Why We Must Take Back The Capitol

Keith Chatterton, a 61-year-old former salesman for a building components company, recently told the Syracuse Post-Standard that he hasn’t had a steady job since 2008, even with “days scouring the Internet for openings, attending job fairs and support groups, trying to widen his network of contacts and sending out thousands of electronic resumes.”

“His $75,000 salary is gone, he has flown past his 99 weeks of unemployment insurance, and his 401(k) continues to be battered in the stock market. If not for his wife’s $35,000-a-year job at the Syracuse Housing Authority, he said, they wouldn’t be able to hold on to their three-bedroom house near Corcoran High School,” the paper reported.

This, I thought when I encountered his story during a recent visit to my father-in-law near Syracuse, is one reason thousands of people have been in Occupy encampments around the country. It’s for the nearly 6 million people like Keith Chatterton whose long-term joblessness represents a particularly egregious failure of our economic and political system. It’s for the millions within reach of retirement before the recession hit who were stripped of secure jobs and had their retirement savings erased. It’s for the millions more who were in college as the recession hit and now, as Van Jones has often said, have graduated off a cliff into an economy that offers them no way to use their education and no means to pay the college debt they have accumulated. It’s for the heads of once solidly middle-class families who have seen their incomes fall and who now live in the midst of record levels of poverty.

Some critics of the Occupy movement on the right have started saying, “Instead of occupying Wall Street, you ought to be occupying Washington.” The week of December 5, we will. But it will not be the kind of occupation conservative critics have in mind.

“Take Back the Capitol” is a week of actions intended to expose and challenge the dysfunction in Washington fostered by the intransigence of conservative ideologues, the rapaciousness of corporate lobbyists and the cowardice of those we would expect to stand against them. As a flier promoting the week explains, the aim is to “show Congress what democracy looks like, shine a light on corporate greed and the human suffering it has caused, and demand justice for the 99 percent.”

Several thousand protestors—bringing together the Occupy movement, organized labor and other progressive activists—will converge on the National Mall starting Monday as Congress is deciding what action it will take on a continuation of a payroll tax break for workers and aid for the long-term jobless. The plan is for participants to go directly to congressional offices Tuesday with their “jobs, not cuts” message, condemning Congress’ failure to send legislation to President Obama that would use the resources of government to put people to work while the private sector economy recovers.

On Thursday, all but one Republican senator voted to block sensible legislation to extend a payroll tax cut for workers. The legislation would have meant an extra $1,500 in take-home cash for the average worker, and it would offset the tax cut with a 3.25 percent surtax on earnings in excess of $1 million. This is the approach favored by a majority of the public, including rank-and-file Republicans: ask those who continue to do well in today’s economy to do their fair share to enable the rest of the economy to recover. But instead of the bipartisan will of the public, Senate Republicans did the bidding of their corporate benefactors, acting as the guardians of the 1 percent rather than the servants of all of the people.

Meanwhile, there is resistance among many conservatives to approving the $50 billion it would take to pay to continue extended unemployment benefits. The Washington Post quotes Sen. John Kyl as asking, “Do we want to borrow money from China to pay people not to work?” The article goes on point out that there are four unemployed workers for every job opening. Clearly, the issue is not “paying people not to work”; it’s ensuring people can survive until Congress comes to its senses and enacts real jobs legislation, such as the bills that send aid to prevent state and local government layoffs or fund urgently needed school construction and transportation projects.

“Take Back the Capitol” seeks to challenge the current climate in Washington through a combination of demonstrations, grassroots lobbying and civil disobedience.

Earlier in November, the Congressional Progressive Caucus conducted a hearing in which several experts condemned the austerity economics being ardently pushed by the conservative leadership in Congress and laid out what’s really needed to grow the economy and set the stage for managing the federal deficit. The discussion involved viewpoints that the congressional deficit-reduction supercommittee that was meeting at the time needed to hear, but the committee members, though invited, were a no-show.

Now that the supercommittee is no more, it’s time for the full Congress to feel continued heat from the American majority. The good news is that we have people such as Republican strategist Frank Luntz “frightened to death” of the impact that the Occupy Wall Street movement is already having on the political discourse. Luntz’s advice to Republicans is to change their language. Our demand is for both Republicans and Democrats to change their behavior, and support policies that will put put Americans back to work on the jobs that need to be done, ask millionaires to start paying their fair share, and repair the damage that conservative policies have done to our economy and our democracy.


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