Politics in These Times

By John Buell

Earlier this year my wife and I received two political invitations we reluctantly declined. Obama for America requested a contribution to his re-election campaign and a chain letter initiated by Warren Buffet asked us to commit ourselves to reforms that purportedly would reshape Congress.

First, in case you have not seen this, the Buffet proposal:

Congressional Reform Act of 2011:_

1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they’re out of office.

2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 1/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congress members. Congress men and women made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

Laudably egalitarian as these proposals sound, they do not redress the fundamental inequities in the current order. Congress could enact every one and most of its members would act the same. In the first place, members of Congress are already disproportionately wealthy. More importantly, they depend on mega campaign contributions. Even Obama is expected to raise one billion dollars for his re-election campaign. Most of the funds will come not from the 1% but from the .1%.

Regardless of the salaries of members of Congress, they will likely be responsive primarily to the demands of this elite. Most rely more on the jobs they hope to land when they leave Congress than on their time in Congress.

In a recent op ed, Tom Edsall cites the example of former House Minority and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt. A staunch labor defender while in Congress, he now makes millions lobbying for business interests. Edsall comments: “With examples like this before them, most incumbent members, as they go about their daily routine of casting votes and attending committee meetings, must have in the back of their minds an awareness that they are likely to go into the influence-peddling business in the future.

This knowledge inevitably influences – and arguably corrupts – their votes on legislation crucial to the interests most likely to hire them after they leave the halls of Congress.” Reducing Congressional salaries might actually increase members’ attentiveness to business opportunities once they leave office. 

Buffet’s proposal did get me thinking about appropriate political strategies for 2012. I have thus far refused to contribute to mainstream Democrats not because I am cheap but am increasingly discouraged by their performance.

Bradley Manning is in jail but not a single investment banker. The so-called Patriot Act has been renewed and in fact even strengthened with the new indefinite detention and rendition provisions. Assassination by Presidential decree is now accepted practice. Jamie Dimon is Obama’s “favorite banker,” while banks like his are bailed out and foreclosures rise. These banks have resumed the dangerous practice of eagerly trading in old and new derivatives. And our Democratic President now supports an increase in the Social Security retirement age. War with Iran seems closer by the day. We expect such stances from current Republicans, but when a Democrat advocates these policies, the consequences are worse. Since the media portray Obama as the left, when he articulates such positions, debate is closed. At least if President Romney acted in this way, he could face an outcry from many Democrats.

I am saving for contributions to referenda, like Maine’s Yes on 1 which preserved our highly unusual and voter friendly system of same day registration. I will also support a referendum campaign sponsored by Opportunity Maine issue municipal bonds that would fund green infrastructure. Financial markets are begging the US to invest in its future. Perhaps state governments can do what our Federal government thus far avoids.

On a national level I will support organizations that aid and publicize various Occupy movements. These have been the most consequential since the civil rights and anti- Vietnam-War movements. Whatever little progress Obama makes, including his belated pivot back to the issue of jobs, was probably due more to the Occupy movements than anything in DC. I don’t have the guts to join them sleeping on the street, but I can at least contribute.

I will probably end up voting for Obama. Yes he did give us the new mercury standard, though his continued weakness on climate change may well reduce the positive implications of this change. His healthcare reform, disappointing as it is, will save some lives.

Unfortunately, the two-party duopoly is a far more destructive trap than all the practices Buffet condemns. My greatest disappointment with this election year is that a Robert Kennedy or Gene McCarthy figure — or even some favorite sons and daughters — didn’t challenge Obama in the primaries and do enough damage to scare the President. Thus I will concentrate my resources and enthusiasm, both of which are finite, on other political causes.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email jbuell@acadia.net.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2012


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