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Capitol Punishments: Manufactured outrage formula

A week of sinister tantrums over FDA inspectors and public university funding.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

A week of sinister tantrums over FDA inspectors and public university funding.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

A bunch of babies

If you have read or listened to any news or have an infant, you are well aware there’s a formula shortage. Maybe the phrase “formula shortage” doesn’t fully convey the urgency of the situation: people cannot find food for their babies. Yet all five members of Wisconsin’s Republican Congressional delegation voted against a bill this week to provide more funding to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to address the crisis. 

The always astute U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, of Wisconsin’s District 7, tweeted “The Biden-Pelosi ‘solution’ to the baby formula shortage is to give FDA bureaucrats a $28 million raise? Blank checks for bureaucrats is not the formula needed to fix this crisis.”

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Except that a) the legislation, which fortunately passed the House despite 192 Republican “no” votes does not provide a blank check. It pays for something specific: devoting more FDA inspectors to baby formula. Currently the FDA has nine—NINE—people testing formula. More inspectors would mean that the closed Similac plant in Michigan that is the source of this whole mess could pass inspection and re-start production quicker, AND in the meantime the FDA could approve international baby formula for sale in the US. 

And b) you want to punish the FDA for shutting down production of formula that literally killed two babies? You’re blaming the fire on the person who pulled the alarm. If you ask Americans of all stripes whether they want the FDA to shut down the production of proven baby-killing products, I think it’s a safe bet that the answer would be a resounding “yes.”

The FDA did its job the way it was supposed to. You could even argue that if the agency had more inspectors, it could have potentially caught the problem before two babies died, but I digress. 

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How did we get to the point where shutting down one plant creates a nationwide crisis? So many women rely on the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program to purchase formula that when state after state (including Wisconsin) chose Similac for their WIC programs, it made it difficult for other companies to compete in the market. 

In theory, the vacuum from the current shortage would have companies that sell internationally taking advantage of the opportunity to seek FDA approval and expand into the U.S. But, considering what just happened with Similac, the last thing the FDA wants to do is hastily let those companies in and risk ending up with more ill—or worse—babies. 

And, because the internet has to take a bad situation and make it a hellscape, several people decided that the solution to those silly women’s formula shortage was to “just breastfeed.” I have not had children but I am fully aware, both from news reports but also seeing the lived experience of colleagues, that the solution is not that simple. 

Not all women can physically breastfeed. Some do not have paid leave, so they have to go back to work—where, in many cases, there is no space for pumping. Even in middle-class jobs, I’ve known women who had to pump in the bathroom or a supply closet. Plus, you need a refrigerator to store the milk before you go home. 

So if your knee-jerk reaction to the shortage was “breastfeed,” maybe take a moment and realize that instead of talking, you should spend a little more time listening to women. They’ve been pointing out the issues in the previous paragraph for years, and if lawmakers and businesses had listened to them then, we wouldn’t be in this mess today.

It’s not you…

In their frenzy to denounce the just-announced new UW-Madison chancellor, Jennifer Mnookin, without meeting her first, Wisconsin’s legislative Republicans gave away that their animosity had nothing to do with her as a candidate and everything to do with weaponizing culture wars to defund the state university system even more than they already have.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’s (R-Rochester) statement on Monday hit all the buzz words, starting with “Critical Race Theory (CRT).” Considering Mnookin’s last position was dean of the law school at UCLA, she should support Critical Race Theory, seeing as how law schools are the ONLY place where CRT is actually taught. It is a tool for legal analysis, not a children’s story book featuring Black and brown kids. 

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) who is vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges and the Legislature’s leading anti-higher-ed crank, also grumbled about CRT, vaccine mandates, a potential position for Hunter Biden that never came to fruition, and of course the fact that Mnookin is from California. But Nass’s statement showed that his displeasure with Mnookin, like the indefinitely postponed “campus free speech survey,” is just about loading up ammunition to justify cutting funding.

“If the Board of Regents truly believes that Mnookin is the best choice, then the next Republican governor and Legislature should find it impossible to provide more taxpayer dollars or allow the board to increase tuition,” Nass said in a press release this week.

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I don’t remember this kind of response (or any response, really) when the Board of Regents chose Jay Rothman, a lawyer and CEO of a legal firm, to lead the whole UW System, even though he has no education work experience and didn’t even attend public universities. 

A response from the Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors called out Nass and Vos’ threats for what they are: “unacceptable political interference in the administration of the UW System.” 

We don’t know what Mnookin’s plans are for the university. Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter.

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