The Worst of Our Corrupt Congress Was on Display This Past Week In Washington
One day, historians might discover that what unfolded this past week in Washington was a surreal snapshot of the slow-but-steady death of American democracy.
First, there was the helicopter pilot versus the Congress. A Florida postal worker landed a hobbyist’s helicopter on the Capitol lawn to deliver 535 letters—one for each member of Congress—demanding they pass campaign finance reform. As Doug Hughes explained, he had to do something dramatic because big money in politics was killing the country.
“I’m delivering the message right to them—not for their sake, but for the impact that it will have,” he said in a video. “I’m trying to galvanize millions and millions of people to do a relatively simple thing: change the government to build a wall of separation between the government and big money so that government will represent the people. There are these problems, and these problems, and these problems, that are much more important than campaign finance reform; but those won’t get addressed until we fix campaign finance reform.”
It wasn’t crazy. His observation that Congress often no longer reflects the will of the American people isn’t new. That brings us to surrealist action items two and three.
The House, to commemorate April 15’s income tax deadline, voted to repeal the estate tax for wealthy heirs. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-VT., said that would give “$269 billion in additional tax breaks for the families of the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans” and “raises taxes on working families by ending earned income and children’s tax credits that benefit 13 million Americans. This is simply beyond belief.”
A day later, Friday, bipartisan leaders from both chambers agreed allow the White House to finish negotiating one of the largest global trade accords, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is that latest global trade deal that since the 1990s has increased the power of the corporate sector, shrunk the power of government regulators, and encouraged wealthy companies to move major manufacturing industries overseas—jobs and earnings.
Despite what will be political posturing and fights over the tax cut and trade deal in the weeks to come, the big picture here is that Congress isn’t even trying to serve the public. This brings us back to the pilot, who was mocked by the Post as “the under-the-radar postal worker who airmailed himself into the Washington limelight in a putt-putt flying machine.”
Yet Hughes wasn’t alone on the reform beat this past week.
Hillary Clinton, after being driven to Iowa in a posh van to launch her 2016 campaign, also said that campaign finance reform was needed, including possibly a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s four-decade-long streak that increasingly has allowed the wealthy to control how federal candidates are selected and elected.
She, too, was scorned by experts—in this case, nationally known lawyers—not for saying that big money is politics is a problem; but for embracing the constitutional amendment. Hillary knows all about the problems of raising big money for campaigns. She will need over a $1 billion to win the presidency in 2016, many estimate. While she may bemoan that the road to the White House will be paved with checks, her organization was busy sending its first wave of e-mails asking for campaign donations.
There is a surreal quality to all this. Congress passes bills that reward the wealthy and punish the poor. A lone protester flies a helicopter and gets ridiculed by the “grown-ups” in Washington, much like protesters who interrupted the Supreme Court over the same issue recently. Hillary says money in politics must be confronted, even though she will soon spend more time raising money than talking in public. Meanwhile, President Obama still won’t issue an executive order requiring that federal contractors disclose political spending—a modest anti-corruption effort.
Beyond these contradictions and contortions, Congress’ actions this week underscored that the will of the wealthy must be served. Is it any wonder that America’s middle class is slipping down the economic ladder, as investigative reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele have been documenting for 30 years?
In 2012, when the pair wrote their last book, middle-class households earned between $30,000 and $80,000. These Americans have seen reduced and stagnant earnings, chronic job insecurity, and shrinking retirement benefits, they noted. The unemployed have seen jobs lost, homes lost, and savings gutted. Retraining and new careers are mostly a myth—especially for veterans and people in middle age. Meanwhile, 24 million households in 2012 earned more than $80,000, they said, and do not want their fortunes to change.
A century ago, the same brew of political corruption, economic inequality and broken politics were cornerstones of the Gilded Age. Those conditions sparked what became the Progressive Era, when corporate power was reeled in by the federal government and basic rights of workers, women and child were affirmed. But Bartlett and Steele asked why is it harder today to pull the country back from a similar brink?
Think about it. The pilot versus the Congress. Hillary the campaign reformer and her staff begging for a billion. The House gives the richest Americans a quarter-trillion dollar tax cut, raises taxes on 13 million poorer people, and encourages Obama to negotiate a trade deal built on the belief that government has no business in the workings of business?
Every now and then the news presents a surreal snapshot of what is really going on in America’s political system.