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Full transcript of U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan’s interview with The Daily Cardinal

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who received an undergraduate degree in journalism from UW-Madison, took a trip to Vilas Hall to speak with Cardinal staff about national and local issues affecting Wisconsin.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

In April, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., sat down for with The Daily Cardinal an hour-long interview to discuss issues surrounding the university, Wisconsin and the nation as a whole. Pocan represents Wisconsin’s second congressional district which includes Dane County and UW-Madison.

In addition to a few excerpts available, the following is the full transcript of the interview.

CARDINAL: Is Wisconsin influential?

POCAN: I’d say it’s de-influential. Not exactly at the forefront of much good, let’s put it that way. Some of the things Scott Walker has done in attacking unions has been replicated by some other states but that’s more Republican think tanks giving [ideas] to willing governors to try to do across the country.

I don’t think anyone, unfortunately, looks at our state government right now and says “Wow that’s a great innovation coming out of Wisconsin right now.” Just the opposite on the research stuff. I think we still have a lot of [science] innovation outside of state government, but I don’t think we have a lot of innovation these days coming out of state government.

CARDINAL: State Sen. Fred Risser said last month that Wisconsin is one of the most partisan states in the union. Is that because of heightened partisanship at the national level or just what’s going on internally?

POCAN: A couple of factors come into play; we’re a purple state so that alone is going to lead to more tension. I think what happened in 2010 with redistricting and the Tea Party, kind of growing out of this part-racism, part-not-believing-in-government and then the Republican establishment funded [the Tea Party]. Then they wound up with a Frankenstein monster, and they don’t quite know how to reel back now. U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy [R-Wis.] was just saying how hard it is for them to govern with the Tea Party. But that happened in 2010 and it took about two more years and then you saw it happen [in Wisconsin]. So now, when we had what we refer to as the “uprising,” the collective bargaining changes that happened back in the 2011 session—I was still in the legislature at the time. I was told it’s like less than 30 percent of the legislature is still there from that period. [Wisconsin state government] has had a lot of turnover and relatively short amount of time. Besides Fred Risser 'cause he’s been here since dirt.

I think that’s the bigger thing because you saw it nationally—this reaction to an African American president, which was the racist part of the Tea Party—and then the kind of rise of people who don’t believe in government. Then they kind of merged, and then the Koch brothers and others funded them and gave them the fuel. Suddenly this fire was bigger than they could contain. Now you’ve got, for us, about a 40 person, give or take, on the issue Tea Party contingent that makes it very difficult in Congress, but now we’re seeing that right here in the [state] legislature.

I’m guessing other states have some similar intensity, but certainly being a purple state on top of that effect gives the right elements to have a very divided legislature.

CARDINAL: How are you and your fellow representatives representing Wisconsinites when you openly oppose the president? How are you getting things through Congress?

POCAN: Part of it is, when I was in the state legislature, things move slowly. I always say they move like a tortoise. But in the federal level they move like an upside down tortoise. It’s just a very slow process regardless. So I don’t necessarily expect Congress to fly through a lot of issues, but since 2010, unfortunately, very little has happened. We don’t do budgets the normal way which is passing the 12 appropriations bills.

I think the positive thing for Wisconsin members of the house is we have this longstanding kind of rule going back to Dave Obey and Jim Sensenbrenner from Milwaukee suburbs ...We kind of stay out of each other's districts at election time, we don’t campaign against each other. And it’s unique, I don’t know another state that does it. For us, if we’re getting our fair share in a Congress that doesn’t pass a lot of bills, but still a lot happens through agency actions, we kind of have to work together and we do. So, if Mike Gallagher from the Green Bay area has an issue that’s unique to his area I’m very likely to sign that letter and he’s very likely to sign a letter for something in my district. That way we can go to these agencies and show bipartisan support. So in a way we have a little bit of a unique situation in Wisconsin and I think that does help us.

CARDINAL: As a Democrat, what’s your pitch for Democratic control in the House and Senate to people in Wisconsin who live paycheck to paycheck?

POCAN: Part of it is Donald Trump helping us make the pitch on his own cause he’s had about 35/36 percent approval and a lot of his actions have made people very, very afraid. Things that they value will be at risk. It’s given a highlight and awareness to an off-cycle election where generally you get lower turn out, so that’s part of it. I look at the last election. I use Kenosha as my example because Obama won by 13 points last time and then this time Trump by won by one. And Kenosha is a pretty Democratic area. It’s surprising but if you scratch deeper you get what really happened in the last election cycle. There were a thousand more votes for Trump than Romney, but there were nine thousand fewer votes for Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama and even if every person who voted for Jill Stein, which was 900 in Kenosha County, and 2200 or so for Gary Johnson, at minimum six thousand still stayed home.

They choose not to go out and vote was their response to the Democratic message. Considering the Kenosha I grew up [in] three decades ago, 14 thousand people made cars in Kenosha and now no one makes cars. The best jobs they’re advertising is the Amazon distribution center at up to 12.75 an hour. But if the kids are making less than their parents did three decades ago, they think no one has their back. Our message was “I’m not him.” We didn’t really do well in talking to voters about what they talk about at their kitchen tables: can they afford a mortgage, send your kids to college, take a family vacation.

One, I think we gotta get back to the core economic issues; that’s what most people think about. Give them a reason and alternative to what they’re seeing. Secondly, some of it will be capitalizing on the damage that [Trump’s] doing that people see, whether it be the environment or in whatever issue people care about the most. Letting them know there is an alternative.

I serve as the first vice chair of the progressive caucus in Congress. A lot of what we do is try to put out an alternative. The following week, we’ll put out our progressive caucus budget for the nation and we’ve got a $2 billion infrastructure package. We invest in roads and bridges and schools and broadband and all these other things. That’s to show the contrast.

Part of our job is to show there’s a really big difference on the things people care about. I think Bernie Sanders, to his credit, was very authentic, and I think we need more people who get out there and say exactly what they think. It may not be the best prose or politically correct in some ways but I think helps people want to come out and support someone.

CARDINAL: What do you think is the likelihood the federal budget will pass in its current form?

POCAN: Who knows. I’ll tell you it’s a weird time to be in Congress. They had us out [in Washington] a whole bunch the first 100 days. This is my first full week home since Christmas. And we’ve done nothing. The first month we’ve rolled back some protections that Obama had put in place. We had the dismal failure of the Trumpcare bill. The last couple of weeks they’ve been licking their wounds. But they’ve had us out there a whole bunch to do their agenda, and it’s pretty clear they either don’t have an agenda or they can’t pass it because things like the Tea Party and other problems they have within their caucus. I do think there are a lot of people in the Republican party who want to put more money into defense, and if you don’t talk about revenue and you put big dollars into defense, the only alternative are cuts. Which [programs get] cuts I think is probably the bigger question.

With the NIH in particular, there’s a $6 billion cut there. Congress just, in a bipartisan way, put more money into NIH last session because we all realize it’s a value. So it would be odd to go back and cut it. So there’s a good chance that won’t be cut as deep. That means they’ll probably cut something else deeper.



CARDINAL: With Trumpcare’s failure, what does it signal to you as vice chair of the progressive caucus that so many people reached out to you to express their concern?

POCAN: Right now the no.1 issue to people is healthcare. They’re all worried about losing their healthcare and having affordable health care. So that’s great because where I and many come from is we would love to see a single payer system, Medicare-for-all like every other major democracy has throughout Europe and Canada. So that you have right to healthcare as a citizen of a country and not some Frankenstein monster put together of insurance companies and packages that a lot of time didn’t cover people that were sick. So we’re happy that it helps open up that conversation. That we can [say] there are alternatives. If you don’t like the current model that relies heavily on insurance companies, well then here’s an alternative. It allows us to talk about something bigger and broader. But it’s also showing people really, really care about health care. And you can’t just do 600 billion in tax cuts and claim you’re doing a health care bill. That was what their health care bill was while dropping 24 million people from coverage. It just didn’t make a lot of sense. I think what we learned is they only have 17 percent support because people actually care about health care, and that’s good.

CARDINAL: Are the Democrats working on fixing on Obamacare?

POCAN: The fundamentals, the good news is we have things now that are generally accepted. There’s 20 million people now that have access to health insurance that didn’t before. Some of it because ... if people have pre-existing condition, it’s now understood that you should be able to get healthcare if you need it. But we don’t have lifetime caps anymore; you can’t just say ‘okay you’re sick enough, no more care.’ It’s now understood women should pay the same as men; they shouldn’t be paying a premium, which they were. That adult children stay on their parents policies until they’re 26. So a lot of good things have come out of it, that people generally accept the way we should do healthcare.

The problem we had is the actuarial side. Now I wasn’t around when this was developed, it was the session before I got there, but if healthy people didn’t sign up, in this idea of insurance, the smoothing of costs. If some people who really need health insurance now have it but those are costly. So that’s more than the policy costs. People are healthier who also sign up to share the costs across the spectrum, and they’re not. So that’s one of the things they gotta figure out is the actuarial side, how you make sure you have it work within the insurance smoothing system of how costs get shared and that’s probably the biggest change that needs to happen.

CARDINAL: You talk about the importance of Democrats having a more of a role in state government, do you fear that Democrats take power, they redraw the lines, and then you continue this partisan divide because Democrats are playing by their own rules and that doesn’t solve anything?

POCAN: I hope that we’ve all learned that a citizen panel just makes sense from a good government sense. For me to redraw my own lines, I’m picking my voters. I think the theory is voters pick their elected officials. We gotta get back to that. If you look at the congressional districts in Iowa, it’s pretty much four rectangles. The third congressional district in Maryland is a U shape that’s barely even connected. That’s what gerrymandering brings. That’s not good in the long run. I guess I’ve been doing this long enough I believe in the long run thinking of everything. Short term gains are never as good as long term. I think having a more fair process would be a really good idea.

CARDINAL: You’ve been in D.C. a while now; what are your biggest takeaways from being in Congress?

POCAN: It’s an interesting job. I miss at times the state legislature pre-2010. Back then I served on the JFC for six years. I was on it when there were four Democrats and 12 Republicans. I was on when we had four Republicans and 12 Democrats and I was the co-chair and I was on when it was eight and eight; nothing got passed unless it got a vote from the other side 'cause it was an evenly split committee. I probably learned the most during that time period. There was a time where government really worked in that way. What I don't see in Congress is that happening since 2010. So part of it is really the problem of the Tea Party. [John] Boehner fed the beast and it bit his hand, Paul Ryan is feeding the beast and it’s biting his hand, and now Trump is doing it. At what point do we quit feeding the beast? They’ve got a real problem to deal with in their caucus that makes it a problem for the entire country because we’re not passing the bills that we need to pass. One of the nice things about being on appropriations is the Republicans on appropriations are there because they think you have to spend money in order to have government run. They understand the basic 101 of the job they gotta do, as opposed to the Tea Party that just wants to say no to everything. I like that I’ve been able to, by only my third session, get to appropriations [committee] because the three big committees are Ways and Means, Appropriations and Energy and Commerce. I’m on a subcommittee I love that’s all education, health and human services and labor issues. The other one I’m on is agriculture. I believe in silver linings on things, I always try to find them as I’m doing it, I still see lots of glimmers of hope that we can do. We have to kind of fundamentally change this aspect of the Tea Party and this influence of the Tea Party. 

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