Testifying before the House Oversight Committee, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) defended his administration’s combative approach to unions amid aggressive questioning from House Democrats and his fellow witness, Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin (D).
“In Wisconsin, we are doing something truly progressive,” Walker said in his opening remarks. “In addition to holding the line on spending and finding efficiencies in state government, we are implementing long term budget reforms focused on protecting middle class jobs and middle class taxpayers.”
Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and others repeatedly pressed Walker to explain why he targeted collective bargaining rights when unions had already agreed to budget cuts to help close a deficit.
“The unions agreed to double their share of the health insurance premiums and to increase their contributions to help the pension system. That’s not true?” Cummings asked.
Walker said he believed that statewide union leaders could not speak for individual local chapters and that the collective bargaining provisions were needed to enforce budget cuts in the long term.
“If we have a short term fix we just push this problem to the future,” he said. “What we gave are permanent long term solutions, the tools that state and local governments need. They can only get it if you make those sorts of changes.”
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) pushed Walker on the negotiations as well, saying that unions only refused to accept his budget proposals “because you refused to drop your demand to strip collective bargaining rights that had nothing to do with the budget.”
Governor Shumlin, in attendance to testify, got in on the action from the witness table.
“The question is are you going to bring people together to solve problems or are you going to go after an assault on a basic principle in America which is collective bargaining?” Shumlin said of Walker’s plan. “If you want to go after collective bargaining just come out and say it, ‘Hey we’re taking you on.’”
Several members brought up the issue of outside money, with some Democrats singling out the Koch brothers in their questions. Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT) demanded to know how many contributions he’d received from the Kochs (“None directly I know of,” Walker replied.) Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) brought up a prank phone call with Walker by a local blogger who pretended to be David Koch.
“He said ‘I’ll tell you what Scott, once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time,’” Connolly said. “You responded to that by saying ‘Alright, that would be outstanding.’ What did you mean by that?”
Walker denied he saw any reward implied and said he was merely “trying to get off the call and on to the next issue” at that point. “I don’t even know where Cali is,” he added.
On the Republican side, committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) praised Walker’s “bold reforms” and credited him with helping avert bankruptcy. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) criticized Democratic state lawmakers in Wisconsin for leaving the state to try and prevent a vote on Walker’s union proposal, which eventually passed without them.
“As a public official and as one who is elected I take personal offense at somebody who abrogates responsibility by not owning up to their obligations to make these decisions,” he said.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.