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Ron Johnson targets relief bill in a decidedly post-policy way

If policymakers were in the midst of a discussion about the thickness of American currency, Johnson's presentation might've been compelling.
Image: Ron Johnson
Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., speaks at a hearing to examine the nomination of Neera Tanden, on Capitol Hill, on Feb. 10, 2021.Anna Moneymaker / Pool via Reuters file

The good news is, Republican officials, who've been largely content to ignore the Democrats' COVID relief package, have started to come up with some talking points.

The bad news is, those talking points are plainly ridiculous. Business Insider reported:

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin took to the Senate floor Wednesday to rip Democrats over their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, known as the American Rescue Plan. Johnson's overarching message: $1.9 trillion is, physically, a lot of money.

The Republican senator stood alongside a posterboard with a series of details about the literal, physical size of a stack of a trillion $1 bills. Johnson seemed eager to let his colleagues know, in fact, that such a stack would be 67,866 miles high. (I have no idea if his math is correct. I also don't care.)

"That is what we are debating spending," the Wisconsinite said. "A stack of dollar bills that extends more than halfway the distance to the moon."

Johnson proceeded to make the case that a stack of singles representing the entirety of the U.S. national debt would bring us even closer to Earth's moon.

To be sure, if policymakers were in the midst of a discussion about the thickness of American currency, this might've been a compelling observation. But at issue is a COVID relief package in the midst of a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis, all of which made Johnson's argument rather ... odd.

As best as I can tell, the GOP senator's larger point seemed to be that the ambitious legislation is expensive, and that $1.9 trillion is a lot of money. That's true. It's also true that the Republicans' 2017 package of tax cuts was similarly expensive, as was last year's CARES Act. Johnson voted for both, without regard for the literal height of imagined piles of money.

Indeed, part of what made Johnson's argument so extraordinary was the degree to which it was divorced from anything resemblance substance. If the Wisconsin Republican wants to make the case that the investments are unnecessary, fine. If he wants to argue that the bill should be structured differently, he's welcome to present an alternative.

But to argue that senators shouldn't vote for a popular and worthwhile bill because a stack of a trillion $1 bills would be 67,866 miles high is a decidedly post-policy approach. It's a detail that tells us nothing about the merits of the legislation.

Johnson's challenge is to fill in this blank: "$1.9 trillion is a lot of money, and therefore _____." He seems to think that the statement answers itself, as if describing a bill as expensive is enough to discredit it. He's mistaken.

And just as importantly, he's echoing equally misguided arguments from 12 years ago. As I noted in my book (see pages 22 and 23), in 2009, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) stood not far from where Johnson stood yesterday, and delivered impassioned remarks in opposition to the Democrats' Recovery Act.

To make the case against the stimulus, the South Dakotan focused specifically on the physical size of $1 trillion, explaining in detail -- and alongside a posterboard -- that if officials were to stack $100 bills on top of one another, $1 trillion would be 689 miles high. What's more, if they tied those bills end to end, $1 trillion would wrap the circumference of the planet nearly 39 times.

It wasn't an economic argument. It was symbolic trivia with no substantive significance whatsoever.

More than a decade later, Johnson apparently thought it'd be a good idea to do a very similar presentation. He thought wrong.