By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-day series on the race for the 1st District U.S. House seat. On Saturday we published a story about challenger Allen Quist, as well as a summary story about key issues of the race. It can be found on mankatofreepress.com.
Congressman Tim Walz spent nearly four decades in schools, as a student and as a teacher, and he knows the current crowd he’s hanging with is definitely not the popular clique.
For three straight elections, members of Congress have been getting seriously snubbed by their fellow Americans. First it was Republicans tossed out in uncommonly high numbers by disgusted Americans in 2006, a wave that helped the Mankato Democrat topple veteran Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht.
In 2008, voters slammed Republicans again — giving Democrats control of the White House, along with even larger majorities in the House and Senate.
Two years of that, and another wave election came with House Democrats getting the boot from power by voters disgruntled with the stagnant economy, a controversial health care reform and skyrocketing deficits.
Even after all the changes, approval ratings for Congress sank to dismally low levels — 9 percent in one survey earlier this year.
But when Walz is asked about the throw-the-bums-out mentality that seems increasingly common, he says what one might expect an incumbent to say: “What I would argue people do is look at the individual, look at the body of work that they’ve done.”
But Walz also says what one might expect a social studies teacher to say, maybe because that’s what he was for nearly two decades before his surprise victory in 2006.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to start restoring some faith in democracy,” he said. “... Skepticism of government is healthy and truly American. Cynicism is not.”
Representative government can work if the representatives have the right attitude, stop assuming the worst of their opponents and quit pretending that compromise is a dirty word, according to Walz.
Taking the politics out of congressional redistricting and reforming how campaigns are financed are probably needed, he said. A constant approach of tossing-the-bums out en masse, however, isn’t going to work.
“What I’m afraid of is their next step after voting against all incumbents is to just not vote,” he said. “And that’s where danger lies in the democracy. They’ve lost faith in big business. They’ve lost faith in banks. They’ve lost faith in the media. They’ve lost faith in their government.”
A report card
Walz’s initial run in 2006 was centered on a promise of change and on this agenda: putting the middle class first in tax policy, reducing budget deficits, bringing the Iraq war to an end, supporting veterans and combating corruption in Congress.
The agenda and Walz’s energy were popular enough in southern Minnesota to move him from the classroom to the Capitol.
Grading Walz on the implementation of his agenda after three terms would probably show marks at both ends of the spectrum. On veterans issues, Walz has been successful enough to win him the highest honors bestowed by a variety of veterans groups. American troops have been withdrawn from Iraq. Federal economic stimulus bills included substantial middle-class tax cuts.
Walz this year passed — over the opposition of more than a few congressional heavyweights — the STOCK Act (Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge). The bill prohibits lawmakers and their staffs from using inside information gleaned at the Capitol to enrich themselves on the stock market.
“I’m proud to run on my record,” Walz said. “It’s a very difficult environment right now to get anything done, but I’ve not shied away from what I think are fundamental things.”
As for the deficit ...
The raw numbers are ugly, something Walz’s Republican challenger Allen Quist has graphically displayed for months.
The deficit was at about $160 billion in fiscal year 2007, the first year Walz was in Congress. In fiscal year 2009, as President George W. Bush was preparing to leave office, the debt was projected to be $1.2 trillion (and it grew to $1.4 trillion after President Obama took over.) It’s sat above $1 trillion ever since.
Quist says the fiscal mess has risen to crisis level and threatens the future of America.
“We certainly agree that the debt and the deficit and fiscal responsibility is the issue,” Walz said. “I think our disagreement lies in how we got there and the fundamental differences on how you fix that.”
The bulk in the growth of debt is attributable to the Bush tax cuts and the two decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were waged with no attempt by the federal government to pay for them with tax increases, Walz said.
Then came the Great Recession, which drove up costs for programs supporting the unemployed, reduced tax revenue flowing to the government, and required economic stimulus measures to promote recovery, he said.
“If you try to talk about how the problem started, they shut you off: ‘Oh No, that’s then. What about now?’” Walz said of his opponents. “You can’t solve any problem without understanding how it really started because that makes sure the solutions you’re putting into place don’t repeat those very same problems.”
Walz said he supports spending cuts and voted for a 2011 Democratic proposal to make $2.2 trillion in unspecified budget reductions.
He rejects the idea that the deficit can be eliminated solely through spending reductions, while also dismissing any suggestion that raising taxes on wealthy Americans will get the job done.
“Let me be very clear. That alone will not do it,” Walz said. “You’re not going to tax the top 2 percent and balance this budget. It has got to be a balanced approach.”
Time to deal
A real solution to America’s fiscal mess requires just one thing — people in Washington who are willing to compromise, according to Walz, who maintains that his record shows he’s one of those people.
“We only passed 39 bills that were signed into law this year in the House,” he said. “Five of them were mine.”
Getting a deal done requires give and take, and some of the no-new-taxes pledge-signers are unwilling to give, according to Walz. Even $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases would be rejected.
“If you did a million to one, they’d say, ‘No. Unacceptable,’” he said.
They even oppose Walz’s bill to end the use of the mortgage interest deduction when it’s claimed for a yacht being used as a second residence, equating that to a tax increase.
If the budget is going to be balanced, everybody’s got to pitch in, he said. Especially if crucial government programs are going to be spared from harsh cuts.
“Let’s share the sacrifice in this, but let’s not hamper our future growth,” Walz said. “That’s why I’m so adamant: We have to keep investing in energy technology. We have to keep investing in science and vital research. Because that’s where the jobs of the future come from.”