WASHINGTON – Introduced by fellow Republican Jim Sensenbrenner as a “very polarizing figure,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker lived up to that mantle in a highly charged appearance Thursday at a congressional hearing on state budget problems.
Lawmakers from his own party hailed him as a gutsy politician making tough choices while Democrats seized the chance to cross-examine a governor they regard as a poster boy for conservative overreach.
Democrats called him a union-buster, a divider and a vehicle for corporate interests.
They derided his contention that cutting collective bargaining rights was a fiscal necessity rather than a politically motivated choice.
Walker told lawmakers his policies were “progressive in the best sense of the word” because cutting compensation and benefits would allow the state to avoid layoffs and tax increases.
Walker was invited to testify by the GOP chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, California’s Darrell Issa, on the subject of “State and Municipal Debt: Tough Choices Ahead.”
He appeared alongside a Democratic governor invited by the minority members of the committee, Vermont’s Peter Shumlin, who told lawmakers he was able to negotiate concessions from his state workers “without taking on the basic right of collective bargaining.”
At the outset of the hearing, Shumlin handed Walker a jar of Vermont maple syrup, declaring, “We get more with maple syrup than we do with vinegar.”
Walker’s budget for Wisconsin, passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and now the subject of a court fight, ends collective bargaining on everything except wages for state and local government employees and requires them to absorb more of their pension and health care costs.
Walker’s assault on the public employee unions roiled Wisconsin politics, inspiring widespread protests and a walkout by Senate Democrats in the Legislature.
Walker told the House panel Wednesday that there are limits to the virtues of working together.
He blamed past governors and lawmakers from both parties in Wisconsin for deferring “tough decisions.”
“I believe more important than working together is that people want results,” he said, saying in his prepared testimony that “Sometimes, bipartisanship is not so good.”
Two Wisconsin lawmakers who don’t sit on the oversight committee appeared at the hearing.
Sensenbrenner, a House Republican, introduced Walker to the panel, saying: “Very few people here I think knew who Scott Walker was until the last two months or so. Those of us who knew him are really not surprised at the proposals he made.”
Milwaukee Democrat Gwen Moore was allowed to question Walker at the very end of the hearing, a courtesy often extended to colleagues who sit on other committees.
She started by saying: “The governor and I have a really long history. We’re friends, I’m crazy about his kids and his wife, but I’m not going to spend my five minutes pretending we agree on anything.”
Instead she excoriated his budget proposals on everything from school vouchers for higher-income families to health care cuts to collective bargaining to tax cuts, contending that these were policies of choice, not fiscal necessity.
Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich asked Walker what budgetary rationale there was – in terms of savings to the state – in proposals such as requiring unions to annually re-certify themselves.
“That particular part doesn’t save anything,” said Walker, who said he proposed it to “give the workers the right to choose.”
Kucinich replied, “The attack on collective bargaining rights is a choice, not a budget issue.”
Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley ridiculed Walker for having run a campaign ad about bringing people together, saying, “How’s that going for you?”