Killing them with Kind-ness: Rep. Kind uses diplomacy to challenge leaders

Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) isn’t a bomb-thrower, but he certainly knows how to stand his ground and defend his position — even when it challenges the Democratic status quo.

Through this diplomatic approach to bucking Democratic leaders, the earnest centrist has emerged as an influential voice on healthcare, ethics and efforts to cut pork and reduce wasteful spending.

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Just last week, Kind played a leading role in negotiating historic changes to Medicare reimbursements that could help reduce wasteful spending in healthcare and attract more centrist support for the Democrats’ final healthcare reform package. The agreement links healthcare providers’ Medicare payments to quality of care rather than quantity, which the Wisconsin Democrat has long sought.

“We will no longer be paying for the volume of care that’s given, but for the quality of care,” he said.

Kind, 46, expects to continue to challenge his leadership in coming years.

The Harvard-educated attorney recently opted to seek an eighth term in the House instead of launching a bid for governor, though he would have been the front-runner for the Democratic nomination to succeed Gov. Jim Doyle.

It wasn’t any easy choice, he said, considering his love for the state where he was born and raised.

He decided to stay put, he said, because there are too many important national policy decisions being made, such as on healthcare and financial regulatory reform, as well as determining a new military policy in Afghanistan, to leave Washington right now.

“Given what is taking place here in Washington … I’m right in the middle of the healthcare negotiations taking place given my position on the [Ways and Means Health subcommittee],” he said.

The thought of “turning my back on all of those discussions and deliberations” and focusing on a statewide campaign was a choice he was not willing to make, he said.

Because of the deal on Medicare reimbursements, Kind now plans to support a comprehensive healthcare overhaul bill that contains a public option. And he believes Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will be able to find the 218 votes she needs to pass it.

“I think [Pelosi] can get to 218 … it’s not going to be easy, because outside of a war resolution, this is as tough as it gets,” he said.

The healthcare bill will include a provision commissioning federal studies on ways to remove geographic inequities in Medicare and rewarding providers for good outcomes at lower costs. Federal health officials would adopt the commission’s recommendations by 2012. The Institute of Medicine, an independent nonprofit agency linked to the National Academy of Sciences, would conduct the studies.

Kind hopes the compromise will convince other centrist Democrats in the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions to overcome their fears and constituent anger and support the healthcare reform measure.

He brushes aside critics who question the effectiveness of mere studies.

“I haven’t heard a better idea yet,” he said.

Kind’s support represents a bit of a turnaround. He opposed the first healthcare bill that emerged from the Ways and Means panel. He disliked the bill’s price tag, and saw it as failing to curb fears that any government-run healthcare program would only lead to more wasteful spending.

Now Kind has emerged as a healthcare emissary to centrists, many from rural states.

He’s reaching out to some of the same members he antagonized on the issue of farm subsidies. Kind’s anti-subsidy views also put him into conflict with some of his leaders.

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The budget-minded Democrat has sworn off earmarks and teamed up in 2007 with fiscally conservative Republicans such as Reps. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) to lead a failed effort to cut farm subsidies even though he represents one of the most productive dairy farming areas in the country.

The move angered House Democrats, including Pelosi, who had carefully crafted the bill to help centrist freshmen from rural districts. Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D) of Minnesota called Kind a “lone ranger” on the issue who was dividing the caucus.

“I don’t appreciate it,” Peterson said at the time.

Kind saw it as a principled stance, and one he doesn’t apologize for or regret.

A former county prosecutor who once worked for former Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) in his fight against wasteful spending, Kind has urged Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to fulfill her pledge to set a new standard for congressional ethics by proactively dealing with any ethics allegations before they turn into major scandals that further damage the institution of Congress.

Earlier this year he joined Flake in calling for an ethics investigation into PMA Group, a now-defunct defense-lobbying firm under scrutiny for questionable campaign donations and earmarks. He has voted with Flake and against Democratic leaders every time the Arizonan has brought his privileged resolution calling for an investigation into the link between PMA and campaign contributions to the floor.

“We have to have the ability to self-police or we’re going to lose credibility in this institution,” he said.

However, Kind has not been willing to join Republican quests to have Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) step down amid an ethics investigation.

He does acknowledge, however, that having the chairman of the tax-writing committee admit to severe tax-writing mistakes doesn’t look good.

“Of course there’s an appearance problem to that; otherwise you wouldn’t be writing about it all the time if there wasn’t,” he said. “But I think it’s important for us to be able to distinguish between that which is honest, human mistakes rather than voluntary action that members know are wrong and having the consequences flow from that.”

Without having investigated the allegations against Rangel himself, Kind says he can’t determine if the mistakes were willful or simply a result of an “honest lapse in record keeping.”

“We’re all ultimately human and none of us are perfect and we’re all prone to mistakes from time to time,” he said. “If that becomes that new standard — that any mistake is subject to dismissal or losing their position — then that’s going to be a very tough standard for each and every member to have to live up to.”

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