WASHINGTON — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker defended his school of union hobbling as a route to fiscal discipline to budget-weary Washington on Thursday, telling a House committee that protracted, nail-biting negotiations in tough economic times can produce inaction and bad policy.
"Sometimes," the Republican governor told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, "bipartisanship is not so good."
Walker clearly was speaking of recent Wisconsin budget history. Still, it was an extraordinary message to deliver to Capitol Hill at a time of divided government, when leaders in Congress realize they have little choice but to negotiate the path toward the nation's economic stability. As Walker spoke to the House panel, a Congress facing tough fiscal battles ahead was preparing to send the White House a bipartisan deal for $38 billion in spending cuts over the next six months.
"This is the best we could get out of divided government," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters.
Walker's budget for Wisconsin is just the opposite – an explicit act of partisanship.
Passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and now the subject of a court fight, it 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. The state no longer will collect dues for unions through paycheck deductions.
Walker's assault on the public employee unions roiled Wisconsin politics, inspiring widespread protests and a walkout by Senate Democrats in the legislature. It also made him a hero to many conservatives and a favorite ideological target of Democrats, for whom unions are a key and well-funded constituency.
Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is set to attend a tea party rally this weekend at the Wisconsin Capitol, the site of recent protests over legislation that would strip union rights for most public workers. The Wisconsin Democratic Party says in a statement that Palin and Walker complement each perfectly because each wants to lower wages and benefits for Wisconsin families.
The bitterness followed Walker to Washington on Thursday. The hearing, billed by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., as a look at the choices faced by budget-strapped local governments, was more a coming-out for the Republican governor.
The Democrats' witness, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, began his testimony by giving his fellow governor a bottle of maple syrup – a prop, as it turned out, for Shumlin's point that "you can get more with maple sugar than with vinegar."
Governors all must balance their budgets, Shumlin, a Democrat, said, and most do it without sparking the kind of animosity roiling Wisconsin.
"You can get this job done, you can balance your budget, you can create jobs in your state without taking on the basic right of collective bargaining," Shumlin said. "If you want to go after collective bargaining ... just come out and say it."
Walker told the House committee he had tried for years as a local government official to negotiate with public employee unions, only to reach no accord. He complained that past state budgets amounted to bipartisan raids on specific funds, questionable accounting principles and agreements to put off tough decisions. He said his budget will plug that deficit.
Democrats at Thursday's hearing were combative.
Just how much did weakening government workers' collective bargaining rights save the state of Wisconsin? demanded Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.
"That particular part doesn't save any," Walker replied. Earlier in his testimony, he told the committee the changes would save local governments in Wisconsin more than $700 million a year.
He has said the part of the bill that forces the workers to contribute more toward their pensions and health care saves the state $30 million this fiscal year and $300 million over the next two.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia, asked Walker whether he's met with union representatives since the bill passed. Walker said no, but a member of his administration has.
Norton suggested Walker should take a lesson on civility from Congress, of all places. Though she often disagrees with Issa, for example, "I have always felt that this was somebody I could talk with and we could have a civil conversation."
In your shoes, she told Walker, "I would want to take the high road."
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.