“I’m sorry to bother you, Congressman, but I thought you might like to know that Theresa has been in the waiting room for almost two hours now, hoping to see you.”
“She’s the new staffer in our Scottsville office.”
“Oh yes, I remember now. But I thought she was, uh ....”
“Yes sir, she’s on furlough while the government is shut down. But she’s here. She wouldn’t say what she wants, but she’s been sitting there since the office opened this morning.”
“Probably needs to borrow some money. Oh well, send her in, Sally. But interrupt us after fifteen minutes. [Glances at his watch] I still have half a dozen more donors to call before lunchtime.”
“Yes, sir.” [Exits and sends Theresa in]
[Congressman rising] “Theresa, it’s good to see you! Sorry to have kept you waiting. What can I do for you.”
“Well, sir, since I’ve been on furlough....”
“Yes, well, I’m sorry about that, but, you know, that’s how the shutdown works, and my hands were tied. Listen, if you need a little something to tide you over....” [Starts to reach for his billfold]
[Flushed with excitement] “Oh, no sir! I didn’t come to borrow money! I had all this time while I’ve been out of work, and I thought, well, no sense feeling sorry for yourself, Theresa, you might as well make good use of these days that’ve been freed up. So I’ve just been trying to understand this debt problem that’s been bothering you and your friends in Congress. And I was surprised. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I think I’ve figured out how to do the right thing, put all of us back to work, and solve the debt crisis! Isn’t that great! I had to run up here and share it with you!”
[Wary of her fervor] “Uh, that sounds ... interesting, Theresa. I’d be happy to take a look at it. Just leave a copy with Sally.”
“Super. I know you’re extra busy, and the paper’s a little long, so I put together this summary page here. Let me give you a quick breakdown of how it would work. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
[Congressman glances at his watch again, decides to humor her] “Okay, five minutes. Then I have a lot of calls to make.”
[She hands him a printed page. He sits at his desk to look at it, and she goes around behind him and bends over his shoulder to point out various items as she explains them.]
“This first item here, offshore tax havens. See this. (Points] A quarter of a trillion dollars, maybe more, that rich Americans have tucked away offshore to avoid taxes! I mean, that’s not fair, you know? Why should elderly people who have worked hard all their lives have to give up some of their Medicare and Social Security benefits while extremely wealthy people avoid paying their fair share of taxes?
[Points to second item] “And here. Underpayment of taxes. That’s another $450 billion--almost half a trillion dollars--where people--again, mostly those in the higher brackets--avoid paying their fair share, and stick people who are less able to pay with the bills.
[Moves down to next point] “And look at this! Tax credits, capital gains, exclusions, and other tax loopholes that almost look as if they’re designed to benefit those who need help the least! Together they add up to another $1.25 trillion of tax income drained out of the system!
[Turns and looks at him directly, her face flushed with enthusiasm] “Do you see it, sir? We don’t have to inflict more pain on people who are already hurting, or cut into programs that benefit everyone! With some relatively simple corrections that actually make the system more just, we can solve this fiscal crisis!”
[They both appear dazed for a moment by a vision of what-could-be. Then the Congressman gives a shake, like a dog emerging from water. Now he is embarrassed, remembering when he was once this excited about public service]
“Uh, that’s all very interesting, Theresa, and in theory it looks as if it might work, but there are some, uh, practical considerations that make the kind of ‘simple corrections’ you refer to extremely difficult to implement.”
[She looks at him, more than a little hurt] “What kind of ‘practical considerations,’ sir?”
[Even more embarrassed] “Theresa, the average winner for a seat in the House spent $1,567,379 in his or her last campaign. I know that to the last digit because that’s the minimum amount I have to raise to stay competitive and keep my seat. The cost keeps going up, and I have to raise that money every two-year cycle. Together, I and my colleagues in the House spent close to $700 million to win our races in 2012.”
[Puzzled] “I’m afraid I’m not following you, sir.”
[Holding up his own sheet, of donors and potential donors] “While you’ve been working on your list, I’ve been working on mine. I get the money to stay competitive by continually calling people and asking them to contribute to my campaign. Wealthy people. My colleagues in the House and Senate all have their own lists. They’re making their own calls. To wealthy people. Asking for their support. All of the items you listed that need ‘simple corrections’ benefit wealthy people. You see the problem.”
[Stunned] “I’m not sure, sir. [Hesitantly] I hope I’m mistaken, but you seem to be implying that you and your colleagues won’t deal with the debt crisis by doing something that’s obvious and fair because keeping your job is dependent on keeping the system unfair. You’re implying that your primary obligation is to protect and serve the interests of the wealthiest people in the country. But that can’t be right, can it?”
[Not responding directly to her question] “Theresa, have you heard of Citizens United?”
“It sounds familiar, sir.”
“Well, it needs to be very familiar. It’s no coincidence that most of these wealthy people we political candidates call happen to be major shareholders in, or direct, or manage large corporations. Citizens United was a ruling by the Supreme Court that any limitation on corporate contributions to political action groups is now unconstitutional. You think the campaign costs I just talked about are huge? You haven’t seen anything yet. They’re going to become monstrous! Obscene! And the more expensive campaigns become, the more it works to the advantage of the people and corporations who have the lion’s share of the money. Everyone else gets priced out of the game.
[Worked up now, forgetting himself] “I’m sure the $700 million House members spent to win their seats seems like a lot of money to you. It does to me. Add in the $337 million the winners in the Senate spent. But to major corporations, that kind of money is nothing! Chicken feed! They can buy Congress with their spare change! ExxonMobil alone had a profit of $45 billion last year! They could buy the entire Congress and still be almost $44 billion to the good. Apple made almost $42 billion! And the Supreme Court says let them spend whatever they want to buy election influence? It’s insane!”
[To his own amazement, the congressman begins to weep, overwhelmed by an unexpected surge of emotions that includes anger, sadness, frustration, and woundedness. Theresa begins to weep as well, and reaches over to comfort him, just as Sally opens the door.] “Excuse me, Congressman, but you have a... well, excuse me! [Misreads situation, turns quickly and leaves, closing door behind her]
© Tony Russell, 2013