By Charles D. Ellison
Last week ended with a raggedy-ass jobs report, sequestration spreading like a virus and the president giving up 5 percent of his nearly half-a-million salary. Bobbing and weaving angrily in the backdrop was DJ Kim Jong-un, perhaps set off by something Dennis Rodman said or tattooed during his visit. But, nothing compared to the chatter triggered by the president’s seemingly noble gesture as he laid his cape on a muddy puddle of budget cuts to let the fair maiden federal worker pass on through.
It seemed simple enough. President cuts an annual check back to Treasury that amounts to a little under $18,000. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel took first place on that, though, the former Vietnam grunt willing and ready to feel the pain of his troops. Not to be outdone by his own cabinet (and a former Republican Senator at that), Obama was suddenly inspired into action. He checked in with Michelle and the kids – since even Black folks with money flow can’t risk aggravating the ledgers – and took the final step, subtly pressuring other cabinet members to do the same.
White House press secretary Jay Carney denies any hint of management nudging. But, we all know how powerful workplace symbols and hints can be. If your boss, who happens to be the most powerful man on the planet (with access to nuclear weapon codes and a secret army of Black Ops soldiers), is telling you about his decision to forgo some of his pay, best believe you feel beads of sweat rolling down your sideburns. Of course you do the same. Secretary of State Kerry, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano soon follow. Why Kerry, who is married to the Heinz ketchup fortune, should even want or need a salary is an interesting footnote here. Holder, former Covington and Burling power partner who can easily return to the practice at the drop, is all good. Napolitano has to look good for the reporters, activists, and donors who are whispering her name as a presidential contender in 2016.
The big question is: why did the president take his time on this? Sequestration happened a good month ago – so long ago, in fact, that it had enough time to take a bite out of March job growth. It’s missed amid the punditry and player-hating of commentators who attempt to second-guess the president on his latest move. It’s all in the calculation. He’s watching the poll like the scoreboard lit up on opening night, and he’s thinking it’s time to reshape the conversation. The public is hot and weary. Government workers, furloughed and tapped, are restless and battered. Give them something else to talk about.
The White House misread the electorate and assumed all fingers would point blame at Republicans for the budget cuts. But, they read wrong. No one gives a shit who started it or who let it happen. They just know Washington lost its mind and all politicians are ratchet, doesn’t matter if you wear a “D” or an “R.” They all wear suits – and a few get creative with their glowing glitter Sunday hat monstrosities like Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) (you gotta see this, fam).
Whether you agree with the gesture or not is beside the point. It’s politics. We’d like to think the President is like samurai in Shogun, falling to his knees and committing ritualistic suicide in show of Bushido-like solidarity with his hardworking federal workforce. Maybe. But, next inning is the Obama White House shaming Members of Congress to do the same – since House Republicans refused to find a way around sequestration, the thinking goes, maybe we can hold their personal bank accounts accountable (despite the fact it really wasn’t their idea to begin with). Democrats can sign up as a show of cause celebre’ in time for the 2014 Congressional midterm cycle. Let the chicken games begin.
Predictably, Republicans blast the president for being disingenuous because … well … he’s rich. And … well … he won’t really feel the pain of federal workers who were already straining to make the ends meet. But, silly kids, most politicians are rich these days. In fact, you can’t run for office unless you have some semblance of financial stability. The argument falls flat so fast that it whistles. More than 48 percent of Members of Congress have an estimated net worth of more than $1 million. Believe it or not, the Democrats are wealthier than the Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. “Although the median estimated net worth of Democratic members is more than that of Republican members, the total median estimated value of all investments by Democrats is virtually the same as that of Republicans, $2.2 billion and $2.3 billion, respectively,” CRP adds. Incidentally, many Black Members of Congress are barely scraping by, saddled with debt, legal bills from ethics probes and the endless curse of a Black middle class responsible for holding the rest of the family up.
In the meantime, Congressional luxury is enough to make quite a few talk-show callers angry enough to spit on the phone. All that, including free no co-pay healthcare and other benefits, along with their $174,000 annual salary – the House Speaker making $230,000. But, in all fairness, wouldn’t we want our lawmakers comfortable? Shouldn’t they be completely focused on the demands or their job, representing anywhere from 600,000 people in a district to tens of millions in a state at a time? And, why would we want them poor? So, they have an excuse to take part time jobs from billionaire donors and special interests?
Obviously, the generous six figure salaries didn’t seem to work out in the age of hyper-campaigning and endless strips of green meat dumped into candidate coffers. And, curiously, Congress isn’t making any attempt to meet the president’s challenge. When Members are asked about it (even as their own staffs take pay cuts), they trail off into mumbo jumbo about the 27th Amendment and rules. “We’re not allowed to vote on pay cuts until the next election,” says one who rushes off to the next subject, perhaps planning to get this mess sorted out before the next election so they won’t have to.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is a political strategist, politics contributor to UPTOWN Magazine, Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and a frequent voice on SiriusXM Channel 124. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison