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Top 10 for a More Perfect Union | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Top 10 for a More Perfect Union

The "thumping" taken by the Republican Congress on election day was notjust a rejection of K Street corruption and the catastrophe in Iraq. Itwas a call to action on issues that are more immediately relevant topeople's lives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will begin to answer thatcall by pushing a "100 Hours" agenda--including common-sense legislationto increase the minimum wage, cut interest on student loans and open theway for Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

That's a good beginning, but it's only a down payment on a broaderagenda. As Bill Moyers writes in this issue, progressives now have theopportunity to develop a new vision that returns power to the Americanpeople for the first time in generations. Moyers is right that to-dolists don't add up to a vision. But Democrats must show they are seriousby passing bold measures that define a new "people's agenda." With thatin mind, here are ten existing pieces of legislation thatdeserve to be passed by our new Congress. Some of these billsare eminently passable, a few are related to the "100 Hours" agenda andothers can be seen as long-term goals. But all would help return ournation to the path to a more perfect union (note: Bill numbers maychange in the new Congress).

1. Healthcare for All

More than 47 million Americans are now living without health coverage.Representative John Conyers's United States National HealthInsurance Act (HR 676) would create a single-payer healthcare system byexpanding Medicare to every resident. All necessary medical carewould be covered--from prescription drugs to hospital services tolong-term care. There would be no deductibles or co-payments. Fundingwould come from sources including savings from negotiated bulkprocurement of medications; a tax on the top 5 percent of incomeearners; and a phased-in payroll tax that is lower than whatemployers currently pay for less comprehensive employee healthcoverage. With seventy-eight Congressional co-sponsors, and theendorsement of more than 200 labor organizations as well as healthcaregroups, there is muscle and momentum behind this bill. To get involved,check out www.Healthcare-Now.org.

2. Counting Every Vote

Representative Rush Holt has introduced the Voter Confidence andIncreased Accessibility Act (HR 550) requiring all voting systems toprovide a voter-verified paper trail to serve as the official ballot forrecounts and audits. It would also insure accessibility for voters withdisabilities. The bill, which was introduced in February 2005 andwhich currently has 222 bipartisan co-sponsors, was tied up incommittee by the Republican Congress. Senators Hillary Clintonand Barbara Boxer and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jonesintroduced the Count Every Vote Act (S 450 and HR 939), which also callsfor a voter-verified paper trail and would improve access for languageminority voters, illiterate voters and voters with disabilities.Co-sponsors of that legislation include Senators John Kerry, FrankLautenberg, Patrick Leahy and Barbara Mikulski, and seventy-nineHouse members.

3. Healthy Families Act

According to Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce, "nearly half of allprivate-sector workers in the United States do not have a single day ofpaid sick leave. And more do not have a paid day off that can be used tocare for a sick child." Seventy-five percent of low-wage workers lackpaid sick leave--the very people who can least afford to take a day offand still be able to pay the bills. In 2005 Senator Edward Kennedy andRepresentative Rosa DeLauro introduced the Healthy Families Act (S 932and HR 1902)--a bill that would require employers with fifteen ormore workers to provide one week of paid sick leave for those who workthirty or more hours a week. Employees who work less than that wouldreceive prorated leave. The leave could be used to care for family aswell. The new Democratic Congress is expected to hold hearings on thelegislation, which has fifteen original co-sponsors in the Senate andseventy-one in the House, in early 2007.

4. The Right to Organize

The Employee Free Choice Act (S 842 and HR 1696) would strengthenworkers' freedom to organize by requiring employers to recognize a unionafter a majority of workers sign cards authorizing representation.It also would create stronger penalties for management violations of theright to organize when workers seek to form a union. Currently there are214 co-sponsors of Representative George Miller's House bill (includingfourteen Republicans) and forty-four co-sponsors of Kennedy'slegislation in the Senate (including Republican Senator Arlen Specter).This legislation would go a long way toward helping the 57 millionnonunion workers in the United States who, according to polls, wouldform a union tomorrow if given the opportunity.

5. No Permanent Bases in Iraq

Representative Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Congressional ProgressiveCaucus, has proposed House Conference Resolution 197, which declaresthat it is "the policy of the United States not to enter into any baseagreement with the Government of Iraq that would lead to a permanentUnited States military presence in Iraq." By passing this bill, Congresscan send a clear and immediate signal to the Iraqi people and theinternational community that the United States has no intention ofstaying in Iraq indefinitely. There were eighty-six co-sponsors of Lee'slegislation, including three Republicans.

6. Stop Outsourcing Torture

Representative Ed Markey's Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act (HR 952)directs the Secretary of State to submit to Congress an annual listof countries where there are substantial grounds for believing thattorture or cruel and degrading treatment is commonly used in detentionor interrogation. The bill prohibits the direct or indirect transfer orreturn of people by the United States for the purpose of detention,interrogation, trial or other purposes to a listed country. Given therecent history of black sites, torture flights, innocent victimsand suspension of habeas corpus, this legislation should be animmediate priority. It is one modest step in the right direction. Itcurrently has seventy-seven co-sponsors.

7. Access to Higher Education

Senator Richard Durbin and Representative George Miller'sReverse the Raid on Student Aid Act (S 2573 and HR 5150) wouldcut interest rates on college loans for student and parent borrowers.The legislation would save $5,600 for the typical student borrower, whocurrently graduates with $17,500 in student-loan debt. The Durbin-Millerlegislation cuts interest rates in half, from 6.8 percent to 3.4percent, for students with subsidized loans, and from 8.5 percent to4.25 percent for parents. Earlier this year, the GOP Congress cut $12billion out of federal student aid programs to help finance tax breaksfor the wealthiest Americans. The average tuition and fees at four-yearpublic colleges have risen 40 percent when adjusted for inflation, since2001, according to the College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges. Andthe average student debt has increased by more than 50 percent over thepast decade, according to the Project on Student Debt. With economicinequality and the concentration of wealth reaching unprecedentedlevels, improving access to higher education is essential. It also iscritical if we are to reverse the trend of the US workforcelagging behind other nations in education.

8. Free and Independent Media

Representative Maurice Hinchey sponsored the Media Ownership ReformAct (MORA--HR 3302), which seeks to restore a diverse media bysignificantly lowering the number of media outlets one company ispermitted to own in a single market. Since 1996 the FederalCommunications Commission has promoted massive media consolidation byincreasing that number, allowing telecommunications corporations to buyup a larger share of television and radio stations, newspapers and othermedia outlets, and forcing independent and local media owners outof business. There are sixteen co-sponsors of MORA in the House.

9. Public Financing of Campaigns

Representative John Tierney introduced the Clean Money, Clean ElectionsAct (HR 3099) last year with thirty-nine Democrats and oneIndependent as co-sponsors. The bill establishes a voluntary system thatoffers candidates an option for public financing and reduced rates onbroadcast advertising in exchange for self-imposed limits on campaignfinancing and spending. Participating candidates get a dollar-for-dollarmatch, up to a set limit, if a nonparticipating opponent spends morethan the basic public-financing grant. This system would free candidatesfrom the burden of continuous fundraising; allow those who obtain aprescribed number of contributions to run regardless of their economicstatus or access to large funders; and, perhaps most important,eliminate the skewed priorities caused by the financing ofcampaigns by special-interest contributors.

10. Clean Energy

Last May Senator Maria Cantwell introduced the Clean EDGE Act (S 2829)with twenty-four Democratic co-sponsors. The bill sets a goal ofreducing US petroleum consumption by 6 million barrels a day by 2020--or40 percent of America's projected imports. It mandates that 25percent of new vehicles sold in the United States by 2010 be flex-fuelcapable (able to run on higher blends of biofuels, which help todisplace petroleum), rising to 50 percent by 2020. It also sets anational goal of installing alternative fuels at 10 percent of US gasstations by 2015. The bill also makes gas price-gouging a federal crime.It ends subsidies for major oil companies and extends incentives forrenewable energy and efficiency technologies. To shrink US dependence onfossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the bill requires that10 percent of all US electricity come from renewable sources by2020. A report by the Apollo Alliance and the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the Clean EDGE Act would create more than 500,000 jobs,including tens of thousands in states hit hardest by the loss of 3million manufacturing jobs.

This list is by no means all-inclusive. But these are good and importantinitiatives that address longstanding and formidable challenges.

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