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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left many legacies: as a crusader for civil rights, voting rights, religious harmony, peace and economic justice.
As America honors the eighty-fifth anniversary of King’s birth, it is right to remember all of those legacies.
But at a moment when the national debate has finally begun to refocus on the issue of income inequality that so motivated Dr. King, it is his commitment to economic justice that merits particular attention.
Fifty years ago, when Dr. King marched on Washington for jobs and freedom, the federal minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. In today’s dollars, that guaranteed base wage would be $9.54 an hour.
But the federal minimum wage today is just $7.25 an hour.
Low-wage workers are more than $2 behind where they were when Dr. King declared: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., well noted last year at a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington that “workers are falling behind.”
“Income inequality threatens our democracy as Jim Crow segregation did in 1963,” explained Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Families are working harder than ever and are still struggling to put food on the table. A full day’s work doesn’t mean a full day’s pay.”
King recognized that wage issues were civil rights issues. “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” he told a rally of AFSCME sanitation workers in Memphis on March 18, 1968, barely two weeks before his death. “For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
And what is the worker who prepares and serves that hamburger being paid?
That’s a question that has been asked frequently over the past year, as thousands of fast-food workers and their supporters have struck, marched and rallied to demand better pay, benefits and workplace protections.
Most Americans are aware that, especially in a weak economy, fast-food restaurant jobs are no longer “entry-level” positions. In chain restaurants across the country, most workers are adults. And substantial numbers of them are trying to support families.
But if they are paid the minimum wage, or even a bit more, they live in poverty.
“Almost one-quarter of all jobs in the United States pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four. CEO compensation, meanwhile, continues to climb. It would take a full-time, minimum-wage worker more than 930 years to earn as much as the chief executive officer of Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, made in 2012,” explains Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Fast-food workers are in the lowest paid occupational category. The median hourly wage for front-line fast-food workers is $8.94 nationally. Many don’t even earn that. A shortage of hours further limits income. Fast-food workers work only 24 hours a week on average—at $8.94 an hour, this adds up to barely $11,000 a year.”
But organizing for better pay for fast-food and retail workers does not just benefit those workers and their families. “We can’t build a strong economy on jobs that pay so little that families can’t live on them,” notes Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry. “Raising the wage floor will make the economy stronger for all of us.”
Indeed, argues Congressman George Miller, the senior Democratic member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, “Low pay…holds back our recovery from the Great Recession.”
With Iowa’s Tom Harkin in the Senate, Miller is the House author of the Fair Minimum Wage Act (HR 1010), which would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The rate would then be indexed to inflation, so that pay increases come when prices rise. Additionally, Miller’s bill would increase the required cash wage for tipped workers.
Ultimately, increases must go higher to achieve a living-wage standard. That’s the point made by Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, who was elected on a pledge to fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and who has gotten officials in that city to begin to explore such a move. Seattle could vote on the issue this year, and Los Angeles and other cities are beginning to talk about going big in the fight against income inequality.
Local and state initiatives are vital, as is the federal fight.
At every level, the struggle for meaningful increases in the minimum wage respects a basic premise that extends from Martin Luther King Jr.’s time to ours: helping those who are disenfranchised, politically and economically, helps all of society.
As Congressman Miller, who carries forward the King legacy of linking jobs and freedom, explains it: “Better pay will put more money into local businesses and spur economic growth. That’s why a living wage is not about asking for a handout. Rather, it’s about valuing work. And it’s about growing the economy from the bottom up by increasing working families’ purchasing power. Americans on today’s picket lines aren’t just standing up for themselves—they are standing up for a stronger America.”
Of all the celebrations of Dr. King’s legacy, few are more appropriate than the struggle—expanding every day, going from strength to strength at the local, state and federal levels—to address income inequality by raising the basic wage for working Americans.
Dr. King put it best, just weeks before his death, when he declared: “Now the problem isn’t only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working everyday? They are making wages so low that they can not begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen. And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”
Read Next: Sasha Abramsky on the War on Poverty.
Taking steps to end, or at the very least to constrain, the federal government’s practice of storing information on the personal communications of Americans is a good thing. There is every reason to respect initiatives that seek to prevent the National Security Agency’s metadata programs from making a mockery of the right to privacy outlined in the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.
But the moves that President Obama announced Friday to impose more judicial oversight on federal authorities who might “listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails” and the steps that may be taken by Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials to check and balance the NSA following the submission of proposals on March 28 ought not be seen mistaken for a restoration of privacy rights in America.
What the president and his aides are talking about—in response to revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, congressional objections and public protests – are plans to place some controls on the NSA and perhaps to keep most data in “private hands.”
But what controls will there be on those private hands?
As long as we’re opening a discussion about data mining, might we consider the fact that it’s not just the government that’s paying attention to our communications—and to what they can reveal about our personalities, lifestyles, values, spending habits and political choices.
There’s a reason the NSA has been interested in accessing the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. When you’re mining, you go where the precious resources are, and technology companies have got the gold.
Data is digital gold. Corporations know that. They’re big into data mining.
This data mining, and the commercial and political applications that extend from it, gets far less attention than the machinations of the NSA or other governmental intelligence agencies. Tech publications and savvy writers such as Jaron Lanier recognize these concerns. The Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Senate Commerce Committee have taken some tentative steps to address a few of the worst abuses. But that’s not enough, especially when, as Fordham University’s Alice E. Marwick noted in a smart recent piece for The New York Review of Books,
there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all.
Significantly, it is not just financial profit that data can yield.
As Robert W. McChesney and I note in Dollarocracy: How the Money-and-Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), data is also mined by those who seek power.
Political candidates, political parties, Super PACs and dark-money groups are among the most ambitious data miners around. They use data to supercharge their fund-raising, to target multimillion-dollar ad buys and to stir passions and fears at election time.
Both parties do it. All major candidates do it. Obama did it better than Romney in 2012, and that played a critical role in providing the president with the resources and the strategies that allowed him to easily defeat a well-funded and aggressive challenger. The Grand Old Party’s response was to begin hiring the best and the brightest technical talent. A recent headline announced: “Republican National Committee to Build Platform to Share Voter Data.” Another reported: “RNC Pledges $20 Million to Build Data-Sharing Operation.”
So campaigns are going to do more mining. And so are the billionaires who fund so-called “independent” political operations. Last spring, Politico announced: “Karl Rove, Koch Brothers Lead Charge to Control Republican Data.”
Data already drives the money-and-media election complex that is rapidly remaking American democracy into an American dollarocracy, where election campaigns are long on technical savvy but short, very short, on vision.
So, give the president credit for wading into the debate about how the government uses and abuses phone data. Give key members of Congress, like Jerry Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, credit for pointing out that what the president has proposed is “not enough” to “safeguard against indiscriminate, bulk surveillance of everyday Americans.”
But then go the next step. Recognize that addressing governmental actions and abuses does not begin to restore privacy rights. For that to happen, there must be recognition that Marwick is right to argue: “While closer scrutiny of the NSA is necessary and needed, we must apply equal pressure to private corporations to ensure that seemingly harmless targeted mail campaigns and advertisements do not give way to insidious and dangerous violations of personal privacy.”
And that recognition must extend beyond concern regarding abusive commercial applications to include an examination of and responses to new approaches to fund-raising and campaigning that have the potential to warp our politics—and democracy itself.
Read Next: John Nichols on what the Federal Communications Commission can (and must) do to save Internet neutrality.
When the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order Tuesday—dealing what is being broadly interpreted as a fatal blow to net neutrality— it highlighted the urgent need for the FCC to develop a smarter and more assertive approach to protecting citizens and consumers in the digital age.
The court rejected a 2010 move by the FCC that was intended to prevent phone and cable conglomerates from subdividing the Internet in ways that block or interfere with communications. The commission’s attempt to reassert its authority—after a FCC dominated by appointees of former President George W. Bush had weakened it—was rejected on the grounds that the approach chosen by the FCC in 2010 was legally unsound.
The FCC classified broadband providers as information service providers rather than as telecommunications service providers. The move, widely criticized by consumer groups, created openings for legal challenges to regulations. And the conglomerates that control access to broadband Internet have taken them.
The DC Circuit has rejected the commission’s approach, and struck down key regulations that were designed to preserve net neutrality. In so doing, they have, as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, says: "(dealt) a blow to consumers and small businesses alike." Without regulatory safeguards, adds Sanders, "corporations are able to prioritize the information available to users, it stifles ideas and expression, as well as commerce and innovation.”
But the court has not said the FCC lacks authority to protect broadband Internet users.
In fact, if the FCC responds to the court ruling with a bold move to reclassify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service that can be regulated in the public interest, it has the ability to do just that.
This is the challenge that has been presented to Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the commission, who recently said that “it is essential that the FCC continue to maintain an open Internet and maintain the legal ability to intervene promptly and effectively in the event of aggravated circumstances.”
Following the DC Circuit’s ruling Tuesday, Wheeler indicated the commission would “consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.”
That’s a sound immediate response. It is significant that Wheeler is sending positive signals about protecting net neutrality, the principle that all Americans should have equal access to all of the information and opportunities that are presented by the Internet. Media conglomerates have for years sought to diminish net-neutrality protections so that they can prioritize some traffic—and profit by putting paying customers’s communications on an information superhighway, while consigning those who cannot write the big checks to a digital dirt road.
Under such a structure, US Senator Al Franken has argued, “the Internet can be transformed from a free, open, and competitive playing field into a ‘pay-for-play’ arena in which citizen bloggers, nonprofits, and small businesses are simply outgunned by major media conglomerates.”
“That,” Franken has warned, “would transform the World Wide Web into a system of separate and unequal networks.”
With the DC Circuit ruling in a case brought by Verizon, the protections that were outlined by the FCC’s flawed 2010 Open Internet Order have been gutted—and the prospect of that “separate-but-unequal” transformation becomes very real.
“Now, just as Verizon promised it would in court, the biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV,” says Craig Aaron, the president of the media reform group Free Press, which has been a key player in the “Save the Internet” campaign to maintain net neutrality. “They’ll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else.”
Washington is about to experience a period of rapid and intense political jockeying on media issues. The media conglomerates will look for every opening to use their considerable influence to narrow the options that are available to citizens and consumers, to artists and innovators, to small businesses and nonprofits.
But Wheeler really does have the authority to expand the debate—and to do so in the strategic and legally sound way that can prevent abuses of the public interest.
“The bright side is that the FCC, under the direction of newly appointed chairman Tom Wheeler, now has the opportunity to fix a problem of its own making,” says Casey Rae, interim executive director of the Future of Music Coalition (FMC), a national nonprofit research, education and advocacy organization for musicians. “It has never been more important to have basic rules of the road preventing ISPs from blocking content delivered over the Internet, regardless of how users connect.”
Aaron agrees. “The FCC—under the leadership of former Chairman Julius Genachowski—made a grave mistake when it failed to ground its open Internet rules on solid legal footing. Internet users will pay dearly for the previous chairman’s lack of political will. That’s why we need to fix the problems the agency could have avoided in the first place.”
“Save the Internet” campaigners say they have been encouraged by Wheeler’s talk about how the FCC must have the ability to protect broadband users and preserve the Internet’s fundamental open architecture.
To make real that promise, however, Aaron says that Wheeler “must act quickly to restore and reassert the FCC’s clear authority over our nation’s communications infrastructure. The agency must follow its statutory mandate to make broadband communications networks open, accessible, reliable and affordable for everyone.”
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the nation’s media reform network, and the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of five books on media and democracy issues, including Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books).
Read Next: John Nichols on the constitutionality of fast-tracking the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
Like his friend and frequent legislative partner in the US Senate, Ted Kennedy, George Miller made himself an essential Democrat in the House of Representatives on the issues that mattered most to his party’s historic base. For decades, as a senior member of California’s influential House delegation, Miller has led the fight for living wages, strong unions, public education, national healthcare, environmental protection, civil liberties and civil rights.
A quarter century ago he helped a newly elected congresswoman from a neighboring district, Nancy Pelosi, learn the intricacies of the Capitol, and he remained her steadiest ally as she rose to become the Speaker of the House. And Pelosi was not alone. The congressman continues to serve as a definitional figure on the issues of consequence for progressives, and as a mentor to the members of House who identify as their champions.
But Miller says he “was never in awe of the ‘indispensable man’ theory.”
So, at the end of his current term, the 68-year-old congressman will end his forty-year tenure in a House of Representatives that he entered as a 29-year-old “Watergate Baby”—part of the remarkable class of young, liberal Democrats who were elected after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and made the ideals of the antiwar, civil rights and political reform movements a part of the governing process in the 1970s and beyond.
Ever the fighter, Miller did not merely look backward in his retirement announcement.
“I’m proud of what I have been able to accomplish on behalf of children, working people and the environment, in my district and for our country, especially passage of national health care reform,” he declared. "Now, I look forward to one last year in Congress fighting the good fight and then working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me.”
At the top of the list for the coming year is the fight for a meaningful increase in the minimum wage, an issue where Miller staked out the high ground when too many others were content with small steps. It was Miller who proposed—with another retiring Democrat, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin—to break the double-digit barrier and raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. Showing the sophistication he has developed as the senior Democrat on the powerful House Committee on Education and Labor, Miller’s bill includes provisions to index future increases to keep up with inflation, and to expand protections for workers who rely on tips. In advocating for the legislation, the congressman has embraced the struggles of striking fast-food workers and others who argue that there is something wrong with an economic arrangement where Americans who work a 40-hour week are still stuck in poverty.
In his last year as a congressman, Miller will continue to serve as the environmental watchdog that he has been since even before his stint as chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources as a congressman of conscience on international human rights issues; as a savvy advocate for early-childhood education who focused on the reform of the No Child Left Behind Act and college affordability; and as a challenger of Democrats and Republicans who seek to extend failed trade policies. Above all, Miller will keep advocating on a host of issues relating to income inequality that have suddenly become “hot” topics in Washington but that have been at the heart of his agenda since coming to Congress. As Miller says, “Wealthy and powerful special interests have always had friends in Washington. I came to Congress to stand up for the rest of us.”
Late last year, The Nation’s annual “Progressive Honor Roll” identified Miller as the most-valuable member of the House. We said at the time that, after four decades in the House, he was as energetic and effective as ever. We also noted that, though he was an essential Democrat, "Miller did not simply toe the Democratic line; he opposed President Obama’s proposal to fast-track the corporate-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And he was superb on an issue most members of Congress rarely recognize: after a Bangladeshi garment factory collapse killed more than 1,100 workers, Miller denounced US retailers that have ‘led this race to the bottom over many years,’ telling corporations like Walmart that they “have to make a decision now whether you want to have blood on your labels.”
Miller would be the first to point out that there are other members of Congress who are willing to call out corporations—and presidents of both parties. In his retirement remarks, he celebrated the energy of freshman Democrats, and he went out of the way recently to find a place for one of the progressive of their number, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, on the Education and Labor Committee.
But the truth is that there can be indispensable men and women.
And George Miller has been one of them.
The Senate has survived without Ted Kennedy. But we ought not underestimate the significance of that loss.
The House will survive without George Miller. But we ought not underestimate the significance of this loss.
It is simply true that, as United Food and Commercial Workers union president Joe Hansen said: “Many will seek to carry on Congressman Miller’s good work, but no one can ever replace him.”
Read Next: why are certain members of Congress wreaking havoc on the Iran accord?
The framers of the Constitution were wise to include Congress in the process of framing and approving trade agreements made by presidents. That authority to provide advice and consent should, the wisest legislators have always argued, be zealously guarded.
Unfortunately, in recent decades, Congress has frequently surrendered its authority when it comes to the shaping of trade agreements. By granting so-called “fast-track authority” to the White House, Congress opts itself out of the process at the critical stage when an agreement is being struck and retains only the ability to say “yes” or “no” to a done deal.
The result has been a framing of US trade agreements that is great for multinational corporations but lousy for workers, communities and the environment. Instead of benefitting the great mass of people in the United States and countries with which it trades, deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations agreement with China de-emphasize worker rights, human rights, environmental and democracy concerns and clear the way for a race to the bottom.
Candidate Barack Obama recognized this. In 2008, he told Pennsylvania labor activists, “The current Fast Track process does not mandate that agreements include binding labor and environmental protections nor does it give an adequate role to Congress in the selection and design of agreements. I will work with Congressional leaders to ensure that any new TPA authority fix these basic failings and open up the process to the American people for their participation and scrutiny.”
That reference to opening up the process to the American people is key. When members of the House and Senate are engaged with the negotiation process, they can bring the concerns of citizens—not just those of corporations with powerful lobbyists and connections—to the fore. That’s how representative democracy is supposed to work, and this is especially vital when it comes to debates about economic policy.
Now, however, President Obama is seeking “fast-track” authority that activists and trade specialists say does not guarantee the sort of congressional oversight and citizen involvement that candidate Obama recognized as essential. And on Thursday, Obama’s choice to become the US ambassador to China, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, joined with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Michigan, to introduced legislation to clear the way for the president and his aides to negotiate sweeping new trade deals, such as the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, with limited congressional oversight.
Baucus and Camp are claiming that they have addressed past concerns and improved the fast-track model. They haven’t, and savvy members of Congress recognize the problem.
“Blindly approving or disapproving agreements that have largely been negotiated in secret would represent a derelict [sic] of duty for Congress,” says Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin. “If there is nothing to hide in these agreements, we should be allowed to debate and amend these deals in the open. I am committed to doing all that I can to prevent the inappropriate use of fast track in Congress.”
Even members of Congress who have backed trade deals in the past, such as Michigan Democrat Sander Levin, say this fast-track proposal “falls far short” when it comes to outlining an appropriate level of congressional involvement in the process.
Congressman Mike Michaud, the Maine Democrat who chairs the House Trade Working Group, argues: “This bill misses an opportunity to raise the standards established by Congress that our trade negotiators must meet, and it neglects to include real enforcement of these standards. It also fails to improve transparency and enhance congressional consultations by the Administration, both of which are critical for Congress to maintain its constitutional authority over trade policy.”
Michaud says: “The Baucus-Camp bill is a disappointing repeat of failed trade policy from 2002 that will continue the trends of growing trade deficits, a declining manufacturing sector, and the offshoring of American jobs. This bill may represent the ideas of the two committee chairmen, but it does not reflect Americans’ views on trade and falls far short of being a truly bipartisan bill. That’s why I will oppose it.”
In fact, there will be significant opposition, from Democrats and Republicans. Last year, more than 150 House Democrats signed a letter arguing that “a new trade agreement negotiation and approval process that restores a robust role for Congress is essential to achieving US trade agreements that can secure prosperity for the greatest number of Americans, while preserving the vital tenets of American democracy in the era of globalization.”
Dozens of House Republicans have also expressed reservations about the traditional fast-track model. This is an appropriate bipartisanship.
There are deep partisan and ideological divisions in US House and the US Senate. But there should be broad acceptance of the necessity of congressional involvement in negotiations have the potential to define the economy of the United States in the twenty-first century.
As Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, notes: “It’s rare these days that across the aisle, Congress agrees on anything, so it’s notable that a large bipartisan bloc insists on maintaining the exclusive constitutional authority over trade that the Founding Fathers wisely granted to Congress.”
Maintaining the role of Congress in trade negotiations is not just a matter of respecting the system of checks and balances.
It is about fundamental economic issues, issues that will—in particular—define the futures of manufacturing communities.
“Given how previous trade agreements have devastated local manufacturing sectors and shipped American jobs overseas, it would be unwise for Congress to ram through new trade deals without offering proper oversight,” says Pocan. “Massive trade deals—such as the Trans Pacific Partnership—now affect everything from America’s economy, to consumer and food safety, to labor standards and our environment.”
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Despite the fantasies of the pundits and political operatives who imagine Chris Christie as some kind of moderate, he is more than sufficiently conservative to secure the Republican presidential nomination. By most reasonable measures, Christie is a strikingly consistent social and economic conservative. So it is not ideology that is most likely to trip up Christie in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
It is his style. The New Jersey governor’s take-no-prisoners approach to politics has always been his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.
Christie’s style helped him get traction in New Jersey. His brash pronouncements and bold gestures made him a national media darling. That’s a big deal in a state that is sandwiched between the New York and Philadelphia media markets. A politician who can make himself heard, even if he might be edgier than many voters prefer, has an advantage. The governor’s style has also had appeal in the upper echelons of a Republican Party that hungers for standard-bearers with a little more dynamism than Mitch McConnell.
But in order to bid for the presidency, Christie must connect with Republicans in small-town Iowa and suburban New Hampshire. And what got Christie to Trenton won’t necessarily get him through Des Moines and Concord.
Even when they criticize public education unions, conservatives in Iowa don’t usually yell at teachers. And New Hampshire politicians are not often linked to schemes to punish political foes that create massive headaches for people who just want to get to work.
So it is that Chris Christie’s “traffic problem” extends well beyond North Jersey.
What started as a bizarre story of access lanes, gridlock and alleged political retribution has grown into a very serious political concern for the governor. The tale began to unfold in September, when access lanes to the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge were closed—supposedly for a traffic study. The closures created massive gridlock in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a community where the Democratic mayor had refused to join a number of other Democrats in backing Christie’s 2013 re-election bid.
Christie was well ahead in that bid, so it was hard to believe that he or his aides and allies would have even considered punishing the mayor—and by extension New Jersey commuters—to make a crude political point.
But now the Bergen Record is reporting:
Private messages between Governor’s Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top executives at the Port Authority reveal a vindictive effort to create “traffic problems in Fort Lee” by shutting lanes to the George Washington Bridge and apparent pleasure at the resulting gridlock.
The messages are replete with references and insults to Fort Lee’s mayor—who had failed to endorse Christie for re-election—and they chronicle how he tried to reach Port Authority officials in a vain effort to eliminate the paralyzing gridlock that overwhelmed his town of 35,000, which sits in the shadow of the world’s busiest bridge.
The messages also include references to supporters of Christie’s Democratic challenger in 2013, state Senator Barbara Buono, that seem to suggest it is okay to play rough not just with rival candidates but with anyone who might vote for them.
After Wednesday’s revelations, Buono said: “The Governor has created a culture where cavalierly endangering citizens’ lives to exact political retribution is an acceptable form of governance. It’s beneath the dignity of his office and a breach of New Jerseyans’ trust.”
The New York Daily News was even blunter: "In the best possible light, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie built a top staff of lying thugs who threatened lives and safety to serve his political ends," editorialized the paper, which circulates in New Jersey. "If not, Christie is a lying thug himself."
It remains to be seen whether The Daily News is right when it argues that: "Christie’s presidential ambitions are all but kaput, as he will be lambasted and lampooned as a man of low character and horrible judgment—again viewing him in the most favorable way."
But Wednesday's revelations about the emails circulated by the governor's aides and allies won't just hurt Christie in New Jersey. They are quite likely to hurt him in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The usually unapologetic Christie recognizes the threat—in his home state and nationally—that is posed by the suggestion that his office engaged in the politics of retribution.
The governor has always dismissed suggestions that he was involved in the targeting of a local official who did not do his bidding. And he now says he is “outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.“
Until now, Christie has been cut a remarkable level of slack, despite detailed reports of multiple incidents in which the governor and his aides allegedly engaged in the bullying of political foes.
But the barrage of headlines on Wednesday went to the heart of the questions about how Christie and those around him operate.
Politico declared: “Scandal imperils Chris Christie’s no-nonsense image.”
“Road Rage,” shouted The Wall Street Journal.
And Businessweek nailed it: “Bridge Scandal Destroys Christie’s ‘Nice Jerk’ Image.”
This is not playing well in New Jersey.
This is not playing well nationally.
And it has the potential to make it a lot harder for Christie to appeal to the Republicans who vet presidential candidates.
Republican caucus participants and primary voters in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are not naïve. They know that politicians have egos, and that election campaigns can turn ugly. They don’t reject toughness. They don’t expect presidential candidates to arrive on their doorsteps as pristine political figures who have never been touched by controversy. They can handle the sharp wit of a Bob Dole or the tart tongue of a John McCain.
But there is a reason former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who works hard to present himself as an amiable figure, continues after all these years to poll well in so many states where the Republican nomination fights of 2016 will play out. Even as Christie led many national surveys late last year, a December PPP survey found that while 47 percent of Republicans viewed Christie favorably, Huckabee’s favorable number was 65 percent. That’s significant. The sort of activists who take the lead in choosing nominees want to pick a viable candidate. But they also like to like the candidate they nominate. They have expectations rooted in the experience of the politics and politicians they know—standards that have been established over time. And, yes, they do draw lines that candidates ought not cross if they want to be contenders.
Christie has always straddled those lines. Yelling at teachers is not considered good form. But what’s playing out now is far more serious.
If the “road rage” scandal entangles Christie personally, it is reasonable to suggest that he would be done irreparable political damage.
But even if he can explain away the e-mails of his closest aides and allies, the latest developments reinforce concerns about Christie, and that’s going to make it a good deal harder for him to connect with the Republicans he must appeal to in order to remain a serious presidential prospect.
Across the United States this week, new mayors and city council members are being sworn in as the leaders of the cities that elected them in November. The inaugurations of mayors draw local attention—and, in cases like that of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a good measure of national attention—but there is generally less focus on the city council members.
Except in Seattle.
Monday afternoon’s inauguration of City Council member Kshama Sawant, arguably the most prominent socialist elected to local office since Bernie Sanders became mayor of Burlington, Vermont, thirty-three years ago, has inspired a striking level of excitement. Officials moved the swearing in for Sawant and Mayor Ed Murray—Seattle’s first openly gay mayor—from the city council chambers to the much larger lobby of the city hall, and local media described “the largest turnout ever for a Seattle inauguration ceremony.”
Reporters from around the country and around the world were interviewing Sawant, who in November upset a veteran council member with a campaign that promise to fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. They also interviewed other socialists, including Irish parliamentarian Joe Higgins, who was in Seattle to celebrate the event and to tell reporters, “Kshama’s election has been a major event internationally. This has been a huge encouragement because the United States is the citadel of world capitalism.”
"Here in Seattle, political pundits are asking about me: will she compromise? Can she work with others? Of course, I will meet and discuss with representatives of the establishment. But when I do, I will bring the needs and aspirations of working-class people to every table I sit at, no matter who is seated across from me," she said in her inaugural address. "And let me make one thing absolutely clear: There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants. There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent."
The crowd roared its approval.
Yet, for all the intensity of the moment, the community college economics instructor and Occupy Seattle activist who turned to electoral politics as part of a broader commitment to movement building, kept her victory in perspective. She recognizes the need to respond to immediate demands and the possibility of a broader "teaching moment," and she is confident that the balance can be struck.
“We’re going to be focusing on Seattle politics, obviously, because that’s going to be our job for the next two years,” Sawant explained in an interview before taking her oath. “We will be focusing on city politics: we will be in many ways initiating, in many ways participating in the struggle for $15-an-hour; and other issues like housing and transit. But the media attention gives us the opportunity to show the people that there’s nothing unique about Seattle.”
Sawant argues that “the social conditions that have meant that people are living in a circumstance of enormous inequality in the wealthiest country in the world” are not distinct to Seattle. At a time when “poverty is skyrocketing, housing is basically unaffordable” and unemployment and under-employment are serious issues in communities across the country, Sawant says it should not be surprising that “nearly 100,000 people voted for a socialist in Seattle.”
Because of the strength of the vote she received, and the excitement about her election, Sawant was able to influence Seattle politics even before she took office. Last week, Mayor Murray ordered city administrators to develop plans to pay all municipal employees at least $15 per hour—a move that will lead to wage hikes for at least 600 Seattle workers. And Sawant will be working, on the council and if necessary via a referendum push, to establish a city-wide $15-an-hour base for workers.
She has no doubt the momentum will spread.
“I would say that this is simply the first wave in a storm that is about to be coming to the United States in [the form] of a demand for social change,” argues the new council member. “When salon.com named me one of the five political heroes of 2013, my first reaction was: ‘Why am I there…?’ Why aren’t the fast-food workers who went out courageously on one-day strikes all over the nation? They are the real political heroes as far as I am concerned. And it is important to mention them because they are signs that we are heading into a period of political change.”
That period of political change has roots, Sawant suggests.
“This didn’t come out of nowhere. The conditions have been building up for decades. They have been much worsened because of the recession,” she says. “We saw Occupy happening, which broke the silence on inequality. And I don’t think we should lose sight of [mass mobilizations of workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states]…. It shows you that there have been a series of events that tell us people are getting fed up with accepting the status quo and want something different.”
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House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, has made no secret of his desire to diminish and dismantle the United States Postal Service.
Issa has for some time now peddled plans to end Saturday deliveries by the USPS—which continues to perform with more agility than private firms, as holiday delivery patterns illustrated—in ways that are all but certain to make the postal service vulnerable to privatization.
Issa has a right to his opinion.
But the cynical determination with which he is now advancing it is jarring.
Issa has proposed legislation to address one of the many flaws in the budget agreement that was cobbled together in December by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray, D-Washington: a cut to military retirement benefits for veterans under the age of 62.
Eliminating the benefit cut is a good idea, as it is part of an austerity agreement that seeks to balance budgets by placing more of the burden on government workers and military personnel—rather than multimillionaires like Issa.
But Issa is not proposing to offset the restoration of benefits by taxing the wealthy or closing loopholes.
Rather, he wants to do so by ending Saturday mail delivery.
Ending mail delivery on the weekend would dramatically undermine the ability of the postal service to meet the demands of modern shipping and communications. The likely result would be a rapid shift of traffic to private firms, which contribute heavily to politicians but which do not provide the universal, low-cost service that is the hallmark of the postal service.
And it has the potential to do something else: harm the employment prospects of veterans.
The USPS has historically been one of the nation’s largest employers of veterans—second only to the US Department of Defense, according to USPS figures. Roughly 120,000 postal service employees—more than 20 percent of the total workforce—have records of service in the military. Roughly a third of those employees are rated as 30 percent or more disabled, a reflection of the fact that the postal service goes out of its way to provide an array of employment services and options for veterans.
Cuts to the postal service threaten an institution that provides jobs to veterans and that—thanks to its own practices and strong commitments from postal unions—respects them once they are in those jobs.
Instead of embracing Issa’s latest and most cynical assault on a necessary service, Congress should do right by veterans. It can move to strengthen the USPS, along lines proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, Congressmen Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin. And it can address the benefits issue by enacting the Military Retirement Restoration Act, which has been introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire.
Shaheen’s legislation would repeal the provision in the budget agreement that cuts benefits for military retirees, including disabled veterans who are eligible for retirement benefits. It would offset the estimated $6 billion cost of doing so by ending the abuse of so-called “tax havens” by US-controlled corporations that incorporate offshore and claim “foreign” status in order to avoid paying taxes in the United States.
As US Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who is a key co-sponsor of the legislation, notes, this provision is identical to Section 103 of the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act and is expected to raise over $6.6 billion over ten years.
“This is a common sense measure built on the idea that everyone needs to pay their fair share,” explains Baldwin. “By closing this one corporate tax loophole, we can ensure our military veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”
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“We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat, that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened,” wrote Walt Whitman in Democratic Vistas. “It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”
Whitman penned his essay on the American experiment in 1871. And there has been much progress since. Yet, there is much history yet to be enacted.
So why not make 2014 historic?
Why not assert a progressive politics that is more vital and determined than what has been known to this point?
Why not stop reacting and start asserting a real reform agenda?
Here are five steps in that direction:
1. Demand a Right to Vote for all Americans.
The last decade has seen a steady assault on voting rights in the United States, with restrictive Voter ID laws, changes in early-voting and same-day registration rules and, in 2013, a US Supreme Court ruling that Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, said “stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” The Department of Justice and key members of the House and Senate have taken steps to counter the assault at the federal level, and state-based efforts such as North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” movement are pushing back. These efforts are vital.
But voting rights are too precious to be left to chance. They need to be defined and defended permanently. That’s why Congressmen Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, have proposed a constitutional amendment to explicitly guarantee that every American has a right to vote and a right to have that vote counted. “The right to vote is too important to be left unprotected,” says Pocan.
Groups such as Color of Change and FairVote agree. They’re campaigning to get co-sponsors for the proposal by Ellison and Pocan. So far, 20 members have joined their effort. In 2014, it’s important to pressure sitting members of Congress to sign on, and to make candidates for Congress take a stand on whether they believe Americans have a right to vote.
2. Get More States on Record for Real Reform of Elections.
Sixteen states have formally petitioned Congress to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling—which frees corporations to spend as much as they choose to influence elections, and which continued a process of striking down federal, state and local campaign-finance reforms. These states have formally recognized that votes should define the electoral process, not dollars. Groups such as Free Speech for People, Move to Amend, Public Citizen, Common Cause and People for the American Way have made tremendous progress at the local and state levels—working with limited resources and shamefully scant media coverage. They’ve won support from Democrats, Republicans and independents in state legislatures across the country, and they’ve organized and won statewide and local referendum votes. “In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America,” says John Bonifaz, co-founder and executive director of Free Speech For People.
But there is still much work to do. The real “critical mass” moment will not come until current numbers double and the movement is in range of the number of states that would be required to approve an amendment: thirty-eight. Roughly 100 House members have sponsored or cosponsored amendment proposals, as have key senators such as Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown. Getting more states to formally demand action will cause more congressional buy-in for this necessary reform.
“Amending our country’s constitution should be difficult,” says Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way. “But this isn’t the first time Americans have encountered a serious problem that needs a serious solution. Citizens United and other cases that paved the way for big money to flood our elections have given us one of those moments. As more states and elected officials go on record in support of an amendment, the clearer it becomes that the American people will not stand to have their voices overpowered by wealthy special interests.”
3. Vote for a Raise
Senator Bernie Sanders is right when he says of the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, “Most people understand that is a starvation wage. Individuals can’t live on it, families can’t live on it.” Working with the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, California Democrat George Miller, and Senate Education, Health, Labor and Pensions Committee chair Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Sanders is pushing for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and index future increases to the rate of inflation. That’s a good start, but it’s a tall order in the face of determined opposition in the Republican-controlled US House.
But the circumstances of millions of American workers can be improved even if Congress fails to act in 2014. In November 2013, New Jersey voters hiked that state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour and indexed future increases to the inflation rate. And in Sea-Tac, Washington, voters took the local minimum wage to $15 an hour. With the election of Kshama Sawant, a socialist who ran on the $15 wage issue, to the Seattle city council, there is now a major push in that city for a significant wage hike. If Seattle votes on a $15-an-hour wage referendum this fall, it will be as part of a pattern of critical state and local initiatives—from Alaska to Arkansas to New Mexico to South Dakota—that are designed to allow Americans to vote themselves a raise.
4. Vote for Equal Rights
The Equal Rights Amendment struggle of the 1970s and early 1980s was an intense, inspiring and heartbreaking fight to finally guarantee equal rights for women. A massive right-wing pushback prevented the project from succeeding at the time—although it opened up debates that would lead to significant progress on a number of legislative fronts. In recent years, there has been something of an ERA renaissance. Three years ago, on the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, then-Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, proposed legislation to eliminate the congressionally imposed deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. And in February 2013, the New Mexico state House of Representatives formally asked Congress to lift the deadline for ERA ratification. At the same time, new versions of the amendment have been introduced.
Beyond Washington, twenty-one state constitutions embrace ERA-like equal rights provisions And the state of Oregon is likely to see a test in 2014. Late in December, the group VoteERA.org won approval to start gathering 116,284 valid signatures to place a state ERA proposal on the November ballot. “Shouldn’t women be explicitly equal in every Constitution?” Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo, the president of VoteERA.org, told reporters. “To me, the answer is an absolute ‘Yes, of course.’”
5. Work to Make Every Election Matter.
America has woefully low voter turnout, as compared with other major democracies around the world. Restrictive laws get some of the blame. So, too, does a money-drenched process that makes elections a spectator sport. But there is also the reality that this country’s electoral systems have too many structural flaws that make it hard to vote. That needs to change. The Brennan Center has a “How to Fix the Voting System” plan that it’s pushing in states across the country: 1. Modernize Voter Registration, 2. Expand Early Voting, 3. Improve Polling Place Resource Management, 4. Simplify Ballots and Voting Machines. And Brennan Center Democracy Program director Wendy Weiser notes that, amid all the frustrating talk about restrictions and suppression in 2013, “many states expanded voting access. In 2014, there is a real opportunity to find common ground and enact vital fixes to modernize our outdated election system.”
Common Cause and other groups are working in states across the country to end the absurd practice of gerrymandering local, state and federal election districts—which makes too many elections for too many important offices uncompetitive. The Working Families Party in New York and Connecticut, the Vermont Progressive Party and other third-party and independent groupings are drawing the rough outlines of multi-party and ideologically diverse politics from New England to the Northwest. And Fair Vote: The Center for Voting and Democracy is pushing for a wide range of reforms, while noting successes in communities that have adopted more democratic models for voting. For instance, FairVote notes, “Minneapolis uses ranked choice voting, so voters were able to express not only which candidate was their favorite, but also which second-choice and third-choice candidates they thought should win if their first choice did not qualify for an instant runoff. Ranked choice voting meant that candidates competed seriously but also positively, and Minneapolis ultimately elected a candidate who reflected a broad consensus—Betsy Hodges skipped spending money on television ads in favor of grassroots campaigning. She broke from the field by earning more than a third of first-choice rankings and more than 60% among voters who expressed a preference for either her or her strongest opponent. Altogether, she was the first, second or third choice of two-thirds of the voters.”
The Minneapolis election results provided an example of what happens when democracy is awakened. Americans need to explore this country’s democratic vistas in 2014, breaking beyond narrow partisan and ideological lines of division to develop the vibrant politics that realizes the promise Whitman imagined when he wrote that he considered the American experiment “far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.”
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When initially discussed as a rude repercussion of a bungled budget deal, the prospect that 1.3 million Americans would lose long-term unemployment benefits just days after Christmas was bad enough.
Now that the day has come, however, it stands as a stark reminder of the extent to which the United States has regressed from the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt greeted the holiday season with a celebration of the fact that “today neighborliness no longer can be confined to one’s little neighborhood. Life has become too complex for that. In our country neighborliness has gradually spread its boundaries—from town, to county, to State and now at last to the whole Nation.”
Imagine a country that during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day abandons those hit hardest by economic turbulence, and you have a sense of what the United States has become under the cruel hand of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan—who refused to agree to any budget deal that included an extension of benefits—and those members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, who compromised with the failed Republican vice presidential candidate’s austerity agenda.
Because Congress accepted Ryan’s crude calculus, 1.3 million jobless Americans were abandoned on December 28 by a government that could, and should, have assisted them. And if Ryan continues to get his way, unemployment benefits will end in coming months for an additional 1.9 million Americans.
“It is not only immoral to cut off help for workers struggling to find jobs, it is also bad economics,” argues Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “At a time when long-term unemployment is near a record level, cutting benefits will hurt the rest of the economy and cause even more jobs to disappear.”
Ryan claimed that extending jobless benefits “would have blown a hole in our deficits” and “prolonged unemployment.”
He is off the mark, morally and economically.
Sanders correctly points out that there is no sound economic argument for adopting the Ryan approach. A continuing refusal by Congress to extend benefits has the potential, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, to cause a $25 billion blow to the economy in 2014. The CBO projects a 0.2 percent drop in the nation’s gross domestic product—and the loss of 200,000 additional jobs—unless the benefits are extended.
In other words, this is cruelty for the sake of cruelty.
There is little debate that Ryan defined the scope and character of the budget negotiations that played out in November and early December. Yes, he would have gone further if Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and other Democrats had not been in positions to constrain his ambitions. But Ryan bragged that the deal reflected his bottom line: no new taxes on the extraordinarily wealthy, no closing of loopholes for corporations, no economic stimulus, continuation of many of the worst of the sequester cuts and an austerity calculus that unburdened billionaires.
Though Murray and many of the leading lights of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate were involved in the budget negotiations, Ryan was the definitional player. And he shaped a plan that embraces his fiscal ethic of erring consistently on the side of Wall Street speculators, “golden parachute” CEOs and million-dollar campaign donors.
When Ryan is done delivering for his core constituencies, there’s little left for working Americans—and even less for out-of-work Americans.
Explaining his opposition to the budget deal, Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI) said: “At the end of the day, the bill abandons 1.3 million Americans who desperately need unemployment insurance, and does nothing to promote economic growth or job creation. Furthermore, the legislation is paid for on the backs of the middle class and military families, while not touching the wealthiest amongst us and allowing corporations to continue to benefit from tax loopholes.”
Pocan, a former co-chair of the Wisconsin Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee and a member with Ryan of the House Budget Committee, is recognizing reality.
The budget deal fails to demand that the primary beneficiaries of the federal policies that Ryan has helped shape for more than a decade—bailed-out banks, border-hopping multinational corporations and billionaires seeking tax shelters—do anything more to reduce deficits and debts. Instead, it shifts the burden to federal workers and military personnel, who were hit with a demand that they pay more for basic benefits.
That’s how Ryan’s austerity works: CEOs get to keep their golden parachutes because the government is making the clerks and park rangers and soldiers and sailors do all the sacrificing. It’s the redistribution of wealth upward, in the grand tradition of the Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge, who griped that his clerk’s request for a Christmas holiday was “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December.”
The cruelest calculus comes now, after December 25, as 1.3 million Americans are denied assistance that they need to pay for shelter, food and the transportation they use in searching for jobs that in many parts of the country just aren’t available. Roughly 28,000 Wisconsin families, including many residing in Janesville, Ryan’s hard-hit hometown, are among those slated to lose benefits.
Paul Ryan and Patty Murray had every opportunity to include an extension in the agreement. Democrats were angling for it, and Republicans were unlikely to balk at a proposal to help the needy in the holiday season. Yet when the plan was presented, no provision was made for the long-term unemployed. Despite Democratic objections prior to the House and Senate votes, the measure advanced with overwhelming support from compromise-prone members of both parties. And it was signed by the president on December 26.
Then they hightailed it home for the holidays.
So it was that a Congress that could easily have cared for the poor took actions that resembled those of old Scrooge, who replied to a request for a donation for the destitute, with a growl of “It’s not my business.”
Politicians are rarely so crass in their language. Yet the budget deal Paul Ryan did so much to shape, and that too many Republicans and Democrats endorsed, contains precisely nothing for those whose want is keenly felt.
The question now is whether Congress will be shamed sufficiently to act.
There are certainly those who are ready to respond.
On January 6, when the Senate reconvenes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says the first measure up for consideration will be a plan to restore long-term unemployment benefits. The measure is backed by Nevada Republican Dean Heller and twenty-one members of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Give Heller credit. He is doing the right thing—for his constituents and for the national economy—by breaking with Ryan and the austerity agenda.
But there must be a bigger break—in the Senate and, especially, in the Republican-controlled House. As Sanders says, “The critical question is how many Republicans are prepared to stand with unemployed workers.”
Put another way: How many Republicans will join Heller in recognizing that the circumstance of the long-term jobless is their business? Indeed, it is all of our business.
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