The past week in Washington was like watching Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” unfold with legislative special effects.
One side of Capitol Hill was espousing the perceived interests of the rich and powerful, while the other side appeared to helplessly represent the poor and least powerful. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary as far as most experts could tell, but the battle lines drawn between income brackets were dramatically highlighted in a busy week of policymaking over topics ranging from Affordable Care Act signups to aid for Ukraine.
Evident were the disparities in priorities which underscore the vast philosophical fault line dividing parties and ideologues heading into the November midterm elections. The policy claims staked by both Democrats and Republicans appeared to highlight growing divides of need between those struggling to get by and those getting by but demanding more. President Barack Obama was touting the 7.1 million Americans who signed up for the Affordable Care Act, while Republicans were looking for ways to downplay it.
Even as a muted March jobs report kept the official unemployment rate steady at 6.7 percent, giving one percenter markets the impression that recovery is sluggish but moving slowly ahead, the other 99 percent wasn’t seeing it that way. The week was full of rhetoric showing a tug of war between two interests on opposite sides of a growing inequality gap.
“While ‘too big to fail’ corporations went into the bailout emergency room and recovered to break earnings and stock market records, most Americans have been left in ICU with multiple diagnoses of unemployment, underemployment, home losses and foreclosures, low or no savings and retirement accounts, credit denials, cuts in education and school funding,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial as the NUL released its State of Black America 2014 report.
Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers showed the black unemployment rate actually rising from 12.0 percent to 12.4 percent.
Even as the SOBA report focused on a devastating 21 percent underemployment rate for African Americans — the highest compared to their white and Latino counterparts at 12 percent and 18 percent respectively — Congress was entering its fourth consecutive month without an extension of unemployment benefits for more than 2.2 million jobless Americans.
House Speaker John Boehner’s explanation was that state unemployment insurance agencies simply didn’t have the cash to retroactively replace benefits lost since Dec. 27. Back then it was around 1.3 million losing UEI — a number that’s clearly grown since then.
“We have always said that we’re willing to look at extending emergency unemployment benefits again, if Washington Democrats can come up with a plan that is fiscally responsible, and gets to the root of the problem by helping to create more private sector jobs,” Boehner said. “There is no evidence that the bill being rammed through the Senate by Leader Reid meets that test, and according to these state directors, the bill is also simply unworkable.”
The sudden focus on private sector job creation in the midst of cutting benefits for job seekers happens at a time when the GOP is scrambling for a new political pivot. Congressional Republicans seek to distance themselves from the memory of the government shutdown last October, and are worried that partisan activists are over-killing “Obamacare” messaging in the midterms.
On another front, both chambers of Congress were rapidly passing billion dollar economic assistance and democracy enhancement packages for Ukraine as Russian troops barreled their way into what’s now become the annexed peninsula of Crimea. If lawmakers were suffering from feet-dragging malaise to pass desperately needed unemployment insurance for jobless Americans, somehow they found the will to push for Ukrainians 5,000 miles away. Not only had lawmakers passed Ukraine assistance packages twice, but did so within less than a month of the Russian invasion.
In the meantime, House Budget Committee Chair Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dropped his own proposed budget for fiscal year 2015. What has now become an annual reactive exercise to the president’s budget is also a magnet for controversy as the former 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee’s budget proposes 69 percent of the $4.8 trillion in recommended cuts come from programs for Americans “with limited means,” notes Center for Budget and Policy Priorities expert Richard Kogan.
“These disproportionate cuts — which likely account for at least $3.3 trillion of the budget’s $4.8 trillion in non-defense cuts over the next decade — contrast sharply with the budget’s rhetoric about helping the poor and promoting opportunity,” Kogan said.
While a string of bad news hampered low income to middle class Americans on string budgets, a conservative Supreme Court took note to remove caps on campaign contributions from wealthy donors looking to dominate election cycles. While the move was applauded by many conservatives — and mostly Republican strategists in search of a financial edge in upcoming 2014 and 2016 elections — as a boost for free speech, others (including many worried Democrats) weren’t so sure about that.
“This latest decision knocks out one of the pillars supporting the first world of hard money,” said Brookings Institution scholar Tom Mann. “It issues an open invitation to the wealthiest and most willing donors to circumvent limits on contributions to candidates and political committees.”
“[Chief] Justice Roberts writes that efforts to circumvent the limits are purely hypothetical and remote. Political consultants and election law specialists know better.”