Dems say they're needed at the table
ROCK TOWNSHIP -- Rep. Mark Pocan never has had the luxury of serving in a majority in the House of Representatives.
Since his election in 2012, he's had a different mindset, particularly since the election of Donald Trump as president.
With Republicans firmly in control of the House and Senate, Democrats are the opposition party after eight years of Barack Obama.
But that doesn't mean they are powerless.
Because of divisions within their ranks, Pocan believes Republicans have no chance of moving forward on their agenda without the help of Democrats.
So now they are content to wait for the Republicans' next move.
Pocan is back in the 2nd District holding town hall meetings while Congress is on a two-week break, and he met with about 45 residents April 10, 2017, at Blackhawk Technical College between Beloit and Janesville.
Much like the country, Rock County is about as polarized as it can get. Janesville, Milton and the eastern half of the county are represented by Republican Paul Ryan, speaker of the House and a Janesville native.
Beloit and the communities to the west, including Orfordville, Footville, Evansville and Edgerton, are represented by Pocan of Madison, serving in his third term.
Granted, residents on the east side and west side of Rock County aren't as polarized as their districts would indicate. In Janesville, a working-class, former General Motors town, plenty of Democrats remain.
In the rural townships, there are just as many lifelong Republicans -- fiscally conservative, more Libertarian when it comes to social issues, on either side of the county.
Ryan gets plenty of attention nationally and locally, but constituents in Pocan's district are watching just as carefully to see how Democrats will react to the new and unpredictable president.
That's what makes town hall meetings with constituents so important.
"People are concerned about health care and Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and all those issues people talk about at their kitchen tables," Pocan said at the recent town hall. "They are showing their anxiety about where the country is going in these areas."
And despite the failure of the House to pass the long-promised repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, the health care worries of folks back home haven't gone away.
Like many who use the Affordable Care Act, Jeanne Shilts has seen the cost of her health insurance premiums rise dramatically. Shilts works at Blackhawk Technical
College and owns a small business.
"What's next?" she asked Pocan. "My deductible is huge, my out-of-pocket is huge and my co-pay is huge."
Rising costs for those in the private market who don't receive subsidies have driven the debate over the fate of the Affordable Care Act going way back to the campaign.
But Shilts singled out health service providers who continue to build new facilities and must have the best and latest diagnostic equipment. Pocan added that the rising cost of prescription drugs also is a culprit.
He said Democrats aren't sure what is next, but he's convinced Republicans will never pass a health care bill without their help.
"If you're trying to appeal to the tea party," Pocan said, "you will not have anything that resembles health care in the end."
On the other end, there are 23 members of Congress who represent districts that were won by Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election.
Those moderates will never sign on to a bill that in effect eliminates the Affordable Care Act.
Because of that split, Pocan said he believes it eventually will open up a discussion about how to make the Affordable Care Act simpler and solve the problems of rising costs and dwindling competition in some states.
Pocan said he prefers what he called a public option, where a government insurance plan would be available alongside private insurance plans in the Affordable Care Act's marketplace.
In the end, however, Pocan said he supports what Democrats call Medicare for all, which would be a totally government-run health care plan.
Although health care has dominated the national conversation since the election, Renee Tarnutzer of Janesville was concerned about the direction some of Trump's Cabinet members have taken.
Tarnutzer, whose son has autism, said she is concerned about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' commitment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and support for private school vouchers.
"This is a kid who, with the right help in school, has done amazing things," Tarnutzer said about her son.
But without continued support of public schools and requirements that students with disabilities get the services they deserve, Tarnutzer feels that her son's future could be at risk.
Pocan shared her concerns, particularly with school voucher proposals.
He noted that a recent Congressional Budget Office report indicated that voucher schools would "cherry pick" their students and typically did not take students with disabilities.
That puts even greater pressure on dwindling resources for public schools.
Pocan also said he's not been convinced the private, voucher schools outperform public schools.
"Until we know there are positive outcomes, how can you keep doing this as an experiment?" he wondered.
Ultimately, Pocan said, he thinks the push for voucher expansion really is more about tax policy than education policy.
He said up to 79 percent of those who receive vouchers already had been attending private schools anyway.
Another one of Trump's Cabinet picks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, received significant scrutiny during his confirmation hearings about his commitment to improving policing and race relations.
Wanda Sloan of Beloit asked Pocan about Sessions' recent directive to the Justice Department to review consent decrees with more that 20 police departments to change racially biased practices.
Pocan shared her concern.
"It's not in one region, it's across the country when it comes to some police departments operating in a very negative way when it comes to race relations, and I think it's another step backwards," he said.
Although most of the questions directed at Pocan were about domestic issues, there were two notable exceptions:
No one at the town hall asked about the recent cruise missile bombing in Syria in retaliation for the nerve gas attack on civilians. However, Pocan said he strongly believes the president should give Congress a vote on any future military action.
Pocan was, however, asked about the investigation into Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election, and he believes more revelations are on the way.
"There's no question that the Russian government interfered with our elections," he said.
Pocan said he's seen a classified briefing on the issue, and the intelligence community is in agreement that the Russian government's preference for president was Trump.
Part of his concern is that the United States isn't the only country that is the target of Russian interference.
"They are trying to interfere with democracies," Pocan said. "You can't allow that."
Because of that, Pocan supports leaving the current sanctions against Russia in place.
"You can't read that document, and your reaction is, 'Well, let's lift sanctions on Russia.' Only Donald Trump came up with that."
What Pocan didn't say, however, is that Trump associates colluded with the Russians prior to the election.
But he's concerned about a growing number of reports of Trump associates meeting with Russian officials.
"All this is troubling," he said. "It doesn't pass the smell test."
Ultimately, there remain many pressing issues in Washington, and Pocan said he hopes to bring back the input he has received at home to influence policy going forward in the nation's capital.