The Five Smartest Congressional Bills You've Never Heard Of
During any given Congressional term, literally thousands of proposals never make it past the committee stage of the legislative process. In recent years, less than 5 percent of all bills introduced ultimately became law. The scope of proposals in Congress garnering considerable media attention is similarly narrow. The pieces of legislation that attract the most publicity from the beltway media—like Paul Ryan’s radically unpopular plan to scrap Medicare—tend to drown out more sensible ideas that hardly stand any chance of enactment without public pressure on lawmakers to move the agenda forward.
But behind the smoke screen of the news cycle, there are several genuinely excellent pieces of legislation that remain more or less entirely shrouded from public view. The bills below are among the more progressive efforts underway in our 112th Congress, with sponsors and co-sponsors representing both sides of the aisle. They warrant far greater attention than they’re getting.
The Fairness in Taxation Act [H.R.1124]
Sponsored by Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky and co-sponsored by twenty other Democratic House members, the Fairness in Taxation Act [FTA] would create additional tax brackets at the top of the income ladder, starting with $1 million and ending at $1 billion. As things stand, the highest tax bracket is set at $373,000, meaning the top twenty hedge fund managers with an average annual income of over $1 billion pay the same marginal tax rate as those who make 2,500 times less than they do.
If enacted, FTA would raise federal tax revenue by more than $78.9 billion in 2011 alone, according to Citizens for Tax Justice. That would more than cover the $61 billion dollars in GOP-proposed cuts to Pell grants, community health centers, high speed rail, Head Start, NIH funding, housing cuts and Title X family planning.
“This isn’t about punishment or revenge. It’s about fairness,” Schakowsky said in a recent press release. “It’s about avoiding budget cuts that harm middle class families and those who aspire to it. We can choose to cut education, job creation and health care, or we can choose to ask those who can contribute more to do so.” And according to a March 2011 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Americans agree with Schakowsky, choosing “a surtax on federal income taxes for people earning over one million dollars a year” as the most popular method of reducing the federal budget deficit.
The Foundations for Success Act [S.294]
In the past decade, childcare costs have increased twice as fast as the median income of families with children. Roughly 30 percent of households with children have only one parent and one in five children now live in poverty. According to a UNICEF report on the well-being of children in rich countries, “evidence from many countries persistently shows that children who grow up in poverty…are more likely to be in poor health, to have learning and behavioral difficulties, to underachieve at school, to become pregnant at too early an age, to have lower skills and aspirations, to be low paid, unemployed, and welfare dependent.” Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman warns that failing to tackle poverty by investing early on in “human capital,” will “drive up deficit spending by paying to remediate disparities when they are harder and more expensive to do so.”
The results are already visible. The United States has fallen from first to eighteenth in high school graduation rates among industrialized countries, while losing $192 billion in income and tax revenue for each new batch of 18-year-olds without a high school degree. Closing the achievement gap with other nations could have added as much as $2.3 trillion to the GDP in 2008 alone. Studies show that as much as half of the gap in achievement scores is attributable to cognitive and behavioral setbacks already evident by the age of five.
In partnership with the Children’s Defense Fund, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is sponsoring the Foundations for Success Act [FSA] in response to what is “a serious crisis in child care and early education that exists in our nation.”
“As we struggle to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, too many American children do not receive the high quality early care they need,” Sanders told The Nation. “The best way to both address our educational shortcomings and strengthen our economy over the long term is to invest in our children as early as we possibly can.”
Sanders’ legislative assistant told The Nation the country “needs something bigger” than simply defending existing pre-K programs, since “less than half the households who are eligible for Head Start are receiving help.” Sanders’s plan establishes a grant program providing “universal, full day, full week, and full year programs” available to households with children age 6 weeks until kindergarten. The program would initially serve ten geographically diverse states across the country that fall significantly behind others in providing viable care services, but would ultimately expand to all fifty states in a long-term initiative to build upon existing efforts to improve the quality and affordability of early care.
The Federal Reserve Transparency Act [H.R.459]
Sponsored by Ron Paul in the House, with a similar bill [S. 202] sponsored by his son Rand Paul in the Senate, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act (FRTA) lifts restrictions placed on the Government Accountability Office and mandates an external audit of the Fed’s books by the end of 2012.
The public’s view of the Fed’s performance has fallen dramatically over the past eight years, precipitating a crisis in trust in one of our most powerful institutions. Whereas in 2003 it rivaled the Center for Disease Control as the most admired public institution, today polls show the Fed is less popular than the IRS. Aware of this problem, the Fed has recently taken some steps towards being more open, even convening its first-ever press conference with the Fed Chair in its ninety-eight-year history. But at a recent two-day event on the future of the Federal Reserve hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and the New America Foundation in New York and DC, there was a consensus among progressive critics of the Fed that much more needs to be done.
“I would like to know what was in the FOMC minutes from 2006, 2007, 2008,” says blogger Matt Stoller, referring to the Fed’s policy of keeping its internal minutes secret for ten years. “What was the Fed talking about during the crisis? It’s something they still haven’t released.” As economist Dean Baker adroitly put it in an interview with finance blogger Mike Konzcal last May: “The FDA has to give a full account, we reviewed this drug, we reviewed that drug, this is why we approved this drug, here’s why we didn’t. I don’t understand why the Fed should operate differently.”
Chairman Bernanke disagrees. An audit, he says, would violate the principle of independence, which is "the bedrock principle of central banking." But although “independence” is a reasonable concern since no one wants monetary policy manipulated by day-to-day politics and re-election concerns, an audit wouldn't actually enable lawmakers to interfere in Fed decision-making. It would simply make the Fed's internal procedures and process of reasoning more visible to the public. Considering America’s sustained high unemployment rate and a growing perception that the Fed is beholden to Wall Street rather than democratically-elected officials, Bernanke’s anti-accountability argument seems awfully weak. As economist Rob Johnson retorts: “I often hear this conversation about the Fed start with the question of the cherished Federal Reserve independence. And I think the question we have to ask at this point in time is independence from whom? Who is the Fed supposed to be independent from and to what end?”
The Shortening Hours and Retaining Employees (SHARE) Credit Act [H.R.4179]
Wouldn’t it be nice to work fewer hours but still get paid the same salary? Some economists, like Paul Krugman and Dean Baker, are saying that it’s not only possible, but that the country could create millions of jobs and add billions of dollars to the GDP by doing so.
Michigan Congressman John Conyers has taken up the initiative by sponsoring the SHARE Act, a job-creation program that offers a tax credit of up to $3,000 to employers who shorten workers’ hours in the form of “paid sick days, paid family leave, shorter workweeks or longer vacations.”
The logic works as follows: Because workers’ salaries would remain unchanged as a result of the paid time off, aggregate demand in the economy would also remain unchanged or even rise because of greater leisure time for consumer activities. Therefore employers will have to maintain productivity levels by hiring more workers to make up for lost labor input. Not only would workers reap the rewards of more leisure time without penalty, but potentially millions of unemployed individuals would be put to work at relatively low cost.
The plan would cost the government roughly $26,000 per new job created, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. That’s far less than the CBO-estimated average cost of as much as $200,000 per job created by the 2009 stimulus package. It’s also far less than the average cost of more than $190,000 for every job created by subsidizing the fossil fuel industries.
In Germany, a similar tax credit in exchange for shortening work hours resulted in a steady unemployment rate of 7.6 percent throughout the recession, the same rate they had prior to the economic downturn. “Imagine if workers in the United States, like workers in Germany, were dealing with the recession by putting in four-day weeks (while getting paid for five) or getting an extra two weeks of paid vacation,” writes Conyers. “This sure beats being unemployed.”
Since the tax credit is designed largely in response to the recession, it would presumably be temporary. But keeping the measure in place may turn out to be advantageous for the economy in the long run. “If the new arrangements prove better for workers and employers then many employers will opt to keep them even after the tax credit has expired,” says economist Dean Baker. “In this way, the tax credit may go far towards making benefits like paid family leave or paid sick days universal and moving the United States towards a shorter work year.”
The 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act [H.R.494]
Sponsored by Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur, the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act (CCCA) is a job creation program that re-establishes a Civilian Conservation Corp that puts to work unemployed and underemployed civilians to advance useful public works projects aimed at safeguarding natural resources and developing new transportation and infrastructure.
The original Civilian Conservation Corp, created in 1933, lasted for nearly a decade and was the first and most popular program of the New Deal. The February 6, 1939 issue of Time magazine reported that “more continuously than any other New Deal experiment, CCC…had the respect of foes as well as friends of Franklin Roosevelt.” After only five years, the newly-employed workers of the CCC had built thousands of bridges and dams, planted 1.5 million trees in public parks and forests, re-vegetated hundreds of thousands of acres of land, put out fires and completed a hundred thousand miles of trails and roads.
Kaptur told The Nation she believes that, like the original, the CCC for the 21st century would produce enormous returns to society on the investment.
“Millions of acres of trees and forest are being destroyed by pine bark beetles in the West and emerald ash bore in Michigan and Ohio. In the South, there’s massive soil erosion, and just look at what’s happening to the Mississippi—water is overflowing costing billions in damages. Meanwhile, millions of dilapidated housing units across the country are sitting vacant or vandalized,” says Kaptur. “We can plant 20 million new trees, start cleaning corridors for high speed rail, add nurses to communities, aid veterans, refurbish homes, and invest in water management. Even just fixing potholes would mean a lot.”
“More important, however, than the material gains from their labors will be the moral and spiritual value of such work," said President Roosevelt in a March 21, 1933, message to Congress. With rates of unemployment steadily hovering around 9 percent (and underemployment rates ranging from 16–19 percent), the new CCC has the potential to reinforce the principle of independence, the now seemingly antiquated notion that no one willing to work should be directly dependent on any other person or group for livelihood. The CCC would also reduce the number of people relying on income support, family credit, and other costly means-tested benefits.
“There’s such a waste of America’s capital,” Kaptur told The Nation. “To not link our hard capital and human capital, to allow this to go fallow and deteriorate.... I don’t know of another generation that has allowed that to happen. Even in the 1930s, at the height of the depression, they had the strength and wherewithal.”