Congress: Why throwing the bums out won't improve it

I like sausage. I don’t care what names attach to them. I like sausage, be it bratwurst, kielbasa, bauerwurst, chorizo, bangers, Italian, summer, or linguica. Different meats (beef, pork, even reindeer) and seasonings produce the vast panoply of sausage found worldwide.

But, after a while, no matter how different the ingredients, it’s still just sausage.

At the heart of sausage making is a common device: the meat grinder. Drop meat into the hopper. Add seasonings. Crank the handle. Grind chunks of meat. Slide into casing. Result: Sausage. No matter what enters, what emerges is sausage.

Congress has become little more than the meat grinder that produces sausage. Yes, there’s the old saw: Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made. That’s not the point here. Rather, it’s about the machine. It’s about why no one should foster belief in the “throw the bums out” approach to correcting continual congressional ineptitude and ethical malfeasance.

Consider: I plan to vote for a 29-year-old hospital administrator, Nate Shinagawa, to replace my current congressman, Tom Reed. Reason: I don’t like Reed’s ethically ambiguous approach to communicating with constituents. I like Shinagawa because I was young once — and believed in politics as an honorable calling. He believes; I don’t.

Reed’s been a politician for a long time. He’s been in Congress just long enough for the machine — that influence-peddling, leadership PAC-manipulating, anonymous donor-condoning meat grinder — to have ground him into sausage indistinguishable from most other members.

Shinagawa’s public stances on issues paint him as youthfully idealistic. But if he beats Reed, there’s a high probability that the same machine will grind him, too, into sausage virtually indistinguishable from the other 434 representatives. Shinagawa’s campaign goal is poignantly liberal and hopeful — Working For Us — but impossible to accomplish now in a thoroughly degraded Congress.

Consider some of the political effluent surrounding Congress — how members raise money, from whom, and in what amounts; their inability to behave as adults and actually legislate; the revolving door that shuttles legislators and staff from the Hill to K Street to the Hill; Grover Norquist’s no-tax-hike pledge feared by virtually all members; and the minimal work week spent on us because the bulk of the week is devoted to fundraising from them. This is the meat grinder that young Shinagawa would enter should he defeat Reed.

This is the meat grinder that will stay firmly in place even if voters, as they did in 1994, 2006, and 2010, “throw the bums out” to change party control of Congress.

Whom we elect to Congress may no longer matter. In fact, it is hard to rid Congress of incumbents. Throwing out the bums has become particularly difficult to do, as John Avlon writes, because of gerrymandering risen to an exceedingly refined political art.

Over the past decade, has the performance of Congress in Working For Us improved by any significant measure? Has the rancor among members of Congress decreased by any significant measure?

What should be America’s best hope for the future — an intelligent, compassionate, effective Congress — has become merely a means of making sausage out of its members. And foul-tasting sausage at that.

Our hardworking folks in Congress: more interested in keeping their jobs than doing their jobs

When voters elect members of Congress, they are hiring them to do a job. Voters, through their taxes, compensate those politicians well — $174,000 a year, and more if they have committee or leadership roles.

Many, if not most, voters — unless they are among the 12.5 million without jobs — work about 35 hours a week for a median income of about $32,000. They get perhaps two weeks of paid vacation each year. But a member of the House of Representatives this year was scheduled to show up for only 89 days from January to November. He (and it’s generally “he,” not “she“) is taking off a week in February, another in April, still another in May, and — get this — the whole of August and the first week of September. “It’s too hot in the city in August,” he tells you, then takes off for week-long conventions in the hot, humid Deep South before working only eight days in September. That’s 89 days out of the 172 days voters will be at work (minus a few paid holidays) before Nov. 6. Continue reading

How my congressman, Tom Reed, lost my vote: He sent me a franked letter he shouldn't have

Imagine you are a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Unless you’re an idiot, you want to be re-elected. It’s a cushy gig — it pays $174,000 a year. It’s likely you already have a net worth in the high six figures — nine times that of the your constituents — so you’re not hurting for coin of the realm. In debates, the moderator calls you “Congressman” and your opponent “Mister” or “Ms.”

People line up to give you the $1.3 million that you, on average, need to spend to get re-elected. How cool is that?

Re-election rates to the House are high — at or above 90 percent 18 times in the last 24 election cycles. But in 2010, when you washed ashore on the congressional beachhead in that tea-party wave of slash-government insolence, the re-election rate fell from 94 percent in 2008 to 85 percent. Continue reading

Surprise! Corporations secretly investing in U.S. politics, increasing need for DISCLOSE Act

In his book “Private Empire,” author Steve Coll relates a telling remark that reflects how Lee Raymond, then ExxonMobil CEO, viewed his company’s relationship with America. He was asked whether ExxonMobil would build more refineries inside the United States to help insulate the nation against gasoline shortages.

Raymond: “Why would I do that?”

An oil industry executive: “Because the United States needs it … for security.”

Raymond: “I’m not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”

Yet ExxonMobil invests heavily in American politics. U.S. tax law, however, prevents the electorate from knowing the exact nature of that investment — how much money, given to whom or what, and with what intent. That should change, but Congress adamantly stands in the way of such disclosure. Continue reading

July 5, 2012: Nothing's changed. The American dream continues to erode

Hope you enjoyed your hot dogs, Mom, apple pie, fireworks, and the inevitable flourishes of patriotism, both faux and real, on the Fourth of July. But nothing has changed in America from the July 3 that kissed you good night to the July 5 that nudged you awake you this morning.

Political warfare by any name is still war. Call it what you will: The haves vs. the have-nots, class warfare, or ideological conflict — it’s still a cruel war, and it inflicts wounds on far too many of us. Some are deep: The bank took the house. Some are possibly fatal: The insurance company wouldn’t pay for the surgery. Or the drugs for that cancer. Some will fester for a lifetime: College students face a one-trillion-dollar student loan debt. Some are a perpetual itch that scratching does not relieve: There will be no pay raise next year, and your contribution to the company’s health plan will double. Continue reading

Lindsay Lohan to run for Congress? Why we should vote for her

The strikingly beautiful young woman — she will turn 26 years old on July 2 — approaches the podium with its waiting forest of microphones. Her hair, reddish blonde and flowing well below her shoulders, is caught briefly in a gust of wind as she walks to the front of the press corps on the granite steps of the state capitol. Eight fluted Corinthian columns line the portico behind her. She is, surprisingly, modestly and professionally dressed in a tasteful navy pants suit. For a moment, as she stands at the lectern, only the clicking of cameras is heard.

Good morning, everyone. My name is Lindsay Lohan, and today I am announcing my candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives from my district.

Brief silence, followed by peals of laughter. Whispers of “Is this a movie promo?” drift through the throng. Lohan waits patiently, quietly, proudly for the laughter to subside. Continue reading

Congress attempts to legislate away containment of Iran and replace it with war

At Foreign Policy in Focus Stephen Zunes reports on a resolution (HR 568) that the House passed in a show of bipartisanship (401-11) that couldn’t have come at a worse possible time (as is usually the case with bipartisanship these days). He explains that HR 568 calls for “the president to oppose any policy toward Iran ‘that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.'”

… Congress has essentially told the president that nothing short of war or the threat of war is an acceptable policy. Indeed, the rush to pass this bill appears to have been designed to undermine the ongoing international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Even Colin Powell, as quoted by Dennis Kucinich, “has stated that this resolution ‘reads like the same sheet of music that got us into the Iraq war.'” Continue reading

A Senate re-election announcement you'll never hear

A make-up woman brushes a small lock of my hair so it drapes slightly over my forehead. That errant wisp tested well with focus groups of women. I glance at the TelePrompter, reciting silently the first few lines. My administrative aide, a former K Street lobbyist doing a two-year turn of “public service” before returning to her high six-figure income, reminds me to at least act humble. The director raises his hand: “five, four, three, two …” and points to me. I begin to speak to the many millions of registered voters in my state whom I have deluded and misled for three terms.

Good evening, my fellow Americans. I’m here tonight to announce that I will seek re-election to another term as your United States senator. I’d like to tell you why it’s important that you return me to a fourth term in office.

I have accumulated power on the Hill. Continue reading

Filibuster reform and the zombie apocalypse

Once I was a believer in the time-honored Senate filibuster tradition, although by “believer” I don’t necessarily mean that I loved it or revered it, exactly. I was more like a guy worried about a zombie apocalypse stocking up on 12-gauge shells. In case things go to hell, at least the good guys have the filibuster to slow the lumbering herd of dead meat down a little, right? So, I believed in the filibuster the way a B-grade horror flick protagonist might believe in ammunition.

The main difference between the Senate and a zombie apocalypse, of course, is that zombies aren’t real but the Senate is very much upon us. Also, in neither case does it look like we have enough ammo.

The last few years have changed the equation significantly. Continue reading

How to get ahead on Capitol Hill: Use a leadership PAC to buy power

I’m in my second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. I’m a Republocrat. I like the job. It pays $174,000, has great medical benefits, provides a really nice private gym to use, and lots of people have to be nice to me. And there are those $110,000 in taxpayer-funded fringe benefits I get (including plush retirement plans, paid time off, and contributions to Social Security and Medicare taxes). I’ve got a staff to answer the phone and email, run my Twitter and Facebook stuff, and deal with those damned constituents. And I’m in a relatively safe district, thanks to that Republocrat-friendly redistricting bill passed in my state last year. Hey, sometimes people let me use their corporate jets! (Well, as long as I keep quiet about those trips and pay commercial airfare for it.)

Yeah. This is a sweet gig. I want to stay here. In fact, I want to … move up. Be in the leadership. Be a mover and shaker. Now how am I gonna do that beyond kissing the speaker’s ass (and those of his damn deputies, too) and voting however he (or she) tells me to?

It will take money for that Republocrat to ascend higher in the House’s toadying ladder of leadership. Lots of money. And as we know, House members (and senators) have a vehicle to collect and dispense money to other House members — the leadership political action committee. A principal reason for the existence of leadership PACs to is buy friends and influence on Capitol Hill. Apparently, hard work and intelligence are insufficient.
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The 2011 Climate B.S.* of the Year Awards (corrected)

[*B.S. means “Bad Science.” What did you think it meant?]

by Peter H. Gleick
Crossposted at Forbes and Huffington Post. To see S&R’s climate-related posts, click here

[Correction: Katharine Hayhoe was misidentified as a Republican in the original post at Forbes and HuffPo. This has been corrected below.

Peter Gleick updated the original posts at HuffPo and Forbes and removed Ben Webster from the Second Place text. S&R has updated this post to bring it in line with Gleick’s update.]

The Earth’s climate continued to change during 2011 – a year in which unprecedented combinations of extreme weather events killed people and damaged property around the world. The scientific evidence for the accelerating human influence on climate further strengthened, as it has for decades now. Yet on the policy front, once again, national leaders did little to stem the growing emissions of greenhouse gases or to help societies prepare for increasingly severe consequences of climate changes, including rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, rising sea-levels, loss of snowpack and glaciers, disappearance of Arctic sea ice, and much more.

Why the failure to act? In part because climate change is a truly difficult challenge. But in part because of a concerted, well-funded, and aggressive anti-science campaign by climate change deniers and contrarians. Continue reading

End poverty. Attack it. Now.

You know someone who lives in poverty. You may not realize it, but you do. Given that one of every six Americans lives in poverty, someone you know suffers from one of the most punishing and oppressing of all human conditions.

Too many of us blithely consider poverty to be limited to certain geographical locations such as the “inner city.” Too many of us believe poverty is limited to, perhaps, mostly a certain skin color. Too many of us attribute poverty to the lack of an “appropriate” work ethic, a lack of ambition, or a desire to “cheat the system.” The poor live in cities, they’re not white, they’re lazy, and they’re sucking up my tax dollars unfairly.

Discard that attitude. It’s disgusting. Poverty privileges no race, no gender, no occupation, no geography.
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The tax break that didn't create jobs, and now corporations want another one

Imagine corporations telling you they want to create American jobs in exchange for a tax break. Thanks to a compliant Congress, they get a cheap rate on billions of dollars of profits — and cut thousands of American jobs instead. (Pfizer and Hewlett-Packard come to mind.)

After the turn of the century, hundreds of multinationals, such as Pfizer and H-P, nominally headquartered in the United States had a problem. They had about $300 billion in profits parked overseas. They wanted to bring that money home — a process artfully called repatriation of funds.

Their opponent was the U.S. tax code: To repatriate profits, the code said they’d have to pay 35 cents on every dollar brought home. So they sweet-talked (that’s called lobbying) their friends in Congress (their hired elected minions) to fix the problem. Their congressional chums were glad to help out by lowering the tax bite to 5 cents for every dollar brought home. The lobbying effort was a good investment: For every buck the corporations spent, they got $220 back.

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'Oh, Congress! Oh, Congress! God mend thine ev'ry flaw'

When the national anthem is sung, I place my hand over my heart. I didn’t always. But I’m old enough now to appreciate, to be grateful for, what being an American citizen has afforded me.

If I wish, I can own a firearm. I can assemble peaceably with others. I can criticize the government. I can practice a religion — or not — without governmental dictation. The Constitution protects me from unreasonable search and seizure (Patriot Act not withstanding). When I was a journalist, the government could not abridge the freedom of my press. I can own property. I can depend on contracts being enforced. I have more constitutionally guaranteed rights as an American than any citizen of any other country.

Yes, I have duties as well. I must pay taxes for the general welfare and the common defense. I must be willing (and able) to stand in judgment of a citizen charged with a crime by the government. I ought to be sufficiently knowledgeable and intelligent to vote wisely.

I love my country. Most of us do. But I no longer have faith that my elected leaders love it as much as they love power and the ability to demean those they oppose. I don’t like, respect, or trust my elected leaders any more, and their public personae and political actions show they don’t give a damn about me in any way beyond my ability to cast a vote.
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Reinventing ourselves again

Look! Up in the sky, it’s a bird … it’s a plane. Nope, it’s Super Congress. Where caped, congressional crusaders will wage the battle between good and evil far above the heads of mere mortals and senior citizens living on Social Security. It will be where the “leaders” of both parties (and they’re not leaving any room in this Super Congress for a desperately needed third party) get together to make the big decisions, so it will also function as a reward for years of dedicated ass-kissing, lying and soul-selling. There’s a good reason why the leadership of both parties is for this Super Congress idea; they always manage to find common ground when it’s time to screw you and me. And the best – by far – way to grind the American people into destitution is to enshrine the oligarchy with extra-political rights.

Never let a crisis go to waste, even if you have to invent the crisis to seize.
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