On Democracy

Do-Nothing Congress Gives Inertia a Bad Name

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, April 23. At left is Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

If you want to see why the public approval rating of Congress is down in the sub-arctic range — an icy 15 percent by last count — all you have to do is take a quick look at how the House and Senate pay worship at the altar of corporations, banks and other special interests at the expense of public aspirations and need.

Traditionally, political scientists have taught their students that there are two schools of thought about how a legislator should get the job done. One is to vote yay or nay on a bill by following the will of his or her constituency, doing what they say they want. The other is to represent them as that legislator sees fit, acting in the best interest of the voters — whether they like it or not.

But our current Congress — as cranky and inert as an obnoxious old uncle who refuses to move from his easy chair — never went to either of those schools. Its members rarely have the voter in mind at all, unless, of course, that voter’s a cash-laden heavy hitter with the clout to keep an incumbent on the leash and comfortably in office.

How else to explain a Congress that still adamantly refuses to do anything, despite some 90 percent of the American public being in favor of background checks for gun purchases and a healthy majority favoring other gun control measures? Last week, they ignored the pleas of Newtown families and the siege of violence in Boston and yielded once again to the fanatical rants of Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association. In just the first three months of this year, as it shoved back against the renewed push for controls, the NRA spent a record $800,000 keeping congressional members in line.

And how else to explain why corporate tax breaks have more than doubled in the last 25 years? Or why the Senate and House recently gutted the STOCK Act requiring disclosure of financial transactions by White House staff and members of Congress and their staffs and prohibiting them from insider trading? It was passed into law and signed by President Obama last year — an election year — with great self-congratulation from all involved. But fears allegedly arose that there might be security risks for some in the executive branch if their financial business was known.

That concern was examined by the Columbia Journalism Review, which “consulted four cybersecurity experts from leading think tanks and private security consultancies. Each came to the same conclusion: that Congress’s rationale for scrapping the financial disclosure rules was bogus.” Nonetheless, the House and Senate leapt at the opportunity to eviscerate key sections of the STOCK Act when almost no one was watching. And the president signed it.

Then there’s the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, where last week, fire and explosion killed at least 15 — 11 of them first responders — and injured more than 200. The Reuters news service reported that the factory “had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” Why wasn’t Homeland Security on top of this? For one thing, the company was required to tell the department — and didn’t. For another, budget cuts demanded by Congress mean there aren’t enough personnel available for spot inspections.

Same goes for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA. The plant hadn’t been inspected in nearly thirty years, and there are so few OSHA inspectors in Texas that it would take 98 years for them to take a look at each workplace in the state once. According to the non-partisan reform group Public Campaign, “Already only able to conduct 40,000 workplace inspections a year in a country with seven million worksites, OSHA will see its budget cut by an additional 8.2 percent this year on account of the sequester.”

Congress quietly acquiesces as the regulations meant for our safety are whittled away.

Twelve members of Congress want to make a bad situation even worse, sponsoring the industry-backed General Duty Clarification Act; its banal title hiding that, as reported by Tim Murphy at Mother Jones magazine, “The bill is designed to sap the Environmental Protection Agency of its powers to regulate safety and security at major chemical sites, as prescribed by the Clean Air Act.”

“‘We call that the Koch brothers bill,’ Greenpeace legislative director Rick Hind says, because the bill’s sponsor, GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo, represents the conservative megadonors’ home city of Wichita, Kansas. (The sponsor of the sister legislation in the senate, GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, represents the Kochs’ home state of Kansas.) The brothers have huge investments in fertilizer production, and Hind thinks they’ll ultimately get what they want, whether or not the bill becomes law.”

No coincidence, perhaps, that the sponsors of the House bill and Senator Roberts, Public Campaign reports, “have collectively taken over $670,000 from the chemical manufacturing industry over their careers.” Since 2011, the industry has spent $85.1 million lobbying.

Congress quietly acquiesces as the regulations meant for our safety are whittled away. The progressive website ThinkProgress notes that even though food related infections — which kill 3,000 and sicken 48 million Americans each year — rose last year, congressional and White House budget cuts may mean up to 600 fewer food inspectors at meat and poultry plants, leaving it up to the industry to police itself. That rot you’re smelling isn’t just some bad hamburger.

It’s true that ninety-two percent of Americans say, yes, reducing the deficit and spending cuts are important, but all on their own the people have figured out cuts that make more sense than anything Congress and its corporate puppeteers want to hear about. Mattea Kramer, research director at the National Priorities Project, says “a strong majority” — 73 percent of us — want a reduced reliance on fossil fuels, and fifty percent want something done about climate change. A carbon tax would help with both, and raise an estimated $125 billion every year. Response from Congress: crickets.

Fifty eight percent of the U.S., according to Gallup, wants “major cuts in military and defense spending,” the average American favoring a reduction of 18 percent. Good luck — the Pentagon and defense contractors already are bellowing about the puny 1.6 percent reduction called for in the new White House budget.

Mattea Kramer writes that Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 280 organizations, has “identified 10-year budgetary savings of $2.8 trillion simply by limiting or eliminating a plethora of high-income and corporate tax loopholes.” Congress is busily revising the tax code as we speak but how many of those loopholes and other perks like credits and deductions do you bet will go away?

Not many if the lobbying industry has anything to do with it. The House Ways and Means Committee has eleven working groups considering rewrites and according to the congressional newspaper The Hill, they’re quietly meeting with lobbyists and other interests – “deep pocketed players” — all the time. Keep your eye on who’s donating to the re-election campaigns of each of those working group members as we move toward the midterms next year.

Over on the Senate side, The New York Times recently reported those seeking to cut taxes and hang onto their incentives as the code is revised have found one strategy that seems to work – hire firms that employ former aides to Democratic Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The Times analyzed lobbying files and found at least 28 of his ex-staffers “have lobbied on tax issues during the Obama administration – more than any other current member of Congress.”

Reporter Eric Lipton writes, “… Many of those lobbyists have already saved their clients millions — in some cases, billions — of dollars after Mr. Baucus backed their requests to extend certain corporate tax perks, provisions that were adopted as part of the so-called fiscal cliff legislation in January.”

Senator Baucus’ spokesman was quick to say that his boss regularly rejects requests as well, but the fact is, he added, “Oftentimes good policy can indirectly benefit someone. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.”

Just so. Which is why, for example, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader who likes to complain about the current tax code’s four million words of red tape — seven times the length of War and Peace — will doubtless support tightening loopholes, right? A January report from Public Campaign Action Fund, found that, “Companies that lobbied against bringing jobs back to America and ending tax breaks for offshoring have given McConnell one million dollars to win his elections and look out for their interests.” In other words: don’t hold your breath.

No wonder the biggest newspaper in his native Kentucky said in a recent editorial that McConnell “has long ceased to serve the state, instead serving the corporate interests he counts on for contributions and leading obstruction that continues to plague Congress.”

Sadly, such is the way of Washington, home of the scheme and the fraud, where the unbreakable chain between money and governance weighs heavy and drags us ever deeper into a sinkhole of inaction and mediocrity.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=51808534 Tony Powell

    And there is nothing — short of illegal and violent revolt — that can be done.

  • Dave Brown

    Sad state of afairs, we the people need to keep our eyes on this greedy bastages and make sure they don’t get re-elected in 2014 and then again in 2016!

  • Lonnie

    This breaking blog post says it all about McConnell. He’ll make sure the mainstream media ignore it. http://t.co/2jhytD9D9z

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003582182014 Thomas Kelly

    What I don’t understand is why, in virtually every article, video, or meme that I come across is there no mention of the one thing we CAN do that WILL send a message — vote every incumbent out of office, period. Perhaps because it is considered a no-brainer? Maybe. But that is a dangerous assumption to make in this country. It must be suggested…written out for all to read. Spoken for all to hear. If this happens, then no amount of money would keep them in place.

    Personally, I’m with Plato on this one. I believe he said, “no one should hold office who hasn’t gone to school for 15 years, and then spent 15 years in the work force. Then they should serve for the honor, and eat, drink, sleep in communes with other public servants. He said that was the only way to avoid corruption.“
    The internet alone could bring needed balance to elections (instead of requiring millions for TV ads).

    What they are both doing and not doing has been infuriating. But I feel there is too much rhetoric from “we the people” as well…

    Again, I want to know why there is no mention of the one thing we CAN do that WILL send a message: vote every incumbent out of office. It must be included in every stressed-out “I can’t believe they are doing this!” article or video.
    Nudge-nudge Upworthy, et al.

  • indyone

    We can do that (and have in some cases) and the new ones are just the same as the old ones!

  • dw

    This is discouraging, but people get involved. Choose just one issue that you are passionate about and yell like hell at your representatives and senators, sign petitions, vote the bastards out, and contribute to organizations that work hard against the tide.

  • Anonymous

    That 90% claim has been debunked SO often.

  • Liz McLaughlin

    I have always said, minus the freckles, this excuse of a human being looks just like howdy doody and the strings are being pulled by the likes of the Koch brothers.

  • http://rickladd.com Rick Ladd

    It’s quite clear Grover Norquist and his sycophants are getting precisely what they’ve wished for; a government shrunken to the size it can be “drowned in the bathtub.” Isn’t this what the sequester is accomplishing?

    NB – It’s also interesting there’s no sign of shrinking at the highest levels of government, our two legislative chambers. Countless areas that are designed to ease our lives, make us safer, and provide for greasing the wheels of daily commerce are being slowly starved to death.

    Our government no longer exists; at least not for our benefit. As Thomas Kelly says, below, let’s vote every damn incumbent out. All of them or, realistically, as many as we can organize to defeat. Start with Teapublicans and Blue Dog Dems.

  • Cheech

    i think a large part of the voting public is aware of this corporate bulldozing of the rights of the many, by buying influence in congress; even the judicial branch, as the supreme court recently proved with their recent rulings regarding corporate donations to office holders and candidates of public office……….this will be America’s downfall!

  • Michael Cohen

    I agree with all of the article above. Bear in mind though that a major conundrum is masked here. “Military” investment is responsible for large portions of modern technology three very salient examples are speech recognition the Internet, and the interestate highway system. Without the military neither this nor many other things which benefit us on a daily basis were not likely to be developed.

    It seems people are so stingy and mean spirited here that they will not fund anything worthwhile on a mass basis unless it is a response to a foreign threat. This is likely to prove academic in the future however, as the Chinese replace the U.S. as the World’s dominant technological and economic power and the U.S. continues to submerge to third world status. Lets hope and pray the Chinese do a superior job than we have done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.elgee.5 Pat Elgee

    Congress is broken, but it is broken because there are too many republicans who refuse to do their job. Not all, but nearly all republicans are criminally stupid.

    Next election, we need a list of each person in congress and each group from which they have taken bribes. That is the job of good reporting.

    Those money laundering groups like Better Business and Citizens for Free America or what ever bogus names they use, must be on there as well and with a note that they hide anonymous donations and are worse than the our right dirty ones like Monsanto, Amgen, ITT, big oil, and the rest.
    We can clean this up if the press is exposing the corruption like they are suppose to do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/liz.gober Liz Cochrane Gober

    I’d like to put Congress on a no-fly list until their ratings for public confidence improve significantly!

  • Sophie Gale

    Here’s a thought: remember when people wore bracelets with the names of POWs. Well, how about the names of the 45 “legislators” who voted down background checks. Sell the bracelets and let the money go into a campaign to vote them out of office. Vow not to remove your bracelet till the NRA stooge is gone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ndinger1 Nedra Dinger

    What is amazing to me is simply that despite a 14% approval rating they continue on their course of obstruction. I wonder if they understand that they are part of the Democratic process that uses the word Representative and are supposed to be representing the needs of the people in their State. I say to Vote them out and start building a coalition of people who are willing to work for the American Middle Class.

  • Becky

    This makes me absolutely crazy. We know what is going on (at least some of it) and there seems so little we can do. The politicians would rather we spend our energies worrying about where we can legally carry our guns, how many, and how big or morning-after pills or whether or not to read miranda rights to bombers rather than the unbridled larceny that is taking place in our Senate and House of Reps. They are stealing us blind and will leave us with a country that is unsafe for work, play and sustenance. I am so sad.

  • liberamusmundis

    Italy may be insignificant to the mighty USA, but if you look closely in the political arena you will find that a new party is coming up “Movimento 5 Stelle” and it is not like the Tea Party. They are for complete transparency and it needed the perseverant work of a stand up comedian to travel along many cities and towns of Italy to publicly speaking about the inadequacy of the elected government. Maybe with some adaptation we can reach the same goals here too.

  • deb

    I was in favor of voting the incumbents out until all the Tea Party freshmen came to Congress a few years back, and look what that got us!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.newman.90 Joseph Newman

    Democracy may well be lost already.

    It seems that we are simply going through the motions (i.e. the processes and procedures) but what we have is a poor facsimile of democracy in action.

    When will we ever learn?

    When will we get off our duff’s and do something about it?

    It seems the “Occupy Wall Street Movement” is but a blip on the media screen, last year’s story.

    “Freedom of Expression” basically affords us the opportunity to vet our frustration. The “powers that be” permit this in the hope that it is cathartic.

    They, the “powers that be” rely on our passivity to further their own interests without our interference.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.metcalf.77 Lisa Metcalf

    How do we change it? How do we break the cycle?

  • http://www.facebook.com/phillip.woolery Chris Woolery

    Become a citizen co-sponsor of the American Anti-Corruption Act at http://www.represent.us or http://www.letsfreecongress.org!

  • http://twitter.com/WilliamJernig William Jernigan

    Will it ever be possible that a Congressman (woman) could be elected on the premise that he/she will not take big money from corporate America? How about true public election financing by which funding would be provided only from a public fund, based on a population based formula?

    A century ago the government was beginning to protect citizens from big business, but now that prospect has reversed and returned to raiding the U.S.Treasury through the tax code and obscurity and fraud in congress.
    Unfortunately, I’m not so hopeful that congress will restrain itself. Also, the Supreme Court as it is now aligned with corporations (“persons” as they have ruled) in that they have citizen’s election rights. This means Big money can directly affect the election of Congress persons and effectively control our government. When there’s big money involved in elections, big money can install candidates who favor the big money. opponents. As long as there is big money in elections, this ineffective congress will carry out agendas of their big money contributors, and at the expense of great nation for all.

  • Jon Ramos

    When you examine the do nothing Congress, it should really be the do nothing US Senate. Numerous bills have been passed in the House with over 400 votes, they go over to the US Senate and nothing happens. Senator Reid has done little in six years and bills basically die in his in basket. Bills are passed in the House, and they are not even voted on in the US Senate. Since the American public seems to be concerned about a do nothing Congress, I would say we have a do nothing President. The only thing President Obama seems to do is stick it to Congress, and then either goes out on the campaign trail or vacation. We have truly elected a President that does little if anything. President Obama does do one thing, and that is spend money travelling.