MADISON, Wis. — As progressives and moderates battle it out in primaries, national Democrats like House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer are crafting an economic agenda their candidates can use to help them win back the House in November.
House Democrats across the political spectrum understand that without a strong economic message with crossover appeal, they will be relegated to another two years in the minority.
“What I think unifies the Democratic Party from Blue Dog to progressive and everybody in between is wanting to make sure that the average working family … does well, that they make it,” Hoyer said.
That’s why the Maryland Democrat has been traveling the country, asking voters what Congress can do to help them succeed.
Last week, his “Make It In America” listening tour swung through Wisconsin, with stops in Madison on April 4 and in Eau Claire on April 5. At each location, Hoyer joined the local representatives — Reps. Mark Pocan and Ron Kind, respectively — touring businesses and meeting with local business owners, economic leaders and students.
The Make It In America plan that Hoyer is refining is focused on re-energizing the economy through three key areas: entrepreneurship, education and infrastructure.
Those focal points are the latest iteration of the evolving agenda, which Hoyer first launched in 2010. At the time, Make It In America was meant to help revitalize traditional manufacturing, which took a hit during the recession. But economic insecurities lingered even as metrics on labor force participation improved.
Wanting to do more, Hoyer held public meetings last Congress to get feedback on the next phase of Make It In America. That led to the three focus areas and an emphasis on the “new economy,” where job growth is occurring in technology and innovation.
“Change is happening so rapidly … that it’s difficult to keep up, either for employers or educators,” he said at a luncheon with the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce.
Hoyer has visited Las Vegas; Kansas City, Mo.; Peoria, Ill.; Pittsburgh; Toledo, Ohio; and Indianapolis since the tour started in November. His office hopes to schedule more stops and to wrap the tour in late spring or early summer, after which Hoyer and his staff will identify common issues that can be addressed through legislation.
The goal is to then take whatever legislative ideas they come up with and roll out an agenda — likely in July or September — that Democratic incumbents and candidates can use in their campaigns.
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Make It In America is designed to appeal to lawmakers and constituents of all political stripes. Nowhere on Hoyer’s listening tour was that better illustrated than in Wisconsin. Madison is represented by Pocan, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Eau Claire by Kind, chairman emeritus of the moderate New Democrat Coalition.
Although Pocan and Kind fall on different sides of the Democratic divide, they both embrace the policy ideas behind Make It In America.
“I think Ron would probably 100 percent agree, what we should be talking about this fall is what people talk about [at] their kitchen table,” Pocan said. “And what they talk about is not what’s on Fox News or MSNBC. What they talk about is, can they afford their mortgage or rent? Do they have health insurance for their family? Can they take a family vacation this year? Can they send their kid to college if they want to go there?”
“That’s universal,” he added. “And I think that’s where Democrats are going to do well because we’re focusing on those issues for this November.”
“This is a message that translates nationwide, regardless of what congressional district you happen to represent,” he said. “And it’s really back to the bread-and-butter issues of what people wake up [to] in the morning and what they’re worried about or concerned about — good-paying jobs, job security, retirement security, the investment in their children, their education, rising health care costs, all that.”
Helping working families is something all Democrats agree on, Hoyer said, adding, “And very frankly that’s what Republicans talk about but they don’t do.”
Hoyer said Make It In America is complementary to the Better Deal economic agenda Democrats unveiled last July. The plan’s goal was also to create a unifying economic agenda the party could deploy in the upcoming campaign cycle.
But notably, Make It In America is Hoyer’s own agenda that he’s worked on independent of other congressional leaders. The No. 2 Democrat has long had aspirations of heading the Democratic Caucus, and he admitted that if current leader Nancy Pelosi were to retire, he would run to succeed her.
“Of course, you know that,” he said in an interview. “The fact of the matter is we’re focused, as you know, on taking back the majority. … I think we’re going to take back the majority, then we’ll worry about what we’re going to do with it — see what everybody’s doing.”
As to whether he would ever consider challenging Pelosi after continuously opting not to in previous years, Hoyer dodged, saying, “We’re focused on winning back the majority.”
A majority of Hoyer’s stops in Wisconsin were focused on entrepreneurship, while some of his other tour visits have touched on the other two areas of Make It In America.
In Madison, he and Pocan toured two startups, Exact Sciences and Stratatech, that have developed medical innovations. Stratatech did not allow press to join their tour but Exact Sciences showed the congressmen around their facility where they’ve developed a home colon cancer screening test and are working on other cancer detection products.
Exact Sciences CEO Kevin Conroy talked about how his company likely wouldn’t be what it is today without federal government programs. For example, the innovation for their product Cologuard — a home kit for collecting a stool sample that is sent back to their facility and whittled down to purified DNA that is tested for colon cancer indicators — was supported by research coming out of the National Institutes of Health, he said.
Cologuard was developed under a parallel review process between the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Conroy said. Medicare covers the Cologuard test, which is a lower-cost alternative to a colonoscopy — at least for those whose results turn up negative.
Roughly 30 out of every 200 Cologuard tests will identify something in the DNA that could be a sign of cancer, Conroy said. Those individuals whose tests are positive are then referred to get a colonoscopy. Only one of those 30 people is likely to have cancer, but the tests also identify people who may be in the pre-cancer stage and can still benefit from seeing a medical professional, Conroy said.
Conroy said his company has grown from three people on Day One to about 75 to 100 employees when the FDA and CMS approval came through three years later, to several thousand employees today.
But one obstacle to expanding his company’s cancer detection products is that only certain screenings are covered under Medicare. Broadening that would require a change in statute. Pocan is working with Exact Sciences on legislation that would address the issue.
Those types of legislative fixes to address problems preventing businesses from innovating and creating more jobs represent the cornerstone of the Make It in America agenda.
At a business roundtable in Madison later that afternoon that Conroy helped organize, Hoyer and Pocan heard from other Wisconsin startups about what else the federal government can do. Ideas included tax credits for investment, targeted exemptions to federal laws that have created barriers for investment, and clarifications to the law on what types of innovation are patentable.
Hoyer said the federal government has a role to play in helping startups because, unlike venture capitalists, it’s not worried about return.
“They are patient investors, if you will,” he said. “Most investors are not patient. They, for obvious reasons, want a return. That’s why the partnership is so important.”
In Eau Claire, Hoyer and Kind toured Culimeta-Saveguard, a manufacturer of exhaust insulation that sells to suppliers for John Deere and other companies.
Hoyer noted that Culimeta-Saveguard is a British-owned company that decided to make its products in America. The company talked to the congressmen about working with a local manufacturing outreach center, part of the nationwide Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, to leverage expertise on training and technical processes that help improve overall work flow.
Education and infrastructure
Entrepreneurship was part of the conversation during the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce luncheon, but that event also ventured into the other two areas of the Make It In America agenda: education and infrastructure.
Hoyer talked about President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal and its heavy reliance on private investment over federal dollars. To make a point, he mentioned Interstate 94, the “super highway” he took to travel from Madison to Eau Claire.
“I want you to imagine if the sharing between the federal [government] and states in building those highways was 10 federal and 90 state,” he said. “How many superhighways do you think we would have?”
Hoyer answered his own question and said none, pointing out that I-94 was funded roughly 90 percent through federal funds.
On education, Hoyer talked to the chamber about making college affordable and also emphasizing technical training as an alternative workforce path.
“We have to stop, to some degree, saying the only way to succeed in our society is going to college,” he said.
Later that day, Hoyer and Kind zeroed in on education during a roundtable discussion with students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Many of the issues the students raised focused on college affordability.
Nick Webber, the student body vice president, called the cost of college “alarming, especially with the changes with the Higher Education Act like not extending mandatory inflation for Pell grants.”
Other students mentioned ideas like expanding work study options and increasing access to career information tied to how long it would take to pay off related student loans.
Many of the issues that emerged throughout Hoyer’s trip have bipartisan support. But absent congressional action, they provide Democrats with rallying points.
“That’s the trick, is to get issues that don’t divide,” Hoyer said. “There are a lot of issues that divide people. What is hard is to bring people together and create consensus. That’s what’s really hard. But that’s what makes for successful policy.”