Knights of the Progressive Roundtable

Monthly meetings give members of the public an intimate audience with Congressional representatives.

Pamela Powers Hannley

In addition to the roundtables, letter drops and protests are other vital components of PDA's Educate Congress efforts. (Photo from PDA)

The process of pass­ing bills doesn’t just hap­pen in the halls of Con­gress. Around D.C., offices and meet­ing rooms are packed with elect­ed offi­cials strate­giz­ing leg­is­la­tion with lob­by­ists — who then may go out to the pub­lic to drum up sup­port. As an answer to the cabal of cor­po­rate lob­by­ists engaged in this process, the advo­ca­cy group Pro­gres­sive Democ­rats of Amer­i­ca (PDA) has start­ed a series of month­ly strat­e­gy round­ta­bles with left-lean­ing Con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives and key staff. (Full dis­clo­sure: the present author is a mem­ber of the Tuc­son chap­ter of PDA).

“One of the things I love about PDA is you stand up for ‘the little guy,’ and that’s what government’s all about,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told roundtable participants in July 2013.

With their give-and-take for­mat, these meet­ings allow Con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives and staffers to offer updates and insights on leg­is­la­tion and pro­vide a plat­form for PDA rep­re­sen­ta­tives and allies to dis­cuss ways to drum up pub­lic sup­port around issues. A broad range of top­ics comes up at the forums — Wall Street reform, hunger, vot­ing rights, immi­gra­tion and more.

Three mem­bers of Con­gress — Rep. Kei­th Elli­son (D‑Minn.), Rep. Jim McGov­ern (D‑Mass.), and Rep. Mike Capuano (D‑Mass.) — along with sev­en PDA mem­bers and var­i­ous lead­ers of peace, envi­ron­men­tal, and jus­tice groups par­tic­i­pat­ed in a recent July roundtable.

At the meet­ing, the Con­gress mem­bers reflect­ed on recent leg­isla­tive bat­tles and dis­cussed orga­niz­ing tac­tics for the fall. In addi­tion to fight­ing to pro­tect earned ben­e­fit pro­grams like Social Secu­ri­ty, Medicare, Med­ic­aid, unem­ploy­ment insur­ance and sup­ple­men­tal nutri­tion pro­grams, they report­ed that pro­gres­sive Con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives will be advanc­ing bills in the com­ing months that would dra­mat­i­cal­ly raise fed­er­al rev­enue, in order to com­bat the Repub­li­can push toward cuts and austerity.

Sequestration’s imme­di­ate victims

The Repub­li­cans have said they want to low­er the num­ber of loop­holes and low­er the [tax] rates. They’ve argued for bud­get neu­tral­i­ty,” said Elli­son. If they argue that, we will con­tin­ue to suf­fer under seques­tra­tion cuts that we have seen this year.”

Seques­tra­tion refers to the $1 tril­lion in auto­mat­ed, across-the-board cuts that Con­gress agreed to enact if they could not reach a deficit reduc­tion plan in 2011. Since no plan was craft­ed, seques­tra­tion cuts — which were designed to be painful and to hit all seg­ments of the econ­o­my — began in March 2013.

Since then, seques­tra­tion has already knocked thou­sands of poor chil­dren off of the ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion pro­gram Head Start; dev­as­tat­ed Meals on Wheels, which deliv­ers hot meals to home-bound elder­ly; cut the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health bud­get by bil­lions of dol­lars and hun­dreds of research grants; slashed funds for fight­ing for­est fires dur­ing fire sea­son; and caused the lay­off of hun­dreds of teach­ers, Depart­ment of Defense civil­ians, pub­lic defend­ers, and others. 

Elli­son warned the assem­bled audi­ence that such rolling seques­tra­tion cuts will con­tin­ue, spurring more lay­offs and fur­loughs of fed­er­al employ­ees and crip­pling pro­grams that serve mil­lions of Americans.

The Robin Hood Tax to the rescue?

How do pro­gres­sives sug­gest we get the mon­ey to end seques­tra­tion and ful­ly fund these social safe­ty net pro­grams? The Robin Hood Tax. Offi­cial­ly known as the Inclu­sive Pros­per­i­ty Tax, it would charge a tiny per­cent­age tax on every Wall Street trade and raise up to $350 bil­lion per year. More than 30 coun­tries world­wide — includ­ing 11 in the Euro­pean Union — have some form of a finan­cial trans­ac­tion tax like it.

It is more than a rev­enue-gen­er­a­tor. It is a mar­ket reg­u­la­tor, in that the finan­cial trans­ac­tion tax will slow down these errat­ic, flash trades, these algo­rith­mic-dri­ven trades where lit­er­al­ly mil­lions of trades are tak­ing place over a very short peri­od of time,” Elli­son said.

The ratio­nale is that if indi­vid­ual trades are more expen­sive — even to an infin­i­tes­i­mal degree — Wall Street gam­blers will take the time to ana­lyze them, rather than allow­ing com­put­er­ized micro-trad­ing” to run ram­pant. Accord­ing to Elli­son, This will help mar­kets oper­ate in a more sen­si­ble way.”

Michael Lighty, Direc­tor of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy for the Cal­i­for­nia Nurs­es Association/​National Nurs­es Unit­ed (NNU), offered sta­tis­tics on the impact of Wall Street spec­u­la­tion on mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans. He claimed that up to $10 of every fill-up at the gas pump is relat­ed to spec­u­la­tion in oil prices.

Even hunger in Amer­i­ca can be traced to finan­cial spec­u­la­tion. Accord­ing to Lighty, It is esti­mat­ed that 2 mil­lion peo­ple suf­fer from mal­nu­tri­tion because of spec­u­la­tion in the price of food.”

This food and oil spec­u­la­tion is aid­ed by the use of fast-action com­put­er­ized trad­ing, which pro­gres­sives hope The Robin Hood Tax would reduce. 

Although he acknowl­edged that the tax reform debate opens the win­dow” for dis­cus­sion of the Robin Hood Tax in Con­gress, Lighty also point­ed out the neces­si­ty of gath­er­ing pub­lic sup­port for the bill on a grass­roots lev­el. “[Advo­ca­cy groups] are going to have to light a ground fire to win this effort,” he said.

Elli­son said that sup­port­ing the Robin Hood Tax would be an impor­tant role for leg­is­la­tors in the new fis­cal year’s bud­get battles.

The gov­ern­ment and the peo­ple of the Unit­ed States have the right to run the pro­grams of the Unit­ed States — health, wel­fare, hous­ing,” Elli­son said. The peo­ple who ben­e­fit from this infra­struc­ture have a duty to sup­port fund­ing for it, he con­tin­ued, and the Inclu­sive Secu­ri­ty Tax is one method of rais­ing that revenue.

“[House Repub­li­cans] do believe that plu­toc­ra­cy is the right mod­el for Amer­i­ca, and they’re striv­ing to achieve it every day,” Elli­son quipped. We believe in democ­ra­cy, so we’re not on the same page.”

Stand­ing up for the lit­tle guy”

Also at the round­table, McGov­ern com­pli­ment­ed PDA on their recent advo­ca­cy for what they view as high pro­gres­sive priorities. 

One of the things I love about PDA is you stand up for the lit­tle guy,’ and that’s what government’s all about,” he enthused, refer­ring par­tic­u­lar­ly to the group’s recent cam­paign sur­round­ing pro­posed cuts to the fed­er­al­ly fund­ed Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion and Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP). Don­ald Trump doesn’t need [Con­gress], but some­body who is unem­ployed or some­body who is work­ing and mak­ing so lit­tle that they still qual­i­fy for [food stamps], they need us!”

In June 2013, PDA mem­bers nation­wide mobi­lized to urge Con­gress not to slash food stamps and free or dis­count­ed school lunch pro­grams for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Because of PDA’s hun­dreds of let­ter drops and street heat efforts out­side the Belt­way, McGov­ern said that the group helped Democ­rats be Democ­rats” and remind­ed them of the impor­tance of vot­ing against food stamp cuts. Peo­ple here knew there was a move­ment out there that was absolute­ly against gut­ting the SNAP pro­gram,” he said.

Refer­ring to future fights over food stamp fund­ing, McGov­ern claimed that pro­gres­sives are still in the game” because of groups like PDA’s fights to mobi­lize sup­port and edu­ca­tion, both through the D.C. round­ta­bles and local­ized cam­paigns at their home offices. You are being heard,” he assured the mem­bers and allies.

All of the Con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the round­table thanked the assem­bled group for their input, but McGov­ern said it most eloquently.

It’s help­ful to have wind at your back,” he told the audi­ence. You are like a hurricane.”

PDA’s let­ter drops at Con­gres­sion­al dis­trict offices take place on the 3rd Wednes­day of every month. The next Pro­gres­sive Round­table will be Sep­tem­ber 11, 2013 in the Ray­burn Build­ing. As with the July meet­ing, a live stream­ing con­nec­tion will be avail­able for any­one who wants to watch. Videos also will be post­ed on PDA’s YouTube chan­nel.

Pamela Pow­ers Hann­ley is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of a med­ical research jour­nal, a pro­gres­sive activist, and a polit­i­cal blog­ger from Tuc­son, Arizona.
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