“Democrats are for the working man. Republicans are for the businessman.” In the 1950s, political scientists taking polls heard this again and again. Today, we would not make such comments specific to men, but there is more to this story than that. Democrats were once America’s working class, lunch bucket party. With the weakening of private-sector labor unions, many in the paycheck-to-paycheck crowd no longer back the Democrats. Some do not vote at all. Neither party seems to be their advocate. Democrats must restore this reputation as the worker’s party, because identity politics alone cannot win elections.
Kansas Democrats are on the right track when they advocate cutting the sales tax on groceries. Kansas features one of the highest such taxes in the country, and the issue hits voters right in the pocketbook. Senator Anthony Hensley and his allies do not yet have the votes to pass this, nor an alternate source of revenue. However, they should keep pushing. Everyone feels the impact, because we all have to eat. It falls hardest on families with more mouths to feed, and those with low incomes. Granted, the state requires revenue for public schools, Medicaid, and other things, but taxing life’s most basic necessities is wrong way to get it. In some cities and counties, local add-ons push the grocery tax to nearly 10%–a regressive tax on those who can least afford it.
Democrats traditionally represent making life’s necessities affordable, funding public works, and creating jobs. Congressional earmarks used to help accomplish the second and third of those goals. Temporarily banned in 2011, earmarks allowed members of Congress to direct money toward specific projects in their districts. Decrying an Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” that was never built, earmark critics labeled the process as corruption and halted it. Has Congress has become less corrupt since 2011? Few observers think so. Instead, the ban made it harder for Congress to do its job. Democratic Congressional candidate Paul Davis favors making the earmark ban permanent, but this is the wrong approach.
Successful earmarks financed highway improvements, other bridges, recreational trails, government buildings, museums, flood-control projects, and more—not to mention the jobs involved. Furthermore, earmarks allowed Congressional leaders to direct some money to the districts of members who were wavering on key votes: greasing the wheels to pass important legislation like budgets. The whole thing added up to only 1% of federal spending. Granted, the process was sometimes abused with “Christmas tree” bills that were nothing but excuses to load up on earmarks, but that calls for a more-targeted reform, not a complete ban.
Congress has not passed an annual budget since 2009. Instead, we lurch along on month-to-month (sometimes week-to-week) continuing resolutions. The return of earmarks would hardly solve all of Congress’ problems, but it would restore to leaders in both parties an important tool for breaking up logjams, while funding valuable public works projects and creating jobs.
Democrats once represented fair prices, good jobs, and investment in public works. They still can. To that end, Hensley should keep up the push for a grocery tax cut, while Davis needs to re-think his stand on earmarks.
Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University.