2006-08-18 / Columnists

Congressman Meeks Speaks

The Minimum Achievement Congress: We Need A New Direction
From The Desk Of Congressman Gregory Meeks

GREGORY MeeKS My colleagues and I in the House and Senate have recessed for the month of August. Ordinarily, most of us spend part of the recess working in our respective districts as well as spending time with our families who see far too little of us. Ordinarily, Congress takes its August recess without much fanfare. Ordinarily, the attitude of the House and Senate leadership has been that pending legislation will just have to wait until Congress reconvenes after Labor Day. But, these are not ordinary times. This is an election year and the Republican majority in the House and Senate which controls each body's agenda and sets their respective rules are fearful that voters might take the unpopularity of the president out on GOP congressional candidates this fall.

Polls show that the public believes this Congress has accomplished very little. In fact, Congress has lower poll numbers than the president. Polling also indicates that the margin by which voters prefer Democrats over Republican in the upcoming midterm election is widening. It's quite possible that the GOP could lose its majorities in both House and Senate. If that happens, no more free ride for the White House. A Democratic majority will mean a new direction in Congress and for the country.

This extraordinary situation explains why Republican leaders in Congress dropped their ordinary approach to this year's recess. At the last minute they pushed hard to enact legislation, hoping this would enable them to claim a record of accomplishment in November. With the notable exception of reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act which had overwhelming bipartisan support, the leadership called up bill after bill, knowing or at least hoping that Democrats would vote against a given measure. That way, they could avoid the "do-nothing" charge while labeling Democrats as obstructionists.

Take the minimum wage. Despite strenuous Democratic efforts, the $5.15 federal minimum wage hasn't been increased since 1997. That's right, millions of Americans - 7.7 million to be exact - subsist on $5.15 an hour. Seventy percent of minimum wage workers are adults; 40 percent work full-time; over 62 percent are white; nearly 16 percent are Black; just over 17 percent are Hispanic. The federal minimum wage translates into a $10,712 annual income.

But instead of doing the right thing and allowing an up or down vote on a stand alone bill raising the federal minimum wage to $7.25 over a two year period to be put forward the House leadership chose instead to combine this proposal with a cut in taxes on estates valued at up to $5 million for individuals and $10 million for married couples. This measure also applied only a 15 percent tax rate to inheritances above the $5 million and $10 million thresholds up to $25 million. For estates worth more than $25 million the tax rate would only be 30 percent.

Beyond its lack of merit, this estate tax cut is an $800 billion giveaway to 7,500 of the wealthiest families in America that would have to be made up for with $800 billion in new budget cuts or new debt. Add to this the cost of the Iraq war and we are talking about fiscal irresponsibility in the extreme. We've spent $320 billion on Iraq operations. That's $5 billion a month that isn't being used to address health care, housing, environmental protection, alternative energy research, or hurricane recovery.

The minimum wage bill affecting millions of Americans had the support of 64 Republicans in addition to all of the Democrats. Most Democrats and many Republicans opposed the estate tax cut, which would help some of the wealthiest people in the country who don't need this kind of help.

This whole exercise was designed to enable vulnerable Republicans in tough re-election contests the opportunity to say they voted to raise the minimum wage even though House Republican leaders knew this bill would go nowhere in the Senate. Sure enough, the Senate rejected the measure a few days later.

As a member of the minority, I have had enough of this. You should too, regardless of party affiliation. Now, I know all of this may sound partisan. Of course, I'm a Democrat and I'd love to see my party win control of Congress, but not just for partisan reasons. The country has endured six years of foreign and domestic policy failures. It's in the national interest to at least have a Congress that will put the president's feet to the fire, hold him be accountable, but more than that, move the country in a new direction to get something done on behalf of the American people. This starts with taking a new direction in Iraq, raising the minimum wage, ending tax cuts for the wealthiest among us, restoring fiscal responsibility, creating jobs, increasing access to college, making health care affordable for all, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and ending our dependence on foreign oil.

In my next column I will talk with you in more detail about what I think a new direction for America involves.

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