U.S. Rep. TIM JOHNSON, R-Urbana, whose time in elective office went from the Urbana City Council to more than 20 years in the Illinois House to getting elected to the Congress in 2000, is cutting his own path as he seeks another term in a new district.

U.S. Rep. TIM JOHNSON, R-Urbana, whose time in elective office went from the Urbana City Council to more than 20 years in the Illinois House to getting elected to the Congress in 2000, is cutting his own path as he seeks another term in a new district.

Whether that path leads to two more years in the House remains to be seen.

He was either being bold or off the wall last week when he announced a proposal called the Citizen Legislator Act that he estimates would cut $2 billion a year from what the country spends on Congress. Among the proposals are to slice the $174,000-a-year salary of members in half, along with the office allowances, committee expenditures and leadership budgets; allow members of Congress to have outside jobs if they are not just cashing in on their elected post with lobbying, consulting or speaking tours; and limit Congress to meeting five days per month or 60 business days per session.

Oh, and for every five days Congress spends in session over the limit, another 10 percent cut in salary would take effect.

“We are paid generous salaries to accomplish very little,” Johnson said in a statement. “Our country is beyond broke, and we have earned every ounce of disapproval the public has shown us.”

He said the plan “may not be a perfect instrument in the eyes of Washington insiders, but it is a beginning step in righting the ship.”

Johnson initially took a term-limit pledge when running for Congress in 2000, saying he wouldn’t serve more than three terms, but in October 2002 he announced he had made a mistake and lifted the self-imposed limit. That history was not lost on MATT GOETTEN, the Greene County state’s attorney who is one of two Democrats seeking their party’s nomination in the new 13th Congressional District, which includes much of Springfield and where Johnson is now running.

“Congressman Johnson is part of the problem in Washington, and it’s clear he’ll do anything to stay in Congress,” Goetten said in a statement. He called the Johnson plan “bogus.”

Goetten’s response was prompted in part by quotes from Johnson himself when he unveiled the plan. Asked about the likely charge that he is just self-promoting, Johnson told the News-Gazette of Champaign, “They’re right that I want to make myself look good, but I want to make myself look honestly good. … I want to stand out as someone who actually cares about making the system work.”

DAVID GILL, an emergency room physician from Bloomington and the other Democrat in the race, thinks that Johnson’s idea would put corporate lobbyists even more in charge in D.C., because knowledgeable staff reviews bills.

“I do not believe that what the American people want is a Congress that spends less time working and is more dependent on, for example, the American Petroleum Council for expertise on energy issues because they have no policy staffs,” Gill said in a statement. He also said Johnson “should start with himself” if he believes his idea, by cutting his own staff in half and halving his own pay.

PHIL BLOOMER, spokesman for Johnson, said cutting his own staff now would be “tantamount to unilateral disarmament and doesn’t accomplish anything. What would the good doctor do? … At least Tim Johnson is trying to do something.” He said House Republicans have already cut office budgets 5 percent last year and 6.4 percent more this year. And, in 2010, the last year for which information is available from the House Financial Services Office, Johnson’s office didn’t use more than $150,000 of the money available for his office expenses, Bloomer said. This year’s allotment for such expenses — based on the district’s size and distance from Washington — is just under $1.32 million, Bloomer said.

Johnson is also being challenged by two people in the March 20 GOP primary, but they don’t appear to be mounting strong campaigns. Neither has reached the $5,000 threshold to start a fundraising committee.

MICHAEL FIRSCHING,  a veterinarian from Madison County near Moro, describes himself as conservative, libertarian and constitutional in bent, and said of Johnson’s plan, “I essentially agree with the ideas behind it.”

FRANK METZGER is a 70-year-old former union ironworker and Navy veteran of Vietnam turned tree-service owner and tea party Republican. “As soon as I read the details, I’m sure I’m going to like it,” Metzger said.

Johnson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he expects “a lot of resistance” to the idea, but also thinks “people want fundamental change.”

Johnson’s cost-cutting idea was embraced — but just in part — by a fellow member of the Illinois delegation. U.S. Rep. AARON SCHOCK, R-Peoria, is running for re-election in the new 18th, which includes the rest of Springfield.

“I like the idea of citizen legislators,” Schock told reporters on a conference call Wednesday, with lawmakers allowed to earn outside income and spending more time in their districts.
“Quite frankly, I made more before I came to Congress than I do now,” he said.

But Schock cautioned against “slashing” office expenses, saying his paid staff is “the first line of defense for our constituents in holding unelected bureaucrats accountable.” He said constituents often go to his offices in Springfield or Peoria because they are “having trouble getting hold of a federal bureaucrat or getting the response they need from the federal government.” He said there have been some cuts in committee and staff budgets over two years, but far from the 50 percent level, which he called arbitrary.

“It’s an interesting concept, but I think the devil’s in the details,” Schock said of Johnson’s plan.

Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.