Mr. Pocan goes to Washington: Looking back on 2013
By John Nichols
Congressman Mark Pocan rang bells for charity outside the Jenifer Street Market on Madison’s east side a few days before Christmas. The Democratic congressman was just back from Washington, having finished his first year in Congress by breaking with the White House and Democratic and Republican leaders in the House to oppose the budget agreement arranged by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash.
The Washington-insider groupthink said nothing mattered so much as “bipartisanship.” But Pocan recognized that the emperor had no clothes. “At the end of the day, the bill abandons 1.3 million Americans who desperately need unemployment insurance, and does nothing to promote economic growth or job creation,” explained the freshman congressman, one of 32 Democrats who opposed the measure.
As he rang bells with his longtime political ally Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Pocan was ready to explain his dissent to upset voters. Instead, he was greeted with handshakes, embraces and approval. Only one person griped about the vote, and when Pocan explained the details of the agreement, even that complaint eased.
That’s how it has gone for Pocan during his first year in the House. He has taken bold and controversial positions — opposing the rush to war with Syria, breaking with the administration to oppose President Obama’s trade policies, sponsoring constitutional amendments to get corporate money out of politics and to establish a guaranteed right to vote — yet he has by all evidence gone from strength to strength politically.
That’s not just true in Wisconsin, where the veteran state legislator won election to the House in 2012 with 68 percent of the vote.
It’s true in Washington as well. Despite his willingness to break with his own party on matters of principle, Pocan moved up with rare speed for a House freshman. In late October, he was invited to join the powerful House Education and Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over workplace issues, job training, health care and pension benefits, and education from preschools to universities.
Congressman George Miller, the California Democrat who is the fifth most senior member of the House and the ranking Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, said at the time: “Mark has been a strong advocate on behalf of working families and our nation’s students.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was equally effusive: “From his constituents in Wisconsin to his colleagues in Washington, Congressman Pocan’s leadership is respected and valued.”
That was high praise, considering that Pocan is actually more inclined to cross party lines than many Democrats in the House. For instance, in July Pocan voted with some of the most conservative Republicans in the House — including Michigan Congressman Justin Amash and veteran Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner — to restrict the National Security Agency’s ability to use the Patriot Act to conduct blanket surveillance on Americans not under investigation.
“The NSA’s invasive, but unfortunately legal, surveillance tactics are the exact type of government overreach Russ Feingold warned of when the Patriot Act was passed into law,” explained Pocan. “While Americans understand that sacrifices must sometimes be made in the name of national security, it is against our country’s principles to unreasonably and excessively infringe on the right to privacy. Allowing the NSA to continue to freely conduct blanket surveillance measures creates an environment where any of our liberties could be up for grabs if the executive branch deems it appropriate.”
In October, Pocan was an original co-sponsor of Sensenbrenner’s USA FREEDOM Act, a proposal to rein in the NSA’s blanket surveillance policies by reforming the Patriot Act to ensure greater transparency and oversight over domestic surveillance programs. The measure also would increase safeguards to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens. “We fight a futile battle to protect our liberties from outside if we cannot protect them from within,” says Pocan, who says he expects to work in the coming year with key Republicans and Democrats on privacy issues — taking up former Sen. Feingold's mantle.
He also expects to work with many conservative Republicans — and many progressive Democrats — on trade issues, with a special focus on opposing “fast track” status to speed negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That stance puts him at odds with the White House. But Pocan says, “Wisconsinites have seen these type of 'free trade' deals rushed through Washington before, and we saw the results firsthand: closed factories, depleted industries and lost jobs. We cannot make the same mistakes of the past.”
Even as he works across lines of partisanship and ideology, however, Pocan is blunt in his criticism of Republican assaults on the food stamp program and the denial of aid to 1.3 million Americans who have experienced long-term unemployment. Noting that 65,000 Wisconsinites were among those facing the loss of benefits, the congressman said: “As our economy continues to recover, we must maintain this vital unemployment insurance for Wisconsin job seekers who would like nothing more than to re-enter the workforce.” Indeed, Pocan was part of a #MoreWork2Do project that urged House Republicans and Democrats to stay in session until a plan could be developed to extend the benefits.
While Pocan remains exceptionally enthusiastic about congressional service, he admits to being “very frustrated” by the fact that “we didn’t do anything to help the economy. Instead of working on getting people back to work, we faced shutdowns and threats.”
As Pocan says, there’s #MoreWork2Do in the second year of his first term. It will still be difficult, Pocan admits. But he adds, "We can't let frustration or difficulty prevent us from making the case that investments are needed in research and development, in infrastructure, in what’s essential to strengthening the economy.”