Is it any wonder that Americans dislike Congress so much? It shouldn't be a surprise because our representatives in Washington ignore public opinion. Gun control is the perfect example. A clear majority of people favors a ban on assault weapons (57 percent favor and 41 percent oppose, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll). But members of Congress can't even agree on universal background checks which just about every living and breathing American favors. (91 percent according to ABC News/Washington Post.)
On economic issues, Washington is completely out of sync with public opinion. Seven in ten (or more precisely 71 percent, according to Gallup) Americans favor raising the minimum wage to $9.00 per hour but Republicans won't even let the increase come to a vote on the House floor. House Republicans won't even consider raising taxes on rich people even though a majority of Americans favor an increase in the capital gains tax to reduce the deficit (that would be 52 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed, according to survey conducted for CBS News). On the other hand, only one in six (18 percent, again according to CBS News) Americans want to cut Medicare but the president and Congress want to cut the spending for a program which is the only thing that keeps millions of seniors financially afloat.
The debate over the federal budget is just another example of congressional indifference to public opinion. For years, the debate over the federal budget has mainly been about the federal budget deficit to the exclusion of any meaningful discussion about job creation. When President Obama formally introduces his budget for the 2014 fiscal year on Wednesday, it will be business as usual. We'll have a lot of talk about deficits but little debate about jobs.
Everyone in Washington talks about the deficit but Americans outside our nation's capital worry about jobs. Not that anyone in Washington cares but the public disagrees with the tone of the budget discussion in D.C. A new Marist College poll shows that Americans want Congress to focus on creating jobs (62 percent of them anyway) more than they want deficit reduction (only 35 percent want that). If that doesn't work for you, the national Election Day exit poll showed that a lot more voters were worried about jobs (59 percent) than they were the deficit (15 percent).
A focus on jobs instead of the deficit is good politics for Democrats but also good policy. Government programs create jobs and put money into the pockets of middle class families. People with jobs pay taxes and buy things, which in turn creates more jobs, and higher tax revenues. The title of Representative Paul Ryan's budget "Path to Prosperity" should be the "Path to Austerity" which in turn is the path to poverty. The economy had been creating a lot of jobs for the last few months until the sequester kicked in last month. But spending cuts sucked money out of the economy and the wind out of job growth.
Congress has gone rogue and working families are paying the price.
In his new book, "Who Stole the American Dream?" Hedrick Smith writes that the big business lobby has become so powerful in Washington that it can get Congress to do its bidding. Unions used to counteract the corporate lobby but pro business policies at the state and federal level have weakened labor. In 2010, businesses shelled out $972 million in soft money contributions to party committees compared to $10 million for labor. Business PACs contributed $333 million to only $69 million for labor committees.
Members of Congress can safely ignore public opinion because most of them represent districts where there is little or no competition. And if a member does have a tough race, he or she can always count on big business political action committees to bail them out with large campaign contributions or independent expenditure efforts.
That's why we are cutting funding for education and moving to limit spending on Social Security and Medicare while Republicans hold spending on oil company companies ($4 billion a year) and tax breaks on corporate jets ($3 billion annually) sacrosanct.
Education is a lot more important to America's economic future than subsidizing oil barons and corporate jet setters but you would never know it if you follow the economic debate in Washington. The sequester means that 70,000 fewer kids will be able to enter Head Start this fall. That's 70,000 children who won't get a much-needed head start in the new world of cutthroat global economic competition.
Let's talk about basic American values like opportunity and democracy. America should be the land of opportunity but it is getting harder for Americans who grow up in low-income households to reach the middle class than it has ever been before. America should be the bastion of democracy but Congress no longer considers the views of the public it should represent.