Across America, we continue to hear the voice of the People rising up in anger and frustration at our dysfunctional and corrupt government. To be sure, there are still some good people in Congress -- among the many bad ones -- and separating that wheat from the chaff is an enormous challenge requiring both our vigilance and dedicated action. There are some encouraging signs in the fight to retake our democracy and our country, but we all must step up to the plate and join those who are already taking on this challenge. I, personally, have been inspired by the Occupy movement, which has shown that our voices and presence on the streets can make a difference. These young patriots -- yes, Sarah Palin, liberals have as much of a claim to that word as you right-wing lunatics do -- have become a beacon in a dark wilderness, showing us a way forward. They understand that we cannot allow the likes of Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (WI-1) to create greater poverty and inequality in this country.
Ryan's newly proposed budget is now even more extreme than last year's version, calling for cuts of $5.3 trillion over the next decade, with 62% of those cuts coming from programs for the poor. Part of the savings would go toward cutting the deficit, but, yet again, huge tax breaks would be reserved for the filthy rich, including ending the estate tax, extending the Bush tax cuts permanently and dropping the top tax rate from 35% to 25%. Meanwhile, Ryan's budget would privatize Medicare with those insidious vouchers, while eliminating Medicaid and food stamps and other food programs that feed infants and pregnant women. Not stopping there, Ryan's cuts would also include $1.6 trillion from the repeal of the expansion of Medicaid and those ACA subsidies -- a thumb in the eye of the president and his signature achievement heading into the 2012 election. Additionally, $800 billion would be cut from Medicaid, $134 billion from food stamps, $166 billion cut from Pell grants to low income college students, 200,000 kids would be shut out of Head Start, and $463 billion would be slashed from other programs for low-income Americans.
All of this would reduce spending to the level of the 1950's and put our safety nets on the chopping block, headed for extinction. A 40-year Republican quest to turn back the clock to the 1920's and the Gilded Age of wild excess for the super-rich and indentured servitude for the rest of us is on the cusp of being fulfilled. Only 10 Republicans did not support Ryan's horrific budget, but only because the cuts were not deep enough. All Democrats voted against it, while offering up more modest cuts in spending and modest tax increases on the wealthy. Here is your case to take to the American people on the campaign trail, Mr. President. If this doesn't make the sale for your next term, then nothing will. Our country and future are on the line.
In response to the Republicans mad dash over the cliff, the People are beginning to get the attention of those whom we choose to serve us in government, and are even affecting the way some do "business as usual" in D.C. and beyond:
- In Wisconsin, the recall of Gov. Scott Walker is swinging into high gear and heading to a final showdown. You may recall that the labor movement's occupation of the Wisconsin state house was what sparked our American Spring in 2011, from which the Occupy movement was born. Why hasn't Paul Ryan been targeted by the Democratic party in the 2012 election? Surely the state has a few better people than this mean-spirited toady of the super-rich? So much of the Democrats' and Progressive movement's efforts and resources have gone into the Walker recall, but removing Paul Ryan and others of his ilk should also be a top priority. Nonetheless, we will always be grateful to Wisconsin for their role in rekindling the core democratic spirit that exists in all Americans.
- Last Wednesday, President Obama signed the Stock Act forbidding members of Congress from trading on inside information to which the public does not have access. Not a perfect bill by any means, as New York Senator Gillibrand pointed out on her website, but it is a start in creating openness and accountability in our government and a step toward regaining the trust of the public towards members of Congress.
- The movement to pass an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision is picking up steam nationwide, with most of the country, regardless of party, on board. The corrupt money must be removed from our politics so Congress can once again function for the People. This reform package must also, however, include public funding of campaigns.
- And a few weeks ago, we saw a Congressional campaign that had previously garnered little national attention surpass a critical milestone when progressive Democrat Dr. David Gill won his primary in the newly formed and Democratic-trending Illinois 13th Congressional District. Dr. Gill defeated the Democratic party establishment's conservative choice, Matt Goetten, with a win by 143 votes, followed by 30 more out of a projected 50 absentee ballots.
Following this remarkable victory came the stunning announcement that 44-year professional politician Tim Johnson, the Republican incumbent in the IL-13th, would retire. Johnson, 65, moves on to receive two generous government retirement packages. The GOP is now scrambling to come up with a contender to take on the surging Dr Gill, who is winning with nothing more than a devoted following of grassroots supporters and small donations. This is a particularly important and perhaps symbolic race, because it not only had no support from the Democratic Party, but wasn't even on the radar of most progressive activist organizations, who spent the bulk of their money, time and energy in support of Ilya Sheyman, who lost his primary.
I have been a longtime supporter of Dr. Gill and even wrote a few Huffington Post pieces about him. He is an extraordinary progressive and ER doctor, and I offer kudos and thanks to the many members of the Huff community -- from Maine to Hawaii -- who donated to this remarkable candidate. We have stuck a collective finger in the eye of the Democratic Party establishment, and they are surely embarrassed as their candidate of choice lost. Will they now behave like grown ups and support this worthy candidate, who will bring honor and relevance back to the party? He is the People's choice, with no special interest or PAC backing, merely a public citizen who wants to serve and offers a serious agenda of policy proposals that will make a positive difference in all of our lives. Our Founding Fathers would certainly approve of this man.
These congressional races are grueling, testing the strength and stamina of the strongest candidates. Gladiators in ancient Rome romped through the tulips in comparison, although, obviously, victory and defeat are less extreme and final in congressional combat. For those who win these battles, their reward is to serve their constituents and our nation, and such public service must become a noble calling once again if we are to overcome the frustration and apathy that taint our democratic process today.
To be blunt, the real "enemies within" are the radical, destructive right-wing extremists that have worked for decades to tear down our country by gutting regulations, slicing and dicing the tax rates for the filthy rich and decimating our safety nets. Their message is consistent and dangerous. Just look at the theater of the absurd playing out in the GOP primary to take on Obama. In the chilling words of Grover Norquist, these candidates for president want to create a government so small that it can be drowned in the bathtub. Yet many of them have fed at the public trough for decades while they were in Congress, and afterwards have been paid handsomely to game the system and squeeze every last penny out of our government as lobbyists and wheel-greasers for their corporate masters.
Obviously, our government has been very generous to them, so their position of biting the hand that feeds them is even more preposterous. We pay members of Congress well, at $174,000 per year, including subsidized health care for which the government picks up 69% of the monthly costs -- or about $800 -- for a family plan for each Congress member. They also travel to the far reaches of the world on committee assignments and fact-finding missions, all at the taxpayer's expense. They receive a generous pension and Social Security benefits when retirement arrives, and they can even opt into Medicare and pay the Part D as secondary insurance, or they can drop the government-subsidized plan when age appropriate, if they chose. Many are firmly in the 1%, with considerable wealth (of course, let us not forget that there are also many members of Congress struggling to send their kids to college and paying two mortgages -- for their district home and the home they maintain near their work place in the Capitol). Yet, while so many of them live the high life on the public dime, far too many of these "public servants" openly plot to diminish or eliminate the very institutions on which so many Americans rely. These extremists must be removed from office. Why are we paying them to destroy us?
This year, the GOP-controlled Congress cut 6.5% from the budget that takes care of all of the operating expenses of members of Congress, which means that constituent services -- the heart of the work that is important to many members of Congress -- is taking a hit. This comes on top of a cut last year of 5%, again targeting the needy who come to these offices mainly for aid on immigration, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Affairs and housing. Very active district offices may handle over 3,000 cases over a 2-year cycle and provide vital services for those in need.
Clearly, we must become a much more politically engaged and informed population and take responsibility for ensuring that those we elect to represent us in Congress -- as well as other elected offices on a municipal and state level -- are held accountable, but also support them when they do the right thing, like my Congressman Eliot Engel (NY-17) and his terrific staff. We must weed out those who continue to try to tear down our democracy. It is our responsibility as citizens to make our government work for us. We can no longer remain unengaged in the political process.
Otherwise, we don't deserve anything better than what we have today.
- with Jonathan Stone