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Democratic Dishonor Roll on Inequality

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Want to know how your reps on Capitol Hill rate on inequality? Check out a new Congressional Report Card for the 99 Percent issued by my organization, the Institute for Policy Studies.

We based the report card on 40 bills (24 in the House and 16 in the Senate) that cover taxes, jobs, education, and other issues. Together, they form a good litmus test of whether lawmakers are working for the "1 percent" or for all of us.

When we started the grading process, we feared it could turn out to be a big bore. With Congress so polarized, we expected to find lock-step partisan voting that would give all Republicans F's and all Democrats A's. Instead, we found that the divisiveness between parties is also alive and well within parties.

On the Republican side, for instance, more than two dozen voted to protect the Davis-Bacon Act, which since 1931 has helped lift up the bottom of the income scale by requiring contractors for federally funded works projects to pay prevailing wages. More than a dozen GOPers also crossed the aisle to support a bill that would have given Treasury more power to punish banks that help the rich hide their money in tax havens.

In general, however, we found Republicans to be extremely loyal to the "1 percent." We gave 59 of them an F. The Dems' loyalties were more divided. None of them got F's or even D's, but 17 got either a C+ or a C grade -- not exactly parental bragging material. Of the 11 House members on this "dishonor roll," nine are Blue Dogs who are no doubt still licking their wounds from the 2010 mid-term election. Republican challengers bumped off more than half the members of this coalition for fiscally conservative Democrats.

It's also no surprise that 14 of the 17 "dishonorable" Dems are from states that lined up behind the Republican presidential candidate in at least three of the last four elections. The three blue state Dems on the list: Rep. Bill Owens of New York, Rep. Timothy Walz of Minnesota, and Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut (an independent who caucuses with the Democrats).

Owens and Walz both represent mostly rural swing districts. Owens's North Country district had been held by Republicans since 1993 until he squeaked by in a three-way special election in 2009. Walz touted his military credentials (he's a former National Guard Command Sergeant Major) to bump off a Republican incumbent in 2006. Both Owens and Walz voted to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. As for Lieberman, well, let me just say I'll be oh SO sad to see him retire after this term.

The point of this report card is not just to name and shame. We also aim to draw attention to the many creative proposals for restoring fairness that deserve more support. Two of the pending bills on our list would raise revenue for human needs by putting a small tax on Wall Street transactions. Another would increase the minimum wage and then index it to inflation. The Congressional Progressive Caucus budget would protect social programs by reducing military spending and raising taxes on speculative investments. These innovative ideas challenge the oft-asserted notion that austerity is our only viable option.

It's vital for voters to recognize that their legislators' votes have a big effect on who wins and who loses in our economy. With a Congress full of lawmakers who rate a solid A on issues around economic fairness, we would all stand a better chance of winning.