Appropriations Committee member Rep. Pocan holds forth on Trump budget

Spoiler alert: He’s not pleased with cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, CDC and SNAP

Housing costs saving piggy bank under magnifying glass
Photo by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash

It’s a Friday morning media ritual that U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan indulges in from time to time when he’s back in Wisconsin: The Democratic 2nd District congressman holds forth in an informal, open-ended news chat with local reporters, riffing on all things Washington in his Madison office just off the Capitol Square.

Last Friday offered such an opportunity. Pocan sits on the House Appropriations Committee, so to no one’s surprise his top priority was focusing on the $4.8 trillian budget that President Donald Trump dropped this week, and he wasted no time rattling off the list of cuts: A trillion dollars over 10 years to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, along with other health care programs.

Congressman Mark Pocan
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan

“For funding for rural hospitals, which we have a lot of in this area, cuts to family caregiver programs,” Pocan said. “Even cuts to the Centers for Disease Control — at a time of the corona virus outbreak. We actually had a closed door briefing this week on that, and cuts to the CDC — $678 million cut — are not a good idea.” 

Other cuts hit research programs, which help fund the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Not to mention student loan cuts of $170 billion. “They’ve eliminated the public service loan forgiveness program for teachers and others who work in public sector jobs,” Pocan said. And there would be $5.6 billion shaved off from the Department of Education, along with dozens of other programs from transportation to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP — commonly referred to as Food Stamps) “probably the number one program that keeps kids out of poverty, got $182 billion cut right now,” he said. “That average benefit is only $1.40 per person per meal.”

Not that the final budget will end up looking like that. The House of Representatives will spend from now through June reshaping the budget, he said. But he called the actual endgame harder to predict. 

“I assume it’s going to be a little bit similar to last time,” he said. While the House wound up its budget work in June, “Last year, the Senate hadn’t even started anything until August, almost September. So we had to extend it, we had an omnibus bill. That’s not good in a democratic small d sense, because at that point, even though we did all of our work, the Senate didn’t, it comes back as an unamendable bill up or down, and it’s a bunch of budget bills together.”

Pocan reiterated the recurring complaint among Democratic lawmakers that the House has put more than 200 bills on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) where they’ve remained in limbo — including on such issues as prescription drug prices, which Trump called on Congress to do something about in his State of the Union speech in January. 

But Pocan offered a reminder that there are plenty of opportunities to fight back and win — as with the pushback that followed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s attempt last year to defund Special Olympics and the special education fund. 

“Not only did we restore it, but we added funds in the end,” Pocan said. “And we increased funds in the last budget. This year, they didn’t even try to go after that again. So after doing that for three years in a row, that was something positive. “

In the Q&A that followed Pocan took on a handful of other topics.

On the April Wisconsin presidential primary: Pocan — who has endorsed Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for the Democratic nomination — predicted Sanders would again win Wisconsin  as he did in 2016, running strongly with young voters, independents, women and union members.

Bernie Sanders at Democratic debate in Michigan. Photo by Andrew Roth

By the time the battle gets to Wisconsin, “70% of the delegates will be selected,”  he noted. “So my guess is there’ll be three people likely at that point.”

Which three? Sanders, of course, he asserts. Pocan figures multi-billionaire and former Republican New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg  will be one of the others, but he’s hedging on the third, suggesting Pete Buttigieg or possibly Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. 

On another go at impeaching Donald Trump: “You know, we went through this impeachment process. We saw what the Senate’s gonna do — nothing,” he said. Oversight committees will continue their work, seeking Trump’s tax returns, investigating apparent violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause that bar the president from profiting personally from the office, and more. But he suggested going to court again to force the White House to give up more evidence, or impeaching Trump again to force another Senate trial would be pointless: “They’re not going to do their jobs. So at the end of the day, we’re going to the court of public opinion.” 

On the administration’s threat to deport Hmong families:  Pocan on Friday signed a letter with fellow Democrats Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Milwaukee condemning the move. “As members of Congress for the state of Wisconsin, we will not stand for this administration’s blatant racism against the 49,000 members of the Hmong community living across our state,” Pocan said in a statement accompanying the letter. 

He elaborated on his statement for reporters. “We have elected officials, community leaders who come from the Hmong population, and this is ridiculous, the direction that president’s taking,” Pocan said. “Whenever he gets his back against the wall, he goes back to overt racism as a way to try to lift his numbers. And in this case, it’s something that affects people very directly in Wisconsin.”

Asked if the deportation order was aimed at appealing to white voters in northern Wisconsin “who have issues with the Hmong,” Pocan added: “I think this is to appeal to bigots everywhere, and it’s just one more additional ornament he’s putting on that really bigoted, ugly tree of his.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.