Brattleboro Reformer, March 13, 2008: A time for action

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A recent report from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law gave Vermont’s congressional delegation high marks for its voting records last year on poverty issues.

Both U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch got an A-plus in the report, while U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy received an A. Vermont joined Hawaii, Massachusetts and Rhode Island as the only four states whose congressional delegations received straight A’s.

That comes as no surprise, since Leahy, Sanders and Welch have been consistent advocates for the poor throughout their political careers.

But the sad part of the story is that while our delegation in Washington has worked hard on anti-poverty legislation, nearly all the bills they worked on weren’t enacted.

The Shriver Center found that most members of Congress earned passing grades on anti-poverty issues. Despite this, the current Congress’ record on issues affecting low-income Americans is dismal — particularly in the Senate, because of filibuster rules that require a minimum of 60 votes to end debate.

Senate Republicans have managed to obstruct numerous bills over the past few years because of that 60-vote rule. Why?


The GOP has made much political hay over the past 30 years demonizing the supposedly “lazy” and “undeserving” poor, and cutting “wasteful” social welfare spending.

We see the results of those policies all around us. The Brattleboro Drop In Center has more clients that it has food. The beds at Morningside Shelter are filled every night. For those fortunate to have a roof over their heads, the cost of heating has gone well beyond the meager amount of money that LIHEAP provides. For those fortunate enough to have jobs, they are working longer hours for less money. The cost of everything keeps rising, but paychecks do not.

Yet President Bush says we’re not in a recession, and Republicans in Congress refuse to pass legislation to do something substantive about the deep economic problems our nation faces.

For example, Sanders wants to repeal the Bush tax cuts for those earning $1 million or more a year. A member of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders says he’s planning to offer the measure as an amendment to the annual federal budget resolution. The move would restore the top tax bracket to 39.6 percent for the wealthiest households. The current top bracket is 35 percent.

“While the rich have become much richer, nearly five million Americans have slipped out of the middle class and into poverty over the past seven years, including over one million of our children,” Sanders said Monday.

Sanders’ measure proposes using the estimated $32.5 billion in new revenue to provide $10 billion for special education programs, $5 billion for Head Start, $4 billion for a low-income heating program, $3 billion for school construction, and $3 billion for food stamps.

This proposal, sadly, has absolutely no chance of passing. As long as Republicans still have the power to block debate in the Senate, and as long as Democrats are still afraid of being labeled “tax and spend liberals,” nothing will change.

The reality is that for the past 35 years, the richest 1 percent of Americans have seen their wealth dramatically increase. Other families in the top 10 percent didn’t do quite as well, but still saw some increase in wealth. The other 90 percent of Americans have not only not seen their income keep up with inflation, but have gone backwards.

And those so-called economic stimulus checks — the ones that the Internal Revenue Service spent $42 million on this week sending us letters telling us they are coming in May or June — will have virtually no impact on the economy.

Too many politicians are in a state of denial about the extent of the economic troubles in this country and the need to take real steps to remedy them. Our representatives in Washington are a notable exception to this, but they need a lot more company on Capitol Hill before we can see real change happen.

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