U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan expects life to be busy for the next few months.
The Madison Congressman ran unopposed in the liberal 2nd District for his fourth term. But he’s looking at a potentially painful lame-duck session with Republican House leadership and an ambitious agenda when Democrats take the majority in January.
“There will be a lot of action happening, I would guess, quite quickly,” he said Wednesday.
The Cap Times interviewed Pocan and UW assistant political science professor Eleanor Powell about Tuesday’s House takeover by Democrats. Republican House members either didn’t return messages for comment or were unavailable.
Powell predicted a session that will be tough for Democrats legislatively.
“The Democrats’ legislative agenda isn’t going to go very far,” she said. “Maybe there are some compromise areas in terms of infrastructure spending possibly, but I think most of those compromises are going to be difficult to reach.”
Pocan is more optimistic.
“You can certainly move things forward,” he said. “I think really it’s going to be up to the president. If he decides he wants to get some things done I think we’ve got some areas where we can try to do that.”
Pocan ticked off issues like the nation’s infrastructure, prescription drugs and criminal justice reform that he thinks President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans can work with House Democrats on.
Trump has “talked the right way” on the nation’s aging infrastructure, thought he’s made no concrete proposals.
And Trump’s FDA chief, Scott Gottlieb, has offered some “tough talk” to drug companies who raise their prices and has worked to get generic drugs into the market.
And while Democrats didn’t run on the issue, several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are interested in criminal justice reform.
But other issues high on the Democratic agenda might be more partisan.
For one, Pocan said, Democrats are hoping to undo some of the policies Republicans have enacted to remain in power.
“We talked about the culture of corruption in Washington with this administration and with our campaign finance system and with some of the voting regulations,” he said. “I think we’ll probably have a comprehensive bill come out that deals with campaign finance, electoral and ethics reform.”
Powell predicts that such efforts will end in gridlock.
“I think legislatively we’re not going to have much action with a Republican president and a Republican Senate,” she said.
Where there will be action, she said, is in the area of oversight of the Trump administration.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of congressional investigations and in some ways the sort of conventional checks and balances that the system was designed for but that we haven’t seen for the past few years of the unified Republican control of government,” she said.
Pocan doesn’t deny that will be a major focus of the next legislative session.
“We’ve got committees like Oversight and Government Reform — I was on that my freshman year,” he said. “The whole reason for having the committee is for oversight. They will be doing that as well as probably Judiciary, Intelligence and others.”
Oversight is one thing. But some younger and more progressive lawmakers have indicated they might aggressively seek to impeach Trump, something establishment Democrats fear could blow back on them, much like the impeachment proceeding against President Bill Clinton resulted in a disastrous election cycle for the Newt Gingrich-led House in the 1990s.
“It’ll be interesting to see how effective the Democratic leaders are at restraining their more vociferous and upset progressive members in terms of toning down their language for impeachment,” Powell said.
She said Democratic leaders are trying to find an approach to oversight that will play well to the American public and avoid overreach. Especially now that Democratic presidential hopefuls will soon start to emerge.
But Pocan said those potential candidates will have an amplified voice that could help move some of the Democratic agenda forward.
“Some of it will be messaging to make sure that people understand what an alternative could look like,” he said. “Because obviously I think you’re going to have in the next few weeks people already announcing exploratory committees for president.”
Pocan said he’s eager to walk into Congress in January in the majority, a position he hasn’t been in since the 2010 Republican wave swept into power both statewide and nationally. Pocan served in the state Assembly at the time.
But what he’s not looking forward to is a coming lame-duck session, during which, he said, Republicans could do “a lot” of damage.
“I have a lot of worries about the lame-duck,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the least lame lame-duck session we’ve had in recent memory. It’s their last crack at having the House, the Senate and the White House.”
For one thing, the congressional spending bill for Homeland Security, which runs through December, will have to be addressed, and Pocan expects a contentious fight over funding for the border wall.
And Pocan said the current House Speaker, outgoing Janesville Republican Paul Ryan, has had two goals throughout his tenure in the House: cutting taxes for the rich, and revamping entitlement programs by privatizing Social Security and implementing voucher system for Medicare.
“He got that done,” he said of the tax cuts for the rich. But Social Security and Medicare may be on the table in coming weeks.
“And there’s a lot of members who lost their jobs and are now auditioning for new employers and I’d be worried about a lot of the special interest stuff that could fly,” he said. “I’ve got the feeling that the last two weeks of the campaign could have been the relaxing part and the next few weeks are what’s going to be really busy.”