Thursday, June 30, 2011

Congress’s Scorecard: 17% and Falling

In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in 8 rounds, a Hungarian architecture professor invented the Rubik's Cube, and the first Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned. 1974 is also the year that Gallup first asked Americans whether they approved or disapproved of the job Congress was doing. It has been asking that question in one form or another ever since. After the 2010 midterms when the lower chamber changed hands, Congress watching has almost become a sporting event with numbers like scores. The House is where the action is. The score this month: 17% and falling.

After scientifically analyzing thirty years’ worth of collected public opinion data, what Gallup found was that Congress never averaged above a 42% job approval rating for any calendar year prior to 1999 nor averaged below a 42% afterwards. But that started to change after 2004. Gallup noted of congress’s job approval rating, “. . . that record is being tested this year as the public grows more negative toward the direction of the country in general and President George W. Bush in particular with a sluggish economy and an ongoing war in Iraq.”

Gallup began its annual updating of congressional approval in the 1991-1992 term of the 102nd Congress. “Approval of subsequent Congresses has varied mostly from the low 20s to the mid-40s, although it reached 55% for the 107th Congress' 2001-2002 term.” It should be noted that following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress scored a record 84% job approval rating in October 2001.

The sport of congress watching advanced as more polls began to assess public opinion and apply ratings of their own, kind of like inverse handicapping. The CBS poll began asking the congress approval question in 1977. In May of 2005 CBS reported, “Today a majority of Americans, 55 percent, disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.” CBS continued, “Approval ratings for Congress have historically been low, rarely moving above the 50 percent mark since this poll began asking the question,” and concurred with Gallup. “However, recent Congressional ratings are at some of their lowest points since the mid-nineties,” the network said.

This month the decline in the approval ratings of Congress has set record lows. A Rasmussen survey reports, “. . . the approval rating of Congress has slipped into single digits. It now stands at just 9 percent, tying an all-time low.” The survey also says, “Just 16 percent of survey respondents say Congress has passed legislation in the past year that will improve life in America significantly,” contributing to the second month of its 9% rating.

According to pollster Scott Rasmussen, who started his survey in 2003, “If we ever found a Little League team behaving as poorly as the Republicans and Democrats or the congressman and senators, we'd probably disband the team and go home.” Of course he also has a book to promote, In Search of Self-Governance. But the findings of the survey that bears his name are consistent with Gallup’s, if not a bit more pessimistic.

The Rasmussen survey also says, “Eighty percent of respondents say members of Congress care more about advancing their own careers than helping their constituents.” That would make it the House of Self-Representatives, like Bachmann and Paul who haven’t posted scores yet.
Ratings aside for the moment, service in the lower chamber of congress, self and otherwise, has been the big league beginning for the careers of 19 presidents and 33 major presidential nominees. 

According to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, “Only Henry Clay (1824), James A. Garfield (1880), and John Anderson (1980) ran for President in the general election as sitting House Members.” Garfield became president. More familiar House members were Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Bush the elder, and contenders McGovern, Anderson, Dole, Gore and McCain. The most famous president to come from the House is Abraham Lincoln, Whig of Illinois.

Back in Gallup trends, Congress had a 19% rating in June 1979 and an 18% approval rating in March 1992. “All of the historical low ratings have come during sluggish economic times in the United States,” Gallup reported. Such a dim view of Congress by Americans has led to significant turnovers after the 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections. Gallup concludes, “Unless conditions in the United States improve and Americans become more charitable in their ratings of Congress, the 2012 elections may result in another shake-up in Congress' membership.”

To use the vernacular, it must suck to go to work every day in an organization that most of your fellow Americans thoroughly dislike. So far the 112th Congress has achieved new nadirs in its approval ratings that may not have tanked yet. If the scorecards are accurate, the present Republican House majority and its speaker John Boehner could end its series with a loss in 2012 and be replaced by a Democrat majority and the return of Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Compared to Congress' 17% approval numbers, which is the same as it was following the last election, the President’s 43% approval numbers look great.

Article first published as Congress's Scorecard: 17% and Falling on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fair Tax: One More Time

Almost as a footnote in current events, Senior Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) announced that he is joining a new push for an old GOP favorite, the Fair Tax. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) introduced Senate bill S.13 with the support of fellow Senators Burr (R-NC), Coburn (R-OK), Cornyn (R-TX), DeMint (R-SC), Isakson (R-GA) and Moran (R-KS). According to Lugar, 60 members in the House are also on board with the Fair Tax and have a bill of their own, HR.25, titled “Repeal of the Income Tax, Payroll Taxes, And Estate and Gift Taxes.” Representatives Dan Burton (R-IN), Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) and Mike Pence (R-IN) have cast their endorsements of the legislation. The bill has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The U.S. budget controversy continues to be about austerity and so-called spending cuts, which is a misnomer and an aside. Discussion of revenue opposes any tax increases as election time approaches. With the deficit apparently more important than unemployment, so much so that Republicans have dumped their previous job creation promises to voters, maybe the time has come to reconsider the Fair Tax. So let’s do that.

The S.13 Senate Fair Tax bill would impose a national sales tax on “the use or consumption in the United States of taxable property or services.” It sets the sales tax rate at 23% in 2013, but the Fair Tax rate is actually 30% when calculated the way state and local sales taxes are. S.13 defunds the Internal Revenue Service after 2015, but it creates two new bureaus: an Excise Tax Bureau and a Sales Tax Bureau. Finally, if the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution is not repealed within seven years of its enactment, the Fair Tax terminates. The bill has been referred to the Senate’s Committee on Finance.

10 years ago when revenues were as high as 20.6% of gross domestic product (GDP), the Fair Tax might have meant a huge tax cut for most Americans. Today, with revenues as low as 14.9% of GDP, it would create a huge tax increase. The GOP likes good old ideas, facts notwithstanding. Such Republican ideas like term limits, the flag-burning amendment and the balanced-budget amendment got plenty of media and public attention, but they lost traction and failed to be legislated. Still, announced presidential candidate Herman Cain has made the Fair Tax idea part of his campaign platform, just as Richard Lugar did sixteen years ago. Perhaps Cain should talk to Steve Forbes, the last unelected presidential candidate to champion the Flat Tax cause, twice. However, that is another story.

10 years ago in January, 2001, the Congressional Budget Office forecast surpluses totaling $5.6 trillion by 2011. Balanced for the first time in decades, at that time, the U.S. budget has since plunged from surplus to debt. A third of that $12.7 trillion plunge can be accounted for by three policies for which no one in office claims responsibility: the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq funding and the 2009 Obama stimulus bill. Expressed a percentage of the economy, except for a period after WWII, those three policies contribute to the national debt being larger than at any time in U.S. history.

So while everyone is blaming everyone else for a crisis in which they are complicit, politicians like to drag out the tax code and beat it like a populist’s piñata. It worked for President Obama.

"We've got a tax code that's making things worse,” candidate Obama said, October 22, 2007. “This isn't an accident. Special interests in Washington have carved out a trillion dollars worth of corporate tax loopholes at a time when income inequality is larger than any time since before the Great Depression." But candidate Obama was talking about a fair tax system, not the Fair Tax bills being put forth in Congress.

Its central idea is that the Fair Tax would eliminate complexity in the tax code. The idea is long on rhetoric, like what you earn is what you keep; like no more withholding taxes; like no more income tax. However, it is short on reality. For example, taxpayers would still pay the FICA Social Security tax, which is already a bigger burden than income tax for most people. Somebody would have to enforce the new tax law, so the plan would not eliminate the IRS altogether. The Fair Tax would not help the poor, who pay no income taxes under current tax code.

That is all before special interests hire lobbyists to propose exemptions. Tax attorneys, tax accountants and tax preparation companies be damned. Not.

The very idea of a federal income tax is barely a hundred years old. President William Howard Taft (R-OH) floated the idea in 1909. Oddly enough a greedy coalition of Republicans and Democrats of the day turned Taft’s idea into the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At the time, no one really thought that the states would ratify the amendment. But a majority of states did ratify it in 1913 and people have been griping about income tax ever since.

The 16th Amendment created income tax as method of raising revenue and it created a federal bureaucracy called the Internal Revenue Service to collect it. Its ratification trumped an 1895 Supreme Court decision, Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co., holding a similar congressional attempt to uniformly tax incomes to be unconstitutional.

“And so the question is, is there a way of achieving simplification, but still having some element of progressivity and some element of fairness in the tax system?” President Obama asked a conference in Buffalo last year. “That’s part of what makes it complicated.”

So is repealing the 16th Amendment which both of the Fair Tax bills require. It takes Constitutional amendment to repeal a Constitutional amendment and that has to be ratified by the states. So far it has only happened once. In 1934 the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment that created Prohibition in 1919. Civics lesson aside, the Fair Tax bill that Senator Lugar endorses has a Republican appeal that the tea party fringe will surely enjoy. But as interesting as the idea is, it is only interesting.

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Originally published on Blogcritics June 6, 2011

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Where Are the Jobs?

The 112th Congress has passed 25 roll call votes. This is the result of its taking care of the people’s business: 7 bills have become public law, 9 bills are destined for veto and the balance faces Senate opposition. Speaking of the Democratic controlled Senate, 4 of those veto destined bills have been referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and the balance are probably destined to failure. So, where are the jobs?

Let’s start with the legislation that has become public law. Bills on defense, Republicans never say “No” to the Department of Defense. There are lots of jobs in the armed services, but that’s not new. Roads will continue to be built and small business gets to save a lot of paper. There are continuing appropriations because bills must still be paid until a some kind of budget is enacted. But there are no new jobs in any of that.

The extension of the Patriot Act is contentious because it comes up for vote again. Key parts of the Patriot Act are set to expire on May 27th. The Senate promised a real debate on this Bush Administration brain-child, but clearly that isn’t going to happen. The ACLU opposes its abridgement of the 4th Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. But they guy listening to your phone calls could have told you that.

The Banking Committee is looking at bills aimed at existing legislation and none is likely to pass. There is a Refinance bill to eliminate the Federal Housing Administration’s recently implemented short refinancing program. The White House has threatened to veto the measure should it pass the Senate. The Treasury’s Emergency Mortgage Relief Program, aimed at helping 3 to 4 million people by modifying at-risk mortgage loans, is a target. The HAMP Act [Home Affordable Modification Program], part of the TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] created by the Bush administration is a target and the administration has already said it will veto that bill. So far, however, there are no jobs offered in any of that business.

The new Republican House got lots of TV camera time by doing what it said it was going to do -- to attack and repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, which they call by the epithet “ObamaCare”. They passed the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act and Repealing the Prevention and Public Health Fund, the latter which seeks to defund the new Health Care law. Both of those were campaign promises to people who don’t like Obama by people whose platform is not to like Obama. They promised jobs to everyone, just not in these bills.

Remember the BP oil disaster in the Gulf last year? The new Republican House hopes you don’t. Their Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act would require the administration to move forward with lease sales along the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico that it has delayed or canceled. Coincidentally, the Atlantic drilling is off the coast of Virginia, of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s home. The administration has said it will veto the bill.

And speaking about the environment, the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases for the purpose of combating climate change. How that saves taxpayers money while it chokes them must be a gift to somebody. If you guessed an Obama veto is likely, you guessed right. As for the defunding of National Public Radio, when Rush Limbaugh is free, Who Needs NPR?

What else has the House done for us, the people, so far? It passed some more “Repeal Funding” bills, aimed at defunding provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act that probably will not make it through the Senate. I have previously written about H.R.3 [No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act] and Net Neutrality [Disapproving the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission with respect to regulating the Internet and broadband industry practices]. Both of those face major Senate opposition.

They passed a Scholarship bill that has to do with Washington, D.C. schools. Congress is responsible for the district. There is an FAA bill “to streamline programs, create efficiencies, reduce waste, and improve aviation safety and capacity,” and we all need safer skies. There is the Government Shutdown Prevention Act, but that is probably unconstitutional. The budget bill that passed the House last month is in the Senate Budget Committee. It is all about cuts that will put more people out of work.

The one thing that the Republican House has done that gets plenty of attention is to create controversy on the deficit and debt ceiling debates. Both are exceptional exercises in brinksmanship, not effective fiscal policy, and confirmed to investors that congress is clueless about financial markets. The financial crisis itself is a product of the Republican administration that started two wars and decided to finance them with deficits instead of taxes. Republicans are responsible for a problem that cuts cannot cure. Creating jobs would at least increase federal revenue though withholding taxes, but that is a promise they have not kept. They also expect to be reelected.

Article first published as Where Are the Jobs? on Technorati.