Two Wisconsin lawmakers from different sides of the political divide discussed the country’s fiscal problems in a congenial bipartisan forum Thursday night on the UW-Madison campus.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, not known for making many Madison appearances, drew more than 30 gun-control advocates protesting his vote last month against universal background checks.
The senator entered the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery through a different door, but Maureen Kind, 69, of Madison, and her fellow protesters found support for their cause from motorists on University Avenue.
Kind held a sign, “Represent Wisconsin not the NRA,” because, she said, Johnson is nothing like recently retired Sen. Herb Kohl “who always said, ‘he’s nobody’s senator but ours.’”
Inside, the panel discussion on the federal debt was harmonious, except for one protester who sat among the more than 150 attendees, holding a small sign that read: “support gun safety laws.”
New U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, spoke about his frustration that, after months of debate, the country still has no national budget.
The country needs a road map, Pocan said, and the dysfunctional government keeps punting.
“The House has a budget, the Senate has a budget, the president has a budget, but the next stop, the crucial step, is now to sit down together with those budgets and produce a national budget,” he said.
Johnson likened the fiscal impasse and staggering debt to an addict in need of a 12-step program.
“What’s the first step in solving any problem? You have to raise your hand and first of all admit you have a problem, and then quickly get down to describing the depth of the problem,” he said.
The first act of bipartisanship should be forums like the one Thursday, he said, “educating the American public together on the full depth of the problem” and preparing Americans for the solution.
The event started with remarks from former U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker, also on the panel. Walker served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, and later embarked on a “fiscal responsibility bus tour,” schooling Americans about the country’s long-term fiscal troubles.
“The federal government has grown too big, promised too much and needs to restructure,” he said.
“Basically, the United States government is 11½ times bigger as a percentage of the U.S. economy than it was 100 years ago.”
Everyone has the same goal in wanting a prosperous country for every American, Johnson said. “I’ll be the first to admit, we have a pretty wide diversity of opinion in how you achieve that goal.”
As the country begins to turn its attention to the solutions, he said, “let’s at least start by not questioning each other’s motives.”