James Madison, the "Godfather of the Constitution," believed the young United States would be best represented when the country’s wide array of representatives – Congressmen, senators and even state and local officials – each fought ferociously to represent the interests of their constituents.
Each representative, he believed, fighting for the best interests of his district or state, would check the other, maximizing equality for all and the common good.
It is worth considering Madison’s view of representation in evaluating our own congressman, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. If a Congressman is to actively advocate for his district, how is ours doing?
In recent years, Wisconsin has consistently ranked at the bottom of the list of states receiving its fair share of federal funding for roads, bridges, education, research and more. According to Wisconsin’s Division of Intergovernmental Relations, Wisconsin ranks 47th in the country in federal funds received per capita.
What does this mean for residents of Wisconsin’s 5th District?
- Higher health care costs. Earlier this month Congressman Sensenbrenner was the only member of the Wisconsin delegation to vote for a 10.6-percent cut in Medicare payments to Wisconsin doctors. This in spite of the fact that Wisconsin doctors receive smaller payments from Medicare than doctors in better-represented states like California and Florida. Who makes up the difference? Anyone carrying private insurance and Wisconsin taxpayers.
- Failing roads and bridges. The nation’s infrastructure faces a $500 billion shortfall, and it’s even worse in Wisconsin, where 32 percent of the state’s roads are in poor condition, 15 percent of our bridges are deficient, 25 percent of our highways are congested and our construction companies receive less funding than counterparts in other states.
- Less high-tech research. Wisconsin is the 20th-most-populous state, yet it is just 37th in research grant dollars. Research funding at universities sparks high-tech business development. Yet, Milwaukee – receiving fewer research funds than other cities – lost 71 high-tech employers by 2006.
- A struggling education system. If you thought 37th in research funding was bad, consider that Wisconsin ranks 49th in federal spending on education. Voters in Germantown, Mequon and West Bend are already coming to grips with the consequence of this funding shortfall: Local property taxpayers must make up the difference.
- Higher taxes. Why is Wisconsin’s tax burden so high? The simple arithmetic is that Wisconsin taxpayers subsidize residents of Alaska, Virginia, Maryland, New Mexico and North Dakota – states at the top of the federal funding list who have representatives that advocate more vocally for them. What would it mean to Wisconsin taxpayers to receive our fair share? $873 million would bring us to Oregon’s level – No. 46 on the list.
Rather than use his 30 years in office to have Wisconsin tax dollars brought back home, Congressman Sensenbrenner’s response has been to publicly demean and belittle local public officials who dare to advocate for the people they represent. Sensenbrenner admits to being "abrupt" and "blunt" with his constituents, but it goes far beyond that.
In 2006, after calling the city he represents a "murder capital of the U.S.," Congressman Sensenbrenner was rebuked by business, convention and tourism organizations. When Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett raised an eyebrow, Sensenbrenner called him a "crybaby."
Former West Bend Mayor Mike Miller recounts a similar story. In 1999, Miller asked Sensenbrenner to use funding for Wisconsin’s Army National Guard, which risked being relocated after the unit was slated 85th in appropriations. Only after confronting Sensenbrenner in an airport did the Congressman use his clout to move the post from 85th to fifth in appropriations, saving the National Guard for West Bend – but not before publicly nicknaming Miller, you guessed it, "Mayor Crybaby."
Mr. Sensenbrenner claims to oppose pork-barrel spending, or "earmarks." And true to form, he hasn’t brought much pork home for his own constituents. But the reality is that Congressman Sensenbrenner does vote for pork – just not for his own constituents. In just six years, between 2001 and 2007, he voted for over $94 billion in pork-barrel spending – for other states.
It is possible to oppose pork-barrel spending (I was the first in our race to sign the no-earmark pledge) while fighting for Wisconsin’s fair share of funding in defense, education, transportation, science and research, and other normal appropriations.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin residents have the worst of both worlds: A massive level of debt – including $3 trillion in additional debt between 2001 and 2007, when Congressman Sensenbrenner’s Republican leadership controlled Washington – but little to show for it at home.
Opponents of term limits, including Congressman Sensenbrenner, will argue that longevity in Congress means more power, and therefore better representation, for Wisconsin taxpayers. Mr. Sensenbrenner’s record belies that argument. More years in Congress may have meant more power, but the result has been less responsibility and weak representation.
James Madison’s view of congressional representation is as valid today as it was two centuries ago. Wisconsin’s 5th District needs a Congressman who will represent his district with respect, in cooperation with other local elected officials, and always with an eye to what is best for the people of Wisconsin.
Jim Burkee, an associate professor of history at Concordia University in Mequon, is challenging Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. in the Sept. 9th Republican primary.