Despite Challenges, Wisconsin Congressman Is Hopeful Good Things Can Be Done

Mar 3, 2017

Mark Pocan

This week’s Friday Forum features Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan.  He took the seat in Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District in 2013 after 14 years in the state assembly.

Pocan’s district cover all or parts of seven counties in south central Wisconsin, stretching from Beloit west and north to Madison and beyond.

Congress and the administration are considering a full and varied plate of proposals, but Pocan says there is one thing they should all aspire to do.

“I think Congress’ top priority should always be how do you help the people who are in the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class, and that means specifically in job creation and lifting people’s wages,” he says.

Pocan says, since the recovery, the economy has come back, and the stock market, CEO pay and profitability are all up. But most people aren’t feeling that.

“We’ve had dead flat wages, until just very recently we’ve seen a little tick up. I think that’s one of the things that we need to address: what people talk about [over] their kitchen table – you know, can they afford their mortgage, can they afford to go on vacation, can they afford to send their kids to college? I think the more we focus on those issues, the better off we are, regardless of political party,” he says.

Pocan says there are two areas he thinks are important to helping people get a good family-supporting wage. First, making higher education affordable.

“When it comes to college, we’ve been at the forefront of working to preserve financial aid programs that anyone who’s smart enough and capable enough should be able to get a higher education and just because they can’t afford it shouldn’t be the barrier. Also working around the debt-free college proposals, to make it again so anyone, if they do things like work-study, should be able to leave with a college degree that will help them,” he says.

Second, Pocan says, not everyone is going on to college. So for them, apprenticeship programs may be the best path to a good job.

“If you look at Germany or Switzerland,” he says, “they have a different apprenticeship model than we do. Largely, our apprenticeships are in building trades. There, they do them in financial services, in technology, in health care. And I’d like to see us take more of a focus on that, to help people who may not want to go to college, but want to get higher skills so that they can get a good family-supporting wage.”

Pocan says the greatest challenge he and his colleagues face as they work on initiatives like these is the sheer difficulty in getting anything done.

“I think the problem we’ve had since 2010 in Congress, really with the rise of the Tea Party, has been this inaction here. So we don’t pass budget bills any more, we don’t pass the appropriation bills. We don’t essentially do the 101 of federal government. And because of that, we’ve had these giant omnibus bills and continuing resolutions, where often they’re packed with a bunch of other things. And it’s not in the best public interest to not have review. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, we want to have a more thorough, thoughtful process. So I think our big challenge is how you get, now that we have one party in control of everything, they should be able to move an agenda, but we still have the same problem with some of the Tea Party members who really believe government should be significantly smaller than it is now, and how do you get them to vote on some of the appropriation bills that we have to, to do that 101 of government?,” Pocan says. 

In spite of that, Pocan says he and his colleagues in Congress, Democratic and Republican, have been able to reach across the aisle and work together to accomplish something.

“There have been some successes. Last session, actually, we did get a reauthorization of the K-12 funding done, and that only happened because we worked in a bipartisan way. We had a Democratic president, although we had a Republican Senate and House, there still had to be negotiations, and I think that was done, is a good example of how we should get things done,” the Democrat says.

Pocan cites another example where members of both parties are working together:

“One issue that I’ve been a strong advocate for: In a large part of my district, we don’t have broadband at a speed that’s workable. And these days, not having broadband in your home or business is like not having electricity or water. And we need to do more around that. So I created a bipartisan caucus – we have three Democrats and three Republicans who are co-chairing that,” he says.

Pocan says that bipartisan spirit has been strong among the 8 members representing Wisconsin in the House -- by tradition, and by necessity.

“Wisconsin’s fairly unique among states in that we sort of have an informal rule around election time we stay out of each other’s districts. And what that does is that really allows us we to work together a little more, because you’re never really interfering with another colleague. So we have a lot of things that we do very bipartisan. I might sign a letter for something in northeastern Wisconsin, and someone from northeastern Wisconsin might sign something for south central Wisconsin, because we understand as a medium-size delegation we have to stick together to get things done. California has 53 members. We have to stick together if we’re going to get something done. And I think that is a good tradition that we’ve been doing for a number of decades. And I hope it continues, because it does helps us, I think, punch above our weight class, so to speak,” he says.

Pocan understands that the public, including his constituents, may be confused or concerned about what’s happening in Washington and why. He has advice for people who want to find out what’s really going on in Congress, and want to make sure their voice is heard.

“Regardless of what someone’s political affiliation may be, independent, Democrat, Republican, if you want to make sure that your representatives are representing your views, you have to reach out and communicate. We need to come out into our districts and meet with people and let them know what’s going on in Washington, but we need to know what people in our district want us to be doing while we’re here. So, really calling and writing your senators and representatives is of key importance to let us know where your positions are. Being active with groups that work on behalf of issues you believe helps to magnify your voice, and you can join with others across the country. So you know, really, just being very participatory in the political process, I think, is something really important, now more than ever,” he says.

Pocan sees the huge numbers seen at marches across the country after the inauguration as proof that the public gets that. And he says he’s seen other signs. He cites from early this year what he calls a great example of the power of the people’s voice:

“The first day we were in session, the Republican majority had voted the night before that they were going to do a rule that basically would have gutted the ethics laws for members of Congress. Word got out, and people from all political persuasions reached out to Congress, and said, ‘no we don’t think that’s a good idea, we want you to live up to higher standards.’ And the Republicans didn’t introduce the rule, because people reached out. They had a victory on the very first day. That’s the power you have when you make sure you’re heard by your representatives,” Pocan says.

And with all the challenges awaiting him, his fellow Democrats, Republicans, Congress and the country as a whole, Pocan remains hopeful.

“I’m a silver lining guy,” he says. “There are many things that I may not like that I’m going to see happen. But I try to figure out how you have good things also happen at the same time. And I think that you have to have that spirit in this business. I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I’ve served in local government, in state government and now federal government. I believe that we can do good and help people in their lives, and there’s always bumps along the road, but I think ultimately if people get involved the right things will happen.”   

WNIJ reached out to the representative of Wisconsin’s First District, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, but got no response. WNIJ also reached out to the representative in the 5th District, Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, who declined the request for an interview.