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Money Matters: legislative perspectives affected by economic circumstances

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“We’re going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share,” Ronald Reagan said in 1985.  “In theory, some of those loopholes were understandable, but in practice they sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary, and that’s crazy. It’s time we stopped it….”


What has so radically changed in the psyche of Reagan’s party, where today any move to normalize the tax burden between rich and poor is met with the charge of “class warfare?”

Perhaps it has something to do with the wealth factor reported on here this week by my colleague Chris Guzman.  There is a real difference in how people react to the needs of the nation based on the personal lens through which they see the world.

One example was reported in yesterday’s The Fiscal Times webzine.  The article highlighted the disparities between former U.S. Representative Gary Myers of Pennsylvania’s 25th District (1975-78) and his most recent successor Mike Kelly, who began serving in 2010.  Both men are Republicans, but Kelly arrived in Washington with wealth – both earned (through his car dealership) and inherited through a marriage to an heir to the Phillips Oil fortune.

Myers was a shift foreman at Armco Steel (now AK Steel) in Butler, Pennsylvania when he was elected to Congress, and he ran his campaign on a pittance compared to the $1.2 million that Kelly spent to win the election last year.

“My mother and I used to joke we were like the Beverly Hillbillies when we rolled into McLean (Virginia), and we really were,” said Michele Myers, the congressman’s daughter, now 46. “My dad was driving this awful lime green Ford Maverick, and I bought my clothes at Kmart.”

Myers wasn’t the only average working guy in Congress that year.  Members included a barber, a pipe fitter and a house painter. According to The Fiscal Times Article, “[a] handful had even organized into what was called the ‘Blue Collar Caucus’.”

Myers’ voting record was distinctly conservative, but nonetheless echoed his experiences on the factory floor.  He bucked the party to vote in favor of increasing the minimum wage, favored a program to protect workers impacted by foreign imports, and generally supported a social safety net for the nation.

Alternatively, Kelly considers himself a self-made man who believes that unemployment compensation can serve as a disincentive to the out-of-work.  He cited an example of an applicant who wanted to delay accepting a job with his dealership until six weeks later, when his government stipend ran out.

Kelly’s dad, who owned the car dealership before Kelly bought him out, trained his sons to be the first in to work and the last to leave every night.  The Congressman opposes the inheritance tax (because he believes he’s been taxed enough on the money he earns), favors the Paul Ryan budget proposal, and wants to see tax rates for the wealthy lowered to 25 percent from the current 35 percent.

There can be little doubt that the legislative perspective of these two men from the same district and even the same neighborhood are deeply affected by their economic position.  If the disparity between the wealth of average citizens and the men and women who represent them grows, it seems increasingly likely that “blue collar caucus” issues such as a more equitable tax policy will be left behind.

Hence, there is a real danger that an unfair proportion of the nation’s dirty work, from paying taxes to serving in the military, will be left to the more disadvantaged of our citizenry.

Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.

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Chad Peace
Chad Peace

Most politicians should be affected by their economic position....thats the job of a representative

Alan Markow
Alan Markow

Agreed, Chad, but the problem is when most politicians are wealthy and share similar points of view on economic issues. A true citizen-legislature should include a more representative mix of socio-economic levels.

Trevor Polischuk
Trevor Polischuk

Another angle of the problem is the huge opportunity costs of running for office. You will have to at least take 6 months off from work, so being wealthy helps whether that period, and many races come down to the wire with candidates throwing money into the race in the last 4 weeks, something i've seen several candidates do by taking out a mortgage on a house. This is why I don't support the move to a part-time legislature. If the job only pays part time, only those who could afford to step away from work for several months out of the year will be able to serve in the legislature.