Our government remains in crisis and gridlock, yet no one in Congress has suggested staying in D.C. this month to continue to work addressing the business of the American people. Our country could implode and this crowd would still desert their posts to take their paid vacations -- on our dime. Who else among us hard-working, struggling Americans receives five weeks off with pay these days?
To be fair, this Congress did achieve a few things before their mad dash off of the Hill. The Senate finally approved some Executive Branch appointees to head key agencies, which will now be able to function and serve us at full capacity again -- if they are funded. Some significant confirmations include B. Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which has been with out a director since 2006 due to pressure from the NRA -- 60 senators agreed to confirm Mr. Jones, who had been acting director of the A.T.F. since 2011; Richard Cordray -- finally! -- as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; five Obama appointees -- including three Democrats -- as directors of the National Labor Relations Board, who will now protect the interests of 80 million workers; Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Tom Perez as the new Secretary of Labor.
However, despite significant political capital being spent by the president, the assault weapons ban and background check bills remain stalled in the Senate, along with comprehensive immigration reform. Both issues appear to be on hold until after the midterm elections, although immigration reform did pass in the Senate and it is expected it will be revisited in the House next year. We must also not forget the most egregious act of all this summer: the Supreme Court's gutting the Voting Rights Act. A strong counter to this outrageous act of judicial interference is a bill introduced by Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) that calls for an amendment to guarantee the right to vote for all Americans, which should garner wide public support.
While all of this played out, the president announced the ramping up his efforts to address the economy by focusing on a strategy "...from the middle out." I, for one, sure hope whatever he means, it includes "...from the bottom up" as well, as the latest employment numbers in July showed a paltry 162,000 jobs created, with more than half of them coming in low-paying jobs in retail and restaurants.
Last Wednesday, fast food workers took to the streets in seven cities to strike for better wages and working conditions. Their main targets were KFC, McDonald's, Wendy's, Dunkin' Donuts and other major chains. Many of these workers are given only part time hours at wages that can be as low as $4.40 per hour, without benefits. Let us also not forget tipped workers, who since 1991 have been paid only $2.13 per hour. Meanwhile, Congress has raised its own pay 13 times in that period. The average salary for fast food workers is well under $19,000 a year, and so many of these struggling workers don't even make the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Adding insult to injury is a new scam being pulled by some employers, who are "paying" workers with debit cards that rake off high fees for delivering to them their own money. These workers seek respect, a living wage, the right to unionize and benefits like healthcare -- pretty basic aspirations for any hardworking person. Many feared retaliation when they returned to work the next day.
All of this helps to make the case that it is time to raise the minimum wage to a decent threshold. We must address this race to the bottom and the inescapable poverty in America today. According to the Census Bureau, there were 46.2 million in poverty in 2011. Both Democrats and Republicans have refused to acknowledge and address this increasing crisis. Raising the minimum wage would boost the economy and help keep money in local communities where these workers live.
Unfortunately, our misguided president has decided that one way to aid our still sputtering economy is to appoint Larry Summers as the Federal Reserve Chairman. Is he kidding? It is terribly foolish to turn the health of the world economy over to this lackey of big Wall Street banks and hedge funds, and a man who bears much responsibility for bringing down the economy in 2008. He is also a champion of less regulation, and he has attacked women in the past as being ill equipped to take on jobs in science. That trash talk brought him down as the President of Harvard, and, frankly, he is even less qualified to run the Fed.
The buzz around the internet is that Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz or Robert Reich would be better choices. Clearly, Stiglitz has the credentials and experience. So what is the President thinking, and who is advising him? Senator Sherrod Brown has rallied one-third of Senate Democrats to oppose Larry Summers as a choice for Fed Chairman, while Senator Elizabeth Warren continues to press for a 21st century version of Glass-Steagall to reign in the banks, something that would certainly not delight Larry Summers. In the face of this opposition from his own party, the president has decided to delay his choice until fall. Our voice does matter, and this momentary win must be used by the American people to keep the pressure on to ensure Larry Summers is not given the keys to drive our economy into the ground once again.
Meanwhile, other populists in the Senate have not been idle, pressing to change the debate about Social Security and increasing its Cost-Of-Living Adjustment ("C.O.L.A."), rather than cutting it with that Chained C.P.I., which the President embraces. This looms large as a bargaining chip for fiscal talks in September. Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) have proposed a new formula for raising Social Security payments by $70 per month, especially for the most needy, as well as raising the maximum taxable earnings cap for Social Security above $113,700 annually. Why is there a cap? This increase could bolster Social Security for decades, while also perking up the economy and giving seniors the needed money for food and medicine and basic necessities.
Last Wednesday, Public Citizen and PNHP sponsored a congressional briefing and press conference on the Hill celebrating the 48th Anniversary for Medicare, one of our most successful federal programs. It was mainly an opportunity to introduce Professor Gerald Friedman, Economist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and author of a brilliant economic study of the financing of H.R. 676 - Improved and Expanded Medicare For All. This detailed and compelling economic analysis has been the missing ingredient for years to sell this bill to the American people. Improved and Expanded Medicare For All would cut wasteful healthcare spending to the insurers and pharmaceutical industry by $592 billion in its first year, while providing comprehensive healthcare at lower costs for 95% of the population. The financing for this program, as laid out in exquisite detail by Professor Friedman, would come in part through a progressive tax code overhaul that would provide sufficient money to fund the program. 55 million remain uninsured today, a number which would decrease to 29 million in 2020 and rise again to 30 million in 2023 under Obamacare, according to the Friedman study, which was written with information culled from the Congressional Budget Office. As an alternative, Medicare For All would provide better healthcare for the entire country at lower costs, while also helping pay down the deficit.
Other luminaries present at this event were the author of H.R. 676, Representative John Conyers (D-MI), as well as supporters like Representatives Mark Takano (D-CA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT). Obamacare is a first good step toward universal healthcare, but we need the real deal now. Our next President - depending on whom we elect, of course -could finally deliver the kind of healthcare that 28 other industrialized nations already deliver to their citizens. The American people deserve nothing less. After all, this issue has been hanging around for 100 years, and its time has come.
During the upcoming five-week recess of Congress, it would be a good time to visit your Representative in his or her home district office and let them know what you expect of them and what your issues are. Don't be timid - hey, they work for you. We must also ramp up our involvement in working on campaigns. The pressure on Mitch McConnell, the senior Senator from Kentucky, is already paying off, and for the first time in his career he is running neck-and-neck with a Democratic challenger. McConnell takes delight in calling himself "The Guardian of Gridlock." We must take this guy down, along with the other right wing extremists in both the House and the Senate, and deliver a Congress that works for all of America's citizens, not a select few special interests and the patrons of those flaky Tea Partiers.
Finally, if the president is interested in finding new ideas, it is time for him to step out of the box and bring in thinkers from outside of Washington. He has still not clearly articulated his plans for igniting the economy, and respected economic leaders like Joseph Stiglitz, R.D. Wolff, Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, Gerald Friedman, Robert Reich -- the best Labor Secretary we ever had - and others could be just what is needed to formulate an effective plan for pulling us out of our economic malaise. Yes, the President should listen to some Conservative voices as well, and see who makes the case with the most sense and creative ideas. The next fiscal showdown takes place in September, and we deserve better than more threats of a shutdown of government and shirking our financial obligations.
So, Mr. President, meet with these distinguished economists and thinkers first, and have your game plan ready before diving once again into that foul pit on Capitol Hill to horse trade.
- with Jonathan Stone