URBANA — Four days from the end of his 42-year political career, U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson said Sunday he had never been so frustrated as over Congress' seeming failure to resolve the "fiscal cliff" issue.
And it became personal for the retiring Republican congressman when he delayed a long-planned vacation with family members — just in case he needs to fly back to Washington, D.C., for a vote today.
"This confirms why I did what I finally did last spring," Johnson said about his announcement he would not run for a seventh term in Congress.
"Within a month or two of the time I made my announcement, we booked a family vacation. We set it well after the scheduled adjournment, well after the time the House, to my knowledge, has ever been in session, so that we'd be completely safe. And now we come to this with the preschool mentality prevailing, and the brinksmanship continuing.
"The result is I had to cancel or postpone my portion of a family trip that I had looked forward to. It's disappointing to say the least, but it does confirm the wisdom of what I did. But I really feel that I'm still a United States congressman. I'm still getting paid good money to do my job. And the biggest issue, at least of this year, I shouldn't be absent on."
But there was no certainty there would be anything to vote about today, the last day Congress has to avoid going over the so-called fiscal cliff of major tax increases and budget cuts.
"If there is a resolution on this issue and we have the opportunity to vote, I need to be there. But I'd sure as heck like them to tell me what we're going to do because I don't want to continue to postpone and tell my family that they have to wait another three or four days, and have our time together wiped out," Johnson said.
Johnson said he had never been so frustrated in his 12 years in Congress, 24 years in the Illinois House and five on the Urbana City Council.
"Not even close," he said. "There were times I was frustrated in the Legislature but nothing like this. Then, in the Legislature, I think an individual legislator, particularly me because of my position in the leadership, had the ability to influence things a little more directly. Where debates matter and where the interaction of ideas mattered and where compromise was viable, it was more possible there. In some ways you're almost powerless here.
"I've never seen this kind of gridlock for this long and to this degree. I've never seen public outrage the way it is now. In four days I'm going to be part of the public and I'm going to start urging my four congressmen — the ones who have part of my old district — to start cleaning things up."
Johnson said he wants a fiscal cliff solution to include three main elements — the continuation of tax cuts, changes to the "death tax" and some promise of budget cuts.
"I need to have death tax reform. I need to have significant tax relief for most American taxpayers. And I need to have some substantive efforts, through legislation, to address what I believe is a spending orgy that has gotten out of control and is going to kill us," he said.
The budget cuts that will come without some last-minute resolution "in many cases would be good," Johnson insisted. "Everyone seems to be concerned about budget cuts. I'm not concerned about budget cuts. I'm not concerned about defense cuts. If one of the results of this is that you have such significant cuts in defense that we're forced to an accelerated date of the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan, and we're forced not to engage in drone warfare in Libya and Syria where we have been operating unconstitutionally, then I guess there's a silver lining in the cloud."
Getting a flight from central Illinois to Washington could be a problem, he said.
"It's difficult to book a ticket on short notice. And I know that other members are having those issues too. It's far from guaranteed that I will be able to lock down a ticket," he said. "I don't want to bump other people from their vacation because I need to have to go out and vote. So logistically, it isn't going to be easy either."
Johnson blamed President Obama and the congressional leadership for the lack of a budget and tax deal.
"This should have been done last May or June or July," he said. "Congress' approval rating is about 11 percent. It's staggering to me that it's that high. The blame falls on the legislative and executive leadership. They have totally failed the American people. If there was a 1 to 100 scale, they'd get a minus 10. They are preschoolers in their actions, and both parties and both chambers are complicit. It is outrageous. And yet in this most recent election most people got re-elected, including the president. I'm not sure what message that is sending other than the fact that I'm leaving at a time when I think we have hit rock bottom in terms of American democracy."