Kleptocrat Nation | The Nation


Kleptocrat Nation

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Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the...

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This old American democratic tradition already has deep support at the grassroots.

People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.

How far have the elites moved from us? So far that even the moderates have lost their way. Take Sherwood Boehlert. He's a Republican congressman, but despite that, not a bad guy. Sherwood thinks of himself as "part of the enlightened middle." From central New York, he's been in the House of Representatives for twenty-one years now. A long time. Maybe a tad too long. He says he loves the job, calling it the "ultimate aphrodisiac." Hmmmm. OK, I understand that people who shovel muck for a living come to love the smell, so everyone to their own. But Sherwood said something not long ago that made me think that maybe he's been sniffing the perfumes of high office longer than is good for him: "It's the people's House," he gushed about his side of the Capitol: "The one institution in the whole wide world that's the personification of this great democracy of ours."

Uh-oh. Quick, someone dial 911. We need to rush an EMS reality crew over to Congress, grab Sherwood, strap him down and jolt his head with the defibrillator pads to try shocking the poor delusional fellow back to earth.

Think about it: Congress, democracy. Do these two words fit together in your mind?

America is a nation of nurses, office workers, cab drivers, schoolteachers, pharmacists, shopkeepers, middle managers, truck drivers, shift workers, librarians, cleaning people, electricians, fruit pickers, struggling artists--how many of our ilk are sitting next to Sherwood in "the people's House"?

The great majority of Americans make less than $50,000 a year--half make under $32,000. How many members of Congress come from such modest backgrounds? Today's Congress is made up of business executives, lawyers and former political operatives (which Boehlert was). The Public Interest Research Group reports that nearly half of the people newly elected to Congress last year are millionaires. This is the personification of democracy?

"It's time to play: "Who Wants to Be a Congress Critter?" There are 280 million Americans. To win today's top prize, tell me how many of us are millionaires? BLAAAAAAAHT. Time's up. The answer is: 2.1 million. We'll do the math for you. That's about seven-tenths of one percent of the people.

Not only do the members tend to descend into Congress from the economic heights, but they also spend practically all of their substantive and social time with others from the heights. Congress's real constituency is no longer you and me, but the people who "matter." These are your top-floor corporate executives and the moneyed elites who have full-time lobbyists and who make the $1,000-and-higher campaign donations (only 0.05 percent of Americans are in this class) that grease the wheels of Congressional incumbency. They are the privileged few who know members by their first names, who get every one of their phone calls returned--and who get their agenda adopted.

Perhaps this gaping economic chasm between those on the inside and all the rest of us on the outside explains why our strumpets of state never get around to dealing with little matters like assuring healthcare for all families, passing living-wage legislation and making sure everyone gets a decent retirement. Members of the Congressional club feel no urgency because, hey, it's not them--they have no personal anxiety about such matters, because (1) they're well off and (2) they're covered on all this by us taxpayers. Yes, even the multimillionaires in Congress get:

§ Full platinum-level health coverage for them and their families, including choosing their own docs, seeing the specialists they need, dental care and cosmetic surgery for their pets. (Just kidding about that last one--but don't put it past them!)

§ A rosy retirement, with pensions that can rise higher than the pay they got while in office. Just the starting pensions are sweet--Phil Gramm, who finally did something for the people of Texas by leaving the Senate last year, starts out drawing retirement pay of $78,534 a year. He'll be paid more for doing nothing than 80-plus percent of us Americans are paid for working full time.

§ Regular cost-of-living pay raises. While Congress has not seen fit to increase the minimum wage (still $5.15 an hour) since 1996, the members did give themselves four $5,000 pay raises during the past five years. This $20,000 "adjustment" in each of their own annual pay packets is $8,000 more than the gross pay that a full-time minimum-wage worker would get if Congress ever gets around to the $1 wage hike they've been "talking" about for years.

§ Excellent job security. Did you know that a member of Congress is four times more likely to die in office than to lose an election? This is not only because of the special-interest money they're stuffed with, but also because the GOP and Democrats conspire to divide the turf in each state, gerrymandering districts to assure that 96 percent of them are "safe" for the incumbents. There's not much democracy in a rigged system that now allows only twenty of the 435 House seats to be competitive.

As a bunch (and, yes, there are important exceptions within the bunch), I think of today's Congress as a colony of cicadas. These are interesting insects with powerful survivalist genes. After hatching from eggs laid in tree limbs, cicadas drop to the ground, immediately burrow deep and attach themselves to tree roots, where they suck the sap for thirteen years. The major difference is that Congress critters suck the sap much longer.

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