Problems with Isthmus cover story

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Isthmus writer Marc Eisen highlighted a very important fact in last week’s Isthmus cover story on Wisconsin’s relationship with the federal government: the Badger State ranks 48 out of 50 in attracting federal dollars.

It’s important people know that their state’s congressional delegation is perhaps not looking after them as well as, say, West Virginia’s.

It was good to see Eisen explain some of the most important aspects of the political context in which Wisconsin congressional members compete for pork.

In the 1970s, observers began to connect the rise of the Sun Belt with three decades of heavy federal spending on military and infrastructure. They noted that long-serving Dixie congressmen controlled the key appropriations committees to the immense benefit of their constituents.

Good point here: No region has had more undeserved power in the U.S. Congress than the South. For a century after the Civil War there was virtually no Republican Party in any part of the former Confederacy, meaning that southern Democrats elected to Congress almost never faced meaningful competition again. Therefore, the most senior members of an institution that was based entirely on seniority, were disproportionately Southern, and hence controlled the most important committees.

Moreover, Eisen highlights the strategic advantage the sunbelt had in acquiring federal funding for infrastructure and huge investments in space exploration and other scientific research.

However, Eisen goes astray as he seeks to find an explanation for Wisconsin’s poor performance at the federal trough.

Our pols tend to throw up their hands at the mention of federal spending: Pork? You want us to dine at the trough of the taxpayers? Please! How unbecoming!

Even Russ Feingold, a notable proponent of earmark reform, proudly displays the money acquired for Wisconsin in the stimulus plan on his website. Herb Kohl, chairman of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee, makes no secret of his devotion to getting Sconnie farmers everything they deserve plus a lot more. Even Scott Walker, the politician he cites as anti-stimulus, eventually caved to public pressure and accepted the money. And it wasn’t until the very end of the article that Eisen mentions that the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee – perhaps the single most influential position for targeting federal coffers – is our own Dave Obey (D-Up Nort).

Before he mentions that, Eisen presents this thesis on Wisconsin’s supposed aversion to spending federal tax dollars:

There’s some truth to this, to be sure. But another and perhaps greater factor is the state’s political culture and its dysfunctional mix of high-minded liberals and doctrinaire conservatives. More often than not, neither has much interest in playing the hard, smart game of federal funding.

And later…

Doctrinaire conservatives may deny it, but federal spending can be a catalyst for economic growth. Liberals may be too high-minded to care.

Again, where does this come from? Sure, there have been a few prominent examples of fiscal hawk Wisconsinites, but it is anything but the tradition. In fact, his take on the Germanic and Scandinavian backdrop in Wisconsin politics as “individualistic” is firmly at odds with established opinion on the matter. In fact, Wisconsin and Minnesota have long traditions of generous welfare states, and although state services do not equal love of federal government, they certainly speak to the desires of the people to be looked after by the representatives they elect.

Granted, it wasn’t just Eisen’s analysis – John Nichols of the Cap Times joined in the Wisconsin fairy tale:

“We’re better than that,” says John Nichols, the liberal columnist for The Capital Times, who adds that Wisconsin politicians “go to Washington to be leaders, not to hunt for nickels and dimes.”

Frankly, I’m surprised Nichols allowed himself to be quoted as a liberal and not as a progressive. Cap Times insiders have told me that the paper goes to the utmost lengths to preserve that vestige of the La Follette lingo.

Maybe Eisen is correct. But he didn’t come up with enough evidence to support the conclusion. The idea that Wisconsin is not getting federal money simply because it doesn’t want it is not convincing. If the article had excluded this tenuous premise, it would have been considerably stronger, and Eisen could have devoted more space going into detail about what the state needs to attract dollars, such as research, infrastructure improvements etc. Granted, that would have been a less sexy story. But I think it would have been more accurate.

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3 Responses to “Problems with Isthmus cover story”

  1. Ryan Says:

    You’d think having Dave Obey in charge of appropriations would mean something!

  2. Jason Smathers Says:

    I agree that the story’s conclusion was rather weak, but I had a bigger problem with the premise of the story — if you’re going to talk about federal funding and assume that we don’t get enough, you better be able to point to what you need the money for. One anecdote about one situation regarding the Cap Centre development isn’t really enough.

    Plus, this line really irked me:

    “Insiders offer a matter-of-fact explanation for Wisconsin’s dearth of federal spending. The state doesn’t have any big military bases, so we don’t get all those military salaries and big defense contracts. And those big federal regional offices wind up in Chicago and not in Milwaukee. So, of course, we don’t get a lot of bucks from Uncle Sam. End of story.”

    Well, I’m so glad that we could whittle the other reasons for federal funding down to a paragraph. I understand this is focused on the ones begging here, but the piece dispenses with the notion that we need federal funding for “something.” We just need funding because we deserve it. I don’t buy that. Show me projects that Wisconsin could use funding for, infrastructure improvements, etc…then we’ll talk. Hell, I don’t even want to outline specific targeted requests…just make the case why Wisconsin doesn’t belong where it is in the hierarchy of federal funding. If they had even attempted to make that argument, I would have loved the political arguments given here.

  3. Ordinary Jill Says:

    I think things are starting to change. UW-Madison is getting a lot of federal research money, and the biotech companies that have spun off the university are also likely to attract federal dollars. Oshkosh Truck just got that big military contract. Doyle’s going after federal money for high-speed rail. Baldwin has been securing some pork for her district. And Obey hasn’t chaired the Appropriations Committee for very long. I expect to see a lot of federal funding for his district in the future. I’ll bet the Marshfield Clinic has big plans to expand that will require pork.

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