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  • Oren Levin-Waldman

The Congress that Couldn’t Care Less about the Public

There are a couple of models of representation. The first model is where the elected representative, say a member of Congress, serves as an agent. Here the representative listens to her constituents and votes in accordance with their wishes. The second model is that of a trustee, whereby the representative does not listen to her constituents but votes on the basis of what she believes to be in the public interest. Although the second model would appear to contain elements of elitism in which members who are part of the elites know what is best, neither really factor in the partisan effect.


In our current reality where we have a highly partisan political party system, representatives are neither agents reflecting their constituents’ concerns nor are they trustees whereby they place the public interest above all other concerns. Rather they follow the dictates of the party and constituents are merely pawns in a power game. And despite all of the rhetoric about the American people, the only truth that stands out is that public officials in the U.S. couldn’t care less about the American people. More in keeping with a public choice model of economics, they only care about themselves.


We can see this clearly from the most recent wrangling over the COVID relief bill, which appears to be filled with mostly pork having nothing to do with actual relief. That one party refuses to sign off because “too much” is being given in extended unemployment insurance, is only proof that nobody cares for those who lost their jobs. The claim that they will have less incentive to work is ridiculous on its face, because businesses operating at only 25 percent capacity have no need to call all of their workers back to work.


That the other party would refuse to even come to the negotiating table because stimulus checks are too low and they want to hold out for more, only displays a willingness to throw people who are suffering under the bus in the name of raw power. To say this makes a mockery out of the legislative branch is too kind. It absolutely distorts our democracy, the same democracy that Democrats claimed was on the line with Trump remaining in office.


Prior to the election, Democrats didn’t want to negotiate a relief bill because they were afraid that it would help Trump in his reelection bid. Only after the election when it became clear that Trump lost was Nancy Pelosi willing to come to the table. And now we are supposed to believe that the party which historically was the party of the working class, now all of a sudden cares about ordinary workers who have been hurt because they have been shut out of their jobs because of government shutdowns?


Each party is only concerned about its own power, and denying the other party a potential victory is an absolute necessity in today’s polarized world, even if it means that people suffer. After all, they are among the deplorables who should be sacrificing for the greater good as defined by the elites. Those who have been hurt the most are small business owners and those who work for them. These are mostly restaurants, theaters, gyms, and bowling alleys — the kinds of places many look to for recreation and relaxation. They are also the kind of businesses that cannot operate remotely.


Those who work in supermarkets, convenience stores and others establishments that have been allowed to remain open where workers are considered “essential” are also places where workers, many of whom are not highly paid, are also the most exposed and at risk of getting the virus. To then say a bill should not be passed because they clearly don’t need an additional $600 only demonstrates the cluelessness of policymakers who haven’t been forced to forego a paycheck. Many of these lower wage workers have additional costs associated with having their children home and having to do school work remotely.


A relief bill should compensate displaced workers and small business owners for their losses. These losses are the product of state actions to shutdown local economies in response to a pandemic, and are akin to a Fifth Amendment “taking” without just compensation. What, then, would that mean? It would mean workers should get UI up to a 100 percent of their previous wages, and small businesses that can operate at only 25 percent capacity would be reimbursed the difference between operating at 25 percent capacity and 100 percent capacity.


A relief bill would not have stimulus money for those who are employed, never were laid off, and never suffered a loss of income. This would include those living on 401Ks and Social Security who also never suffered an interruption in income. To give these people more money is poor targeting and wasteful. A relief bill would not contain money for gender studies, foreign aid and other pet projects of members of Congress because the only way these projects can get funded is if attached to a larger bill.


Because many have been made to suffer due to the standard political games of Washington — what really constitutes the “swamp” — members of Congress should never have been allowed to go home for a holiday recess. They shouldn’t have been allowed to recess anyway because the same travel restrictions they would seek to impose on their constituents should also apply to them. In an ideal world, members of Congress that merely treat their constituents as pawns in their perverse power games should really forfeit their salaries.


This is perhaps the biggest problem with many of the country’s governors who were quick to lock down without weighing the costs. They were quick to impose a financial burden on others without having to bear an equivalent financial burden themselves. But it should also be said that in a world where Congress would truly represent the interests of the public, 31 year old members of Congress would not be allowed to jump the line and get a vaccine before older people in their 60s who may have comorbidities.


After all, if these political machinations that we have been witness to in Congress demonstrate anything, it is that members of Congress are not in any way essential workers. Moreover, it fuels a public perception that Congress is perhaps the most corrupt institution around.


There are any number of reasons for why partisanship has distorted the role that Congress was constitutionally meant to pay, but one of the key reasons has been the effects of rising inequality, which of course has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Members are more responsive to the more affluent and inequality has only widened the gap between the top and the bottom. Members in need of huge amounts of money to win an election have not been responsive to those in the middle of the distribution on down. With rising inequality, there are even fewer people in the middle of the distribution. It should come as no surprise, then, that those hurting the most and most in need of COVID relief, are in the middle to the bottom of the distribution. Of course, to dream of a Congress that would do the right thing is to dream the impossible dream.

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