal.
Revelations in mid-2013 by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone "metadata" from Americans' phone records in bulk prompted calls to reign in the spy agency's surveillance powers. The NSA and other intelligence agencies relied on a broad interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act for their power to sift through the timestamp information of Americans' phone calls.
Last week the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the program.
"Congress never intended Section 215 to allow bulk collection," Patriot Act author Sensenbrenner stated in response. "This program is illegal and based on a blatant misinterpretation of the law."
The Menomonee Falls Republican and his Senate partner, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., set about rewriting that controversial section, among others, shortly after the Snowden revelations. Their ultimate product, the USA Freedom Act, eventually won the support of the Obama administration, the intelligence community, the technology sector and privacy advocates. Approved by the House, the bill nearly became law last year but fell two votes shy of breaking a Senate filibuster in the waning days of the 113th Congress.
Now facing a June 1 deadline--when Section 215, roving wiretaps and the so-called "lone-wolf" provision sunset--and the appeals court call for Congress to weigh in, the House is set to again take the lead and pass the Sensenbrenner-Leahy legislation.
The Republican congressional leadership is divided, however, on how to proceed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wants to push through a short-term extension of the expiring provisions, which has drawn filibuster threats from the likes of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a USA Freedom Act backer.
"The USA Freedom Act protects civil liberties and bolsters national security," Sensenbrenner said about his bill. "It has been carefully negotiated to strike a delicate balance, and I expect it to again pass the House with overwhelming bipartisan support. I implore my colleagues in the Senate to follow our lead, pass this important legislation and send it to the president.
"Letting Section 215 and other surveillance authorities sunset would hamper the ability of the intelligence community to protect our national security. And a clean reauthorization would be irresponsible, allowing the blatant misinterpretation of the law to continue. The USA Freedom Act is the only responsible path forward."
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, voted against taking up the USA Freedom Act last year. Now chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, he has been noncommittal about whether he supports this year's version of the bill and brief about what kind of rewrite or overhaul he would like to see.
Effective intelligence gathering with congressional oversight is the "first line of defense," Johnson said in an interview with WisPolitics before the appeals court ruling.
"They're patriots," he said about intelligence agency workers. "They're not looking to read random Americans' emails for prurient interest."
Since the court ruling, Johnson has tipped his hand a bit more.
"It's important to note that the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals did not rule it unconstitutional," he stated on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. "They just said it was not being applied properly based on the law that was written. So we need to take a very careful look at the way we write these, quite honestly, very complex laws."
"Bob deserves this moment," former U.S. Rep. David Obey said of the late Bob Kastenmeier during a memorial for the former long-time Democratic congressman who represented the Madison area for 32 years. "His demeanor was restrained, but his determination was dogged," Obey eulogized as he noted that his friend probably wouldn't have wanted all the attention.
Obey was among the many current or former members of Congress to speak at or attend Wednesday's hour-long service in the Rayburn House Office Building. Former staffers, colleagues, friends and current Hill workers packed the Judiciary Committee room where Kastenmeier, as a committee member and subcommittee chairman, spent hours hearing testimony from philosophical foes as well as friends.
GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who years after Kastenmeier's 1990 defeat at the polls by Scott Klug rose to Judiciary Committee chairman and remains a subcommittee chairman, secured the room for the service. Among those paying their respects were current and former delegation members, including Obey,Tammy Baldwin, Mark Pocan, Gwen Moore, Ron Kind, Tom Petri and Bob Kasten.
Speaker after speaker told of his purity of heart and his resolve. Many listed his opposition to the Vietnam War and his historic "teach-ins" as reasons they admired the quiet lawmaker who hailed from Beaver Dam. In discussing his fairness, many cited how he forced the Judiciary Committee to vote on the impeachment charges against President Nixon individually rather than en masse.
"Bob could be a fighter ... but he could work effectively across the aisle," said former Rep. Matt McHugh, D-N.Y. "He was very humble, which is rare for our profession,'' McHugh added to laughs from the audience.
A WWII veteran and Vietnam War opponent, Kastenmeier had no use for the House Un-American Activities Committee and worked to "put it out of business," Obey said to applause.
Two of Kastenmeier's successors, the current 2nd District representative, Pocan, and Baldwin, who held the seat before becoming senator, talked about how Kastenmeier's service inspired them to seek office themselves.
Pocan, then a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Kastenmeier's re-election race was the first federal campaign he volunteered for. "He made you really want to work for him," Pocan said..
"He was a great leader," Baldwin said.
Others discussed his groundbreaking work in the areas of copyright and patents, both of which fell under his subcommittee.
"Copyright and intellectual property is basically not ideological," Kastenmeier once told an interviewer. "If you think the law has to be changed, updated, that doesn't really have anything to do with being conservative or liberal."
Kastenmeier wrote the bill that in 1976 updated copyright law for the first time in almost 70 years. In the area of copyright and patents, he wrote 48 laws, many of which dealt with technological advances. The 1976 law established copyright guidelines for radio, television, photocopying, tape recording and computer storage. Later legislation of his dealt with copyright protection for software and semiconductor chips.
His subcommittee also oversaw the federal judiciary, which he reorganized or revamped several times. In that capacity, he also wrote legislation that extended wiretap protection to cellphones for the first time and established the FISA court, much to many other liberals' chagrin.
His Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 outlines how the government can physically and electronically survey foreign powers and agents. It has its own court, which hears, in secret, evidence from U.S. intelligence agencies and grants wiretaps and surveillance of suspected terrorists, both abroad and domestically.
"Many laws should be called the Kastenmeier Act, but he never sought fame or credit," said Bruce Lehman, a long-time committee aide to Kastenmeier. "He just wanted to make America and the world better."
Kastenmeier died March 20 of heart failure. He was 91.