Votes and quotes from Wisconsin’s Republican senator show a preference for policies that favor businesses, banks, and credit card companies over workers and consumers.
As Wisconsin families wrestle with global inflation—the byproduct of an economy bouncing back rapidly after the initial pandemic crash—there is a lot of focus on how much households are spending. But folks should also look at how much they’re making—and how much more it could have been if a big boost in overtime pay hadn’t been killed with the help of Wisconsin Republicans, including one on the ballot this fall with a long record of choosing Blue Chips over blue collars.
During his campaign for re-election,Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has already taken offense to the notion that his vast increase in personal wealth is connected to his tenure in Congress. He similarly rejected the claim that he pushed through a significant tax break for businesses in 2017 that he personally benefited from.
But as Johnson’s 12-year record comes under deeper scrutiny between now and November, he’s also likely to find himself on the defensive about how his votes impact other families rather than his own.
Workers Deserve Overtime. Johnson Opposed An Effort to Give it to Them.
In 2016, the Obama administration introduced a plan to make four million more American workers eligible for overtime pay in an effort to boost workers’ incomes and reverse a decades-long slide of the percentage of workers who could earn more money for more hours.
In 1975, 63% of American workers qualified to be paid time-and-a-half if they worked more than 40 hours in a week. By 1985, only 14% qualified. By 2015, less than 8% of the American workforce was eligible to receive overtime pay. Today the figure is 15%, but a Gallup survey in 2019 shows 52% of the workforce reports working more than 40 hours a week; with 39% saying they work 50 hours or more weekly.
Johnson opposed Obama’s plan and co-sponsored a bill that would have nullified any overtime improvement done through the rulemaking process, instead of navigating an often-unnavigable Congress.
At the time, polling in Wisconsin showed 81% of voters favored raising the overtime threshold, but banks and businesses did not. Johnson took their side.
The American Bankers Association (ABA), one of the groups that lobbied against the overtime expansion and in support of Johnson’s bill, called the Obama proposal a “drastic increase [that] will present significant challenges for our members that provide banking services in lower cost-of-living areas of the country, particularly community banks.”
Johnson called the effort to improve overtime pay “another regulation that will increase costs to businesses, nonprofits and colleges, depress entrepreneurial spirits, and cause negative unintended consequences for employees.”
A federal judge ultimately blocked Obama’s plan, but Johnson’s opposition put him in direct opposition to the roughly 165,000 Wisconsin workers who would have received an extra $23.2 million per year in additional pay under the proposal, according to an analysis from the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
“A typical worker who lost out on expanded overtime pay was an assistant manager at a big-box retail store or a restaurant chain who earns $25,000 to $45,000 a year,” said the NELP report. “Other affected workers include low-level, low-paid managers at banks, health insurance companies, and a wide range of other types of businesses.”
Johnson’s Tax Cut Giveaway Helped Big Businesses and Banks… and Himself
Another example that shows where Johnson’s priorities lie came with the now-infamous corporate tax giveaway that Johnson insisted on before he would support former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax bill. Despite broad Republican support, the banking industry expressed concerns that “provisions in the Senate bill could affect our members and our customers, including the treatment of pass-throughs,” a category of corporations that do not have to pay taxes on their profits since the profits pass through directly to the owners who then have to pay individual taxes on them.
Johnson surprised his colleagues around that time by saying he would oppose the bill unless the tax break for pass-through companies was made more generous.
The ABA bankers lobby sought and then said it received reassurance that many banks would qualify for the higher tax deduction. One year later, bank profits jumped 44% to a record $237 billion. A large part of that was credited to the Trump tax bill, with critics saying the tax savings were not passed along to consumers “who are still getting next to nothing on their savings accounts,” Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets, an advocacy group for stronger financial regulations, told Politico.
Johnson describes the sweetened pass-through deduction as benefiting most small businesses, and he’s technically correct. But as the investigative news site ProPublica reported last year, Johnson’s tax break delivers the majority of its tax savings to the wealthiest 1% of Americans by income.
The tax break for pass-throughs also benefited Johnson, who later sold his business, Pacur, a pass-through entity, for an amount between $5 million and $20 million, according to a statement of economic interest. A Johnson spokesman has said the criticisms of a personal financial benefit “grossly distort” the impact and “falsely imply a selfish motive.”
Johnson Takes on an Agency Meant to Protect Working Class People
If that wasn’t enough, Johnson and bankers also worked together on legislation that would increase the advantage banks have over individuals. When Johnson introduced a bill to weaken the power of the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in 2017, the ABA praised the move as necessary to “reforming the CFPB.” Critics hoped to replace a single “czar” with a board more likely to become bogged down in political divides as has been seen in other federal agencies like the Federal Elections Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.
Wall Street fiercely opposed the creation of the new consumer watchdog agency in the wake of the 2008 market crash and the Great Recession—the result of years of deregulating the banking, credit, and housing sectors. Banks and credit card companies were especially outraged at a CFPB rule that would allow their customers to sue them instead of being forced into arbitration with a third party. The rule was rescinded during the Trump administration, with Johnson voting against consumers and Vice President Mike Pence sealing the deal with a tie breaking 51st vote.
Johnson would likely defend these proposals as being good economic policies, but who exactly have they been good for?
Banks have certainly done well over the past decade and have showered some of those profits on Johnson. Between 2010 and March 2022, records from the Federal Elections Commission show Johnson has received $60,000 from the ABA’s political action committee, BANKPAC. In the wake of the ProPublica report, Johnson said his legislative actions have “nothing to do with any donor or discussions with them.”
“As someone who spent 31 years building a successful manufacturing company in Wisconsin, I have long said that our tax system needs to be simplified and rationalized,” Johnson said in a statement.
But Johnson’s actions and motivations are likely to be questioned by the Wisconsin families who are unable to author tax breaks that grow their own bank accounts. Many families remain scarred by losing their homes to foreclosure. Some families may be mystified that a senator would defiantly defend not lobbying for jobs to come to his own hometown.
Families are dealing with an infant formula shortage while their senator tries to blame immigrant babies. Some of them own small businesses and watched Johnson vote against helping thousands of Wisconsin restaurants recover from the pandemic. (“I’m not that fond of restaurants,” he told an interviewer days earlier.)
Most families don’t have private jets that help them get around COVID travel fears—fears exacerbated by a sitting US senator spreading misinformation about vaccines, promoting unsafe animal dewormers, and telling people to fight the coronavirus with mouthwash.
And as families try to weather inflation, they have a senator praising a plan to raise their taxes.
The most recent Marquette Law School Poll shows Johnson continues to be underwater in whether he’s viewed favorably (37%) or unfavorably (46%) by Wisconsin voters. While he has defied the odds to win twice already, his bid for a third term may depend on overcoming a growing list of reasons to suspect a disconnect between what he’s doing for businesses and banks rather than Wisconsin families and small businesses.