Ron Johnson, Mark Pocan discuss federal budget

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Ron Johnson, Mark Pocan discuss federal budget

Premiere Date: 
May 1, 2013

Ron Johnson and Mark Pocan discuss the budget and other pressing issues facing lawmakers.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Senator Ron Johnson, thank you for being here. 

Ron Johnson:

I'm glad to be here. 

Frederica Freyberg:

And Congressman Mark Pocan. 

Mark Pocan:

Thank you. 

Frederica Freyberg:

I want to start right out in keeping with the topic of your joint appearance on campus, are there any bipartisan solutions to the federal debt and deficit, Senator Johnson? 

Ron Johnson:

Well, we'll certainly discuss that tonight. It's probably not going to be a quick solution. I think the first step has to be, is we need to agree there's a problem. We need to agree there's multiple problems, and we actually have to agree on the numbers. We have to agree on the depth of the problem. That's really the first step before we start, you know, rushing toward solutions. When I had dinner with President Obama, he was talking about, he laid out the priority of the problems, and started with healthcare spending and Medicare. He said the problem he had with reforming Medicare is for every one dollar we pay into the system, Americans were getting three dollars out in benefits. He said most Americans don't understand that. I agreed with him, so I certainly mentioned the president being enormously helpful if he used his bully pulpit to go to the American public. This would be the first act of bipartisanship, because we together agree on the problem, and go to the American public and describe the depth of it, so they are prepared for the solutions. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Congressman Pocan? 

Mark Pocan:

I think one of the things being the new folks around here in Washington is that we just don't have a budget. You know, it's three years that we haven't had a budget. We're in another year where we've got a House budget, a Senate budget, the President's Budget, but then we don't sit down and actually have a budget, a road map. So what happens is we kick the can. We have continuing resolutions. We don't really stop funding bad programs and invest in good programs, we just kind of do the same old, same old. And if you keep doing that, you're going to keep having the same problems, right? You can't keep repeating the same mistakes. So, I think a big part of it is just having a conversation, like this, where you have people who might come at it from different approaches, but the bottom line is we know we've got to do the best thing for the country. It's going to involve, in my opinion, like we've done in the legislature, cuts in revenues. But we've got to do something balanced. We're not going to like everything, but we're going to find things that we can probably ultimately get done, because that's what the public needs. 

Ron Johnson:

Of course, this year, in terms of budgets, the House has been passing budgets. The Senate finally passed one. Even if they can't reconcile, both of those budgets can govern the committee work of each body. So hopefully, the House will pass appropriation bills, and maybe we can reconcile those individual spending bills. 

Mark Pocan:

I guess what I'm used to in the legislature was we actually had a governing document. 

Ron Johnson:

I understand. 

Mark Pocan:

And it would make the most sense, you and I both agree. 

Ron Johnson:

But it might be difficult to achieve that. 

Mark Pocan:

It's very difficult in Washington, unfortunately. But I think that's a good start. We really need to look at all sorts of programs. We have to make sure we're willing to look at raising revenues as much as we have to cut programs. It's going to be tough, I think, for people on each side. But it's a real problem. The fact that we can't even get that first step done is part of the problem we've been having forever. 

Frederica Freyberg:

In the meantime, we do have the sequester, which $85 billion in spending cuts that kicked in in March, as we all know. But is it as painful, Senator, as it was designed to be? 

Ron Johnson:

First of all, it's not as painful as this administration is trying to make it become. I think this administration has overplayed its hands, particularly with the FAA. Very few Americans really understand the fact that President Obama, what he requested this fiscal 2013 budget for the FAA, was actually less than what he's going to get, even after the sequester. We've had whistle blowers coming to our offices, you know, FAA union employees, blowing the whistle on their managers, forcing them to take the same day off, to maximize the disruption. So, the American people really did hire President Obama to manage the budget he signed, the Budget Control Act, and live within those limits, and manage that as efficiently and as painlessly as possible, and we're seeing the exact opposite. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Do you think it's more politics than pain, kind of thing? 

Mark Pocan:

Yeah, I think the sequester is a classic Washington thing. Who else could come up with something called the sequester. You don't sequester your children's toys. But the reality of the sequester is, just this morning I was at Head Start in Beloit. Next year, they're going to have to kick some of the kids out of the program. They're talking about what else they're going to have to do, get rid of some teachers, because of the cuts they're going to have. And this is the first of ten years of the sequester. So, rather than getting rid of the bad programs, and I think we'll agree, there's waste, fraud and abuse in federal government. We should cut those programs, generally through a budget, but you have to cut those programs so you can keep other good programs. But this across the board, blunt, thoughtless approach that's in the sequester, I think is just really a wrong headed approach. 

Ron Johnson:

President Obama was offered total flexibility in terms of how he allocated those spending caps. Until we actually provide some spending discipline to Washington, and that's what the Budget Control Act did, it established the overall spending level. And by the way, I believe it was 45 democratic senators voted for that bill, and President Obama signed it. Again, they agreed to the spending caps. And it's really the administration's job to manage that efficiently and effectively. Republicans in Congress gave him total flexibility, or tried to. He just didn't want it. 

Mark Pocan:

I just don't think we should, for one, be giving power just to the executive branch. I think it's part of our job as members of Congress. I think last week is a classic example. We know there's problems with the sequester. The most recent problem was one that affected members of Congress, because we have to wait longer in airports with well-connected people complaining to us. We fix things, but kids on Head Start, or Meals on Wheels, or students have to pay more to go to school, they get affected. They don't quite get the same response. I just think, again, it's a very thoughtless sort of approach. It's time that we stop the chewing gum and Band aids, and start really approaching the big problems.

Ron Johnson:

Which hopefully, Senator Harry Reid, for the first time, because we didn't bring even one appropriation bill to the Senate floor last year. Hopefully, he'll do some of that. I know the House will. Pass those appropriation bills. That's when the House, or the Congress, actually does prioritize spending, in those appropriation bills, reconcile those. That would be a far better way to fund government. 

Mark Pocan:

No question, we have to work together, and start doing that. Unfortunately, Congress, as you know, hasn't done that. To me, if you started with the budget, then at least we all know the roadmap we're going down. We can finish the rest. Instead, what I've noticed, is we have a tendency to punt over and over, a couple months at a time. We don't make decisions. I've got to tell you, having just come from the campaign trail, being one of the freshman around there, I've been talking to people back in the districts. You know, they're tired of Congress not getting things done. I think there's a reason why that poll in December, when people were asked if you like cockroaches better than Congress, they chose cockroaches. Do they like traffic jams better than Congress? They chose traffic jams. We only beat out the Kardashian family and the Ebola virus.

Ron Johnson:

Keep in mind, the House has passed budgets year after year. President Obama finally made his budget two months late, after both the House and the Senate passed their versions of the budget, so we do need some leadership in this, and President Obama has been somewhat AWOL. So again, what we need to do is the House get to work, pass appropriation bills, the Senate will pass them. Let's reconcile them. Let's not rely on continuing resolutions -- spending bills. 

Mark Pocan:

I think we agree on the key part, is you have to get together and be able to do that. Since we haven't been able to do it with the budget, Congress kind of has just punted and punted over and over. As you know, continuing resolutions keep funding those bad programs, rather than stopping them, and there's plenty of them. They don't really invest where we need to reinvest. 

Ron Johnson:

I guess the only point I'm saying has been the Senate. I serve in the Senate, but it's controlled by Senator Harry Reid. It's the Senate that's been most irresponsible by not passing a budget, and not bringing appropriation bills to the floor. 

Mark Pocan:

But if each house has a completely different budget. Ultimately, that doesn't get us anywhere. I thought one of the biggest gimmicks that Congress did this year was, no budget, no pay. Not if we don't actually have a national budget, which the public expects us to, but if each house has their own budget. That means nothing, because ultimately-- So really, the bottom line is we have to get something done. 

Ron Johnson:

You can say it's gimmicky, it actually forced the Senate to pass a budget for the first time in close to four years. 

Mark Pocan:

We don't have a national budget, Ron, that's a problem. 

Ron Johnson:

But we have budgets to govern our committee, so now you can pass appropriation bills, the House can prioritize spending. 

Mark Pocan:

That just means we get 14 more ways to fight, as we do in appropriations, various bills, rather than one. 

Ron Johnson:

At least it's the regular order process, and that's the way it would work. 

Mark Pocan:

I just haven't bought into the way Washington works yet, and I think that's part of it. 

Ron Johnson:

Trust me, it doesn't work. Nor have I. 

Mark Pocan:

No, no, no, I know. I agree, it doesn't work. But I think that's part of the problem, is we continue to have these kind of debates, rather than, I think, the debate we're really going to have tonight, which is, we agree there's some big problems out there. But until we are able to sit down, and I think two people sitting down like this is exactly what needs to happen a lot more often. 

Ron Johnson:

Again, you've go to agree on the numbers. You actually have to, first of all, agree we have a problem. The largest problems really are Medicare, Social Security, but, I'm sorry, when your side of the aisle sits down to negotiate, you always, oh, no, you take Medicare and Social Security off the table. That's not realistic. 

Mark Pocan:

Just even at a table to negotiate would actually start that debate. The problem is right now, the republicans in the House, anyway, haven't appointed --, so we can't get to that step. I agree, it would be great if we could have this kind of conversation at a broader level. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Speaking of this kind of conversation, thought, is it true, Congressman Pocan, that would take Medicare and Social Security off of the table as a start to those kinds of conversations? 

Mark Pocan:

There's a lot of things we can still do in those areas. We might approach it differently, but I look at that cap, on how we raise money for Social Security. And if you actually went to that 90% figure when you decide to set the level of where they take it from wages, you could change that level and extend the program for a long time. So, I'm willing to look at changes like that, that would make sense. I just don't think cutting, you know, when my 84-year-old mother gets $1101 a month, and has been going through her savings for 20 years now, because she's now 84, is it fair to penalize that person, or is it fair to find a way to keep the program more solvent? I think we both agree that we have to make it more solvent. I think having that debate about how to best do it is certainly on the table. 

Ron Johnson:

And of course, nobody on our side is ever talking about cutting benefits for current retirees or even people about to retire. What we're talking about is, how do we save these programs for future generations, people that are paying into the system. That money is being spent. As a matter of fact, Social Security, over the next 20 years, we will pay out $5.1 trillion dollars more in benefits than we're taking in the payroll tax. And of course, the Social Security Trust Fund has no value to federal government. It's an accounting fiction. That's something the American people have basically been sold a bill of goods on. 

Mark Pocan:

That's where we can have some of these conversations about how we can keep the funding. So, again, I think these are all valid things that should be at the table, if we ever could get the democrats and republicans in Washington at the same table. 

Ron Johnson:

Here's a start. 

Mark Pocan:

Exactly. 

Frederica Freyberg:

I want to move along to another big topic that we've just been talking about in Washington, and that is gun control. Senator Johnson, you oppose the bipartisan bill that would extend existing background checks to gun shows and online sales. Why? 

Ron Johnson:

Well, I was pretty consistent during the campaign whenever I was asked about Second Amendment rights. I always said I think we have enough gun laws. What we probably need to do is enforce the ones on the books, and I would be a staunch defender of everybody's, of our Second Amendment rights, actually, all of our freedoms. What ended up happening after the tragedy in Newtown, and trust me, I wish there was a magic wand solution, where we could prevent these tragedies from happening in the future. But it's not going to come out of Washington, DC. So what I did not want to support is another law that would not be enforced, that you know, even the sponsor of the bill said it would not have prevented Newtown and most of these other tragedies. So, again, I think it would have been a totally ineffective law, just like all these gun laws they have in Chicago, and you still have an incredibly high murder rate. I do not want to create another hurdle, more expense for law-abiding citizens, something that simply wouldn't work. 

Frederica Freyberg:

And yet, a Marquette poll from March said both gun owners and non-gun owners, that's in Wisconsin, supported expanding these background checks, 82% of owners and 81% of non-gun owners. 

Ron Johnson:

Again, that would be that magic wand solution. If there really was something like a universal background check that would keep guns out of the hands of bad people, that's what people are supporting, but it's not possible. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Isn't that what it's designed for? 

Ron Johnson:

It's certainly not possible, without restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens. That's why I voted against it. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Congressman Pocan, on the flip side of this, you favor many expansions of gun control, including the background checks. But you don't think that represents kind of federal intrusion into Second Amendment rights? 

Mark Pocan:

I think this is another one of those things. I'm glad that I haven't bought into the Washington way of thinking yet. When 80% or 90% of the public say we want something to pass, I would think that it would be good for Congress to really take a serious look at that. I think background checks and the loopholes that were going to be closed by that bill would've been positive. Unfortunately, the special interests rule the day again, and they are now in charge of we didn't pass that bill. Part of it is the rules in the Senate. I know that's a whole separate debate we could have. But I think it's unfortunate, because as I talked to people, they don't understand how you could have that much popular support, and majority of the Senate, and something like that doesn't advance. 

Ron Johnson:

I do believe those polls were just a misreading of public opinion, quite honestly. You know, certainly the calls coming into our office were nowhere even close to that. I would say just the reaction has been, other than there's a concerted effort on the left to demonize those of us that voted against the background checks, I find a great deal of support for my vote. 

Frederica Freyberg:

We're going to move on to immigration, another hot topic in Washington. Senator Johnson, do you believe that immigration policy does need to be reformed? 

Ron Johnson:

Absolutely. We've got a totally broken legal immigration system. I'm actually very supportive of the Gang of Eight in the Senate, in terms of taking a look, a comprehensive look, at all of things we have to do now. I'm highly concerned that that wouldn't pass, or if it passed in the Senate, it wouldn't pass in the House. So, what I've been encouraging, certainly the republican senators in that group, is to break out those components, talk to members of the House and let's pass the components of immigration reform in a step-by-step basis, you know, in the proper order, starting with border security. I'm not particularly interested in debating, you know, how we certify, who's going to certify a secured border. I'd much rather pass a border security bill. If we have to build more fencing, let's fund it. Let's determine how much we need, if we need more boots on the ground Again, pass the components separately. I think that's probably really the only chance of success we have. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Congressman Pocan, do you think immigration begins with border control? 

Mark Pocan:

Well, I think where we should really begin is the fact that you've got a Gang of Eight that at least in the bipartisan way is looking at the issue. I think they've put together a pretty reasonable proposal. I would like to see it go further in some areas. But I think that it's a very good foundation for us to work off of. If we can't get that done, I have a lot of worries where the rest of the session will go. I think this is the hopeful area that we're seeing people talking about it in a bipartisan way, that there's a need to deal with it, but it's not just, you can't just have one part. You can't just have another part. We have to have a comprehensive plan, because, we're a nation of immigrants. We need to recognize that, and we need to make sure that we're giving people a legal path to citizenship, for aspiring Americans, as much as we're protecting our borders. But I think we got a good framework, if this can happen, I'm hopeful we can have other things through Congress. But if we continue to find reasons not to support things, I'm very unhopeful for everything. 

Ron Johnson:

The practical problem with the comprehensive approach, is it will be attacked from all sides. Unions aren't particularly interested in a guest worker program. They're certainly people on the right that aren't, you know, particularly supportive of a full path to citizenship. Maybe legal status, maybe not a full path. So if you have this comprehensive plan, it's going to be too easily attacked. I think you're much better off, you have a much higher rate of success, if you pass the individual components. Again, keeping in mind all the components you're going to have to have for, in the end, a comprehensive approach. That just has a much better chance of success. 

Mark Pocan:

I found, sometimes, that the best proposals are the ones that have people against you on both sides, and maybe this is one of those. I just think that the fact that there is a real serious approach from a bipartisan group, and hearing good things from people who are the leaders in the party, I think that's hopeful. I'm hoping that can provide a path for getting more things done. 

Frederica Freyberg:

We close on a hopeful note. Thank you very much, Ron Johnson and Mark Pocan.

Both: Thank you. 


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