Who Stands with the Middle Class?

Robert Borosage

The broad American middle class is in trouble. Working families have been struggling with stagnant wages and rising insecurity for over three decades. From 2002-2007, Americans witnessed the first “recovery” in which the typical household suffered declining income. Then came the collapse of the housing bubble and the Great Recession. Middle-class Americans suffered losses of wealth and savings, as the value of their homes plummeted. Incomes continued to decline. Coming out of the recession, the top 1% captured a staggering 93% of the nation’s income growth, while the middle class continued to struggle.

So who in the Congress stands with the middle class? To answer this question, the Campaign for America’s Future and TheMiddleClass.org are publishing its Middle Class Voting Guide. It grades every Senate and House member on the basis of 10 votes over the last session of Congress that we consider central to middle-class concerns. It is presented in a user-friendly web page — themiddelcass.org/voterguide — that allows voters to locate their legislators by zip code, see their total grades, and probe their votes on each of the 10 issues. Voters can also click on their state, and see how the state delegation ranks on these issues. We also offer a handy guide to the worst and the best of the legislators.

Creating the guide inevitably involves choices. We removed any partisan bias by picking the issues before recording the votes. With the House and Senate under different party leadership, we found it necessary to choose different votes for each body, since very few issues received a vote in both houses. We chose not to include the continuing resolutions, omnibus appropriations bills and other compromises necessary to keep the government running.

We focused on kitchen-table issues – the concerns that Americans struggle with at night over their kitchen tables: jobs and wages, affording health care for their families and college for their kids, wondering about how to afford a secure retirement.

The issues we’ve chosen reflect common sense. With 23 million Americans in need of full time work, and a faltering recovery, middle-class Americans have a direct stake in government action to create jobs. As Europe has shown, inflicting austerity at this time is the path to a double-dip recession. The conservative head of the Federal Reserve, and the director of the International Monetary Fund share this perspective. It is also the stated assumption of the directors’ report of Simpson and Bowles and of the Rivlin-Demenici Commission. So we score members on their votes on the American Jobs Act and on other measures to put Americans to work.

Middle-class Americans treat Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as basic pillars of family security. By overwhelming margins, across political lines, they do not believe these programs need to be cut to help reduce deficits. They reject efforts to turn Medicare into a voucher program. They worry about the layoffs of teachers and want more investment in education. So we score members on their votes on the Ryan budget plan, passed by the House and defeated in the Senate.

Over the last 30 years, Americans have struggled with wages that aren’t keeping up with costs. Workers have not been able to capture a fair share of the rising productivity and profits that they have helped to produce. Falling union density has reduced their ability to bargain collectively. Corporations have moved jobs abroad and used the threat of off-shoring to squelch wage demands. So we score members on their votes on strengthening the right to organize, and on ending tax benefits for companies that move jobs abroad.

America’s corporate trade policies led to trade deficits of over $2 billion a day before the economic collapse. These imbalances, the IMF concluded, were destabilizing and unsustainable, contributing directly to the bubble and its eventual bust. In 2009, the G-20 reached a consensus that surplus and debtor countries must move to more balanced trade. For the middle class, our trade imbalances have meant the loss of good jobs abroad, stagnant wages, and contributed to the economic calamities of the Great Recession. Not surprisingly, despite bipartisan Washington support for more trade accords, Americans are increasingly skeptical of our corporate trade policies. We score legislators on their votes on the bilateral accord with South Korea, whose mercantilist trade policies contradict any notion of a level playing field.

Middle-class Americans juggle mortgages, credit card debt, and student loans. They struggle to save money for retirement. Too often, they are victimized by lenders, tricked by complex small print agreements, defrauded or mistreated by banks that have grown too big to manage. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is the only financial regulator tasked solely with protecting consumers. In its few months of existence, it has already proved its worth. So we score legislators on their votes to weaken or compromise the Bureau.

Americans are concerned about deficits; they realize that choices have to be made. Strong majorities support raising taxes on the rich as part of the effort to address deficits while protecting vital investments. Extreme inequality now contributes directly to the decline of the middle class. So we score legislators on their votes on repealing top end tax breaks.

Middle-class Americans want affordable energy. But they also value clean air and water, protection against toxics and poisons. They support environmental review of projects that might do damage to their environment. So we score legislators on their votes to weaken or eliminate environmental protections.

Middle-class Americans are also increasingly concerned about the big money that is undermining our democracy. They see Washington dominated by corporate lobbies that rig the rules to their own benefit. They see legislators compromised by their need to raise money from those very interests. They want Washington cleaned up. So we score members on their vote on at least forcing disclosure of all campaign related expenditures.

We limited ourselves to issues members voted on. One of the most destructive actions to the middle class — the debt ceiling debacle that undermined a fragile recovery and resulted in a destructive compromise that began to inflict austerity on a weak economy – is not included here. The real damage was done in holding the debt ceiling hostage, which entailed avoiding a vote, not casting one. We argued long about including the vote on the compromise as a vote against the middle class. It forced untimely and unbalanced cuts in domestic programs, while setting up the “sequester” process that makes austerity the focus rather than measures to get our economy going. The problem was the alternative – voting against the compromise and allowing default on the debt – was also destructive of middle class interests. This left legislators and the middle class with no good choices. So we decided not to score those votes.

What does the guide tell us? Not surprisingly, the guide reflects the growing polarization – both partisan and ideological – in the Congress. 181 House members get 0% on our score sheet, all Republicans. They would surely argue that they represent the middle class by opposing all tax hikes, cutting government spending, pushing deregulation, and supporting more trade accords. We disagree. Polls suggest most Americans disagree. In the end, the voters will decide whom they reward and whom they punish. The guide provides a clear screen that can help them see where their legislators stand.

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