Tag Archives: occupy

2011: Did Nothing Congress

‘tis the season for retrospectives. That is not intended to be anti-Christmas, but so many of us aren’t participating this year, I’d just like to move on.

In some ways, 2011 felt like 1979 – just a preamble to 1980. An election year. A first term, Nobel Prize winning Democrat in the White House. Lousy economy. Bailouts in the news. Religious fanatics, conspiring with the Republicans to hold the country hostage. All we need now is an aging, former liberal Democrat, union member, once divorced, actor turned racist, anti-abortion, anti-welfare, anti-protest, NRA member, governor and serial presidential candidate, to step forward and take credit for turning the economy around, while increasing the size of government and national debt. Enough of looking back to the past, let’s get to looking back to the present.

America held hostageStarting with the hostage situation.

The Democrats in the Senate, led by Harry Reid, have a small majority, 51 to 47. As we know from our civic lessons, all a majority in the Senate gets you is a better selection of offices  – it takes 60 votes to pass anything. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, stated early on, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Using filibusters and secret holds, the Republicans have effectively shut down the Senate and any chance at ending the greatest depression since the invention of Prozac (aka: Bush’s Recession; Obama’s Economy; Why life sucks; Economic reality of the 99%). Time will tell if Republicans’ efforts to further destroy the American economy, combined with voter suppression and gerrymandering, will be enough to unseat this popular sitting president. We could, of course, just poll the “people” who will be doing most of the voting next year, corporate America, and we’d find out quickly how we are going to vote.

House Republicans of the 112th Congress are led by John Boehner and Eric Cantor and hold a solid majority, 242 to 192.

“The numbers: Republicans have introduced 44 bills on abortion, 99 on religion, 71 on family relationships, 36 on marriage, 67 on firearms/gun control, 522 on taxation, 445 on ‘government investigations,’ and zero on job creation.” – DailyKos

Politifact, don’t you just love them, corrected the DailyKos post, stating “In reality, then, six of these seven jobs-related categories included more bills than either abortion or marriage, and four of the seven included more bills than religion, family relationships or firearms.” (Author’s note: none of them passed.)

It is is little wonder that no polling company can find enough Americans who approve of Congress to cover the margin of error – currently about 5%.

“Congress is ending what may be its least productive year on record after government shutdown threats, the collapse of debt-reduction talks and little action to fix the worst U.S. economy since the Great Depression. Just 62 bills were signed into law through November this year, meaning that 2011 may fall short of the 88 laws enacted in 1995, the lowest number since the Congressional Record began keeping an annual tally in 1947.” – Bloomberg

“The latest Resume of Congressional Activity shows that from Jan. 5 through Nov. 30, 2011, the House of Representatives passed only 326 of the 4,191 bills introduced, the lowest number of bills passed in the last 10 non-election years. The Senate had its least productive year since 1995, passing only 368 of 2,336 bills introduced. “Bills” includes all forms of legislation, including bills, simple resolutions, joint resolutions and concurrent resolutions.” – Robert Longley

The combined annual expense to operate the House and Senate is about $5 billion. See if you think you got your money’s worth. Here’s everything they accomplished (bills passed both houses and were signed or expected to be signed by President Obama):

  • Extended the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act through May 31, 2011, then through June 30, 2011 (separate bills).
  • Named eleven post offices and two courthouses, while designating another courthouse under construction (separate bills).
  • Extended the Patriot Act until December 8, 2011 and added authority for roving electronic surveillance.
  • Amended the Continuing Appropriations Act to keep the government open through March 18, 2011, then through April 15, 2011, then through September 30, 2011, then through October 1, 2011, then through October 4, 2011, then through November 18, 2011, then through September 30, 2012. They also had to pass it one other time to include certain agencies they left off other times. (All, of course, separate bills.) In doing so, they also funded disaster relief, import restrictions from Burma, limiting loan guarantees, giving the USPS a reprieve from having to make a $5.5 billion payment to their pension fund, and, of course, each time, waiting until the last moment and cutting some agencies for no particular reason other than a lobbyist didn’t tell them not to do so.
  • Extended the Surface Transportation Act that funds highway construction from the Highway Trust Fund through September 30, 2011, then through March 31,2012, while adding some things the money could be spent on as long as it wasn’t mass transit, plus, for some reason, added money so mostly rich people could fly on charter jets from “under served” airports underwritten by the government.
  • Extended the Airport and Airway Extension Act through April 1, 2011, then through June 30, 2011, then through July 31, 2011, then through September 16th, then through October 31, 2011, etc. (each separate bills)- in one of the bills, they also limited an amount for which a victim can sue should they be attacked by a terrorist when an airplane is involved.
  • Repealed the IRS code removing the requirement to report purchases or rents of $600 or more; and increase the health care tax credit for people less than 400% of the poverty line in 2013. Later, they repealed a 3% withholding requirement on certain payments to certain vendors for certain payments somehow indirectly related to healthcare.
  • Funded defense department spending through September 30, 2011, then again, but this time buried in a continuing resolution, then finally… (see last bullet)
  • Appointed three people and reappointed another to the Smithsonian Board of Regents (separate bills).
  • Changed the date when the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act was to end to December 31, 2011.
  • Authorized appropriations for the CIA and other intelligence agencies through September 30, 2011.
  • Passed the Budget Control Act, which set up that crazy super committee to cut spending, but it didn’t, so spending will automatically be cut from defense and discretionary spending, but not Social Security or Medicare, after the next president takes office, unless Congress and the President change it first.
  • Restored GI Bill Fairness providing educational assistance for post 9/11 vets.
  • Amended the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to apply the limit on lead in children’s products, while giving it greater authority, it also provided greater discretion for future administrations could undo it.
  • Passed Patent “reform” changing the patent award to the “first to invent” instead of “first to file” as long as the “first to invent” did so within a year of the “first to file.”
  • Re-authorized spending to combat autism.
  • Amended Title IV of Social Security Act to allow spending on study and assistance for children born to methamphetamine or living in abusive foster care situations, plus some other stuff, minus some other stuff.
  • Extended block grants to states for temporary assistance of needy families and related programs through December 31, 2011.
  • Authorized Department of Veterans Affairs to lease some office space, required them to audit some programs and extended authority to provide some services for homeless and mentally ill vets.
  • Extended duty-free treatment for goods brought in from certain countries, while also allowing states to change their rules so they could recover overpayment from Medicare.
  • Approved the USA-Korea; USA-Colombia; and the USA-Panama free trade agreements.
  • Extended the Parole Commission.
  • Clarified the jurisdiction of the Interior Department over the Cragin Dam and reservoir; clarified the authority of the Forest Service regarding allowing ski areas and collection off fees; clarified the provisions related to litigation against Federal officers, agencies or courts; clarified the appeal time in civil actions to which US officers or employees are parties, and directed the Interior Department to allow a special break for a water project in Utah (separate bills).
  • Amended the Veteran’s Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment to be consistent with Social Security COLA.
  • Authorized the Department of Homeland Security, I kid you not, to create “Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Travel Cards” that pay travel expenses for businesses in Asia-Pacific under the belief that is good for US economic growth.
  • Amended the Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act to require sexual assault risk-reduction and response training and allow the establishment of victims advocates.
  • Amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to allow spouses and children of active-duty service abroad in the Armed Forces to petition for permanent resident status and not be deported while their spouse or parent was fighting one of our wars.
  • Authorized a Gold Medal to honor the Montford Point (NC) Marines for their service during WWII.
  • Authorized the vessels competing in the 2011 America’s Cup to represent USA.
  • And finally, they betrayed every American by passing the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2012. Buried in the bill to fund our troops, defense contractors and the rest of the military industrial complex, our leaders conspired to find a way to deny all of us our rights to due process. Our President, any of our presidents can now abduct you, ship you off to Guantánamo, torture you and detain you without charge or trial “until the end of hostilities.” The hostilities have gone on for more than a decade and few politicians, and even fewer lobbyists want this undeclared war to ever end. The bill does, however, specifically declare war on us and every other suspicious person in the world, wherever they are. Our President and our future presidents are required, yes, required to use military force on anyone who is a part, has aided or associated with anyone who has made a belligerent act against the United States or any of its partners. Be careful you don’t dial a wrong number or a missile from a drone may find your front door. Why, 10 years in to an undeclared war on a tactic, do we need to give presidents more power? If the war were to save liberty, we have just surrendered. Should you have the audacity of hope that the Supreme Court will overturn this? There is no reason to hope. The Supremes have always looked the other way on war powers and, recently, undeclared war powers. The only audacious hope in this bill is for President Obama to end all hostilities – please pray for peace on earth. While you are at it, pray that our President doesn’t decide Occupy is supporting hostilities.

Here’s some of what they didn’t or haven’t passed for 2011:

  • Any aspect of President Obama’s Middle Class Tax Relief & Job Creation Initiative. Especially,  the Doc Fix, passed every year for more than a half a century, and will mean that doctors and medical providers will receive 27 percent less beginning January 1, 2011 and causing all kinds of problems for providers and their patients; and the extension of the last year’s payroll tax cut or President Obama’s version – the result is a tax increase on everyone in the US making below $106,800 have a tax increase. The House passed a version addressing these issues wrapped up with a bunch of toxic partisan riders; the Senate stripped out all the partisan junk, which they said publicly that they would, shorten the bill’s effect to two months, sent it back to the House and adjourned until January; now Boehner & Company is pitching a fit – stay tuned.
  • Any aspect of immigration reform.
  • Most of the 200 Dodd-Frank rules protecting us from another Wall Street collapse.
  • Doing anything to help the millions of Americans in foreclosure.
  • Doing anything to correct the problem that prevent student loans from being included in bankruptcy.
  • Voting on 80 Federal Judgeships vacancies with 43 pending nominations including some positions that have been vacant since January of 2009, or 77 political appointments that had cleared committee, but were still under secret hold by Republican Senators.
  • Closing any of the corporate tax loopholes given to the wealthiest corporations.
  • Any positive movement to stop or reverse the offshoring of American jobs.
  • Any positive reaction to the horrible events around the world that should have led to common sense gun laws.
  • Any positive reaction to the Fukishima meltdown which should have led to common sense nuclear regulation – we are still building ours in Georgia.
  • Any positive reaction to the Gulf Spill that would lead to common sense laws limiting offshore drilling.
  • Any movement on decriminalizing, medical or otherwise, marijuana, which if anything, is a gateway drug to the prison system.
  • Any movement on tax reform, campaign finance reform, or affirming that corporations are not and never have been people.
  • Any movement on anything to do with the greatest threat to us all: man-made global climate change.

On to politics.

Relax, I’m not going to review the Republican circus, though I truly believe it would have been more fun and there would have been better candidates if Fox had sponsored it as, “American Political Idol” complete with Simon and toll-free numbers for weekly voting.

Ending on a more positive note, here are just a few of good things that occurred in 2011:

  • We didn’t invade Iran.
  • Occupy Wall Street for protesting “social and economic inequality, high unemployment, greed, as well as corruption, and the undue influence of corporations” (wikipedia) which has spread to hundreds of cities around the world.
  • Our troops have officially come home from Iraq – a serious reason to cheer – leaving only about 17,000-20,000 State Department personnel and their private and well-armed security forces.
  • Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi are no longer justification for war. Even Kim Jong Il is gone. They’ll have to find a new boogieman.
  • We no longer have to pretend Pakistan is our good friend, but have been reminded that every nation with nuclear capacity should be.
  • We haven’t caused serious harm to the “Arab Spring.”
  • Teapublicans were unsuccessful at shutting down our government or forcing us into default and causing a worldwide financial meltdown beyond our imagination – at least, so far.
  • We haven’t yet approved the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • The multi-trillion dollar bailouts have worked their magic as CEO pay finally shoots up another 36.5% last year.
  • Foreclosures have actually slowed down some in some states.
  • Some of the 13+ million long-term unemployed have joined the 10+ million who already stopped going to the unemployment office causing the unemployment rate to drop way down to 8.6% – look for more to stop looking next year as five million will lose their unemployment benefits and the rate could fall to 6 or 7% by election date.
  • The Euro hasn’t failed, yet, but has slipped enough against the dollar to make those in the 1% get to save big time on their next European vacation. Stay tuned, what Germany couldn’t do in war, they may soon do by banking.
  • Sara Palin, Jeb Bush nor Haley Barbour have yet announced their candidacy.

Happy holidays.

 

Update December 23, 2011; 8:51 AM EST: After wasted expensive days of politcal banter, threats, encouragements, puppeted talking points, invented distortions, face-saving attempts and the like, it appears that the Boehner (not pronounced boner) is going to allow the House to vote on the Senate bill authorizing a two month extension of unemployment benefits, the payroll tax cut and the docfix. The bill also would require President Obama and the State Department to make a decision on whether to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline, which is unlikely to be authorized, as the required studies by the EPA and the State Department will not have been completed in two months, but should allow the electioneering Republicans to point at the President as a job killer when, as expected and likely required by law, he rejects permitting. As an aside, there has been a majority willing to vote for this measure for some time. Boehner, however, did not want the bill passed by Democrats and reasoned Republicans who would split from the Teapublican caucus. This story will be updated again, once the bill passes or fails – or, when the author returns from holiday travel.

What's the tipping point?

Last week I canceled a trip to be with our grandchildren for Thanksgiving. The tipping point that forced the decision was a combination of unexpected medical co-pays on top of some un-budgeted car repair. While heartbreaking, it was not particularly serious and we expect to visit in a couple of weeks, but it made me wonder. I have made a living as a marketing version of the canary in a coal mine – a preeminent consumer of sorts. For whatever reason, I seem to experience things months or more before others. If something so insignificant could force my decision, could we, the formerly solid middle class, be on the edge of a more dramatic shift?

Hard working families all over our great country are facing tough economic decisions every day. Uncomfortable decisions. Decisions that seem different in scale than they used to be. Admittedly, living within a budget is a responsible and necessary way for each of us to live and manage our money. But what cumulative toll has the horrible economy taken on the type and frequency of such difficult decisions?

The Census Bureau defines poverty as $22,350 annually for a family of four, and near-poor as people within 200% above the poverty line. Officially, one in three Americans is poor or near-poor. Unofficially, it is at least one in two. The real life definition should also include people who are one unexpected event from being without money. Cash poor is not the same thing as poor, but it feels like it for a time and easily can become permanent.

Most of us have have taken some hits in the last few years. Someone in the family was laid off. Someone got sick. Someone entered the work force, but couldn’t find work adequate to pay their college loans. Credit lines dried up with house value. The house didn’t sell. The investment was made worthless. Your health insurance was cancelled, or only offered at a price greater than your house payment. But you endured. Party on.

There are Dominossteps down the ladder for the middle class near poor. Liquidate stocks and savings. Cash in retirement accounts. Sell your house for a smaller house. Sell that house for an apartment. Then a smaller apartment. Give up the life insurance you’ve paid on for twenty years. Give up the private schools. Gave up the extra car. Give up Whole Foods for Publix, then BigLots, then dumpster diving for food. Give up the malls for Walmart, then the charity store. Cancel cable and the newspaper. Unhook the land lines. Postpone preventative maintenance – dental care, health check ups, car tune-ups or new tires, overlook the minor car accident and cash the check. Let the dog die.

The middle class can take some hits. Americans are resilient. We can get smaller and leaner. We can do without. We can ask for help from friends or family. Wishing won’t change it. Remembering accrued disappointment makes it worse.

There must be a point in the spiral – the time or convergence of events, that leaves no options. The moment when all that you have worked for is gone. The time when you change economic classes. When there is no pretending.

A tipping point was first defined in physics as that “small amount of weight to a balanced object that can cause it to suddenly and completely topple.” Al Gore speaks of a tipping point for our environment – when it is too late to avoid the catastrophe that awaits. Is there a tipping point for the middle class? A moment when one extra burden, no matter its size or intended consequence, can cause millions, perhaps, tens of millions of families, to suddenly and completely topple?

What could be the tipping point?

  • This Great Recession is now entering its third year. Extended unemployment benefits, pitiful as they are, are about to expire and we do not have a Congress that will extend them.
  • The temporary payroll tax break is also expiring next month. The jury is out whether the Tea Party will make a deal to extend this tax break for working Americans. In real terms, the disappearance of payroll tax relief will cost the “average” worker about $2,000 next year. Will that be the tipping point?
  • The Bush tax cuts, now in their 10th year, are set to expire at the end of 2012. Included with the 4.6% increase in tax for the wealthy, is a 3% tax increase for most of the middle class – about $2,600 for a family of four – could that be the tipping point?
  • If the Tea Party holds Medicare hostage and Congress doesn’t pass the Medicare “doc-fix” by the end of 2011, something that has been passed every year for almost half a century, doctor and hospital reimbursements will be reduced by 27%. Will your doctor accept Medicare? Will that be the tipping point for millions of our seniors who are barely making ends meet?
  • Gas prices are rising again. Will that tip us?
  • The rising price of rents?
  • Next year’s expected Health Insurance co-pay increases?
  • The rising average credit card rates, fees and penalties? Or debit card charges?
  • Or will it be just one more group of layoffs that causes consumption to drop just enough for business to grind to a halt?
  • Or maybe it will just be something simple happening to one more family. A child who comes home sick from school that causes you to miss work that gets you fired? A speeding ticket that must be paid and causes you to miss a payment on a credit card that causes the rates on all your cards to go to 33.65%, plus late payments and interest on late payments, that can never be caught up? Or your furnace goes out? Or will a parent lose their job and helping them puts your family in the economic spiral?  Or, God forbid, you lose your spouse?

Just a few years ago, the monthly budget’s rounding error for the middle class near-poor was in the hundreds. Now, every penny is counted. They had a stack of credit cards with zero interest rates and seemingly unlimited credit lines. An unexpected expense would just go on the card. Since that time, home values have shrunk and with it, credit lines and flexibility.

The middle class near-poor may not look much different at a casual glance. They may decorate trees for Christmas, but they’ll wrap empty gifts under the tree. 2011 will be another year when Christmas giving will be postponed or homemade. The middle class near-poor are just one more bad thing away from the bottom and none of us are prepared for how to make it there. There is no longer any social safety net. The food kitchens are full and the pantries emptying more quickly than filled. Our government has borrowed all they will borrow and nothing else is expected until after the fall election, or the next.

How long will it take to recover? If all things go well, and they may not, the US economy will take a decade or more just to get back to where we were when Bush left. Another decade to get back to where we were when Clinton left. Given the life expectancy in poverty, two decades will go a long way toward wiping out poverty. The economy can come back more quickly, but only if and only when everyone can have a job and be back in the economy as consumers.

Trying not to leave this story on a gloomy note, there are things you can do.

  • You can join the 99%, occupy and march on Washington and call for repealing laws that caused the grotesque financial inequity in our nation.
  •  You can demand your Congress person do every stinking little thing they can do or spend to get rid of the extra weights on the middle class, the near-poor and those already in poverty. Tell them to stop listening to lobbyists and do what is right for the people they should be representing. Tell them to shut up with the election year fear mongering on issues meaningless to the economy and do something good before we vote them out of office.  Tell them specifically to vote for what’s left of Obama’s jobs initiative, for extension of jobless benefits, extension of the payroll tax cuts, the Medicare “doc-fix” and making permanent the Bush tax cuts for the middle class. Tell them to keep their hands off of Wall Street reform that protects American consumers. Tell them to stop trying to undermine health care reform, but be part of the Congress that will fix it. Tell them to break up the companies too large and with too many lobbyists to fail. Tell them to end special breaks for dirty industries. Tell them to quit wasting money on wars we don’t pay for. Tell them to keep investing in schools and re-training. And most of all, tell them to get to work on the peoples’ business.
  • Watch for the warning signs and stay in touch with those friends who seem to drop out of your circle – they’ll need your friendship.
  • Volunteer and help those who need it now.
  • Get involved with non-profits – each of which is still reeling from the terrible economy and from Bush ending the inheritance tax, but that’s another story. Help people who can’t find work to start a small businesses and teach them how to make it successful. Help feed the hungry. Help teach, mentor and take care of children. Get involved to help seniors and the disabled.
  • If you are in the top 30%, keep giving to charities which help people. Put some of your money toward micro-loans to launch new small businesses.
  • If you are a 1% executive, it is time to fire your lobbyist, take a pay cut and use the money to hire people who need jobs – especially those who have been out of work for a while or been fighting our wars.
  • If you think you are at the tipping point, reach out to agencies who can help you land more softly and not on the street.