Growing wealth widens distance between lawmakers and constituents

 

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The odds were long. At 34, Myers was the shift foreman at the “hot mill” of the Armco plant here. He had no political experience, little or no money, and he was a Republican in a district that tilted Democrat.

But standing in the dining room, still in his work clothes, he said he felt voters deserved a better choice.

Three years later, he won.Back when Myers entered Congress in 1975, it wasn’t nearly so unusual for a person with few assets besides a home to win and serve in Congress. Though representatives have long been more prosperous than other Americans, others of that time included a barber, a pipe fitter and a house painter. A handful had even organized into what was called the “Blue Collar Caucus.”

But the financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened considerably since then, according to an analysis of financial disclosures by The Washington Post.

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 21 / times, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, rising from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the median sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

All figures have been adjusted for inflation and exclude home equity, which is not included in congressional reporting. The year 1984 was chosen because it was the earliest for which consistent wealth data were available.

The growing disparity between the representatives and the represented means that there is a greater distance between the economic experience of Americans and those of lawmakers.

“My mother and I used to joke we were like the Beverly Hillbillies when we rolled into McLean, and we really were,” said Michele Myers, the congressman’s daughter, now 46. “My dad was driving this awful lime green Ford Maverick, and I bought my clothes at Kmart.”

Today, this area of Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh is represented in Congress by another Republican, Mike Kelly, a wealthy car dealer elected for the first time in 2010. Kelly, as it happens, grew up just a few houses down the street from the Myers family, in a larger brick home.

Kelly’s dad owned the local Chevrolet and Cadillac dealership in Butler, and Kelly, an affable former football recruit to Notre Dame, had worked there since he was a kid. Three years after graduating from college, he married Victoria, an heir to the Phillips oil fortune. He eventually bought and took control of the family car business, and today, the net worth of Kelly and his wife runs in the millions of dollars, according to financial disclosure forms.

Both men refer to their personal life experiences in explaining their political outlook.

Myers, the son of a bricklayer, had worked his way through college to a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and looked at issues of work and security at least partly through the lens of his own experience. For example, he bucked other Republicans to vote to raise the minimum wage and favored expanding a program to aid workers affected by foreign imports. He said he understood the need for what was then called “the safety net.”  Read whole article

Dem lawmaker blasts ‘Professor Obama’ as arrogant, alienating

By Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) – 12/13/11 06:05 AM ET

After observing President Obama for the last three years, it has become obvious to me that the president might prefer to be a university professor rather than do the job he holds today. While he might not realize that he feels this way, the evidence is very clear to those who work with or watch him closely.

Let me be clear — I’m not trying to disparage professors. But anyone who wonders why the president is not crushing the weak Republican field only needs to examine how President Obama has behaved more like Professor Obama:

‘IDEA DISEASE’


In the president’s first year in office, his administration suffered from what I call “idea disease.” Every week, and sometimes almost every day, the administration rolled out a new program for the country. There was no obvious prioritization and, after the rollout, very little effort to actually pass the latest idea/imperative/plan/edict. Instead, the new programs just kept coming, with the new proposals constantly stepping on the previous day’s message. This rampant “idea disease” squandered the tremendous goodwill generated by the Obama campaign’s message of “hope,” tainting the president’s personal appeal. As Democrats in Congress, we often felt like we were drinking water out of a fire hose, trying to simultaneously deal with past failures of the Bush administration and the avalanche of new initiatives from Obama. This lack of focus also made it easy for congressional Republicans to stall and foil many of President Obama’s best initiatives — which they did with relish!

House passes GOP payroll tax package amid White House veto threat

Posted at 06:53 PM ET, 12/13/2011

By 


(Joshua Roberts – BLOOMBERG)

The House on Tuesday passed a bill combining an extension of the payroll tax cut with several GOP-favored provisions, including language to speed a decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, setting up a showdown with the White House, which has threatened to veto the measure.

The measure passed late Tuesday on a 234-to-193 vote. Ten Democrats joined 224 Republicans in backing the measure, while 14 Republicans and 179 Democrats voted “no.”

All eyes are now on the Senate, which has twice this month shot down competing payroll tax measures offered by Democrats and Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated Tuesday afternoon that the House GOP plan is “not going to pass over here” and said that he is “hopeful” leaders will huddle together to craft a compromise on paying for the extension and other measures.

“The only way you’re going to get something done over there is get some Democratic votes,” Reid said. “The only way I can get anything done over here is get some Republican votes. That seems to scream for compromise, and I believe that’s what we need to do.”

The House Republican plan would extend for one year the reduction from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent in payroll taxes for employees; it also would renew the “doc fix,” which prevents cuts in reimbursements to doctors who see Medicare patients, and would extend unemployment insurance, while gradually reducing the maximum length of time for benefits from 99 to 59 weeks.

If Congress doesn’t act to extend them, the payroll tax cut, doc fix and unemployment insurance are set to expire at the end of the year.

Amid opposition from some Republican rank-and-file members, however, GOP leaders crafted a package that would pair those extensions with some measures favored by conservatives, including speeding up a decision on the Keystone pipeline, authorizing the government to conduct spectrum auctions and delaying regulations governing industrial boiler emissions.

The GOP package also would require individuals who have not completed high school to enroll in a GED program in order to receive jobless benefits, and would give states the authority to make drug testing a requirement for applicants.

Republicans argued during Tuesday’s floor debate that the pipeline project would lead to the “immediate” creation of tens of thousands of jobs. Democrats have argued that that claim is inflated, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said earlier Tuesday that the Keystone pipeline provision “does have Democratic support, but not in this bill.”

“This is a partisan bill sticking the finger in the eye of those who disagree with the non-germane policies that are included, included simply for the purposes of energizing a small political base in their party,” Hoyer said at his weekly pen-and-pad briefing. “As I’ve said, the Republican Party now represents, in my view, the narrowest base of any party in the 45 years that I’ve been active in politics.”

The White House said in its veto threat that the GOP measure was a political move that “breaks the bipartisan agreement on spending cuts that was reached just a few months ago.”

Reid told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Senate Democrats discussed “a number of alternatives” to a surtax on millionaires, Democrats’ preferred method of paying for the payroll tax cut extension. He added that Democrats still back some way of requiring “shared sacrifice” from the wealthy.

“One of the things we certainly believe, as does almost 80 percent of the American people, (is) that there should be a contribution, ever be it so slight, by the wealthiest of the wealthy,” Reid said.

The payroll tax debate comes as Congress faces an even higher-stakes argument over keeping the government funded through late next year. The measure currently keeping the government running expires on Friday, and leaders of both parties have begun accusing each other of using the funding bill as a bargaining chip in the negotiations over the payroll tax.

White House threatens veto over detainee policy

By Donna Cassata November 18, 2011 7:25 am

WASHINGTON (AP) – The White House is threatening to veto a massive defense bill over its requirement that terrorist suspects be held in military custody, setting up a showdown with Congress over the Obama administration’s prosecution of the war on terror.

Shortly after the Senate started work Thursday on the long-awaited bill, the administration delivered a harsh assessment of provisions concerning U.S. handling of captured terror suspects, language that has divided senior Senate Democrats and drawn criticism from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The White House directed its toughest comments at the military custody requirement.

“This unnecessary, untested and legally controversial restriction of the president’s authority to defend the nation from terrorist threats would tie the hands of our intelligence and law enforcement professionals,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

The provision would require military custody of a suspect deemed to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates and involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States. It gives the president authority to waive the requirement based on national security. The administration argues that military custody, rather than civilian, would hamper the FBI and other law enforcement agencies seeking intelligence from terror suspects.

Ratcheting up its criticism, the White House said in its statement that applying such a requirement to those within the United States would challenge the “fundamental American principle that our military does not patrol our streets.”

The White House also argued that in the 10 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the administrations of Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama have broken down walls between intelligence, law enforcement and the military and that Congress should not rebuild those walls and “unnecessarily make the job of preventing terrorist attacks more difficult.”

Congress and the administration have been at odds since Obama took office over how to handle captured terror suspects. The administration insists that lawmakers are trying to limit the military, law enforcement and intelligence agents after they’ve succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, delivering two body blows to al-Qaida.

Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to respond to an evolving, post-Sept. 11 threat, holding captured terror suspects at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and trying them by military commissions. In a not-in-my-backyard argument, lawmakers have resisted transferring suspects to the United States.

The sweeping defense bill would authorize $662 billion for military personnel, weapons systems, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and national security programs in the Energy Department. Reflecting a period of austerity and deficit-driven cuts in military spending, the bill is $27 billion less than what Obama requested for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and $43 billion less than what Congress provided to the Pentagon this year.

In its statement, the administration said it supports the broader bill but cannot accept any legislation that “challenges or constrains the president’s authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation” and would force the president’s senior advisers to recommend a veto.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the panel, had negotiated for weeks with senior administration officials on acceptable language but failed to work out their differences. On Tuesday, Levin and McCain pressed ahead with a new version of the bill, revising the detainee policy. The committee approved the measure on a 26-0 vote.

Among the changes to the military custody requirement is an exclusion for U.S. citizens or legal aliens and clarification that the mandatory step need not interrupt ongoing surveillance, intelligence gathering and interrogations.

But the unanimous tally in the committee belied strong opposition in the Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, object to the provisions, as does Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Armed Services panel.

Targeting the provisions, Udall offered an amendment to strike the detainee provisions from the bill and instead permit the Intelligence, Judiciary and Armed Services committees to hold hearings with Pentagon and administration officials on the issue.

“These are people whose opinions should be carefully considered before we put these proposals into our legal framework,” Udall said, citing the committee leaders as well as Panetta.

Feinstein criticized the predilection of many in Congress to rely solely on the military.

Several Republicans defended the bill’s provisions, with McCain, Obama’s 2008 White House rival, countering that if the president had had a coherent policy, the committee’s actions wouldn’t have been necessary.

“The president’s policy has been a total and abysmal failure,” McCain said although he indicated that lawmakers would continue discussions with the administration over the provisions.

Breaking with several of his fellow Democrats, Levin insisted that his committee has “gone a long way” to address the administration’s concerns.

“There have been misstatements, misimpressions, misinterpretations of the provisions of our bill,” Levin said.

Panetta was on Capitol Hill Thursday to meet privately with several senators about some elements of the bill. The Pentagon chief met with Leahy and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., about the popular congressional effort to make the chief of the National Guard a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military’s top brass has argued against such a step, saying the status quo is fine.

Leahy later offered an amendment to expand the Joint Chiefs.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., offered an amendment to expand sanctions on Iran to include foreign financial institutions that conduct transactions through the Central Bank of Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently said Iran was suspected of clandestine work that is “specific to nuclear weapons.”

The Senate is not expected to complete work on the defense bill until early December.

Millionaires on Capitol Hill: Please tax me more!

By Laurie Kellman November 17, 2011 7:28 am

WASHINGTON (AP) – Lobbyists for a day, a band of millionaires stormed Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge Congress to tax them more.

They had a little trouble getting in. It turns out there are procedures, even for the really rich.

But once inside, their message was embraced by liberals and tolerated by some conservatives — including the ideological leader of anti-tax lawmakers, who had some advice for them, too.

“If you think the federal government can spend your money better than you can, then by all means” pay more in taxes than you owe, said Grover Norquist, the head of a group that has gotten almost all congressional Republicans to pledge to vote against tax hikes. The IRS should have a little line on the form where people can donate money to the government, he suggested, “just like the tip line on a restaurant receipt.”

One of the millionaires suggested that if Norquist wanted low taxes and less government, “Renounce your American citizenship and move to Somalia where they don’t collect any tax.”

In the silence left by the private efforts of the “supercommittee” to find $1.2 trillion or more in deficit cuts by Thanksgiving, free advice flowed in public.

And not just any advice: pie-in-the-sky suggestions from those not connected to the talks, mostly to reopen debates that have led nowhere. The millionaires want the panel to raise taxes on people who earn more than $1 million, even though most Republicans are committed against the idea. And 150 House member and senators urged a much bigger debt-and-deficit deal, even as a small-scope agreement is proving elusive.

While they were at it, the lawmakers insisted that bipartisanship was not, in fact, dead.

This group of House members and senators shared a stage and some jokes and signed a letter urging the supercommittee of Republicans and Democrats to find the required $1.2 trillion in cuts — plus about $2.8 trillion more. They all want the panel to avoid triggering automatic cuts as a penalty for failing.

So this uneasy alliance of 150 Republicans and Democrats will vote for whatever deal the supercommittee strikes?

“No,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. “Nobody’s going to commit to the deal until they see the deal.”

What deal? There is no evidence that one is near, so the millionaires tried to meet with anyone who would meet with them.

The progressive caucus did, eagerly and on-camera. The rest wasn’t so easy.

At a basement entrance to the Capitol, a police officer pointed to the name badges that identified each wearer as “Patriotic Millionaire.”

“That is not a visitor’s badge,” the officer said. “Go to the visitors desk and get a visitor’s badge.”

Off they trudged, a group mostly of men in business-casual clothing toting laptops and umbrellas, to a desk visited by tourists and lobbyists. Badges secured, they headed in.

Lawrence Benenson, vice president of Benenson Capitol Co., ran into freshman Rep. Kristi Noem, R-Idaho, in an elevator.

“I’m with the Patriotic Millionaires and we want to pay more in taxes,” he told her.

Noem grinned.

“How much more?” she asked.

Then it was off to meet, not with senators but their staffs — and not in the Capitol but in offices across the street.

Progress was not made, by all accounts.

A meeting with an aide to Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., opened with his aide announcing that the senator believes the wealthy pay more taxes than their fair share, according to one of the millionaires, Matthew Palevsky, a consultant and founder of the Council on Crime Prevention.

“We defined it as not paying our fair share,” Palevsky said of the 20-minute chat. “It was clear we were coming from different points of view.”

In a meeting with Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, the congressman faux-proposed — apparently — to an aide to the millionaires. She declined.

Then it was off, on a bus not a limo, across town to see Norquist.

Why were they bothering with him?

“That’s what I asked this morning,” said one of the millionaires, Frank Jernigan, a former senior software engineer for Google.

“It’s a media hook,” offered another, Guy Saperstein, a retired lawyer and former president of the Sierra Club Foundation.

Such candor is not the norm in these parts.

For his part, Norquist said he was ready for the group with a tongue-in-cheek Torah lesson: Maimonides and his “eight degrees of charity.” That’s what Norquist says the millionaires are essentially proposing with their tax-me-more pitch. Perhaps there should be a ninth, Norquist suggested.

“Nobody’s holding them back” from donating money to the federal government, he said as he prepared for the group’s arrival. “They’re saying, ‘Gee, I’d sure like to write a big check to the federal government, if someone would just stop stopping me.'”

Associated Press writer Larry Margasak contributed to this report.

The Wonk Who Slays Washington

By Peter J. Boyle

Nov 13, 2011 10:00 AM ESTPeter J. Boyle

Congress is getting rich off Wall Street and Peter Schweizer won’t stop until everyone knows it. Plus: Schweizer on how Obama donors cash in and a guide to those in Congress who mixed business with governing.
In the Spring of 2010, a bespectacled, middle-aged policy wonk named Peter Schweizer fired up his laptop and began a months-long odyssey into a forbidding maze of public databases, hunting for the financial secrets ofWashington’s most powerful politicians. Schweizer had been struck by the fact that members of Congress are free to buy and sell stocks in companies whose fate can be profoundly influenced, or even determined, by Washington policy, and he wondered, do these ultimate insiders act on what they know? Yes, Schweizer found, they certainly seem to. Schweizer’s research revealed that some of Congress’s most prominent members are in a position to routinely engage in what amounts to a legal form of insider trading, profiting from investment activity that, he says, “would send the rest of us to prison.”

Schweizer, who is 47, lives in Tallahassee with his wife and children (“New York or D.C. would be too distracting—I’d never get any writing done”) and commutes regularly to Stanford, where he is the William J. Casey research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His circle of friends includes some bare-knuckle combatants in the partisan frays (such as conservative media impresario Andrew Breitbart), but Schweizer himself comes across more as a bookish researcher than the right-wing hit man liberal critics see. Indeed, he sounds somewhat surprised, if gratified, to have attracted attention with his findings. “To me, it’s troubling that a fellow at Stanford who lives in Florida had to dig this up.”

It was in his Tallahassee office that Schweizer began what he thought was a promising research project: combing through congressional financial-disclosure records dating back to 2000 to see what kinds of investments legislators were making. He quickly learned that Capitol Hill has quite a few market players. He narrowed his search to a dozen or so members—the leaders of both houses, as well as members of key committees—and focused on trades that coincided with big policy initiatives of the sort that could move markets.  READ MORE >>>

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