Commentary

Front row seat at the circus: Rep. Mark Pocan wants you to watch the dysfunction in the House

January 13, 2023 6:00 am
Elephants at the circus

As the curtain rises on the 118th Congress, Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan is proposing that the public keep an eye on what is sure to be a political circus. (Photo by Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan wants everyone to see what’s going on in the U.S. House of Representatives. To that end, he introduced a resolution on Thursday to amend the current House rules to require that cameras show the full chamber during legislative business — not just legislators who are giving speeches. That’s what happened, temporarily, on Jan 3-6, before the House was officially in session as Republicans struggled to elect a Speaker, casting 14 votes before they finally elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-California).

“Last week’s House camera coverage gave more access to the proceedings of the House floor than ever before,” Pocan said in a statement introducing his resolution. “If this is truly the People’s House, Americans deserve to see the inside of that House.”

What they saw when C-SPAN was freed from the normal rules, were scenes of chaos, posturing and a near fist fight between Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Pocan says showing what’s going on behind the scenes “will hopefully encourage more Americans to be interested in government and embolden some to even run for elected office.”

Or, on the other hand, they might just turn off the TV in disgust.

For the Democrats who just lost their House majority there was a powerful sense of schadenfreude in watching the debacle as Republicans failed to elect a Speaker. 

Now comes the hard part. How will this Congress ever get anything done?

Congressman Mark Pocan
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan

Pocan, a progressive who has a friendship with rightwing Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and a reputation for reaching across the aisle, doesn’t rule out the prospect of bipartisan action. (Turning on the cameras in the House has proponents on both sides of the aisle.)

But he’s far from naive. “The fact that it took a week to do what normally takes a half hour is probably the biggest indicator,” he says, referring to the Speaker vote, “and the fact that even during the speaker battle last week, they never seriously came to our side to talk about anything to get votes. They’re gonna try to take it all on their own, just because of the extremeness of their caucus.”

Details are still emerging about the deal McCarthy cut with the faction that opposed him in order to win their votes. Bringing bills to a vote that defund the IRS and criminalize doctors who perform abortions were among the first orders of business. 

More worrying is the threat that Republicans will force the U.S. government to default on its debt.

Shortly after Pocan was first elected to Congress he recalls sitting in his office all night instead of attending the wedding of his deputy chief of staff, during a government shutdown on former Republican Speaker John Boehner’s watch.

“The debt ceiling issue — even when there wasn’t the QAnon and extreme factions in Congress — was something they were willing to shut down the government over. I gotta believe that’s very real,” Pocan says. “So, you know, we do take it very seriously that there could be a real jeopardy on the debt ceiling and the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.”

Pocan and his fellow Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee have been briefed on the deep budget cuts Republicans are reportedly seeking. Initially, they were told that part of the agreement McCarthy struck was to cut the entire federal budget back to 2022 levels. Later, Republicans on the committee insisted those cuts would not include the Department of Defense.

That’s not good news, says Pocan, since it means to get to a 2022 budget level there will have to be massive cuts elsewhere. “If it’s true they’re not going to go after defense, then that means really deep cuts to other programming. Don’t forget veterans’ health care is not in defense; that comes in a separate area. All these areas are potentially on the chopping block.”

The battle over the debt ceiling is the area where the GOP House majority has the most power. Other bills, like those on the IRS and abortion, are unlikely to get past the Democratic majority in the Senate, let alone President Joe Biden’s desk. 

And then there are the investigations. “You’ll be tired of hearing Hunter Biden’s name,” Pocan predicts. “I’m sure in a few months they’re gonna go after the Secretary of Homeland Security. They’re going after the DOJ and FBI. I mean, all of those things are all at risk as well.”

Pocan calls the new select committee to investigate the Chinese Community Party’s influence, created on a bipartisan vote and chaired by Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher “a joke.” Written right into the language forming the committee, he points out, is the caveat that it has no power to introduce bills. “So they can’t actually legislate. It’s just, again, a committee to try to score political points.” Even the committee’s name, focusing on  the Chinese Communist Party rather than China, is a tell, he says. “Like, if you really want to be serious? Yes, we have serious economic concerns and issues around competitiveness with China. But they didn’t even make it serious. Instead, they made it political. So I think there was an opportunity there to do the right thing and they chose not to.”

Does Pocan see any potential for left-right coalitions? “If I was writing a novel, yes, but I’m not sure in reality,” he says. “There aren’t that many real moderates left. There are people, I think, that know that if we shut down the government there are economic consequences. And some people might be responsible there. But we don’t set what comes to the floor; the Republicans do now. So that’s the difficulty.”

With such a slim, four-seat majority (which could be reduced to three if the Republicans calling for the ouster of integrity-challenged Rep. George Santos (D-New York) have their way), “right now everyone’s jumping on whatever one member says, and since they have such a small majority, people think it could be relevant,” he says.

Over his long political career serving in the Wisconsin Legislature followed by a decade in Congress, Pocan says he has never seen a group less interested in governing than the current GOP majority in the House. 

“There are people who are good at performance art. There are people who are amateur thespians. There are people who, like you and I need water and air, they need camera time in Washington. … There are a lot of people who are going to be playing this for their own personal advantage,” he says. “And that’s the problem — at some point we have to govern.”

“The one bill we absolutely have to get done every year is the appropriations bill,” he adds, “and even that has been difficult since I’ve been here to get done under more normal situations. We also should do a farm bill this year. We have to make sure that we don’t shut down the government so there’s a few other things, but my guess is things of substance will be somewhat limited.”

Compared to the sheer anarchy in Washington, the Wisconsin Republicans look comparatively sane. The entire state Congressional delegation stuck with McCarthy from the beginning. And at the state Capitol, under Vos’ leadership, the Stop the Steal movement appears to have been quashed. 

“You’ve got just as crazy of elements within caucuses” at the state and national level, says Pocan. “I do think, though, that leadership, both in the Assembly and Senate are more traditional Republicans, so maybe you don’t have that on display as much.”

But, he warns, no matter how sensible leaders at both levels might seem, if enough MAGA members start making demands, “leadership has to go that route or else they won’t be in leadership anymore.”

Vos has maneuvered around the MAGA folks “for now,” Pocan adds, but “all you really need is a real push from Donald Trump, from other elements that seem to speak for the Republican Party and that pressure can be enormous.”

Party leadership can’t save us. We need more citizen engagement. Bring on the cameras. 

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.

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