Sunday, December 22, 2013

Congress’s Christmas Present to America

 Congress has just passed a tiny bipartisan budget agreement, and the Federal Reserve has decided to wean the economy off artificially low interest rates. Both decisions reflect Washington’s (and Wall Street’s) assumption that the economy is almost back on track.
   But it’s not at all back on the track it was on more than three decades ago.
   It’s certainly not on track for the record 4 million Americans now unemployed for more than six months, or for the unprecedented 20 million American children in poverty (we now have the highest rate of child poverty of all developed nations other than Romania), or for the third of all working Americans whose jobs are now part-time or temporary, or for the majority of Americans whose real wages continue to drop.
How can the economy be back on track when 95 percent of the economic gains since the recovery began in 2009 have gone to the richest 1 percent? 
   The underlying issue is a moral one: What do we owe one another as members of the same society? -Robert Reich, 12-20-13, former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton

   The Republican led House of Representatives worked 9 days in December and has been on a break since the 13th. 
   According to the 2014 legislative calendar, House members will work 113 days during the year, which is less than the 126 days they worked in 2013. 
   Granted the peculiar nature of the job of being a congressman requires that they return periodically to their home districts to consult with their constituents, and given that... and the pressing need to spend literally 50 to 60 percent of their time when actually at work, raising funds for reelection, well who can begrudge them so much seemingly time off as long as they get the business of the people done. 
   To be fair as far as the amount of time spent on the job goes, the Democratically controlled Senate isn’t any better. Both the House and Senate decide themselves how many days they will be in session, because they’re so responsible and all, yet still there’s that nagging problem of how much work they actually get done, which is normally reflected in how many public bills are passed and signed into law by the President (despite House Majority Leader Boehner’s bizarre tea partyish/libertarian notion that Congress should be judged by how many laws they repeal... well how many laws has Congress repealed? Answer... none). Not only that, but how many substantial bills are passed, because let’s face it, one can only rename so many post offices. Considering the partial list of problems currently facing the nation mentioned by Secretary Reich above, the 113th Congress had plenty of work to do.
   And they still do.
   I was watching the Rachel Maddow program last Friday night as I often do because I like to watch her introduce the various prison programs that MSNBC uses to fill in for the majority of the weekend. “Thank you for watching for the hour. We’ll will see you again next Monday night, but right now you must go to... prison.”    
   The prison programs and other reality shows MSNBC airs during the weekend (as I write this “Caught On Camera,” is on the air/cable, hosted by the lovely NBC correspondent Contessa Brewer) are very profitable for the network because they are popular and cheap to produce (relatively speaking). And we all know that news usually takes the weekend off. 
   Currently they’re finding more and more things to talk about news wise, I guess, and accordingly air programs such as “Weekends with Alex Witt,” “Up” with Steve Kornacki, “Melissa Harris-Perry” with... well I seem to have forgotten who hosts that program, the lovely Alex Witt again working a split shift, “MSNBC Live” hosted by whoever they can get to come in, and then “Disrupt with Karen Finney,” before we go back to prison or Contessa.
   Anyway, I just like to hear Rachel send me to prison. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
   On last Friday’s program Rachel just happened to mention that she and her staff had spent a good portion of that day inventing something wonderful. You can see what it was they invented in the second picture above, which is a graph really. 
   Rachel and her staff were all worried that people who looked at this graph, which represents different Congress’s from the time of President Harry Truman in 1947, up to our current 113th Congress, and the number of bills each one passed, wouldn’t be able to see the 113th’s contribution because it was so small, the smallest on the graph. So they invented that arrow, or rather, the yellow pulsating border that surrounds it, which I think is an amazing technological feat. I also think it’s kind of cute.
   They were just trying to be helpful. Now everyone who looks at it can’t help but notice that the 113th Congress has been the least productive since they started recording these things. 
   William Douglas writing for McClatchy DC points out: “The 113th Congress is heading home and into the history books with a record of legislative futility. By the time the Senate finishes its business, this Congress will have passed slightly more than 57 bills into law. It’s on course to surpass the first session of 104th Congress, which passed 88 bills into law, in terms of its low productivity.
   Critics say the current Congress makes the 80th Congress – dismissively dubbed by President Harry S Truman as the “Do Nothing Congress” – look like workaholics. That Congress enacted 395 public bills into law by the end of its first session, in December 1947, according to congressional records.”
   Senators and Congress people make  $174,000 a year (American dollars). They get health care, and receive a pension when they retire, none of that 401(K) nonsense. 
   Guess who pays for all of that, dear readers. Yeah, that’s right! You and I do, the taxpayer. I don’t think we’re getting a big enough bang for our hard earned buck. 
   As Tennessee Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher (no relation to David) quoted last June during a session of the House Agriculture Committee (while discussing whether or not to cut as much as $4.1 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), from  2 Thessalonians 3:10 (that’s in a book called the “Bible”): “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” By that criteria Congress itself should be subsisting on bread and water... if that (the author of 2 Thessalonians was actually referring to ancient Christians who had stopped working in anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming, meaning don’t just wait around for Jesus, live on in active faith). 
   House Majority Leader John “The Orange One”  Boehner doesn’t seem to mind being the leader of an obstructionist House that is the main culprit for the shocking lack of accomplishments achieved during his “reign.” Why? Number one: He’s a sociopath (and I say that with love), and Number Two: like a child he attempts to divert blame toward himself and his party, blames others, and takes no responsibility for the situation.
    “The House continues to do its job,” he said. “It’s time for the Senate to get serious about doing theirs.”
   Yeah, really, he said that December 3rd when confronted with the fact that Congress has had one of the least productive sessions in history.
   “The House has continued to listen to the American people and to focus on their concerns [excuse me a second, I can’t seem to stop laughing... just a second... oh my, okay, I’m alright now I think]” Boehner told reporters. “Whether it’s the economy, whether it’s jobs, whether it’s protecting the American people from Obamacare – we’ve done our work.”
   This guy lives in La La Land (and I don’t mean Los Angeles). He’s outright lying and either knows he’s outright lying, or sadly actually believes the lies he’s telling are true, which I think is probably the case since most Republicans reinforce each others ideology to the point that real reality is meaningless to them.
   No jobs bills passed at all by the House, which if passed and signed into the law (if said bills actually increased the amount of jobs rather than decrease) probably would have the effect of stimulating the economy. Cutting food stamps, letting unemployment benefit expire next Saturday (as of the 28th, 1.35 million out-of-work people will receive no more compensation checks. And in 2014, another 3.6 million Americans who would have become eligible for EUC (Emergency Unemployment Compensation) will not receive its benefits), and doing everything they can to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, all tend to depress the economy and cost jobs. Now either the Republicans are really, really stupid, or they’re intentionally trying to hurt the American economy so they will look good in the next General Election in 2016. I think both, because they’re counting on the American people being really, really stupid by forgetting who were the main cause for the misery they’ve been experiencing since George W. Bush was in office. Well the American people proved they were not really, really stupid in 2012, when they spanked Mittens Romney and sent him back home to continue abusing his dog.
   “If you look at the number of bills passed by the House,” he continued, “and the paltry number of bills passed by the Senate, you can see where the problem is.” 
   Oh I agree. The cause of the problem is quite clear.
   Boehner pointed out that the House passed 150 bills during the year. 
   A large percentage of them, including about 42 bills designed to repeal the Affordable Care Act such as the Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act of 2013, died in the Democratically controlled Senate, as the Republicans knew they would. But according to Boehner’s logic, if only the Democrats would forget that they won the election in 2012 to keep the Senate and Presidency, and do everything the Republicans wanted, then everything would just be hunky dory in the spirit of true Republican bipartisanship. 
    “By all objective measures, this is the worst Congress ever,” Tom Mann, a senior governance fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution, said of the 113th. “But there are two main things: Important matters not addressed and destructive things done, like October’s government shutdown. They did a lot of stuff of no consequence. All the important stuff, they couldn’t get done.”
   And what about that government shutdown. 
   The Affordable Care Act is already a law. It’s even been ruled upon by the Supreme Court, a conservative court at that, and found constitutional. The Republicans in Congress, tea partiers, ultra-conservatives, whatever, seem not to care about the rule of law in this country. They demonstrated this by attempting to hold the country hostage by not enacting legislation to appropriate funds for the fiscal year 2014, or a continuing resolution for the interim authorization of appropriations for the fiscal year 2014 unless the Affordable Care Act was repealed. They were sooooooooo worried about the American people, the middle class and poor all of the sudden, and would do anything, seemingly to protect them from the horrible ravages of getting health insurance. Of course there is no way either the Senate or the President can repeal an existing law by themselves, even if they wanted to, which they didn’t. There is a way to repeal an existing law, a process, and the Republicans had tried it 42 or so times, but just because you try something it doesn’t mean it’s going to work. So from October 1st through the 16th, which is almost like 16 days, acting like little kids holding their breath until they got their own way, they effectively shutdown the government at an estimated cost to you and me, the tax payers, of 28 billion dollars (American... none of that Hong Kong crap). 28 billion dollars!    
   You know what you can buy with 28 billion dollars? A lot of Subway sandwiches that’s for sure.    You could even fund that $4.1 billion the Republicans’s wanted to take away from the Food Stamp Program and allow poor people to keep eating, and have a whole bunch of money left over for other good deeds. 
   So who’s going to pay us tax payers back those 28 billion? Megalomaniac Ted Cruz? Not likely. Michelle “Crazy as a Bat” Bachmann? Nope. I don’t think they have any plans whatsoever to pay us back, other than to keep sticking it to the middle class and poor as they’ve always done. 
   Like not extending unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed (over 27 weeks), as we mentioned above (it seems the majority of American are opposed to ending these benefits). 
   Now Republicans might not know this, or they may dispute it, but extending unemployment benefits are a good thing. 
   Why is that Sarah Ayres of The Center for American Progress?
   “Well Rick, This is because unemployment benefits are not just good for workers; they are also good for the economy. By putting money into the pockets of people who will spend it, unemployment benefits boost demand, spur economic growth, and create jobs. In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has found that unemployment benefits are one of the most effective fiscal policies to increase economic growth and employment [just like food stamps]. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, has found that every $1 spent on unemployment insurance grows the economy by $1.55. All these dollars circulating through the economy create jobs. According to an Economic Policy Institute analysis, extending emergency unemployment benefits would create 310,000 additional jobs in 2014.”
   Thank you Sarah. 
   “You’re welcome Rick.”
   Even the Council of Economic Advisers and Department of Labor believe extending unemployment benefits is beneficial. They issued a report about it entitled “The Economic Benefits of Extending Unemployment Benefits.” Some of what they discovered include this:
    1. Including workers’ families, nearly 69 million people have been supported by extended UI (Unemployment Insurance) benefits, including almost 17 million children.
   2. In 2012 alone, UI benefits lifted an estimated 2.5 million people out of poverty.
   3. Failing to extend UI benefits would put a dent in job-seekers’ incomes, reducing demand and costing 240,000 jobs in 2014.
   4. Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and JP Morgan suggest that without an extension of EUC, GDP (Gross Domestic Product) will be .2 to .4 percentage points lower.
   5. In 2011, the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) found that aid to the unemployed is among the policies with “the largest effects on output and employment per dollar of budgetary cost.”
   Nine out of the eleven times Republican lawmakers have resisted EUC benefits being renewed since it was first enacted in 2008. Their basic argument is unemployment compensation makes people lazy, and less likely to seek employment. That folks are living high off the hog on unemployment benefits (maximum weekly benefit amounts vary from state to state, from $235 in Mississippi to $653 in Massachusetts. Most recipients receive less than the maximum, like Cindy, a former airline contractor in Cincinnati. The maximum weekly benefit amount in Ohio is $524, and Cindy receives just $330. "I had no idea that you could freeze milk, but it turned out to be a brilliant discovery," said Cindy, who asked not to be identified for fear of people knowing she lost her job. "Milk is not cheap and being able to store it in the freezer has been incredibly helpful to manage my expenses." She buys it in bulk now). So taking away their benefits will naturally motivate them to get a job... in a job market with just one job opening available for every three jobs, a situation brought about by the economic policies of George W. Bush who was a Republican if I remember correctly (please remember that the majority of Republicans in Congress are not sociologists, so their argument that unemployment benefits make job seekers lazy, or any other argument concerning large groups of people, is not backed up by any empirical evidence whatsoever. They are pulling these ideas out of their collective idealogical asses, so to speak). 
    Congress did not extend unemployment benefits last week so they will expire on the 28th. What happens when unemployment benefits expire? Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan, used the North Carolina experience to give us an idea
   The unemployment rate will decrease it turns out, due to two factors. 
   “ Under the employment effect, people will take jobs even if the work pays less than the job seekers want. In the participation effect, people will drop out of the measured workforce since actively seeking a job (a criterion for being labeled officially unemployed) no longer carries an advantage of receiving jobless benefits.”
   In other words either the unemployed will be forced to seek and take jobs that pay less than their former occupations (remember one must have been employed previously to be eligible for unemployment benefits. This is not welfare), or they leave the workforce all together, which has the added effect of depressing the total economy.  
   To sum up, Congress has adjourned without extending unemployment benefits for 1.35 million fellow Americans, cutting off all financial aid to these people right at Christmas time (if I were one of them I would immediately apply for welfare assistance, which is funded by guess what? The same state and federal agencies that fund unemployment insurance). 
   It would seem that the third picture above is an apt symbol of the Congressional attitude toward America and it’s citizens. Let’s hope that they find it within themselves to do something to rectify this problem, and the many others we face as a nation when they come back to work.
   We shall see.

Krugman's take

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