President Obama is bravely captaining our economic ship. Where the last president balked at an aggregate demand-increasing stimulus and a meaningful overhaul of the automobile industry, Obama steered a $787 billion stimulus through Congress and threw car industry veteran Rick Wagoner overboard. Obama's paradigm-shifting budget is likely to sail, relatively unscathed, through Congress in the next week. Meanwhile, Congress has filled in some rather important details, taking responsibility for successfully expanding children's health insurance and strengthening safeguards for fair pay.
But TheMiddleClass.org's 2008 Middle-Class Scorecard, a congressional accountability project sponsored by the Drum Major Institute, shows that several of the more basic protections for middle-class Americans - what I would like to call "low-hanging fruit" - are still unresolved, even as Congress takes on large-scale reform projects like a health care overhaul and climate change legislation.
In 2008, legislation imposing stricter regulations on credit card companies and allowing bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of primary mortgages in bankruptcy stalled in Congress, while legislators resisted including improvements to food safety regulations in a bill strengthening the Consumer Product Safety Commission. These legislative failures have had serious consequences for middle-class Americans: interest rate hikes that the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights would have prohibited are instead proliferating; the 800,000 homes that would have been saved from foreclosure by the bankruptcy provision are still in danger; and Salmonella-tainted peanut butter has killed nine people and infected almost 700.
Congress is, indeed, addressing each of these issues. Markups of legislation strengthening credit card regulations are scheduled for this week in both the House and the Senate, the House passed a bill including the mortgage modification provision earlier this month, and proposals for food safety reform are solidifying.
Yet, the TheMiddleClass.org Scorecard urges caution. Only 38% of the Senate - and no Senate Republicans - voted in favor of bankruptcy modification; 74% of the House (only 43% of House Republicans) voted for the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights', but the legislation was left to die by the Senate. Other measures that would have benefitted the middle class were subject to similarly chilly receptions, with important legislation to bail out the auto industry receiving support just above 20% from Senate and House Republicans. Only 60% of all House members voted in favor of legislation that extended unemployment insurance and established a new GI Bill.
The complexity of the economic and financial crisis Americans are now experiencing does not make commonsense protections for consumers and homeowners any less important. In fact, as the crisis deepens, such protections become even more important as struggling companies try to squeeze the last pennies from vulnerable consumers. But as TheMiddleClass.org Scorecard demonstrates, protections for middle-class Americans are often talked about in Congress, but never fully addressed. Lawmakers should use the current crisis as an opportunity to usher in a new era of middle-class American rule. Next year's Scorecard should show all legislators voting in favor of strengthened credit card regulations, bankruptcy modification for primary residences, and a food safety overhaul.