The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

January 6, 2012

For Walz, optimism erases gridlock

MANKATO — Midway through his third term, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz said Friday that Congress has earned its historically low approval ratings but is hopeful the worst of the partisan gridlock is past.

“This really intense partisanship — I know I’m being a little optimistic in an election year, but — I think has run its fevered course,” the Mankato Democrat said.

But as Walz looked back at the 2011 congressional session and ahead to 2012’s session and general election during an interview with The Free Press, members of Occupy Mankato were protesting at his congressional office and looking to get arrested in an act of civil disobedience. In the end, two people were cited for trespassing and escorted out of the building.

The Occupy Wall Street movement follows a Tea Party uprising that sent a bevy of new and deeply conservative lawmakers to the House, giving Republicans control for the first time in Walz’s tenure.

Walz applauded the activism of the Occupy Mankato group, which was protesting civil liberties restrictions included in the National Defense Authorization Act.

“Much like the Tea Party, when citizens are engaged in the political process, we want that to happen,” he said. “We want them to put their issues forward.”

Political activism is preferable to simple cynicism, according to Walz.

“It’s not healthy in a democracy to have people distrust their banks, distrust their elected officials, distrust the media,” he said. “That’s not healthy.”

But whether it’s the left or the right, a willingness to compromise when seeking solutions to crucial problems has to be the ultimate goal, Walz said. And the absence of that willingness is at the heart of gridlock that infected Congress in 2011.

“It’s been a challenging year, a challenging year for the American public,” he said. “... One crisis after another, a lot of brinkmanship over statesmanship.”

The summer brought the standoff over raising the debt limit, which caused stock market declines and a drop in the nation’s credit rating. The fall brought the failure of the congressional supercommittee to reach agreement on a debt reduction plan. Winter brought a stalemate on extending the payroll tax cuts that benefited about 160 million Americans.

There was no new farm bill, no new highway funding bill, no landmark deficit reduction agreement and very little public approval for Congress.

“I’m certainly hearing an earful of that,” Walz said. “The public is demanding effectiveness. And it’s not just based on ideology. ... I hear from a lot of self-identified independents and moderate Republicans who want to see something get done.”

Constituents aren’t blaming him directly.

“When I’m not around, they may,” he said, laughing.

But Walz has a list of examples that he believes demonstrate his willingness to compromise, the National Defense Authorization Act among them. He also pointed to his vote — joining just 9 other House Democrats — for a Republican alternative to the payroll tax cut extension pushed by President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The Republican plan included a provision that would have pushed Obama to approve the controversial Keystone oil pipeline, opposed by environmentalists, that would move oil from Alberta to Texas.

“I’m willing to compromise on Keystone and a few of those, even though politically it isn’t very helpful,” he said.

Making progress on some of the stickiest problems facing the country — like debt reduction — is going to require both parties to make concessions, according to Walz. After a year where there wasn’t much of that, he’s hoping Americans are sending that message to every lawmaker.

“I’m hoping that all of us got an earful on ‘Quit it!’ That’s what I heard, ‘Quit it!’ and ‘Compromise.’”

With an election looming on Nov. 6, members of Congress had better generate at least a few bipartisan accomplishments in the next 10 months, according to Walz.

“Because keep in mind, that 11 percent approval rating falls on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

A highway funding bill would be a good start, as would his STOCK Act — which prohibits lawmakers and congressional staff from using non-public inside information to enrich themselves in the stock market, said Walz, who is optimistic both will be enacted in 2012.

The former West High School social studies teacher already has a pair of Republicans itching to take him on in the general election — former state Rep. Allen Quist of St. Peter and state Sen. Mike Parry of Waseca.

Walz expects a tough re-election fight but ultimately believes his work — and his willingness to compromise — will win him another term. The passions of the Tea Party and Occupy movements are overshadowed by the broader public’s support for lawmakers looking to fix the nation’s problems, according to Walz.

“My guess is these things are fleeting, they go back and forth,” he said of protest movements. “But what the country needs is that ability to actually get some of the basic things done.”

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