Bills Aim for Increased Accountability to Poor

Maverick lawmaker Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) is sponsoring three bills in Congress she says make politicians more accountable to their poorest constituents. Among the measures she's pushing is a repeal of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and a requirement that Congress prove a bill won't hurt the poor before it's voted into law.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee has long been an advocate for the poor. Thirty-seven million Americans now live in poverty; some 80,000 of them in Lee's home district of Oakland, California. She hopes hurricane Katrina has inspired her colleagues and all Americans to declare war on poverty, the way 9-11 inspired the war on terrorism.

Congresswoman Lee joins me from the studios of KPFA in Berkley, California, to discuss her anti-poverty efforts.

Congresswoman, welcome to the program. Good to have you.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): Good to be with you.

GORDON: You have introduced three bills to Congress that you hope, I'm sure, will make Congress, the government, America, more accountable to poor people. Let me ask you about the conversation around poverty right now. So much was said out of the wake of Katrina, it seems to me that dialogue has died down. Do you believe that to be the case?

Rep. LEE: I believe that to be the case, but I must tell you we're not going to allow the dialogue to die in the House of Representatives. In fact, I believe that members of Congress are increasingly becoming more involved on issues as it relates to poverty. Hurricane Katrina exposed the massive poverty that we have in our country. It is a crisis. We have now five million more people living in poverty, 37 million, that's since 2000. Twelve million children live in poverty, it's outrageous.

And when you look at the disproportionate rates of poverty as it relates to communities and people of color, the poverty rates with the African-American community are nearly 25% and the Latino community nearly 23%. Eight percent of white Americans live in poverty. And so the debate must move forward, you know, we need leadership, we need accountability, and we've got to establish some priorities. And that's why I introduced these bills, to really begin to focus the debate in the House of Representatives on these very crucial areas that I (unintelligible).

GORDON: Yeah. We'll get to the bills in just a moment, specifically. But let me ask you, and take you to task on something that, I've done so with all of the politicians who've come on this program and used the language that you did, and that is that hurricane Katrina uncovered poverty. Poverty was always there, quite frankly, we just weren't looking for it.

Rep. LEE: I agree, and, what I said, especially with the press, you know, there were reports saying, this can't be America, this looks like a developing country, a third world country. My response was this is the America that I know. This is the America that many of us know who are very involved and who were involved in the Human Rights struggle and the civil rights movement. Many of us came to Congress because we wanted to change the priorities of our country so that we could put more resources, our tax dollars, into universal healthcare, into affordable housing, into all of those efforts to reduce poverty. So this is the America that I know, but this is the America that I think many people have turned their heads to.

GORDON: Did our corner, when I say our, I mean yours and mine, my business of journalism, yours of the political side of the coin, did we miss the boat prior to Katrina? As you said, the media didn't put a cleeg light on poverty, and frankly, I didn't see politicians in lockstep marching against poverty at the time.

Rep. LEE: I still haven't seen politicians marching against poverty, but I think what has happened is that we had really forgotten what issues and what strategies actually reduce poverty.

For example, universal healthcare. When you look at social security and how that has reduced poverty among senior citizens, especially among women, when you look at the fact that we have not increased the minimum wage, and of course I support an increase in the minimum wage but also a living wage, when you look at those issues that we can't votes for in Congress just at the national level, I think you'll see that it's an uphill battle and that elected officials don't see these strategies and these public policies as being policies that really could eradicate or reduce poverty.

And so it's become, I think, an issue that hasn't been really a priority, because no one really can come to grips with the fact that this is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, and yet we have 37 million people living in poverty. So people sweep this under the rug and will not step up to the plate. But we've got to do that.

GORDON: If ever there was a time to push poverty, it seems to me, going into an election season, it would be the time to force politicians who, perhaps heretofore, had not looked at it in the same way. When you look at the headlines from Washington it seems more people are concerned about Abramoff and that money spending than they are spending on the poor of this country. So, that being said, how much do you believe the idea of really trying to tout this will assist in moving your colleagues to vote for some of the bills that you've put forth in a very hotly contested election season?

Rep. LEE: Well, I tell you, this has to do with people participating in the political process. It's my belief that the activist, grass roots organizations, national and local groups, must begin to hold elected officials accountable in terms of what their platform will be.

For example, I think we must have, as I said earlier, a universal healthcare plan. That should be something that we all hold candidates accountable to. What type of plan will they support? Will they support not cutting food stamps, for example? This budget has been horrendous. Will they make sure that the Katrina region receives the resources that it deserves so that it can recover and people can go home and live in their houses and move on with their lives? So I think it's up to people now to put this on the national and local agenda.

Here in Oakland, for example, we have 80,000 people living in poverty, you know... (Unintelligible)

GORDON: How realistic is it to believe that that in fact is going to happen? We've been talking about universal healthcare for decades now. When I take a look at one of the bills that you've put forth, that would be to actually, quantitatively prove that you're not hurting the poorest of the lot, by bills that are passed by Congress. Yet, some are going to suggest that the lobbying effort for the poor is just not strong enough to push this kind of legislation through, whether it be that bill, whether it be universal healthcare, whether it be assistance to evacuees, etc.

Rep. LEE: Well, the lobbying effort may not be what the lobbying effort is for the energy companies and the oil companies and the huge moneyed special interests, but I must tell you, the faith community, community groups, the NAACP, there's a coalition building throughout this country. And this coalition is insisting that our budget priorities be reordered, that in fact we look at budget in terms of a moral budget, a budget that is based on values. And I see this movement building. It's building, it isn't quite where it should be yet. What Katrina exposed was the two Americas, and what we see now are people coming to Washington, D.C., demanding that our resources be reordered and put into initiatives such as education and poverty-reduction initiatives.

GORDON: Let me ask you this; we said that you put forth three bills. It's all about counting votes in Washington. How realistic is it to believe that we're going to see the passage of all three bills? Have you put three up front in hopes of pushing one or two through? I know you count the votes, where do you stand right now?

Rep. LEE: Well, first of all, of course, the Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House, but what we did, is, when I introduced these bills, I wanted to begin to debate and to focus on what these issues are in terms of poverty and why we needed to address it. The first bill that I introduced really was a bill that required the President just to develop a plan to eliminate poverty by 2010. This bill was also included in the Congressional Black Caucus's Katrina response bill. We have 54, 55 co-sponsors on that bill. Very important to build co-sponsors that support.

Now, I am not naïve. I mean, this Congress is cutting student loans, cutting food stamps. They want to privatize social security, you know. So we have to push forward and fight very hard to make sure that the debate begins, and once this debate begins, you'll see the people in our country, we'll hear from the public, to tell their members of Congress to go on and support this, but you must start somewhere. You have to have a vision. You can't just say because the votes aren't there in this very conservative Congress, we're going to allow this debate to not be real, to not surface, and that we won't hold elected officials accountable. So I'm moving forward very aggressively with it.

GORDON: Let me play that side of the aisle. Let me play that side of the aisle who will suggest that yes, we're cutting the very programs that you're talking about, but we all have to tighten our belts based on a post-9-11 society, the fact that we're in Iraq, the fact that we're having to shore up all that is around us in this new world.

Rep. LEE: Well, quite frankly, we need to come out of Iraq. This war is over $200 billion now. Secondly, we're looking at these tax cuts for the wealthy. We have a huge deficit now, and this administration is trying to blame Katrina. One of my bills indicates, we need to repeal these tax cuts and invest in America, invest in our people, so that people can have the quality of life that they deserve, and so the money is there. We have a military budget that's excessive, developing weapon systems that are not for this era, but more for the cold war era that has ended.

And so there are resources in our federal budget that need to be reprioritized, and I believe this debate is going to begin to insist that that happens. So you can't tell me because of the war and because of the tax cuts the money is not there. If in fact we end this war and if in fact we repeal these tax cuts, the money will be there to do the things we need to do for the entire country.

GORDON: Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. Always good to have you with us. Thanks for joining us.

Rep. LEE: Good to be with you, and thank you again.

GORDON: As part of her plan to fight poverty, the Congresswoman suggested withdrawal from Iraq and repealing some of the President's tax cuts. Next week, we'll hear a different perspective.

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