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A USPS van. (Joseph Barillari)
Can Americans beat the austerity agenda of Wall Street Republicans and compromise-prone Democrats? Can we prevent deep cuts to essential services? Can we preserve the commons in the face of a full-frontal assault from politicians and pundits who are ever at the ready to attack the public sector and public employees on behalf of their crony-capitalist patrons?
Yes, sometimes in the David versus Goliath struggle, David wins.
That happened Wednesday when the board of governors of the US Postal Service abandoned an announced plan to eliminate Saturday delivery of the mail.
"Today's announcement that the USPS has cancelled its plans to end Saturday mail delivery is a victory for our middle class families, our rural communities and our small business owners… who rely on this critical service,” declared Congressman Mark Pocan, a Democrat who just two weeks ago rallied in frigid weather outside a Wisconsin post office as part of the national campaign to block the cut.
Pocan’s right on every point, except one.
The saving of Saturday delivery is not just “a victory for middle class families, our rural communities and our small business owners.” It is an important reminder that it matters to mobilize against the austerity agenda, even when the odds are daunting.
The battle against austerity has many fronts, all of which trace back to the question of whether necessary services will be maintained or diminished. That’s certainly the case in the debate about whether to cut Social Security benefits with President Obama’s “chained-CPI” undercutting of cost-of-living increases. The same goes for proposals to means-test Medicare and Medicaid, and of course to implement House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s voucher scheme.
But nowhere has the austerity threat been more evident in recent months than in the attempt by Postal Service managers—and their allies in Congress—to eliminate Saturday delivery. When the Postmaster General announced the move from traditional 6-day service to 5-day service, anyone who knew anything about the USPS knew what was happening. By creating a delivery void that would extend from Friday morning to Monday afternoon, the Postal Service was being rendered so dysfunctional that Americans would turn toward private carriers.
The American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers and other unions explained that elimination of Saturday service would so undermine the system that privatization of the most attractive mail services would be virtually inevitable. Communities across the country organized to save post offices, sorting centers and jobs. Small business owners, weekly newspaper publishers, election officials and advocates for the elderly and people with disabilities spoke up for affordable and regular delivery of everything from prescription drugs to absentee ballots.
In late March, they rallied in communities, from New York City to small towns on the Great Plains, as part of a “National Day of Action” organized by the Letter Carriers and other unions. It was the highest profile protest of a months-long campaign that got Congress—which is charged by the Constitution with maintaining the service—to call for the retention of Saturday delivery. But the Postmaster General kept pushing for the cut, until Wednesday, when the USPS board of governors announced it would “delay this implementation at this time.”
This is a big deal. Services will be maintained. Jobs will be saved. Rural communities and urban centers will retain their vital cores.
But what happened Wednesday is not the end of the fight.
Maintaining Saturday delivery is important, arguably vital, to the future of the USPS. But, says Pocan, maintaining 6-day service “does not end the need for comprehensive reform at the USPS.”
The definitional battle is the one to free the postal service from the onerous burdens placed on it by Congress, especially the congressional mandate that the USPS prefund 75 years of future health-care benefits for retirees. In his new budget, President Obama proposes temporary relief for the Postal Service by reducing payments into the funds by $10.6 billion over the next two years—along with more flexibility so that the service can compete.
That’s a place of beginning for a real discussion about stabilizing the service.
But the Obama budget is not going to be approved anytime soon. And there are immediate threats.
Postal managers continue to hack away at the service. Indeed, as American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey notes, “While Saturday mail delivery has dominated recent discussions, little attention is being paid to other drastic measures the USPS is taking that will significantly delay mail and permanently damage the nation’s mail system. Since 2012, the USPS has closed 114 mail processing plants, one third of the nation’s mail processing capacity... These closures will eliminate jobs, harm communities, and delay mail delivery every day—Monday, through Saturday.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who has taken the lead in the anti-austerity struggle—not just as the Postal Service’s stalwart champion but as the most ardent critic of scheming to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—recognizes that the fight is not finished.
Sanders and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, have introduced legislation to repeal the pre-funding requirement, which they refer to as “the crippling law responsible for 80 percent of the mail system’s funding woes.”
But they and their allies—including Pocan—are not merely dealing with fiscal matters. They're proposing a Postal Service Protection Act that would:
* clear the way for the Postal Service to help customers take advantage of email and Internet services.
* lift legal bans on services such as notarizing documents.
* create a commission composed of successful business innovators and representatives from small business and labor to make recommendations on other ways the Postal Service could generate new revenue and thrive in the 21st century.
The Postal Service, like most public services, can survive and thrive in the 21st century. But that will never happen if the austerity agenda is extended. It will only happen if that agenda is challenged—with not just one “Day of Action” but with days and days and days of activism on behalf of the sound economics and social responsibility that is the opposite of austerity.
What would a healthier, wealthier and wiser tax policy look like? Read Mattea Kramer's take.
Social Security checks at the US Treasury. (AP Photo/Bradley C. Bower)
US Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Mark Takano, Congressman Mark Pocan, Congressman Rick Nolan and leaders of organizations that oppose President Obama's anticipated assault on Social Security went to the White House Tuesday to present petitions signed by 2.3-million Americans who reject the president's proposal for “chained-CPI.”
The "chained-CPI" scheme would restructure cost-of-living adjustments in a way that cuts Social Security benefits for millions of seniors and veterans.
Sanders has vowed to “do everything in my power to block President Obama’s proposal to cut benefits for Social Security recipients through a chained consumer price index.”
And he's got allies. Joining the senator and the House members at the White House were representatives of Social Security Works, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the National Organization for Women, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, the Campaign for America’s Future and MoveOn.org.
They were joined by Damon Silvers, the director of policy for the AFL-CIO, who announced that if the president goes forward with a budget that proposes Social Security cuts he will do so "without cover" from the labor movement.
The advocacy is significant, as Obama has yet to formally submit his budget. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, couples his outspoken opposition to the "chained-CPI" proposal with a message, "It's not too late to stop this."
It is the hope that Harkin is right that has inspired the dramatic response to news of the president's proposal. Americans really are, as Democracy for America chair Jim Dean notes, rising up in outspoken opposition to any cut in Social Security—but, especially, to a cut proposed by a Democratic president.
"Real Democrats don't cut social security benefits, period, and it's positively shameful that a Democratic President is leading the charge to do so," says Dean. "Protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits from cuts is a bedrock principle of the Democratic party. So, let's be clear: Any congressional Democrat who goes along with the plan the President is proposing and votes to cut Social Security benefits should be prepared to face the ire of the progressive base of the Democratic party and the primary challenges that come along with it."
Yet, most indications are that President Obama is still preparing a budget plan that would cut Social Security with the "chained-CPI" scheme. White House talking points regarding the budget plan still state that it includes "particular proposals in this plan like the CPI change."
The White House is already trying to soften the blow, with rhetorical flourishes and technical arguments, but Harkin is right when he says: "Call it whatever you want—the chained CPI is still a cut to those who need help the most."
By any reasonable measure, the fight over "chained-CPI" is, at this point, between progressives and the White House.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has already rejected the Obama budget plan—sight unseen. The question now is whether Obama will go ahead with the plan to compromise Social Security in order to reach a "grand bargain" that certainly appears to be out of reach.
If he does, it will be Obama who is putting Social Security cuts on the table—along with, some reports suggest, means testing for Medicare.
The president, who was reelected as the choice of Americans who seek to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, may be prepared to abandon a commitment that has defined Democrats for decades.
Progressives have been blunt in stating that they will not follow Obama's lead if he proposes cuts. "Americans all over the country depend on every single dollar they get from Social Security to put food on the table and pay for housing," Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, announced late last week. "Using chained CPI will shift more costs onto already struggling American families, seniors, veterans—including our 3.2 million disabled veterans who also depend on the Social Security calculation for their Veterans Affairs benefits—individuals with disabilities, and children on survivors’ benefits."
But the critical question is whether Democrats will tell a Democratic president that he cannot count on their support for cuts to Social Security.
Most House Democrats signed a February letter to the president that declares: "We remain deeply opposed to proposals to reduce Social Security benefits through use of the chained CPI to calculate cost-of-living adjustments. We remain committed to making the changes that will extend solvency for 75 years, but Social Security has not contributed to our current fiscal problems and it should not be on the bargaining table."
The 107 signers of that letter—which was circulated by Ellison, Grijalva, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, John Conyers of Michigan and Donna Edwards of Maryland, with support from the likes of Minnesota's Nolan and Wisconsin's Pocan—make up a majority of the House Democratic Caucus. Another 30 House Democrats have signed or agreed to the sentiments of a letter (circulated by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson and Takano, a California Democrat) that says: "We will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security benefits—including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need."
Those are the sentiments of FDR Democrats, who recognize that their party is—and should continue to be—defined by a historic commitment to maintain programs created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.
The problem, of course, is that pressures for loyalty to party principle are sometimes trumped by pressures for loyalty to the agenda of a party's sitting president.
Thus comes the test for congressional Democrats—and for their partisan constituents.
What will the Democratic party stand for in the budget debate?
President Obama still has it in his power to unite the party around the FDR standard.
If he fails to do so, however, congressional Democrats will have to decide whether there are some compromises that Democrats cannot accept.
All of us—especially President Obama—are Thatcherites now. Read Maria Margaronis's take.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Obama closed his 2012 campaign with a populist flourish that seemed to suggest he was finally coming to believe his own rhetoric about the need for growth, as opposed to austerity. The strength of his message earned the president a mandate: a popular vote margin of almost 5 million, a landslide win in the Electoral College and significant gains in Senate and House races.
But now, he proposes to squander that mandate in pursuit of a “grand bargain” with House Republicans—a bargain that would replace the current approach to calculating cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients with a “Chained-CPI” scheme. The change will harm not just seniors, children and people with disabilities, but a fragile economic recovery.
Additionally, the president is reported to be prepared to propose some means testing for Medicare.
This is not Paul Ryan privatization. But it is a classic austerity cut.
It is wrong economically, and politically.
“Social Security is not driving the deficit; therefore it should not be part of reforms aimed at cutting the deficit. The chained CPI, deceptively portrayed as a reasonable cost of living adjustment, is a cut to Social Security that would hurt seniors,” says former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. “There are several sensible reforms to Social Security that should be considered to help make it sustainable, including lifting the ceiling on income subject to Social Security from $113,700 to $200,000 or more, as well as instituting a 1 percent raise in the payroll tax rate, a rate that hasn't changed in over 20 years.”
Reich, a Democrat, warns that the president’s plan abandons a historic partisan commitment.
“(Ever) since Social Security's inception in 1935 and Medicare's 30 years later, Republicans have been trying to get rid of them. If average Americans have trusted the Democratic Party to do one thing over the years, it's been to guard these programs from the depredations of the GOP,” explains the former Clinton administration Cabinet member. “Why should Democrats now lead the charge against them?”
The president’s pursuit of a “grand bargain” was quickly rejected by House Speaker John Boehner.
Yet, despite the record of Republican obstruction, the White House has placed a major Social Security cut on the table.
“Social Security is too important to the economic security of the American people to be used as a bargaining chip. The president's own Secretary of the Treasury and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget has written about the budget,” says Nancy Altman, a founding co-director of Social Security Works. “The problem is not Social Security; the problem is the mismatch between outlays and revenues in the rest of the budget.' Applying the so-called chained CPI to Social Security cuts the benefits of every single Social Security beneficiary, now and in the future. The very groups who worked the hardest and voted in the highest percentages to re-elect the president—working families, women, people of color, young Americans—will be the ones hurt the most by the cuts the president is reportedly including in his budget.”
That’s a message that was echoed frequently Friday, as progressives pushed back against the president’s plan.
“What the president is proposing is going to hurt a lot of people,” said Sanders.
The senator from Vermont is not going to let that happen without a fight. He has launched a petition opposing the president’s approach. It reads:
At a time when the middle class is disappearing, poverty is increasing and the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing wider, we demand that the federal budget not be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our country.
A federal budget that reduces the deficit by cutting cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and disabled veterans, raising the Medicare eligibility age and lowering tax rates for the most profitable corporations in this country is not a grand bargain. It is a bad bargain.
We oppose the chained-CPI, a new way to measure inflation and consumer prices designed to cut benefits for Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and their survivors.
We are strongly opposed to benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the needs of our veterans.
We demand a budget that puts millions of Americans back to work in decent paying jobs.
We demand a budget that makes sure that the wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations pay their fair share.
Within hours of the White House confirmation of the president’s plan, the petition had already attracted more than 33,000 signatures.
At Indiana University, budget cuts are only one chip in the austerity game. Read StudentNation's primer on the campus-wide strike happening this week.
Tony Evers. (Flickr/WisPolitics.com)
When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced that he would use his upcoming budget to expand private-school voucher programs, even some Republican legislators objected.
But the loudest objection to Walker’s approach, and to the broader national push to shift taxpayer dollars away from public education and toward private experiments, came from Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. Evers, an educator who in 2009 was elected to lead the state's Department of Public Instruction, appeared before the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee and in communities across Wisconsin to state that opposition. “This has to stop,” he said. “The state cannot continue to play favorites. We can and must meet our constitutional obligation to invest in all of our kids.”
Complaining that the previous Walker budget had cut $1.8 billion from public schools, Evers argued that it was wrong for the governor to use his 2013-15 state budget plan to essentially freeze public school funding while hiking spending for private voucher school students by as much as $1,400 each.
Staking out so clear a position in opposition to the governor’s agenda—not just on vouchers but on a host of education policy issues—was risky. Evers was up for reelection and he faced a determined challenge from Republican state Representative Don Pridemore, a steady supporter of Walker’s legislative agenda. The governor did not make an endorsement in the nonpartisan race and that miffed Pridemore, one of the most conservative members of the legislature. But the challenger's campaign was cheered on by the Republican Assembly Speaker, conservative radio hosts and activists.
A well-regarded and easy-going figure, Evers could easily have mounted a cautious campaign for the statewide post.
Instead, he campaigned across the state prior to Wisconsin’s April 2 statewide election with a message that Walker’s voucher scheme posed a threat to public education.
“This money isn’t coming from Madison. This money is coming directly from your school districts,” Evers told teachers and parents. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the priority is here,” Evers said. “It’s not public schools. It’s voucher schools. It’s privatization, and don’t let anybody tell you differently.”
With a challenger campaigning as a proponent of vouchers—and charging that Evers was too closely aligned with educators and their unions, which backed the superintendent’s reelection—the race offered Wisconsinites what the Associated Press referred to as a “stark choice.”
Voters responded by giving Evers a 61-39 victory statewide.
“Today’s election offered voters a crystal clear choice between two very different philosophies about education,” the superintendent declared on election night. “Voters spoke loudly and clearly, affirming their commitment to Wisconsin’s strong public schools and calling for a much-needed reinvestment to support the over 870,000 public school kids in our state.”
Lisa Subeck, the executive director of the progressive grassroots group United Wisconsin argued that the election results should cause the governor to rethink.
“Evers ran on a pro-public education platform, and his victory sends a clear message that the voters of Wisconsin reject Governor Walker’s push to sink more public money into unaccountable private vouchers schools,” she said. “With the resounding defeat of pro-voucher candidate and GOP state representative Don Pridemore, the message to Scott Walker is clear. Walker should end his ideological march to expand his private school voucher program and restore funding to Wisconsin’s public schools.”
The governor may not waver. His positions are popular with conservative advocates at the national level, and it is no secret that he’s pondering a 2016 presidential run. But Republicans legislators, especially in the state Senate, have already raised concerns. Indeed, Senate President Mike Ellis says that a number of Republicans find the governor’s proposal “unacceptable.” Ellis says Walker’s proposal will be "drastically changed" during the budget debate.
How drastically remains to be seen. But Republican legislators who were disinclined to go along with Walker on the voucher issue—and the broader education-funding debate—will take comfort from the fact that, in a “stark choice” election, voters gave overwhelming support to the candidate who was outspoken in his defense of public education.
The antidote for education shock therapy? Read Rick Perlstein's take.
Tony Evers speaks in Milwaukee, June 1, 2010. (Flickr/WisPolitics.com)
Debates about education policy often get muddled, especially at election time. Though school board contests across the country regularly touch on local elements of the fight over the future of public education, and though legislative contests frequently raise policy details, it is rare that voters in a high-profile statewide contest face an absolutely clear choice on a broad range of education concerns.
But in Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker has attacked teacher unions and hacked away at education budgets, and where Walker now proposes a sweeping expansion of a controversial vouchers scheme to shift public money to private schools, voters will have a chance to register their response Tuesday.
Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, a nonpartisan official elected four years ago, is up for reelection. And he is, for all intents and purposes, running against Walker’s education agenda. Evers’s campaign is blunt, ripping the governor’s approach as an assault on public schools, and highlighting the fact that “Tony has stood up for Wisconsin's kids and working families, fighting back against a devastating $1.6 billion cut in state funding for education.”
Evers was one of more than 900,000 Wisconsinites who signed petitions seeking to recall Walker, who survived the June, 2012, electoral challenge but remains a highly controversial figure in Wisconsin and nationally.
As Tuesday’s election approached, Evers appeared before the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee to call for the rejection of those portions of Walker’s budget dealing with education. Noting that the governor’s budget would increase state funding for voucher school initiatives by 32 percent without increasing overall school funding, Evers declared: “This has to stop. The state cannot continue to play favorites. We can and must meet our constitutional obligation to invest in all of our kids.”
Evers has been steady in his criticism of vouchers schemes, which he says have not delivered for students or communities. "To spend hundreds of millions to expand a 20-year-old program that has not improved overall student achievement, while defunding public education, is morally wrong," the superintendent has argued.
That’s the opposite stance from the one taken by Evers’ challenger, State Representative Don Pridemore, a Republican closely aligned with Walker. Backed by GOP legislative leaders, Pridemore is an ardent advocate for vouchers who echoes the arguments made by conservative critics of public-sector unions and the teachers who are active with them.
The Evers-Pridemore race offers what the Associated Press has correctly identified as a “stark choice” for voters on a range of education issues that begins with the voucher debate but does not end there.
Pridemore backed Walker’s controversial 2011 assault on collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees, along with the governor’s cuts to funding for education and public services. Evers is backed by the Wisconsin Education Association and American Federation of Teachers union locals in the state. And his campaign literature has featured images of the superintendent talking with teachers during mass rallies at the state Capitol.
At almost every turn the candidates differ. Evers has spent thirty-six years as an educator, while Pridemore has never taught in a public school nor administered one. Evers talks about education as a tool to help young people achieve their dreams, and to promote citizenship. Pridemore talks about how his education priority is “making sure our kids are prepared for the workforce.”
Pridemore wants to respond to school violence by allowing armed volunteers to patrol the hallways. Evers thinks that’s a poor idea.
But the core difference is with regard to the commitment states and communities bring to maintaining public schools.
Pridemore embodies not just the Walker agenda, but the vision advanced by national groups that complain about budgeting resources for public schools while promoting the diversion of taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools.
Evers embodies the classic pro-public education agenda. He doesn’t just defend public schools; he’s gone so far as to propose during the current campaign that state spending be increased by roughly $225 per pupil.
“Tony firmly believes education is our pathway back to middle class prosperity,” the superintendent’s campaign declares. “To rebuild our economy and restore the American Dream, every child must be a graduate ready for college or a career, and re-investing in education will help get us there.”
That’s bold talk these days. But Evers is asking voters to make a bold choice in favor of public education—and of the budget priorities that sustain strong public schools.
In New York, fracking companies are ramping up their lobbying—this time, putting Yoko Ono and fellow artists on the stand. Read Jon Wiener's take.
Senator Sherrod Brown. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has for years battled to break up “too-big-to-fail” banks, arguing, “American taxpayers don’t want us to wait until another crisis develops. They want us to ensure that Wall Street megabanks will never again monopolize our nation’s wealth or gamble away the American Dream.”
Now, as the US Senate looks to reshuffle its most powerful posts following the 2014 election, Brown is a serious contender to take over as chair of the Senate Banking Committee.
If Democrats retain control of the chamber, a senator who has proudly tangled with Wall Street and the nation’s biggest banks might actually be given the authority to investigate and regulate what the populists and progressives of a century ago referred to as “the money power.”
That’s a very big deal, as Brown is not merely an outspoken critic of oversized banks. The Ohio Democrat has built bipartisan support for break-up-the-banks legislation, and he has a populist eye for issues that highlight the struggle to end the excesses of Wall Street and the banks. Just last week, he secured a unanimous Senate vote for a resolution to end federal subsidies for the biggest banks.
So how could Brown, who is just starting his second term, become chairman of the powerful Banking Committee?
The current chair, South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, will retire after the 2014 election. That puts Senator Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, in line to chair the committee; but Reed is also in line to chair the powerful Armed Services Committee, and it is widely believed he prefers that position.
Next in line is New York’s Chuck Schumer. But Schumer hopes to eventually replace Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. And that makes his decision complicated.
Because Schumer is broadly seen as being close to Wall Street, the big bankers would love to see the New Yorker take the committee chairmanship. And he may well do so—if only to block Brown. But Schumer is savvy enough to know that doing so could damage his long-term prospects as a contender for a leadership post. Why? Because the Senate’s burgeoning progressive caucus—which will be a factor in any leadership race—wants to get tougher with the banks. And because a stint as Banking Committee chair, especially if it is characterized by compromises with the industry’s biggest players, could tarnish Schumer’s image and make him a less attractive leadership prospect.
New Jersey‘s Bob Menendez, the third Democratic senator in line for the Banking Committee chairmanship, has given every indication that he is more interested in remaining chair of the Foreign Relations Committee—a post he took up when former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry became Secretary of State.
That brings us to Brown.
Already, media outlets that cater to the financial and political elites are abuzz regarding the prospect that a populist with a proven track record when it comes to building bipartisan coalitions for reform might suddenly be in a position to get tough on the big banks. The headlines tell the story:
To be clear, Brown is not a critic of all banks. Just the behemoths that could, were they to stumble, crash the US economy. Brown talks up community banks and credit unions that play by the rules and serve consumers. Indeed, he wants to make sure that the federal government respects small banks, rather than simply bowing before the big guys.
While many other Democrats have been willing to compromise on the “too-big-to-fail” issue, Brown has been steadfast. When the Senate was debating what would eventually become the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Brown broke with his fellow Democrats and sought to enact the Safe, Accountable, Fair & Efficient (SAFE) Banking Act. That measure would have capped the size of banks so that none could control so large a percentage of the economy that the threat of its failure might demand a new bailout.
Brown was blocked then, but he’s back with a new version of the bill, and with a Republican co-sponsor, Louisiana Senator David Vitter.
Arguing for that bill, Brown asked, “How many more scandals will it take before we acknowledge that we can’t rely on regulators to prevent subprime lending, dangerous derivatives, risky proprietary trading, and even fraud and manipulation?”
And Brown answered: “We simply cannot wait any longer for regulators to act. These institutions are too big to manage, they are too big to regulate, and they are surely still too big to fail.”
It’s been a long time since the Senate Banking Committee was chaired by a progressive populist who is willing to take on not just “too-big-to-fail” banks but to demand that the banking industry serve communities and treat consumers fairly. And it’s been even longer since a populist chairman had an ally on the committee like newly-elected Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a key ally of Brown’s.
History does record, however, that big things happen when the oversight responsibility is handed to a senator who worries more about Maine Street than Wall Street.
When Democrats gained control of the Senate in 1933, Florida Senator Duncan Upshaw Fletcher took the chairmanship of what was then the Banking and Currency Committee. Charged with identifying the guilty men whose greed caused the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and the Great Depression that followed, Fletcher worked with a crack New York prosecutor, Ferdinand Pecora, to call the bankers and the speculators to account. Pecora and his team were so aggressive, and so effective, that they even got J.P. Morgan Jr., to acknowledge that he had paid no income tax in 1931 and 1932—an admission that provoked a national outcry and demand for reform.
The reforms came quickly. The Banking Committee’s high-profile inquiry cleared the way for the enactment of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1933, the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Securities and Exchange Commission was established in 1935 to enforce those new laws, along with a host of other measures that end myriad abuses.
The combination of Fletcher Duncan and Ferdinand Pecora put the people back in charge in the 1930s, and provided generations of Americans with protection against the threat posed by unregulated and under-regulated banks and brokers. The combination of Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren could do the same in the twenty-first century.
That prospect scares behemoth bankers.
But it should excite Americans who recognize that the nation’s economy—and its democracy—will never be secure for so long as “too-big-to-fail” banks are allowed to call the shots.
What happens when you rip a hole in the safety net? Read Bryce Covert’s analysis.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Why is Governor Scott Walker writing a book?
Well, to be more precise, why is former George W. Bush White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen (famously, along with Dick Cheney, one of Washington's most ardent defenders of "enhanced interrogation") helping Scott Walker write a book?
That’s easy. Just ask Jeb Bush. Or Marco Rubio. Or Mitt Romney. Or John McCain. Or Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who put out the classic Power to the People back in the 1990s.
If you’re going to run for president—and, as he more or less acknowledges whenever he’s talking to national political writers, Scott Walker is quite interested in seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination—you’ve got to produce a book.
There are, of course, some rules when it comes to writing your way into the running.
For instance, you’ve got to suggest that you are interested in more than your own story, that you’ve got answers for America.
So you need a title like, um, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.
And, in case any Republican county chairs in Iowa or New Hampshire miss the point, the publisher that’s paying you big bucks to produce the tome must peddle it with lines like this one: “In Unintimidated, Governor Walker will share the inside story of how the battle for Wisconsin was won—the reforms he enacted, the mistakes he made, the lessons he learned, and how those lessons can help conservatives win the battle for America.”
Get it? “Help conservatives win the battle for America”?
The publisher has to say things like: “It’s not just a memoir—it’s a call to action.”
Get it? “Call to action”?
And of course, the publisher must refrain from mentioning that Scott Walker’s austerity agenda has failed. No need to go into the details about how, with the implementation of the governor’s assaults on public employees, public services and public education, Walker’s Wisconsin has dropped to No. 44 in job growth and trails neighboring states when it comes to creating unemployment.
After all, Scott Walker’s not producing a memoir, nor anything akin to a useful program for American economic renewal. He’s writing a manifesto for his 2016 presidential run. And as the country’s No. 1 proponent of austerity, he will remain entirely “unintimidated” by the frustrating fact that—if it is the “nation’s challenge” to put Americans back to work in good-paying jobs with secure futures—Scott Walker’s answers are not a campaign promise. They’re a threat.
To bring down the corporate "predator state," Katrina vanden Heuvel argues, we need a coalitional effort that transcends party lines.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
When the voters of Detroit were given the opportunity to decide whether they wanted Rick Snyder to have a role in running their city, it did not go well.
Snyder, as the Republican nominee for governor in 2010, finished with just 5 percent of the vote.
As in: He lost the city by a 20-1 margin.
Snyder made up for the deficit statewide and was elected in a “Republican wave” moment. But there is no evidence that the governor or his policies have risen in popularity since then.
So, for all the carefully prepared marketing that has surrounded Snyder’s imposition of an appointed “emergency manager” to run the city, for all the pronouncements about how “Detroit Can’t Wait” for state intervention, for all the governor’s talk of his suspending of imposition of an unelected boss as “an opportunity to work together, to bring people together as Detroit, Michigan,” the important thing to remember is that Detroit did not choose to surrender local democracy.
Detroit certainly did not choose to hand control over to the appointee of a Republican governor whose 2010 vote wasn’t even competitive.
That’s not conjecture. The opposition to Snyder’s agenda has been registered and recorded.
The question of whether to eliminate Michigan’s state’s emergency manager law was on the ballot last November. Detroit voted overwhelmingly to strike the law from the statute books; 82 percent of Detroit voters, casting ballots in a high-turnout presidential election, voted against letting the governor effectively replace elected mayors and city council members with a hand-picked appointee. The rest of Michigan sided with Detroit on that issue, and the law was eliminated. But Snyder and a lame-duck legislature disregarded the will of the people and passed the new law that, on Monday, was used by Snyder to impose his emergency manager on the city.
On the same ballot last November was a referendum on whether to protect collective bargaining rights so that emergency managers and Republican governors could not bust unions in their push for austerity and privatization. Detroit voted 83 percent to 17 percent in favor of preserving unions.
So Snyder has no credibility when he suggests there is even minimal enthusiasm for his imposition of outside control on Detroit—or other majority-minority cities and school districts across the state—as part of a push to undermine union contracts and cut services. Nor, it should be noted, does he have a credible claim of economic necessity: The governor has held up hundreds of millions of dollars in promised state aid funding for Detroit, funding that could help to stabilize the finances of a city that has been battered not by public employees but by the wave of deindustrialization that has shuttered auto plants, parts suppliers and machine shops across the city.
It’s important to expose and challenge the austerity lie.
But it’s even more important to expose and challenge the assault on democracy in Detroit and Michigan—and, it should be noted, numerous other states. When a city’s voters reject a Republican governor and his agenda, and that governor is still able to shove aside local elected officials and impose his personal appointee to make all the calls regarding how the city is run, democracy is denied. And that denial attacks the most fundamental premises of the American experiment.
As Aura Bogado writes, communities of color across the country already live under a certain kind of receivership—the willful hands of the police.
A local post office in Markham, Virginia. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
No member of Congress who takes seriously their oath sworn to uphold the Constitution can neglect the duty to preserve the United States Postal Service.
The founding document is clear. Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 gives Congress the power and the responsibility: “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.”
To say that Congress has shirked its duty in recent years would be an understatement of colossal proportions. The Republican-controlled House and Senate, working with former President George W. Bush, manufactured a crisis for the postal service in 2006, when they required the USPS to prefund its future healthcare benefit payments to retirees for the next seventy-five years. That’s something no major corporation could or would do, as it required the service to divert more than $5 billion annually to prepay the health benefits of retirees who have not yet been hired.
The absurdity of the circumstance created by those requirements, as well as the absurdity of the restrictions that remain on the ability of the USPS to compete, must be addressed by Congress.
Congress has backed a continuing resolution that pushes back against the current push to end Saturday delivery, potentially staving off what the National Association of Letter Carriers describes as “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers.” But this “fix” is only temporary. And there are more threats on the horizon. Proposals have been floated to close thousands of post offices, especially in rural areas. Postal sorting centers are being closed. Plans have been advanced to slash the workforce and to dramatically downsize the USPS.
While the scheming to impose an austerity agenda on the postal service has, at some points, been interrupted by Congress, a steady assault on the service continues—urged on by private carriers that hope to see the service decline so that they can, through privatization, take over the most lucrative components of the USPS.
This is a classic austerity model: Politicians, influenced by corporations that fund campaigns and overrun Capitol Hill with lobbyists, undermine quality public services. Then they claim those services are not efficient and begin bartering them off to their cronies. It’s pay-to-play politics at its worst, crony capitalism in the extreme. And it does not have to happen.
There are sound plans to stabilize the finances of the postal service and to allow it to compete. These reforms will not just ease the current crisis; they will put the service on solid footing to compete in the twenty-first century—as postal services do around the world.
The only question is whether members of Congress will side with the public interest in maintaining a strong and innovative postal service, or with the campaign donors and lobbyists who want to carve up the USPS and replace service with profiteering.
Responsible members of Congress, led by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, are fighting to save Saturday service permanently, and to free the postal service to compete. They’ll be rallying Sunday with postal workers and community activists nationwide—from the smallest crossroads town to New York City—to demand immediate Congressional action.
Sanders and his Congressional allies are not just defending a necessary public service. They are upholding their oaths to the Constitution.
As the Postal Service is pickpocketed by Congress, millions of Americans are languishing under medical debt. Read Allison Kilkenny's report on Strike Debt's pushback.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus speak against proposed tax cuts, December 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
When it comes to budgets, debts and deficits and, most importantly, the future of the US economy, there are two distinct visions competing in Washington.
Both cost a lot of money.
But they seek to steer the United States in radically different directions.
One vision, that of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, spends our federal largesse on tax breaks for the rich and schemes to divert Medicare funds into the accounts of private insurers. It’s classic crony capitalism. But that’s not the worst of it. Because Ryan’s plan comes wrapped in an austerity model for squeezing government spending and investment, it threatens to stall an economy that is only beginning to grow at a rate sufficient to create needed jobs.
On Thursday, the House voted 221-207 for the Ryan budget. The Republican majority was reasonably solidified in support of the proposal, although ten sincere fiscal conservatives opposed a measure that focuses far more of satisfying the demands of Wall Street donors than actual deficit reduction.
Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the Ryan budget. That can and should be read as a rejection of the ugliest face of austerity. But it is not the case that congressional Democrats are united when it comes to presenting an alternative to Ryanism. And that’s a problem because voters don’t just want Congress to reject austerity; polling data makes it clear that they want an alternative that is focused on job creation.
The best alternatives to the Ryan budget have been presented by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The two groups, which have a significant overlap in their membership, saw their proposals rejected by the House on Wednesday. Ryan’s Republican colleagues opposed both plans, as did dozens of cautious Democrats who have yet to recognize the importance of challenging the lie of austerity with a no-holds-barred growth agenda.
The political reality, of course, is that this week’s House votes settle nothing with regard to the budget priorities that will ultimately frame the nation’s future. “Once again, Republicans in the House have passed a budget that the American people do not support, and has no real chance of becoming law,” explained Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the Budget Committee. “This is a budget whose math is bogus, but whose consequences are real and serious for our middle class families in Wisconsin. From destroying jobs, to raising taxes on the middle class, to turning Medicare into a voucher system, it makes the wrong decisions and reflects the wrong priorities… But the biggest problem with the GOP budget is that it fails to tackle the greatest threat to our long-term deficit—our need to grow our economy and create jobs. With 12 million Americans still unemployed, and millions more who are underemployed, the best budget we can put forth is one that fosters job growth.”
It will be in the wrangling between the House and Senate, and the broader national debate, that the fiscal and economic priorities of the nation will finally be shaped.
And it is important to recognize that, in that broader national debate, Ryan and the House majority have already lost.
The American people have no taste for austerity.
They want a growth agenda. The new Gallup Poll finds that 72 percent of Americans support spending federal money on a program to “put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs.” Seventy-two percent of Americans also favor “a federal jobs creation law that would spend government money for a program that would create more than one million new jobs.”
Those positions are antithetical to everything Ryan is proposing.
That’s a growth agenda that is the opposite of austerity.
It is a growth agenda that mirrors what the Congressional Progressive Caucus has proposed with its “Back to Work” budget.
The CPC budget plan balances the budget far more efficiently and effectively than does Ryan’s—as it eschews the pay-to-play giveaways to campaign donors in the insurance, pharmaceutical and financial-services industries—and stimulates job creation. That’s because the CPC proposal rejects austerity in favor of growth. The focus on growth is essential to the CPC plan, which is wholly distinct from other Democratic plans that seek to strike an often incoherent balance between smart investments and Ryan’s austerity.
“Americans face a choice,” CPC co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, say of the difference between plans that seeks deep cuts in necessary programs and their proposal to invest in the creation of almost 7 million jobs while reducing the deficit by $4.4 trillion over the next 10 years. “We can either cut Medicare benefits to pay for more tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, or we can close outdated tax loopholes and invest in jobs. We choose investment.”
Actually, as the Gallup survey confirms, Americans have made their choice.
Unfortunately, the House majority remains, as the recent Republican National Committee “autopsy report” on why the GOP fared so badly in 2012 notes, badly “out of touch” with the great mass of Americans.
On Wednesday, 84 House members, all of them Democrats, backed the “Back to Work” budget. Opposing it were 225 Republicans and 102 compromise-prone Democrats. The vote came on a day when the chamber also rejected the commendable Congressional Black Caucus budget by a similarly wide margin and the less-inspired Senate Democratic budget plan on a narrower split.
The good news is that this week’s House votes represent political theater, rather than political reality.
The real fights lay ahead. And Democrats would be wise to recognize this fact.
Ryan certainly does.
Despite the absolute certainty that his plan will not be adopted, the House Budget Committee chairman will keep promoting his austerity agenda, with its crony capitalist payouts to political benefactors. And a number of Republicans in the House and Senate will continue to suggest that it is the only way.
Democrats do the debate, and the nation, a disservice if they fail to steadily and aggressively point out not just that Ryan is wrong but that there is, in the wise assessment of Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, “a better way.”
Neither the “pro-growth, pro-people, pro-America” Congressional Black Caucus budget—with its smart focus on investments to save the jobs of teachers and first responders—nor the Congressional Progressive Caucus “Back to Work” budget will, unfortunately, be adopted in its entirety. But these plans outline agendas that are dramatically sounder—and that have dramatically more popular appeal—than the proposal Ryan will continue to advance. As such, the ideals and the sound fiscal and programmatic approaches outlined by the CBC and the CPC ought not be abandoned by progressives simply because the better plans did not win an endorsement from the Republican-controlled House.
As the Senate wrangles with budget issues, it is essential that the core commitments of the CPC plan be kept on the table. These, as the CPC co-chairs explain, include moves to repeal “the arbitrary sequester and the Budget Control Act spending caps that are damaging the economy,” reduce unemployment to near 5 percent in three years with “a jobs plan that includes repairing our nation’s roads and bridges and putting teachers, cops and firefighters back to work” and strengthen Medicare and Medicaid. They’d find the money “by closing tax loopholes and making sure the wealthy pay their fair share.”
The final budget that comes out of Congress will be a compromise. There’s no doubt about that.
But congressional Democrats should not come at the process from a place of compromise. House Republicans will go to their corner, backing the austerity agenda outlined in the Ryan budget.
Senate and House Democrats will have many opportunities in coming weeks and months to propose clear alternatives. They will regularly revisit budget issues in debates about various plans, in conference committee negotiations, in new votes.
The place of beginning for the Democrats—and, frankly, for responsible Republicans—ought to be with an absolute rejection of austerity and an embrace of growth based on investment in job creation.
The American people want a “Back to Work” budget. The polling is clear and unequivocal in this regard. Gallup found that 92 percent of Democrats back federal spending to create infrastructure jobs, but so, too, do 71 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans. Federal spending to create one million new jobs has the support of 93 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Republicans.
But polling data does not provide the only confirmation of where the American people are at.
There’s a signal to be read, as well, from the 2012 election results that gave President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden a 51-47 win over Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, along with a popular victory of almost 5 million votes; that gave Democrats fifty-five Senate seats; and that, despite redistricting, saw 1.4 million more Americans vote Democratic than Republican in competitive House races.
“This is what the country voted for in November,” CPC co-chairs Grijalva and Ellison say of the “Back to Work” budget. “It’s time we side with America’s middle class and working families instead of leaving them to go it alone. We believe in the American people and a government that works for everyone, and that’s what this budget delivers.”
That’s a message Democrats need to take to heart if they are going to get in touch with the American people and provide the needed alternative to the crude mix of crony capitalism and austerity that Paul Ryan is peddling.
As Jamie Raskin writes, what the economy really needs is a “Chamber of Progress.”