Interview with Congressman Mark Pocan
Breaking the gridlock
by A. David Dahmer
“I always try to find out what I have in common with people rather than what our differences might be,” says U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan. “It’s easy to find where you’re different, but for me in Congress, it’s more about finding the pieces that you have [together] that you can actually work off of. It’s just smarter.”
Pocan, the first-term congressman from the 2nd Congressional District, recently sat down with The Madison Times at Ancora Coffee on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison to discuss the trials and tribulations of his first two years in Congress and how he is working to get past the gridlock. How is the U.S. Congress different than the Wisconsin State Legislature he served 14 years in?
“All of the fundamentals are basically the same — you’re just learning a different set of federal issues versus state issues,” Pocan says. “I think what really surprised me the most was the level of dysfunction right now in Congress thanks to the Tea Party who brought us to a shutdown in October. In 1948, the Congress was dubbed the ‘do-nothing Congress’ because of how little they got done. In the first year of that session, that passed only 350 bills. We’ve passed 88 the last session.
“I tell people that sometimes things can move like a tortoise in state government,” Pocan adds. “But there, they move like an upside-down tortoise. You just have to have that patience that it will function better again.”
Pocan defeated Republican candidate Chad Lee in 2012 to win the congressional seat formerly held by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. He went to Washington D.C. optimistic about what he could get done, but that optimism soon dissipated as he saw the gridlock that has come to define U.S. Congress the last few years. The government shutdown was particularly disturbing to Pocan. “To shut down government is a truly ‘out there’ action. The fact that we did it with no plan was strange. It was like they kidnapped us and then lost the ransom note. So every day — and sometimes multiple times in a day — we had different demands,” Pocan says. “And they didn’t really have a mission; they just wanted to shut down government because some people don’t believe in government. But they run for office to run it and get a paycheck from it. There’s a disconnect there that’s a problem.”
Nevertheless, Pocan has been reaching across the aisle to find commonalities starting with the politicians from his own state.
“I’ve done a lot to make sure that I try and reach out to the other side of the aisle; especially within our Wisconsin delegation,” Pocan says. “We don’t have a Tea Partier within our house delegation so because of that we have a way of working together … which is good. Reid Ribble (R-Neenah) and I have done a lot of bills together. Even with Paul Ryan (R-Janesville), we disagree on many things but we share Rock County so there’s issues we work on together. I’ve spent a lot of time working on relationships and with federal agencies. I just know that legislatively I shouldn’t expect too much right now.”
Pocan says that the biggest overarching issue right now is to make sure he is doing everything he can to help create jobs and get the economy going. “We’ve been doing slowly and steadily better, but that still leaves a lot of people behind,” Pocan says. “We have a growing number of chronically unemployed people and for those people it is especially hard. I wish we would do more to invest in infrastructure and to rebuild some of our bridges and roads — many of which are eligible for Medicare by how old they are. That will help get people to work and it will help repair our country.”
Pocan says he’d like to also see a bigger investment in education. “We need to make sure that we have affordable higher education so anybody can go if you have the talent,” Pocan says. “It shouldn’t depend on whether you can afford to.
“I also think we should be investing in research and development. That’s an area where I think we can be highly competitive,” he adds.
Pocan looks at those three important issues —jobs, education, and research — as legs of a stool that is essential to turning around the economy of the United States. “We need to get serious about these issues and focus more on them,” Pocan says. “Instead, we recently voted for the 54th time to appeal the Affordable Care Act. That doesn’t serve us any purpose any more. I think the public expects us to get work done.”
As a small businessman himself, Pocan says that his bread-and-butter issues are jobs and the economy.
“We’ve had productivity gains [in the United States], but the wages have been flat. All the money has gone to the top 1 or 2 percent. In 1988, the ration of CEO pay to the lowest-paid employee was about 40 to 1. Now, it’s 354 to 1,” Pocan says. “The problem is that if you had the minimum wage adjusted for inflation to 1968 it would be $10.67 an hour. So, really, a lot of people have been left behind while the economy has moved forward. That’s what we have to address. It’s all about being able to provide a family an opportunity to succeed and I think right now we’re not doing our best at that.
“We’re now fighting over how little we are paying in minimum wage,” Pocan adds. “Most people who are getting $15,000-a-year on minimum wage are getting subsidized benefits from the taxpayers. We’re subsidizing the 15 percent of corporations who don’t treat people fairly in how they pay. If you’re working at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s and get that low, low pay, we subsidize it through BadgerCare and other things in society.”
Pocan agrees that it’s time that we stop demonizing the poor and the working class. Pocan himself came from a middle-class background in Kenosha, Wis.
“SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], for example, is a hand up; not a hand out. It’s helping people who need it the most. That’s $31.50 a week. Nobody is living high off $31.50 a week. When they were talking about cutting it … I lived off $31.50 a week. I experienced that. I spent $6 on a bag of oranges which was tought because that was a good chunk of my money gone already. I lived on Ramen noodle soup and peanut butter and those sort of things. It’s a reality for many, many people,” Pocan says. “I think much of our job is to not just keep taxes low for corporations, it should be about how we make sure real Americans are able to get by and to have opportunities. When we have the tremendous income disparity that we do, we’re not providing opportunities.”
Another interesting issue that Pocan is working on is prison reform. And he’s working on it with, of all people, conservative Grover Norquist. “Prison is expensive and it hurts families and we just have far too many people imprisoned for far too many reasons,” Pocan says.
“I think we can do things differently and invest more in prevention and early intervention. The fact that I’m working with someone who I agree with on very little, shows how big this problem has gotten in America. There are so many things that we can do that are smarter around crime.”
Another hot topic on the national agenda right now is immigration. Pocan thought there was a chance something could get done last year but thinks that it is doubtful anything will get done this year. “I really believe that if we don’t do it by 2016 and the Republicans continue to block it that they won’t be a national political party,” Pocan says. “Paul Ryan also agrees with that. In fact, he’s a strong advocate for immigration reform. But for very pragmatic, political reasons.
“We need to find a path to citizenship for people who are here and this is their home,” Pocan adds. “At the same time, you want to have legal entry into the United States. It’s having that comprehensive package. The problem is that some folks in the House [of Representatives], especially some conservatives who don’t support immigration reform, they have an attitude of ‘Let’s build a wall first and then we’ll do the rest.’ But I know what happens … the rest never gets done. You just have a big wall. And you still have the problems you have right now with people who are aspiring Americans without documents who, because of that, get taken advantage of in the workplace or are victims of domestic violence. There are so many things societally that are a problem. We need to get immigration done.”
Last year, Pocan and Keith Ellison (D-MN) announced legislation to explicitly guarantee the right to vote in the Constitution. The Pocan-Ellison Right to Vote Amendment would amend the Constitution to provide all Americans the affirmative right to vote and empower Congress to protect this right.
“One of the big problems on the voting stuff that you see in Wisconsin and other states where they keep passing these more restrictive laws — whether it be photo ID, ending early voting, making it harder to register. It really disenfranchises a large chunk of folks from being able to vote,” Pocan says. “It’s really about politicians picking their voters rather than voters picking their elected officials. Rather than having to fight state by state by state, we thought if you had a Constitutional right to vote it would make it so the state would have to prove that they are not burdening an individual when they are making a law. Right now, it’s the opposite. It would be in favor of the average voter. I think it’s one of the great equalizers in society that we just have to have.”
Through his first two years, Pocan has very active with the Progressive Caucus in Congress and states that one of his goals is to continue that. “We’re the largest values-based caucus in Congress on the Democratic side,” he says. “I’d like to be more active with the Progressive Caucus.
“I’ve been doing a long work with labor and with workers’ rights. I think that’s valuable. Being a union member … there’s not many of us. Half of my colleagues in Congress are millionaires. It’s a little different body,” Pocan continues. “I think I can often be a voice for workers and the middle class in Congress. It’s very important right now.
“One of my freshman colleagues in Congress is a hedge fund manager and he’s worth $400 million,” Pocan adds. “I just don’t know if we look at things the same way to actually have to think about how much you have to pay for everyday things. Being on food stamps myself once, I have a perspective. I think it’s easier for me to walk in other people’s shoes. It helps you make decisions that are in the best interest of the general public.”
Pocan currently doesn’t have an opponent in the Aug. 12 primary election, so he'll soon be running against Republican congressional candidate Peter Theron of Madison in the November general elections. With so much on his agenda that he wants to get accomplished,
Pocan knows that politicians like himself have to get past the quagmire and the true dysfunction in Congress to do something for the American people.
“We have to get it going here in Congress. It has to. Or we should throw everyone out. It’s very frustrating,” Pocan says. “Right now, I think 9 percent or 12 percent of people think Congress is doing a good job. It is 30 or 40 people that hold the rest of us —Democrat and Republican — hostage. These people really don’t like government but they ran for office to run it. They will lose interest in that real quickly. Just saying ‘no’ is not a very fulfilling job. The will lose people sooner or later. Things have to get better. I’m optimistic that it will. The American people deserve better.”