Mark Pocan enters the 116th Congress as one of the most outspoken, engaged and powerful progressives in the United States. The town of Vermont Democrat will co-chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the largest values-based group of House Democrats. With co-Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Pocan is overseeing the launch of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, a $2 million project that will develop progressive policies, frame messaging and coordinate the work of members of Congress and millions of activists working beyond the Beltway for enlightened policies at home and abroad. He will, as well, serve on the House Appropriations Committee, where he will continue to play a pivotal role on the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education and also the Subcommittee on Agriculture.
A former Dane County supervisor and Wisconsin state representative, Pocan remains a passionate champion of economic and social and racial justice and an ardent advocate for peace and the planet.
As he prepared to take the lead in the new Congress, the small-business owner, union man and LGBTQ activist who represents the House district that once sent Robert M. La Follette to the Congress spoke enthusiastically about holding President Trump to account, upending reactionary politics, and ushering in a new era of progressive politics.
THE CAPITAL TIMES: Since you were elected to the House in 2012, you have served in the minority. The results of the 2018 election changed that. What will be different for you now that Democrats are in the majority?
MARK POCAN: Hopefully, the ability to actually govern. Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve had this dysfunction with the tea party blocking everything moving in Congress. This may be our first opportunity to see Congress function properly.
TCT: When you say “function properly,” what do you mean by that?
POCAN: Bills pass, committees have hearings, all the stuff that we learned on the Saturday morning cartoon about how a bill becomes a law — that! That’s the change I want to see, because it’s been so dysfunctional here since 2010.
TCT: There will still be barriers to seeing laws all the way through to enactment, as Democrats will still have to deal with a Republican Senate and a Republican president. But you can definitely raise issues — with investigations, passing bills and wrestling with what the Senate proposes.
POCAN: That’s right. Being in the minority since I’ve been in Congress, we haven’t had a budget process that’s operated. We’ve had no oversight in the last two years — especially with the Trump administration. Just the most basic elements of federal government were not working. Now, we have the ability to try to pass things. Of course, we have to still deal with the Senate and the White House. But we can also show people what could happen if you had a completely functioning federal government. There’s a lot of paths and opportunities that we now have.
TCT: Where would you like to see the House start working? What bills would you like to pass?
POCAN: Raising the minimum wage is a top one. It's way, way overdue. Most employers already are paying above the minimum wage. But, importantly, some aren’t. (The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour) is impossible for anyone to live on pretty much anywhere in the country. Just doing that alone would not only help the lowest wage earners but help boost everyone’s pay. We’ve seen pay so flat since the recovery from the recession that this would be a big change in most people’s lives — probably the biggest change in most people’s lives.
POCAN: One of the bills that we’ve been very, very involved with that hopefully we can see some serious movement on is the debt-free college proposal. We know that costs of a four-year institution, much less grad school, have increased pretty consistently while support for students who need it hasn’t necessarily kept up. You can leave the University of Wisconsin now with a four-year degree and be almost $30,000 in debt. That immediately sets you behind when pay hasn’t increased like productivity has in the country. If we can find a real solution that allows people to attend a four-year public university and leave with a degree with no debt whatsoever (perhaps with work-study programs) that would be a really dramatic change to how we deal with higher education. I think there are ways to bring in conservative support and the whole spectrum of the Democratic Party in support of a deal like that.
TCT: You have always paid a lot of attention to foreign policy, especially war and peace issues. At the end of the 115th Congress, you worked with California Congressman Ro Khanna to pass a resolution opposing U.S. support for the Saudi assault on Yemen. Do you think something will pass in the new Congress?
POCAN: I do. We recently had a very positive conversation with the leader’s (Nancy Pelosi) office and we think this will come up in the first month after we come back. This has been an interesting fight because, for most members of Congress, and absolutely for the president, this hasn’t been an issue that’s been in the front of their minds. With this trend toward “American First” and not looking around the globe, it has been even harder to address humanitarian crises in places like Yemen. So this idea, which really got its start through the Progressive Caucus’ efforts, and with work in combination with (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders, we’ve been able to see this progress. We’ve been chipping away to the point where I think, come January, we can really have some resolution.
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TCT: You have also worked for many years with (California Democrat) Barbara Lee to rescind the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (which Democratic and Republican presidents use as an excuse for military interventions). Do you see prospects for that in this new Congress?
POCAN: Absolutely. We would have passed this is the past Congress; we had it as an appropriations amendment and it had the majority of Republicans joining all the Democrats on it. Our problem was (outgoing House Speaker) Paul Ryan. He singlehandedly took it out so we couldn’t have a fair vote on it. Having Paul Ryan gone is going to be good on many grounds. But, in this area in particular, I feel like we are best positioned to have that done in the 116th Congress.
TCT: President Trump announced at the end of 2018 that he plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. You’ve been a critic of Congress’ failure to check and balance the executive branch on military interventions. What do you think about this move?
POCAN: The biggest concern that I have is with why the president is doing it at this point. The president has shown pretty dismal skills of analysis and judgment and he takes credit often for things that haven’t happened yet. I think that when the chief supporter of the president’s action is Vladimir Putin — given everything we know about the relationship with Russia and the United States — there’s some cause for concern in what otherwise would be a celebration.
We want to return troops home from lots of different places. We want to see a defense budget that gets significantly trimmed back. Where this could have been something that’s very positive — because it’s time to not be involved every single place on the planet — I have just a little bit of hesitation because this president’s given us no reason to have any trust in his decisions.
TCT: That brings us to the question of oversight. You were an outspoken critic of Paul Ryan for failing to check and balance Trump. You expect to see a big change coming in the new Congress, correct?
POCAN: Absolutely. The saddest part of the last two years was that Paul Ryan completely gave up our responsibility for oversight in the House of Representatives. As a separate but coequal branch of government, we saw no responsible actions of oversight for anything that the president or his administration did. Now, we’ve got a lot of pent-up work that has to happen. But we can do that at the same time that we’re passing legislation and putting ideas forward. It is well, well overdue. And it’s not just the Judiciary and Intelligence and Oversight and Government Reform committees — the ones that are traditionally seen as the committees that do this — that will be stepping up. At Appropriations, my subcommittee is the Labor, Human Services, Education Subcommittee. The chair, (Connecticut Democrat) Rosa DeLauro, says we are going to meet two or three times a week doing oversight. I think you are going to see a very robust action that’s not necessarily a partisan action but is a long overdue oversight role by a coequal branch of government.
TCT: What about the investigation by Robert Mueller into Donald Trump’s campaign and a range of other issues? How will its report move Congress on accountability issues? How do you confront the president regarding his powers, his authority?
POCAN: This is why it was so sad to watch Paul Ryan not do anything (to hold the president to account). We are a branch of government that has to do that.
The Mueller investigation, I think, is going very well. We spent four years on the Benghazi investigation with no indictments, and two years on Hillary’s emails with no indictments. In less than two years (of the Mueller inquiry), we have double digits of indictments for real activities and people are going to prison.
That’s been going well, but they’re not going to look in some areas. We need to look at the emoluments clause. We need to look at other abuses by this president and his administration. I think that having robust oversight in those areas, which happen on a parallel timeline with the Mueller investigation, is really the responsible thing that has to happen right now.
TCT: Democratic leaders have said that “impeachment is off the table,” but what happens if Congress does come to an impeachment moment?
POCAN: I think the Mueller report — should it come out in a negative way for the president and his associates — will probably be the single strongest way to convince others that we need to convince. That will be a tool to bring in bipartisan rebuke. Right now, clearly, many of us see many things that we would consider impeachable, but that are not necessarily going to bring you the votes that get to impeachment. So, either through proper oversight, or I think through the final Mueller report when it comes out, we will see if there is a conspiracy to obstruct or other categories that would make impeachment more inevitable.