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Sen. Tom Harkin
Sen. Tom Harkin
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said to a bleary-eyed but appreciative audience at a Saturday, June 9, morning panel at Netroots Nation that progressives need to stake out and hammer, hammer, hammer our policy positions on the economy. To give no quarter to Congress and the president when it comes to the creation of jobs and the protection of workers already on the job. That's not a new message from Trumka. Because he takes his own advice and hammers, hammers, hammers.

In a fiery Netroots Nation keynote address June 8, Darcy Burner, who is running in Washington's first district for Congress, said progressives tend to view politics as being all about having the best policy. However, she said, the fight is really about power. As obvious as that may sound, it's an essential reminder.

There's zero contradiction between Trumka and Burner in this matter. Whether you are David Koch working to demolish fossil-fuel regulations or Bernie Sanders trying to get 10 million residential solar rooftops installed, power is essential to your efforts. You can't get anything done without it and without knowing how to wield it once you do have it. But, for progressives, who are wisely and profoundly suspicious of power and its wielders, without a foundation of good policy the only point to obtaining power is to keep it out of the hands of others. To keep the Koch Brothers and their puppets at bay. While that is important, crucial, in fact, it's just not enough.

We know all too well that possessing good policy is no certain path to securing power. For one thing, the message machinery of our foes has its tentacles in every nook and cranny of our media, a power at least the equal of anything provided by their kennel of paid-for politicians. With this machinery, they can often transform public perception of the mildest proposal into the devil's own spawn by inventing a well-timed concoction of smear, fear, uncertainty, doubt and distraction.

That being so, with a national election less than five months away, any discussion of policy might seem a waste of time. It might seem better to focus solely on the details of building the grassroots ground campaign needed to defeat the truckloads of cash being delivered to candidates and to independent-from-the-candidates-but-not-really Super PACs. After all, it is said, making specific proposals rather than sticking to general principles in the midst of the horse race gives our foes specifics with which to flog us with their distortions and lies. And those lies and distortions keep good candidates from winning.

But this closed-mouth approach constitutes short-sighted thinking. Our foes will distort and fabricate no matter what. Avoiding specifics doesn't block bogus attacks, they enable them. A key way to obtaining the clout we need in Congress (and the state legislatures) to turn our progressive vision into reality is to present voters with some of the specifics of that vision so they will give us that clout. Otherwise, we're offering little more than a pig in a poke.

In March, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, introduced a package of legislation that echoes the New Deal and provides part of a blueprint to dig us out of the economic quagmire—the Depression, as economist Paul Krugman so rightly names it—that we find ourselves in. The package is called the Rebuild America Act. It's a smart, broad-based package about which Leo Hindery of the New America Foundation says:

The "Rebuild America Act" is the first piece of proposed legislation in the last decade that comprehensively addresses all of the far-ranging systemic problems confronting the American economy and the nation's workers. By addressing, at once, upgraded infrastructure, better education, fair wages, trade reform, tax reform and the imperative for a much larger, more stable manufacturing sector—each with identified objectives and outcomes—we can finally contemplate a tapestry of initiatives that will truly reinvigorate the middle class, achieve near full real employment, and eliminate our massive trade deficit in manufactured goods."
Economist James K. Galbraith says:
Senator Harkin once again demonstrates his vision and leadership by presenting a bill that would actually forge what others only talk about: a powerful, effective and wide-ranging strategy to rebuild our American middle class.
No one piece of legislation, not even a broad package can deal with all the aspects of what needs to be done to repair and rejuvenate the economy. Harkin's proposals aren't focused directly on income inequality, the power of elites, the need for strict regulation or a full-throated rollback of neoliberal policies—all matters which require our attention. But this nevertheless is a comprehensive bill that focuses on solving real problems of tens of millions of Americans.

One more caveat, the usual one needed in an election year: No way will this bill pass Congress. The GOP majority in the House would crush it. But that doesn't mean the bill, and others of its sort, shouldn't be proposed and debated and spotlighted. Because, as Richard Trumka says, we progressives need to stake out positions and hammer them, to show Americans what can be instead of incessantly focusing on the awfulness of what our foes are doing and what they would do if they had even more political clout.

Here's the framework of the Rebuild America Act:

Title 1: Invest in America to Create Jobs and Future Growth
As our economy continues to recover from the worst economic period since the Great Depression, we need to invest more wisely in programs that will create jobs and lay the groundwork for future growth. For decades, we have allowed the infrastructure that our nation’s prosperity is built upon to crumble. Our roads and bridges are outdated and unsafe, our education system is falling behind our global competitors, and too many factories are shuttered. To rebuild America’s foundation to create future growth, we must:

• Invest in America’s Roads, Bridges, and Infrastructure.
• Modernize America’s Schools
• Support Great Teachers
• Rebuild America’s Manufacturing Power
• Prepare Americans for Jobs of the Future
• Pursue Fair Trade
• Create Middle Class Jobs and Protect Middle Class Communities

Title 2: Create Financial Stability and a Better Future for Middle Class Families
Until the 1970s, Americans’ wages rose in tandem with productivity growth. Since then, wages have stagnated even as Americans work longer hours and produce more. To help families stay in the middle class, we must help families’ wages go farther and create more good-paying jobs with benefits that help families care for their children and plan for a secure retirement. To rebuild support structures that allow our families to prosper, we must:

• Alleviate the High Cost of Child Care
• Help Americans Enjoy Their Golden Years
• Protect Overtime Pay for Working Americans
• Prevent Americans from Having to Choose Between Their Health and Their Paycheck:
• Establish a Fair Minimum Wage
• Empower Hardworking Americans [by making unionization easier]
• Increase Job Opportunities for Americans with Disabilities

Title 3: Restore Fairness to the Tax Code
One of the reasons America’s middle class is struggling is that our tax code has become tilted in favor of very wealthy individuals and large corporations. Falling revenues have increased the deficit and made it impossible to invest in America. The Act will help to restore balance to the tax code that is critical for reducing inequality and fostering sustainable long-term economic growth while ensuring fiscal responsibility. To balance our tax code, we must:

• Institute the “Buffet Rule”
• Adopt a Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax
• End Tax Breaks for Companies that Ship Jobs Overseas
• Make Wall Street Take Responsibility
taxpayers in order to help rebuilding our economy.
• Make Hedge Fund Managers Pay the Same Taxes as the Rest of Us
• Raise the Capital Gains Rate
• Protect Pensions
• Close Loopholes to Prevent Worker Misclassification

The standard reply to such proposals is that we can't afford them. That the U.S. is broke and what we need to be doing is figuring out how to pay off the national debt. Many Democrats have bought into this backward thinking. But it has gotten a slap upside the head most recently from Paul Krugman in his new book, End Depression Now! And it was also the message of U.S. Uncut, a precursor or midwife if you will, of the Occupy! movement, which drew attention to the fact that America is not broke; it's a rich nation in which public money has been hijacked for purposes that shrink rather than expand the middle class while stuffing the counting rooms of the already wealthy.

Every bullet point of the Rebuild America Act deserves its own elaboration, but let me focus for now on a handful.

Harkin's bill proposes to invest $300 billion over the next 10 years on infrastructure, everything from upgrading the energy grid to repairing some of the 70,000 U.S. bridges said to be substandard. That may seem like a lot of money. But the American Society of Civil Engineers calculates that our infrastructure deficit is $2.2 trillion (as of 2009). The Center for American Progress has proposed an even higher number, a $480 billion investment in infrastructure over a decade.

Investment is the key word. This isn't mere reframing of "government spending" for propaganda purposes. It's reality. Bad roads, decrepit waste-water facilities, crumbling schools, inadequate affordable broadband penetration are all drags on our economy, costing us hundreds of billions in lost opportunity and damaging us in various ways, including our health and safety. Taking away these drags, pre-empting these damages, building and rebuilding the economic foundation of the commons is investment of the highest order. The benefits to infrastructure are obvious enough. But they have the added attraction of providing jobs. For this proposal: an estimated 300,000 of them.

The key criticism of Harkin's proposal in this matter? Not enough dollars. But most assuredly a step in the right direction.

The Rebuild America Act would also boost the minimum wage, now at $7.25, because it has not kept pace with inflation. To achieve the same buying power as it had in 1968, the peak year, it needs to be $10.52 now. Harkin's proposal would phase in a raise to this level and then index the minimum wage to inflation. It would also increase the cap on income limits that currently mean workers who make more than $24,000 a year are ineligible for overtime pay.

Most critically, Harkin's proposal would make it easier for workers to unionize by boosting fines on companies that violate labor laws. Fines now are so low that employers treat them as just another cost of doing business. Several thousand workers are routinely fired or otherwise discriminated against for joining a union. Millions are thus intimidated from joining.

The United States is the only nation in the industrialized world that does not require employers to provide some kind of paid sick leave. Although legislative proposals for paid leave date back as far as the passage of the Family Leave and Medical Leave Act of 1993, nothing has been enacted. The Rebuild America Act includes paid sick leave. Forty percent of Americans currently have no guaranteed paid sick leave and 80 percent of low-paid workers go without. They must choose between a day of lost pay or going to work ill, which obviously is not healthy for them or their co-workers. Businesses which have no paid sick leave do themselves no favors since an ill worker on the job is unproductive and a risk.

Paid sick leave is just one of the many policies in the act that would help not only workers but also small businesses. That's why the Main Street Alliance says:

The single most important thing small business owners need to create jobs is more customers—more demand, not deregulation. Not weaker workplace standards that jeopardize the health of our workers and customers. Not toothless watchdogs for the financial sector actors that brought down the economy in 2008. Not more tax loopholes and "holidays" for corporate tax dodgers that drain our country's resources and tilt the playing field against small businesses. What we need is more customers. A strong middle class customer base is the bedrock of small business success. That's why we strongly support the Rebuild America Act."
To reiterate, it's obvious the Rebuild America Act won't become law in 2012. But it's  legislation that progressives ought to be touting this election year as part of our vision for a can-do America. That's a far more constructive and positive message than saying it's not worth proposing anything and incessantly whining about how nothing can get done with an obstructionist Congress in place. Obstacles never stop our foes from making their proposals and fighting to turn them into law.

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