WASHINGTON — The news cycle surrounding the constantly shapeshifting Build Back Better Act brought one local figure to the forefront of national politics — Mark Pocan, the Madison congressman now serving his fifth term in Congress.
Pocan, the former two-term chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was one of a select group of lawmakers on the party’s left flank involved in the October discussions at the White House who helped determine the scope of the massive social spending package now awaiting action in the Senate.
“Something about being in the Oval Office with the president and having a conversation about what will probably be the biggest piece of legislation that moved through this country in 60 or 70 years, that was pretty special,” Pocan said.
Throughout the intra-party battle that played out in the national media, those around Pocan said he was focused both on overall legislative strategy and gains for Wisconsin’s second congressional district, working on issues such as worker training grants and Medicaid expansion.
“When he and I have gone back and forth just to update each other on what’s happening, his command of the issues has been amazing,” said Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who has maintained a close friendship with Pocan since their time on the Dane County Board of Supervisors three decades ago.
Congressional observers and past colleagues say they’re unsurprised that Pocan had his share of the political spotlight, a platform they say is a result of his progressive values and broad legislative experience finding areas of compromise.
In a sense, there are two sides to Congress. One is made up of sometimes vicious partisan spats with soundbites that end up in campaign ads or amplified through social media and cable news; the other includes the more mundane, arduous movement of legislation through the committee process and spurred by personal relationships among members of Congress and their staffs.
“What gets covered in Washington is the fights of the two parties or sometimes either party. For some reason, that’s the sexy stuff for selling detergent on TV,” Pocan said. “But the reality is much of what we get done on committees is what winds up impacting people the most.”
While Pocan does participate in “the fights” through his outspoken tweets and a frequent rotation on national news outlets to support Build Back Better over the past months, those familiar with his work say he can be just as effective behind the scenes.
“I just think the ability to reach out and touch base, even if the conversations are more social than substantive, it still is extremely helpful to be able to keep that up when you need to talk policy,” Baldwin said.
Reid Ribble, a Republican who served three terms in Congress representing Wisconsin’s eighth district, experienced Pocan’s skill for bipartisan relationships firsthand.
When Pocan was elected to Congress in 2013, Ribble, who had just finished his first term in the House, called up a few friends in the State Assembly to get a sense of his new colleague. After hearing the newcomer was “universally well-liked” among the Republicans he called, Pocan and Ribble met on the first day of the new session, sparking a friendly working relationship.
“Mark was one of those guys that I relied on if I wanted a bipartisan co-sponsor of legislation. I was never concerned about going and talking with him,” Ribble said. “I always found him to be a really good sounding board on where the left was.”
Ribble said Pocan’s ability to find compromise where possible without budging on certain core values was one of the traits that set him up well for the Build Back Better political moment and the need for compromise within a divided Democratic caucus.
“He’s an experienced legislator, a force to deal with in the conference,” Ribble said. “He’s not a shrinking violet by any stretch of the imagination. This guy is going to speak his mind.”
However, not everyone agrees. Kevin Kosar, who studies Congress and writes about how to improve it for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, split members into two categories: workhorses and showhorses.
“I’m not sure that the jury is in on what Representative Pocan wants to be,” Kosar said, referencing the “trolling” nature of some of Pocan’s social media content. “One can be a bit of both. But one would be forgiven for thinking that he was more in for being a showhorse.”
One caveat to this criticism is that part of being a representative is piquing the interest of your district, many of whom are not completely versed in every legislative intricacy.
“You can’t be a member of Congress without being a little campy,” Kosar said.
One example of reaching his district in interesting ways was “Magic Mondays,” a YouTube show that Pocan engaged in throughout his career. The short videos feature Pocan, who said his magic skills paid for part of his college tuition, discussing the process of Washington while doing magic tricks.
David Canon, a University of Wisconsin professor of political science, sees Pocan’s record a bit differently, pointing to his engagement with a group that became the Problem Solvers Caucus, which claims to find “common ground on many of the key issues facing the nation” with equal membership from both parties.
Although Pocan never officially joined the caucus when it began formally including members in 2017, and engaged in a public disagreement with the group in 2019 over an immigration policy proposal he considered inhumane, Canon says the willingness to engage with the organization in the first place was an example of an interest in negotiation and compromise.
“He has those instincts,” Canon said. “He is probably more of a pragmatist.”
He also is a long-time progressive. He co-chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus from 2017 until 2021. Rep. Pramila Jayapal was his co-chair beginning in 2018. Earlier this year, he resigned as co-chair, leaving Jayapal as the lone chair, but he continues to serve as chair emeritus and co-chairs the caucus’s political action committee that helps elect politicians who share the group’s values.
When Pocan stepped down from the co-chair position in 2020, there were no term limits in the CPC, unlike other values-based caucuses such as the New Dems and Blue Dogs, which elect new chairs every two years. He said the decision was partly about moving the younger core of the caucus into more consequential positions.
“My goal was to make sure that we continue to pass that torch so that more people can get that experience, and out of that we have a stronger progressive movement,” he said.
Another consideration from him and others in having one chair was streamlining the face of the caucus for media engagement — the endless press scrum around Jayapal during the infrastructure negotiations and in-depth profiles of her leadership could be taken as proof that the strategy paid off.
The trajectory of Pocan and the CPC into consequential roles in national politics are linked. The months-long delay of the bipartisan infrastructure bill’s passage was somewhat of a culmination of the power of the once-fringe CPC, and Pocan credits the move with getting paid leave, prescription drug pricing and immigration reform into the Build Back Better bill — although these provisions are among the most precarious as the package seeks passage in the Senate.
In addition to his strategic work, Pocan represented progressives in a handful of appearances on Fox News, a testament to his willingness to hear out his political opponents while standing firm on his own values.
“I think that he is looking for how to expand the appeal of the progressive brand to a broader range of people,” Canon said.
One of Pocan’s trial runs for arguing in favor of Build Back Better in front of political opponents came during a dinner last summer with Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who worked with Pocan on the finance committee when the two served in the State Assembly.
Vos recounted the discussion as a microcosm of the current political fight — a fundamental disagreement over whether the proposed spending would uplift future generations or leave them saddled with debt.
“I tried to convince him that he was totally wrong on all of this social spending,” Vos said. “He pushed back and said he just has a difference of opinion, and I respect that.”
With nearly a decade in Congress, Pocan said he tries to keep in perspective how long some political battles can last. He mentioned the work of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who spent decades working to enact the child tax credit currently set to be extended in Build Back Better.
“I noticed every level that you go up from local to state to federal, you can impact more people, but things happen much slower,” Pocan said. “And it’s just being able to realize that a lot of things can take a lot of time and that buildup eventually gets to have positive results.”