February 2003

Earth to Congress: where are we going, and

Some days, I listen to the bushwah coming from Congress or the White House and I find myself asking, “Who are these people . . . and on the planet they come from, is there oxygen?”

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Take Sherwood Boehlert. He’s a member of Congress and, despite that, not a bad guy. He’s a New York

Republican who’s been in the House for more than 20 years now, and he loves the place. Fine. It’s said that some people who muck manure for a living come to love the smell, so everyone to their own taste.

But I thought Sherwood had been sniffing the congressional perfumes a bit too deeply when he recently declared that the House is “the one institution in the whole wide world that’s the personification of this great democracy of ours.”

Democracy? The great majority of Americans are factory workers, clerks, cab drivers, dirt farmers, teachers, Main Street merchants, programmers, waitresses, health-care workers, and the like. How many of them serve in Congress, or are even marginally represented by those who serve there? About 70% of Americans make less than $50,000 a year. How many of our Congress critters go to Washington from such an income perspective?

Indeed, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reports that nearly half of the newly elected members of Congress are millionaires—which 99.5% of Americans are not. And if the House is so representative of the people, why didn’t we get a pay raise four of the last five years, as they gave themselves? Why don’t we have top-flight health coverage paid for by taxpayers, as they do? Why don’t we get golden, no-worry pensions, as they do?

Phil Gramm is one example of congressional apartness from the rest of America. The Texas senator, who just retired, opposed any government program to help regular folks, while he slavishly served the corporate powers that financed his campaigns. He became a millionaire while in office. Curious, huh? And now that he’s out, We the People will send him a retirement check of $78,534 every year. He’ll get more doing nothing than 80% of us will make working day in and day out.

Not that Phil really needs it, for he’s now taken his expertise and Washington rolodex to the Swiss banking conglomerate UBS Warburg, where he’ll make more millions as their in-house advisor on how to milk the U.S. government for corporate favors.

"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower


Just how far removed from your and my reality are our stalwart public officials in D.C.? Take wages. For years now, Democrats and even some Republicans have talked about the crying need to raise the minimum wage, now stuck at $5.15 an hour. They’ve talked about raising it by a buck, up to $6.15. But wait . . . that’s rank poverty—roughly $12,000 a year gross for full-time work. Yet, after six years of talk, Congress still hasn’t raised the wage floor by a miserly buck.

And all this while they’ve managed those other raises—the ones to themselves! In four of the past five years, including last year, they’ve given themselves cost-of-living pay raises of some $5,000 a year. That’s a $20,000 increase for each of them—far more than the total annual pay that a minimum-wage worker would draw if Congress ever gets around to that one-buck increase.

That’s not the personification of democracy . . . it’s plutocracy.

And what a joy it’s been to notice the patriotic fervor that our Congress critters have shown since September 11. For example, I was inspired by the stand on principle that Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi took when a reporter inquired about his post-9/11 work habits. Thad boldly declared: “We weren’t going to let terrorists shut down our government.” Was Thad referring to some proud determination by the legislature to say on the job in Washington?

Not quite. In fact, he was simply using terrorism in an attempt to explain why he and his colleagues would continue to take congressional junkets, even though there’s a war going on and our nation is in a recession.

Indeed, only 10 days after September 11th’s terrorist attacks, Cochran was out there junketing with the best of them, enjoying an all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans courtesy of lobbyists and executives in the poultry industry.

Yes, even as some of our soldiers were going cave to cave in Tora Bora, some of our lawmakers were going to exotic locales like Hawaii, the posh Greenbrier resort and other luxury destinations, paid for and accompanied by lobbyists for the airlines, the chemical giants, and other interests wanting special legislative favors from their junketing “guests.”

Which brings up Rep. Charles Stenholm. Back in October of 2001, while the hunt for Osama bin Laden was getting fierce in Afghanistan, this Texas Democrat accepted it as his patriotic duty to attend the tony Breeder’s Cup horse race in Belmont, New York, as a guest of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

“We do quite a few of these events,” explained Stenholm after a tough day of being wined and dined by the horsy set. But don’t think Stenholm felt any qualms about indulging in such luxury while his constituents suffered the ill effects of our flagging economy back home. “I never apologize,” he said innocently. “I had never been to the Breeder’s Cup.” And they’re off. . . .

Earth to Washington!

These days, with the rumbling of war drums and the clamor for regime change in Iraq, it’s harder than ever getting a sensible message through to our elected representatives. Still, one must try. So here goes:

Yoo-hoo, White House and Congress, excuse us all the way to hell, but could you possibly take a minute or two from beating your chests and trying to out-do each other with your war whooping against Saddam Hussein to notice that we’ve got a little problem here on the homefront?

I’m not talking about the Homeland Security Department, with its new ensemble of gun-toting federal agents and its color-coded terrorism-alert scheme. Instead, maybe you might notice that our so-called economy has moved into Code Red, threatening our national security in ways that the blowhard thug in Iraq can’t approach. Check it out:

In just the last year, the Dow Jones has lost 25% of its value, and the Nasdaq is down by 40%. People’s retirement funds have suffered a 30% drop in value.

Two million jobs have been lost, unemployment keeps climbing, and long-term unemployment has doubled under Bush.

Corporate profits and corporate investment are down, while poverty and the number of people without health care are up.

Consumer debt is at an all-time, absurd high, and bankruptcies are getting hot enough to set the woods on fire.

Where’s the leadership, Republican or Democrat? Real people are being hurt. Instead of black-tie fund-raising dinners, the whole passel of these incumbents ought to be sitting at America’s kitchen tables, listening to reality . . . and responding.

Instead, we get King George the W regally trying to inoculate himself from criticism that his new tax-cut proposals are designed to benefit the very wealthiest Americans at the expense of the rest of us. George recently got that little sneer on his face and lashed out at his critics, saying, “Some would like to turn this into a class war. That’s not how I think.”

Bull biscuits! Bush is the ranking five-star general in this ongoing class war!

From his rigging of pension rules so that corporations can stiff their longtime employees, to his abandonment of safety regulations that protect workers on the job, Bush has been lobbing bomb after bomb into America’s middle-class neighborhoods, not to mention his assaults on the poor.

Now here he comes, with another sweet dollop for those at the top, proposing to eliminate taxes on money that big investors make from stock dividends. This will take $300 billion out of the public treasury—money needed for health care, education, roads, and other basics—and give it to a few people who’re already fabulously rich. Three-fourths of this giveaway will go to people making $100,000 and up, and 42% of it will go just to the richest 1%. The majority of us—working stiffs, small farmers, Main Street business, the poor—will get exactly zero.

Throughout his business and political career, George W. has been a ruthless class warrior, and it’s a scream to hear him whine that he’s a victim of “class war.” Sometimes I wonder if our so-called “leaders” in Washington get up every morning and drink a great big glass of hypocrisy just to get them prepared for their day’s work.

Bushwhacking the budget

Am I the only one who thinks it’s curious that people calling themselves “fiscal conservatives” are chug-a-lugging federal money like frat boys binging on Ripple? The Reaganauts did this to us 20 years ago, and now the Bushites are back hitting the federal sauce. George W. has delivered to Congress the first two-trillion-dollar budget.

"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower


How much is one trillion? It’s a one followed by 12 zeroes. One trillion seconds ago, you weren’t around. The USA wasn’t around. Western civilization wasn’t around. One trillion seconds is 31,688 years.

Bush’s budget, as you would expect, is a total perversion of the priorities and values of We the People. Right off the top, he takes another $1.5 trillion from our public treasury to dole out during the next 10 years to rich people.

The Pentagon and its fat-cat contractors are next in line, getting $400 billion more than is budgeted for all the other agencies combined. This is a bonanza for the Big Five Pentagon contractors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. And this outlay for the war machine doesn’t count actually using it—a war in Iraq and battles elsewhere are add-ons.

As usual, corporate welfare is front and center. For example, polluters are given a pass on paying for the cleanup of Superfund sites—the nastiest, most contaminated spots in America. The Superfund law had taxed polluting industries to pay for cleaning up their own messes, but George W. felt their pain and has now shifted the cost from the polluters to us pollutees, handing their tab to us taxpayers. The state Public Interest Research Groups calculated it to be “more than a $1-billion-a-year tax holiday for polluters.”

Meanwhile, the things you and I would choose to fund—from universal health care to universal education—go begging, or actually get whacked by Bush. The True Majority Campaign points out that only a 15% cut in the Pentagon budget—which military experts agree would not hurt our war-making powers one bit—could do a world of good, including ALL OF THESE THINGS:

Rebuild America’s public schools over the next 10 years: $12 billion;

Feed and provide basic health care to all the world’s poor: $12 billion;

Reduce class size in grades 1 through 3 to 15 students per class: $11 billion;

Reduce the debts of impoverished nations: $10 billion;

Buy health coverage for every uninsured American kid: $6 billion;

Increase federal funding for clean energy and energy efficiency: $6 billion;

Publicly finance all federal elections: $1 billion;

Fully fund the Head Start program: $2 billion.

Bush ate the surplus

Have you ever seen those gross gorging events in which contestants shove down 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes or gobble a tub of Spam without using their hands?

That’s George gobbling our tax dollars. The guy who ran on reducing government has taken the $5.6 trillion surplus he inherited and turned it into a $2.1 trillion deficit—in just two years! Plus his new budget spends all of the Social Security surplus and all of the Medicare surplus.

Just the cost of interest on his deficit spending will add $3 trillion to our nation’s debt over the next 10 years. This is a massive wealth-redistribution program from us middle-class taxpayers to a few wealthy bondholders who will draw the biggest share of these trillions in interest. It’s also a redistribution from our meager pockets to those of foreign interests, for nearly half of our government’s debt is now held by investors in other countries.

All of this debt . . . for what? We do not get our deteriorating infrastructure repaired, do not get health care for all, do not get tax fairness, do not get our rivers and lakes cleaned up, do not get energy independence. We get richer rich people and a bigger war machine; more plutocracy at home and more empire abroad.

Give democracy a chance

There is a solution to this insanity: What if our elections were “voter-owned,” instead of being owned by the big-money powers—would that make you feel better about voting?

The good news is that we can have voter-owned elections, if we get to doing some serious agitating and organizing at a grassroots level. That’s what a great group of folks in North Carolina have just done, starting with their state courts. Last month, a coalition called North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections won the most sweeping judicial reform in our country: a state law providing public financing for candidates to North Carolina’s top two courts.

The judiciary, which holds life-and-death power over us—as well as the power to rule over everything from water quality to job discrimination to privacy—is supposed to be impartial. But in states like North Carolina, where the top judges are elected, such special interests as HMOs, insurance companies, lawyers, and corporate polluters have learned that they can buy the partiality of judges by financing their election campaigns.

Fed up with this theft of justice, the clean-election coalition launched a two-year campaign to pass the Judicial Campaign Reform Act. Under it, court candidates who agree to accept zero special-interest money can get up to $137,000 in public funding for the primary election and up to $600,000 for the general election.

While many legislators were adamantly opposed to this money-cleansing reform, the coalition went to the people with informational meetings and organizing drives, and rallied mass support—including winning the backing of 70% of Republican voters for public financing. The bill passed narrowly in the House, by a wide margin in the Senate, and the governor has signed it—so the voters now own North Carolina’s court elections.

You, too, can push for public financing of elections at any level of state or local government you choose. And that’s where it has to start—at the grassroots level. Trying to take on the beast that is the United States federal government can seem well-nigh impossible. But we can all manage a door-to-door, block-to-block, neighborhood-to-neighborhood, town-to-town, state-to-state campaign. It’s the polar opposite of trickle-down; it’s percolate up. And it’s the only way real change can work, so we can take back control of our government and stop the insanity.

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