Interview with United States Congressman Mark Pocan: Freshman legislator making waves in Washington D.C.
It's been an interesting first five months for freshman United States Congressman Mark Pocan. He's introduced a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to a vote, he's been featured on the wildly popular comedy show “The Colbert Report,” and he has jumped into the fray of politics in Washington D.C. that most people feel has featured — over the last few years — more gridlock and dysfunction than actual governing and lawmaking.
Pocan has been working to get members of the Congress to work together. He believes it is getting better.
“Last session was the rock bottom. There's no way you could get worse than last session,” Pocan tells The Madison Times in an interview from his downtown Madison offices on East Doty Street. “Part of it was the 2010 election and there were people who got elected who would have normally never gotten elected who just wanted to say, 'no.' Sometimes you also have to say, 'yes.' You have to find compromise without compromising your values. At the end of the day, you need to get things done .... but unfortunately, there are a few dozen folks who don't want to do that. They just want to say, 'no.' They want to shrink government and that's all they care about. Last session that was a real barrier. There's a few fewer of those folks around this time.”
Pocan is a member of unique group of Congresspeople who call themselves the “Problem Solvers” and work together in a bipartisan way. He is also one of the 83 freshmen who have never been part of the dysfunctional problems of the previous Congress. “There's 83 of us who have never used the word 'sequester' before in our lives — it's a Washington, wonky word,” Pocan says. “Also, for the first time ever, there's a bi-partisan caucus whose whole goal is get together socially and hopefully we can get together and tackle some issues together. It's called the Problem Solvers Caucus. It's evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. We're up to 70 members now. That's almost 20 percent of Congress. That's a lot. I think there are many people who don't like how Congress has functioned — or, more accurately, how it hasn't functioned for quite a while.”
Pocan defeated Republican Chad Lee last November to win the 2nd Congressional District of Wisconsin seat whose district encompasses Madison and has deep progressive roots from Fighting Bob La Follette to Bob Kastenmeier to Tammy Baldwin, who Pocan succeeded when Baldwin was elected to the U.S. Senate in the same election.
“I have some big shoes to fill with Tammy,” Pocan says. “But at some point you make yourself distinctly who you are. Tammy and I have pretty similar progressive values and we vote similar in that sense, but I also think that I come from my background as being a small business owner for 25 years and I really have that as part of my fundamental mindset when I look at anything.”
This is the second time that Pocan has succeeded Baldwin. The first time was in the Wisconsin State Assembly where Pocan served for 14 years. A veteran politician, Pocan is finding that Washington D.C. is a little bit different scene than Madison, but he is enjoying it so far.
“I've gotten a chance to meet some amazing people here,” Pocan says. “We get to meet some major economists that I have always looked up to and had a lot of respect for like [political economist, professor, author, and political commentator]Robert Reich and [Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences awardee] Paul Krugman. I get to have one-on-one conversations about things. It's amazing. I love that fact that we get access to some of the most brilliant people in the country and that hopefully we'll actually do something with all of this information.
“A lot of my job is meeting my colleagues and developing relationships,” he adds. “I have 435 colleagues in one house and 100 in another – that's a lot of people to get to know. I'm doing a lot of meeting and greeting.”
One of the biggest issues in America right now is dealing with the economy and working towards creating jobs. “We're seeing some slow growth coming out of the recession which is good,” Pocan says. “There is still more to be done. I think we need to keep getting people back to work as a primary focus. I think that should be everybody's number-one goal right now. We're certainly focused on that. Serving on the Budget Committee, especially, that's a big concern.”
Any topics around the budget or the sequester are in Pocan's wheelhouse. In his Progressive Caucus budget, Pocan says that they have measures that make sure the government invests back in infrastructure, invests in research and development, and invests in education. “We need to get people back to work and have the jobs here in the United States,” he says.
Pocan also looks into waste, fraud and abuse within governmental programs on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “It has jurisdiction over just about everything in the federal government to make sure that programs are running correctly and efficiently,” Pocan says. “We not only have oversight, but we also have investigative powers. When people come to testify before us they actually have to be sworn in under oath.”
Those two committees are keeping Pocan plenty busy.
“Based upon my having the 14 years in the Legislature, I chose two committees that have what I call '30,000-foot looks at government,'” Pocan says. “These two committees allow me to touch a little bit of everything. It's a good way for me being new to get up to speed on the vastness of federal government. Having the chance to look at things from this level, I get a nice education from a cross the spectrum. It's a little busier of a schedule.”
Pocan still has time for causes that are dear to his heart. Recently, Pocan was joined by my friends from the Urban League of Greater Madison, Latino Children and Families Council, the 100 Black Men of Madison, and the Social Justice Center, as he introduced a Right to Vote Amendment to amend the Constitution to provide all Americans the affirmative right to vote.
"We need to make sure that we keep our democracy as strong as possible and a big part of that is everybody having that ability and that right to vote,” Pocan says. “It would really flip the conversation into something that is pro-voter and pro-democracy rather than what we've seen with these restrictive laws.
Along with fellow congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), Pocan has introduced a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to a vote. It reads simply as follows:
SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, this year alone more than 80 restrictive voting bills have been introduced in over 30 states, from New York to Arizona. And without a constitutional provision, state legislatures have passed, and courts have upheld, restrictive voting laws targeting minority, low-income, student and elderly communities.
“It's the great equalizer. The Koch Brothers and my brother and I have one thing in common – that's that we each have one vote,” Pocan says. “It's one of those things that are fundamental that people have the right to vote.
Pocan, along with Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN), also recently introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that gave corporations free rein in our elections.
“It essentially has two provisions: It says that money is not free speech and that corporations are not people. A pretty simple premise. It would certainly even out the playing field,” he says.
Pocan is watching intently as the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — is being implemented throughout the country.
“Fundamentally, there are a lot of great things with the law where people have access to health care that they didn't have before,” he says. “Making sure that we can now cover people with pre-existing conditions is huge. People who actually need health care can now get health care which they didn't have previously – adult children under policies, investments in preventive care...Small businesses who didn't have access to pools before can now participate in exchanges. We just saw in California that we're having some really affordable rates. All of these things are really positive because we're going to wind up with more people having access to health care – this is the right direction.”
The other huge issue that Congress is dealing with right now is comprehensive immigration reform.
“If there is anything that I'm most hopeful going through Congress as a big issues, it's immigration,” Pocan says. “The fact that it has some strong bi-partisan support and that it has some major leaders on the Republican side of the aisle like Paul Ryan, has helped move the Republican Party along when they have been historically reluctant to do so,” Pocan says. “Personally, I wish it was a little more comprehensive. But we just really want to make sure that we have a law that provides a path for aspiring Americans to have citizenship.”
“And, if you can pass immigration reform, you now start the process to set other big ideas,” he adds. “It can open up a lot of more avenues.”
Personally, Pocan says that his goals are to represent the interests of his District 2 well and to continue to work to get things done.
“You want to get to the Committees that have the most impact. It just takes a while to do all of the hard work to get noticed and than get moved to those types of committees where I can have the greatest impact for my district. I'm just getting my fundamentals down now.
Pocan looks at Dave Obey, the former U.S. Representative for Wisconsin's 7th congressional district serving 21 consecutive terms from 1969 until 2011, as a role model. “He really delivered a lot for the state all those years in Congress He rose to a respected position of leadership and really delivered not just on issues for Wisconsin, but for issues that are important to the country. If I could try to serve as well as he did, that would be a really positive goal for me.”