Dispatch from Federal Workers’ Protest: Government Shutdown Day 4

Photo Oct 04, 12 06 15 PM

On the morning of the fourth day of the U.S. government shutdown, Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and hundreds of union and non-union federal workers came to the Capitol to protest. Some traveled from faraway states like South Carolina and Florida, and they represented various departments of the government, such as the U.S. Treasury, IRS, Departments  of Commerce, Education and Defense, the Food and Drug Administration, and NASA. Scientists, analysts, technicians, park landscapers, drivers, and inspectors continue on an indefinite furlough.

At the rally Colleen Kelly, president of National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), spoke about the need for federal workers to get back to work–for their families and the millions of people who depend on vital government services. Other speakers demanded Congress put aside differences and pass a balanced budget to put 850,000 people back to work.

As the week progressed, federal workers became less reluctant to picket the U.S. Capitol while Congress continued to be embroiled in the budget debate. The international press was there recording the spectacle. Continue reading

Dispatch from Federal Workers’ Protest: Government Shutdown Day 2

Defund_congress

We returned to the Capitol steps for the second day of the government shutdown. We carried the same signs and spoke the same message, but there were changes from the previous day. Some Capitol Police officers expressed solidarity with our cause, and tourists joined our protest. Both police and tourists are being affected by the shutdown.

A Capitol Police guard walked up to me and jokingly said, “Keep one of those signs for me, I may join you next week.” Surprised, I asked him if he was for real. He said he was dissatisfied because he was working but without pay, a “mission essential employee” caught between the power players in the marble building above him he was guarding.

I asked another cop if he was being paid and he said no, they had to work but they’d have to wait for backpay. “People are getting a little salty around here,” he said. “I may need to take your dollar after this week,” referring to the dollar bill I had taped over my mouth.

All day I watched the police come and go with less suspicion than usual. It felt strange to consider them brethen in the shutdown, although they are. I regarded them with a kind of respect. Here they were guarding the U.S. Capitol from people like us, peaceful protestors (protesting on their behalf too), while the members of Congress they protected discussed our fates. Capitol Police were not getting paid for it, yet they reported to work anyway. Of all the ironies I’ve heard this week, this was one of the most contemptible. Continue reading

Dispatch from Federal Workers’ Protest: Government Shutdown Day 1

On October 1, the first day of the government shutdown, I joined 50 federal workers in an impromptu all-day protest at the U.S. Capitol. Just hours before, we were indefinitely suspended from our jobs. We reported to work, signed papers acknowledging the furlough and left. We had been preparing for a shutdown for several days, so wasn’t a surprise. It’s the second time I’ve been furloughed this year. The first time was due to the sequester.

The few of us who went to the Capitol didn’t know what to expect. I went there thinking I would be the only one to show up. Several others showed up with the same mindset: disgusted and worried about how being effectively unemployed would affect us.

Most carried signs to express their frustration, but I taped a dollar bill over my mouth as a metaphor for what I believe is the root cause of problems in our government. I believe that money has silenced the voices of reason, voices which should serve as the basis for a functional government. Continue reading

Government Shutdown, Another Episode in “Budget Wars”

At the stroke of midnight on October 1, the workings of the U.S. government will grind to a halt. That is, unless a deeply dysfunctional Congress fuels it with yet another stopgap measure to tide it over for a couple of months.

Technically, when the fiscal year runs out on September 30, the government doesn’t have the legal authority to spend money unless the House and Senate agree on an appropriations bill and the President signs it.

The Republican party is using the budget process to attack the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare–a bill so nauseating to them that the Republican-controlled House has voted to repeal it forty times.

Their latest blackmail offer is to withhold funding unless Obamacare’s individual mandate–a requirement that certain people purchase health insurance–is delayed by one year.

President Obama and Democrats, however, are blasting the GOP for holding the country hostage to their radically conservative base. They are pushing for a “clean” Continuing Resolution. The Senate is certain to reject spending bills with healthcare funding conditions. The clock is ticking. A shutdown is bound to ensue. Continue reading

CODEPINK to camp out on Congress’ doorstep until Syria vote

Activists from CODEPINK set up “camp” on an Independence Avenue sidewalk on Friday evening, just a few steps from the U.S. Capitol building. They had to clear out just a few hours later, but they’ll be back Saturday morning when their permit kicks in.

After that, they don’t intend to leave until the House votes on the Authorization of Military Force in Syria resolution sometime next week.

CODEPINK founder Medea Benjamin said, “We’re here for a peace insurrection. We’re going to build it over the weekend and be ready on Monday when Congress comes back from a long vacation.”

U.S. Capitol Police however were clearly uncomfortable with protestors hanging out on the corner so close to the Capitol building, playing loud music, dancing and displaying large anti-war banners.

CODEPINK is calling the camp “Peace Insurrection,” a base for people to express their opposition to proposed military intervention in Syria. President Obama is pressing Congress for authorization to launch missiles into Syria after the al-Assad regime allegedly gassed civilians in the Damascus region with chemical weapons. Continue reading

Congress comes up with money to end Defense Department furloughs

DoD_sealSecretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a memorandum today effectively ending the furloughs of hundreds of thousands of Department of Defense civilian employees in mid-August. Mandatory one-day-a-week leave of the civilian work force will end five weeks earlier than scheduled–as well as their corresponding twenty percent pay cut.

The furloughs were implemented in June as a Department-wide cost-cutting measure to cover a $11 billion shortfall because of the sequester, sweeping automatic budget cuts resulting from Congressional indecision. Active duty military considered to be part of the “war effort” were exempt from the furloughs, while 800,000 civil servants have been affected.

At first, civilian employees were told to expect 14 days of unpaid leave starting in May. Later the furloughs were downgraded to 11 days from July 8 to mid-September. Hagel’s announcement reduces them further to a total of six days.

According to Secretary Hagel, furloughs were among “limited options” to “close [the] gap” in the budget shortfall. Unsurprisingly, the twenty percent cut in pay resulting from the furloughs and its unequal application has caused dissension among the ranks.

Yet the constraints imposed by the Congressional sequester seem to have had more flexibility than anticipated, and the Department of Defense appears to have come up with some money as well. In the memo, Hagel writes:

Congress has approved most of a large reprogramming request that we submitted in mid-May, giving us flexibility to move funds across accounts. The military services have been aggressive in identifying ways to hold down costs, and we have been successful in shifting savings (including furlough savings) to meet our highest priority needs.

A memorandum Hagel issued earlier this week indicated that furloughs may be proposed again next year, or for as long as five years, in order to bring the bloated Defense budget in line with the President’s plan for reduction.

The odds are high for furloughs continuing under a sequester next year as Congress has yet to pass a balanced budget, opting to allocate funds on the basis of continuing resolutions. The $85 billion sequester reductions are the result of a Congress unable to agree on how much to cut government spending or where the cuts should be made.

Sequester has affected government services in a variety of sectors. In April, air traffic controllers were furloughed for several weeks, resulting in significant delays in air travel. The Friday before Congress was to travel home for spring break, they voted to approve a last minute re-allocation of $253 million from funds the FAA already had in another account.

The sequester also slashed budgets for Federal Parks, Head Start early education, Meals on Wheels, public defenders and many other services in which civil servants have had their hours reduced.

Time is now for pathway to citizenship, say immigrant supporters at Capitol

“Citizenship–the time is now!” rang from Capitol Hill yesterday at the Immigration Reform Rally. Thousands packed the West Lawn to tell Congress that comprehensive reform of immigration policy–and a pathway to citizenship–is needed now.

They couldn’t have picked a better time. Although planned for months by a large number of organizations, the rally coincides with Obama’s push for immigration reform and a Senate committee haggling over a new bill. Harboring regrets over the 2012 election, Republicans seem poised to defy their base intent on deportation and finally make some concessions to get a bill passed.

It’s the first time since 2007 that Congress has taken on the reality of 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S.–many of them well-established in communities with their families. According to a Pew Research study, the majority of undocumented immigrants arrived in the U.S. before 2000. Only 1.6 million of the total number have entered the country since 2005.

Protestor Joyce Tarnow of Florida

Immigrants with citizenship and work permits who attended the rally were eager to express their support. Luís from Stafford, Virginia said he came to the U.S. from El Salvador illegally. Now a citizen, he’s worked for the same landscaping company for 25 years.

Standing alongside his friends and co-workers Alcía and Arturo, he said, “We didn’t come over here because we are criminals. We came over here because they are poor in our country.”

People came to Washington, DC from all across the U.S. bearing signs and flags from their home states, as well as flags from their homelands such as Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Venezuela.

Although Hispanics made up a large portion of rally attendees and speeches from the stage were delivered in Spanish, many people were immigrants from Mideast countries such as Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and African countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Mali.

A few protestors against “amnesty” for immigrants clustered by the Reflecting Pool. One of them, Joyce Tarnow from north Florida propped up a huge sign saying, “12,000,000 out of work.” She and rally attendee Johar Ali, a Canadian, engaged in a civil debate about the immigration issue. In spite of the focus of Tarnow’s sign, the discussion pivoted more around the environment and scarce resources than jobs.

“Our water table has been going down in the the central part of the U.S. for decades. There has been less water available, there will be less production,” she said, expressing her concern for rising population growth.

Ali, on the other hand, saw problems arising for countries with stagnating population growth. China, for example, is in “big trouble” because of their one-child policy. Workers are retiring, he said, and “you don’t have enough [people] to fill in their shoes.” Without population growth from immigration in the U.S., he argued, “Social Security will disappear.”

Federal benefits are often a sticking point in the immigration debate. But conservative proponents for immigration reform are countering the traditional argument that immigrants are a drain on resources. They point to a report by the American Action Forum which says that legitimizing undocumented workers will boost GDP and tax revenue over the long term.

For many people at the rally, however, changing immigration policy is not about macro-economics but keeping their families together.

One girl at the rally wore a t-shirt saying, “My Dad deserves citizenship.” An estimated 5.5 million children in the U.S. have one or more parents who are undocumented immigrants, according to a report released in 2011 by the Applied Research Center.

Luís, the landscaper from El Salvador who gained citizenship, feels for children in this situation. “Children suffer from this,” he said. “I see the news, the breaking heart news, all the little kids living in the U.S. without any parents.”

The eight senators working to draft the legislation may have cleared a hurdle by agreeing to measures related to border security. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, one of the members of the bipartisan group, told the rally crowd that they were nearly ready to present the bill.

John Zangas contributed to this article.

Tax the corporations, tax the uber-wealthy

Photo by Lisa Norwood

It’s tax day, 2012! As you press the key to electronically file your taxes, or make the frenzied trip to the post office as I did, let’s contemplate another year when Congress wailed over the country’s debt yet failed to tax corporations and the super-rich.

This just in: Senate Republicans blocked the proposed minimum tax on top earners known as the Buffett Rule. No surprises there.

Common Dreams has two good articles addressing the plight of the rich in America. “Five Reasons Why The Very Rich Have NOT Earned Their Money” gives you some facts to back up what you intuitively know: American workers aren’t losing ground because they’re lazy.

So workers have TRIPLED their productivity over 30 years while the richest 1% have TRIPLED their share of income. Worker pay remained flat as the top 10% took almost all the productivity gains since 1980.

Tax victimhood is the refuge of the rich. Titans of entrepreneurship are carrying average American leeches on the back of their tax burdens, right? Well, no.

Real tax rates for the richest Americans have gone way down over the last 30 years, from 34% in 1980 to 23% in 2006. Yet the 1% claim they pay most of the taxes. They don’t, if all taxes are considered. Based on recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the total of all state and local taxes, social security taxes, and excise taxes (gasoline, alcohol, tobacco) consumes 22% of the annual incomes of the poorest quintile. For the top 1% of Americans, the same taxes consume less than 10% of their incomes.

In “The Rich Are Different from You and Me – They Pay Less Taxes,” Bill Moyers gives us the straight story on corporate profits and gluttonous CEO’s:

In a story headlined, “For Big Companies, Life Is Good,” The Wall Street Journal reports that big American companies have emerged from the deepest recession since World War II more profitable than ever: flush with cash, less burdened by debt, and with a greater share of the country’s income. But, the paper notes, “Many of the 1.1 million jobs the big companies added since 2007 were outside the U.S. So, too, was much of the $1.2 trillion added to corporate treasuries.”

To add to this embarrassment of riches, the consumer group Citizens for Tax Justice reports that more than two dozen major corporations  – including GE, Boeing, Mattel and Verizon — paid no federal taxes between 2008 and 2011. They got a corporate tax break that was broadly supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Last year, among the 100 best-paid CEOs, the median income was more than $14 million, compared with the average annual American salary of $45,230. Combined, this happy hundred executives pulled down more than two billion dollars.

Also not to be missed: The Nation features a slide show of “Ten CEOs Who Tax-Dodged Their Way to Riches.”

The 1 Percent isn’t a figment of the 99 Percent’s imagination.

When Women Occupied Congress

“It was a great moment. But we lost it.”

How could the largest gathering of women in America since the suffragettes be summed up with such a harsh appraisal? Yet that’s how an organizer of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade protest of 1968 recalled it.

A fusion of the anti-war and emerging feminist movements, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade was a coalition of women’s groups who came to Washington, DC to protest the Vietnam War on January 15, the first day of the Congressional session. Among the 5,000 women in attendance was 88-year-old Jeannette Rankin herself, the first US congresswoman and devotee of Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence.

If one of the protest’s leaders characterized a historic mobilization as a failure, do the events of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade offer any lessons to modern activists? This is a timely question, since another mass movement will soon converge in Washington to confront Congress on its opening day 2012. This time it’s Occupy Congress, or J17.

The January 17 event will be the first major protest on a national level attempted in the US by the Occupy movement. Focusing less on wealth inequality than Occupy Wall Street, J17 will protest corruption, bribery and deadlock in Congress.

Looking back at 1968, you can see that some things haven’t changed. The unresponsiveness of Congress and the media circus have only been super-sized over four decades. Shulamith Firestone describes the pragmatic viewpoint of the organizers of the Rankin Brigade:

From the beginning we felt that this kind of action, though well-meant was ultimately futile. It is naïve to believe that women who are not politically seen, heard, or represented in this country could change the course of a war by simply appealing to the better natures of congressmen. …So that we came as a group not of appeal to Congress, but to appeal to women not to appeal to congress. Rather we believed that such a massive gathering should be used to devise ways to build up real political strength.

Occupy Congress knows better than to appeal to “the better natures of congressmen.” Sheer numbers might have to impress on the political establishment the strength of the movement by building up currency in public opinion.

Unfortunately, coverage by a capricious, biased media can dominate perception. What’s more, disagreement over media tactics and a certain amount of disorganization thwarted the Rankin Brigade. When they conducted a mock funeral of the “Traditional Woman” at Arlington Cemetery–complete with faux corpse adorned with blonde wig and curlers, S & H Green Stamps, and garters, accompanied by a drum corps with kazoo–it was too much for the moderate elements. Five hundred women split off from the convention.

The more radical reformers didn’t shy away from media manipulation and agitprop, yet a minority felt that catering to mass media was only reinforcing their hegemony. They resisted having a spokeswoman and established rules about talking to reporters, all to prevent a “cult of personality.” The superficial media in turn took its usual route of seeking out human interest stories and latching on to the most sensationalized bits. Even the “Left” media undermined them with overt sexism. The cover of short-lived but popular Ramparts magazine featured a headless woman’s torso with “Jeannette Rankin for President” pinned to its breast. (Patricia Bradley, Mass Media and the Strategy of American Feminism, 1963-1975; 57)

Firestone describes the women as “fully aware of their impotence.” Her conclusion is unexpected:

We learned the value of spontaneity, of quick and appropriate political action, the value of learning to size up a situation and act on it at once, the importance of unrehearsed speaking ability. For I think one good guiding speech at the crisis point which illustrated the real causes underlying the massive discontent and impotence felt in that room then, would have been worth ten dummies and three months of careful and elaborate planning.

If she’s making the case for unifying and charismatic leaders, it’s something that Occupy has scrupulously avoided. The women’s movement is an imperfect analogy for Occupy, but many of the challenges it faced still apply. Occupy has factions favoring radical political solutions and anarchism, moderates who prefer less aggressive approaches, and everything in between. The allergy to spokespersons for Occupy is infamous–nobody “speaks” for Occupy, it wants no charismatic leader as its face. “Branding” and “messaging” are questionable strategies for a movement that doesn’t want to reinforce hegemonic, corporate media, yet lack of them can make it incomprehensible to mainstream media and vulnerable to the same pitfalls as before–superficial human interest stories and sensationalism. Not manipulating the MSM is often to be manipulated by them. Occupy’s solution has often been to bypass it altogether.

On January 17, Occupy Congress will bring thousands of activists to the National Mall to confront a Congress who may or may not care if it’s Occupied. It’s likely to succeed in strength of numbers and media attention. One of its main challenges however will be to unify its diverse elements for a few days both in common cause and strategy, and hopefully in doing so, it won’t “lose its moment.”

Bringing so many Occupiers together could at least take the temperature of the movement:

We found out where women, even the so-called “women radicals” were really at. We confirmed our worst suspicions, that the job ahead, of developing even a minimal consciousness among women will be staggering, but we also confirmed our belief that a real women’s movement in this country will come, if only out of the sheer urgent and immediate necessity for one.

For Occupy, developing even a minimal consciousness in the American public is indeed staggering. There could be no more urgent and immediate necessity.