Inequality and America’s Antiquated Politics

It’s ironic—though perhaps that’s too kind a term—to note that at the moment the U.S. poverty rate is reaching a 15-year high the nation is engaged in whether to offer additional tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 per year. (For a single adult in 2009, the poverty line was $10,830 in pretax cash income. For a family of four it was $22,050.)

This despite the fact that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzed the short-term effects of 11 potential options for dealing with the present unemployment crisis and found that retaining the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy offered the least powerful “bang for the buck,” owing to wealthy people’s proclivity to save rather than spend additional income. And yes, it just so happens that the Forbes 400 came out during the same week, and lo and behold, “The super-rich got even wealthier this year.” (CAP’s Matt Yglesias offers a few ideas about this phenomenon as well.)

Economic inequality in America is growing to proportions we have never seen before, threatening not only our social structure but also our democracy as the U.S. Supreme Court equates the right to spend money on politics with freedom of speech. A recent book by political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson called Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class insists that the answer can be found in the recent political decisions of the (pre-Obama) Congress and presidency.

The numbers tell a deeply disturbing story. During the 2000s, with a conservative Republican in the presidency and a mostly Republican Congress, the inflation-adjusted income of the median household—smack in the middle of the populace—fell 4.8 percent between 2000 and 2009. This is even worse than the 1970s when median income rose 1.9 percent despite high unemployment and inflation. Between 2007 and 2009, incomes fell 4.2 percent.

Most wage-earning family incomes have remained flat or been negative ever since the early 1970s. And yet since 1979 the top 1 percent of Americans have enjoyed 36 percent of all the gains made in household wealth (and this includes government benefits). Between 2001 and 2006, their share of income gains was an amazing 53 percent. Even more amazing, perhaps, is the fact that between 1979 and 2005 the top one-tenth of 1 percent—or 1 out of every 1,000 households—took home 20 percent of all income gains (after taxes).

Think about it. Approximately 300,000 super-rich Americans gobbled up half as much of the fruits of new wealth produced as 180 million or so American workers. This is an unprecedented situation in American history and one that undoubtedly threatens the fundamental functioning of democracy. It can hardly be a coincidence that it has come at a time when the labor movement has been fighting off a 30-year war by corporate America as the movement’s power and influence over the private economy has dwindled.

Given the power that money exercises in American politics the right to spend an unlimited amount on independent campaign expenditures and the power to gum up the system have been the wealthy’s most frequently used tactics to expand their economic power over the rest of us. Making matters worse, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission earned corporations a right by a 5-4 majority that wealthy individuals have enjoyed since 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo.

An impressive series of articles by Slate’s Timothy Noah seeks to discover the roots of the current crisis by testing out a number of hypothetical arguments. I would like to add one more that receives virtually no discussion in the media when this issue arises: our obsolete (indeed, anachronistic) system of political representation.

When the Senate was created the most populous state had just 12 times more people than the one with the smallest population. Now it’s 70 times, which gives those in small and underpopulated states a massive political advantage over the rest of us. (Wyoming’s two senators each represent 272,000 people; California’s 18,481,000.) And it just so happens that the best-represented areas of America are also the most conservative.

So when 40 Republican senators elected to block debate on the measure recommended not only by President Barack Obama but also Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to end the U.S. military’s 17-year “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays serving in the U.S. military as they had done for so many others during the 111th Congress, they represented barely a third of the U.S. population.

This is just the beginning of the problems Americans face in terms of disproportionate representation. The average age of a U.S. senator is 69, while the median age of Americans, according to the most recent census figures, is just over 35. Women are a majority of the U.S. population but only 17 percent of the Senate. Only four senators are African-American, Hispanic, or Native-American, while these minorities represent a third of the population.

Most senators are also millionaires. Most Americans, needless to say, are not. Elderly white male millionaires therefore stand to do quite well when it comes to legislation. Underrepresented groups—not so much.

The minority party has myriad means to bottle up legislation. And owing to a breakdown in comity among senators no special interest is deemed too small or insignificant to monkey up the works. The most common tool of late has been the threat to filibuster.

Genuine filibusters of the kind Southern Democrats used to use to block civil rights legislation in the ’40s and ’50s are unnecessary today. Senators find them inconvenient with all the back-and-forth travel, fundraising opportunities, and media appearances it would cost them. (The average senator spends about 1 percent of his time on the floor of the Senate, which is an infinitesimal fraction of what they devote to fundraising.) The ease of this particular tactic increased exponentially as senators grew ever more shameless in shutting down votes in which they are in the minority.

The actual numbers can be difficult to discern because in most cases the mere threat is enough to win the battle at hand. But if we examine a close corollary—cloture votes—these rose from fewer than 10 per (two-year) congressional session during the 1970s to well more than 100 in the past two sessions. The political scientist Barbara Sinclair estimates that 70 percent of all Senate bills have been affected by these threats during the past decade, nearly 10 times the average in the previous century.

The same numbers suggest that while the Democratic minority under George W. Bush was hardly a paragon of virtue in this respect they are still no match for their opponents when it comes to the use and deployment of the body’s tactical weaponry of obstruction. Since the Democratic takeover of both houses in 2006 Republicans, as of this writing, more than doubled the 130 cloture motions that Democrats managed to force during the four previous years under George W. Bush.

And yet this is only one of many stratagems available to a senator determined to clog up the works of democracy. In yet another fossilized rule left over from the days of stagecoach travel any senator can freeze any bill merely by placing a personal "hold" on it. Breaking holds can be done, but it is extremely tedious, time-consuming business, and the Senate does it only when it feels forced. Meanwhile, parliamentary maneuvers can be put in place to reinstate them by just two senators who pass them back and forth—called “rolling holds”—and, what’s more, it can be done in secret.

Again, Republicans in the current Congress have been far more promiscuous in the employment of this antimajoritarian tactic than any before them. On April 20, 2010, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) took to the floor to recount the names of fully 56 federal nominees under such holds, as Jon Kyl (R-Az) objected to every one of them.

Often, the reasons for a hold have nothing whatever to do with the person or issue in question. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), for instance, placed a "blanket hold" on dozens of nominees over complaints he had involving a Northrop Grumman tanker contract and the construction of a counterterrorism center in his home state. And when Kentucky’s Jim Bunning—a fine pitcher but an awful senator—decided to put a hold on legislation allowing the extension of unemployment benefits he single-handedly caused nearly 1.2 million unemployed workers to lose their benefits, a furlough of nearly 2,000 Department of Transportation employees without pay, the cutoff of $38 million in project funding for Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest and Fernan Lakes Idaho Panhandle National Forest, and the loss of $86 million for bridge replacements in the Washington, D.C., area.

And Bunning, who was retiring from office, had zero incentive to allow his colleagues’ business to proceed. (Approached by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley to see if his genuine concerns might somehow be addressed at less cost to those without work, Sen. Bunning replied simply, “Tough shit.”)

This is a tiny but telling example of just how easy it is for money to talk in our antiquated political system. It would nice if the U.S. media listened a little more carefully.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.