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Today's Congress: Fiddling while the U.S. burns

The freshman gathering of the 113th Congress is captured in November, 2012.
The freshman gathering of the 113th Congress is captured in November, 2012.

As we pay hardily into supporting our expensive American government, the recurring question continually emerging is: Is it actually working for us? Bickering ad nauseam, endless gridlock, and failure to take any action means it’s time to take to heart the very axiom upon which this country was founded 300 years ago — Taxation without Representation.

Today’s 113th Congress is halfway through its current term of office, and so far, the efforts to make worthwhile decisions for America are laughable.

“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is the least productive Congress in modern history,” said U.S. Representative Sander Levin, (D-Mich.). Levin, a Washington D.C. veteran since 1983, has served with the current Congress since 2013.

With one year into their terms, Levin says members have enacted 72 laws. He unfavorably compares that to the 284 enacted during the 111th Congress.

A critical area that needs attention is the December cessation of Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

He, and many others — including the average working-class voter — believe that’s a priority needing immediate congressional action. Levin sponsored the bill requesting the EUC extension.

Momentarily, when Congress convened in early January, things were looking hopeful for that extension. In addition to the 1.3 million who lost all benefits December 28, additional people have been affected to the tune of 72,000 per week since, with a national unemployment rate of 37 percent. Within six months, an additional 1.9 million who will exhaust any state coverage, will join them — unable to also receive federal coverage.

In Michigan, that equates to 43,000 affected immediately, and another 86,500 within six months. The highest numbers of unemployed by county are in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. Many unemployed are no longer even traceable statistically, having long ago disappeared from accounts of 2008.

Some states have fewer than 25 percent of the unemployed able to collect, which is a record low. Since record-keeping began in 1946, the rate has never dropped below 30 percent; today some states are well below that 25 percent, too.

And, lest politicians — or others — point to no need for charity for the lazy, the unemployed paid into that fund during previous jobs. Many are middle-aged, middle-class people who were down-sized out of their positions or replaced by technological advancements.

In what was identified by the Ways and Means Committee as the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression, there is evidence of some real progress since the government’s near collapse in 2008. However, the numbers of unemployed continue near historic highs.

The situation continues to hang in the balance, although the unemployed are encouraged to still log in just in case an extension passes. If that occurs, payment can be made retroactively.

Unions, in support of a benefit extension, used their power during a January 6 nationwide call-in to congressional offices. Things looked surprisingly brighter when, on January 7, a vote approved that extension, 60-37. Any anticipated Conservative backlash was temporarily stymied, when six Republicans voted yes, but said they want the $6.4 billion cost paid through cuts made elsewhere in the budget.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the uplifting, across-the-aisle vote, “a shift in the tectonic plates of our politics,” according to The New York Times.

Of the six moderates and Conservatives who voted for the extension, several hail from states affected with higher-than-national-average unemployment rates. The list includes Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.).

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was a vocal opponent, asking why an extension of the EUC — which was passed at the height of the 2008 recession — needs to be continued. He compared benefits for the unemployed to a narcotic that lulls the unemployed into avoiding work.

Most Republicans were reported by the media to be willing on January 7 to begin the formal process of extending benefits. Sen. Coats said, also in The Times, “There was enough concern and maybe some legitimate need to do some extension of unemployment benefits, that it shouldn’t have been just shut down.”

Later, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was quoted extensively by the press as stating that renewal of the federal benefits program was “extremely important to the American people.” He then led his 45-member caucus in blocking renewal efforts of the EUC.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) clarified that in exchange for extending employment benefits, he wanted that support tied to other Republican priorities. Those include building the Keystone XL oil pipeline and expanding exemptions from the Affordable Care Act while opening exploration for energy on federal land.

Boehner commented following the Senate vote: “One month ago, I personally told the White House another extension should not only be paid for, but (also) include something to help put people back to work.”

Adding that he’d be happy to discuss any plan President Obama offers, Boehner says the House will remain focused on “growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job.”

Congress convened at 11:30 a.m. on the 21st by opening with a prayer, approved the daily journal, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then recessed at 11:33 and 55 seconds. The previous meeting on the 17th convened at 1:00 p.m., proceeded identically as the one on the 21st, and also adjourned at 1:03 and 53 seconds. Such activities are typical of late, with adjournment occurring within minutes or a few hours, depending on the length of filibustering time in each session.

Yes, in spite of the needs and worries of constituents, this is the “action” of our government today.

While Americans wait to see if they can pay their bills, exactly what bills HAS Congress passed of the 72 focused on?

Levin shares some data from his sessions.

“Many of the laws that were approved dealt with minor matters, such as naming buildings and roads, or involved non-controversial transfers of land. There was the ‘Freedom to Fish Act,’ allowing anglers to fish near 10 dams in Kentucky and Tennessee, and specifying the amount of precious metal to be used by the U.S. Mint in making the 75th anniversary coins in the ‘National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act.’”

The Congressional summary also lists the 113th’s efforts to re-authorize protection for violence against women, additional action for Homeland Security and disaster relief/hazard preparedness, work on military spending, setting animal drugs fees, taxing flu vaccines, reducing flight delays (!), naming tax sections on official forms after people, creating a back-up plan for military pay in the midst of another government shutdown, ensuring the stability of helium, screening of sleep disorders for commercial motor vehicle operators, having epinephrine accessibility in schools, extending authority of the Supreme Court Police until the end of 2019 to protect officials away from the court grounds, allowing reconsideration for interring people in national cemeteries, and amending penalties for federal elections violations.

Except for the most mundane matters, partisan infighting continues, and no real progress is made in the urgent matters — or those affecting working-class Americans.

“Conspicuously absent,” said Levin, “were any new laws to create jobs, grow the economy, strengthen the middle class, repair our country’s crumbling infrastructure, overhaul the tax code, or fix our nation’s broken immigration system. A re-write of our nation’s agriculture laws is also months behind schedule. The list goes on.”

Yes, in spite of the needs and worries of constituents, this is the “action” of our government today. Is it any wonder voters are salivating for upcoming elections, with talk of completely wiping the Congressional slate clean?

The next session is scheduled to begin at 12:00 p.m. on January 27, although there is no clear indication of how soon it’ll be adjourned. One minute? Two? Maybe three, if they have donuts?

Stay tuned for reruns of the same old Washington scene — unless a miracle happens.

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