The Real Story on Senator Dick Durbin’s Leadership

Senator Dick Durbin is a hard guy not to like. This August, I was able to meet with the Senator along with several other leaders with IIRON and other Illinois affiliates of National People’s Action. Senator Durbin, though short in stature, quickly filled the space with affable banter and storytelling. Of course, we weren’t there to schmooze. We had come to talk with the Senator about the threats that are facing our communities in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois.

To understand why we found ourselves in Senator Durbin’s office that day, we need to go back to what happened in our national’s capital during the summer of 2011. If you are like me, you spent some mornings that summer reading about the so-called “debt ceiling” negotiations – in which Congress debated whether to pick up the tab for checks they’d already written – and wondering if anyone in Washington still knew that the rest of the country existed. What we watched, in one proposal after another, was absurd political showmanship and very little effort to actually reach a solution that would benefit ordinary Americans.

Well, you may recall that Senator Durbin played a crucial role in the negotiations that summer as part of the so-called “gang of six.” Senator Durbin is one of the most important Democratic players in Washington and that July he sat down with 5 other senators to write a proposal intended to end the madness over the federal budget. The only problem? In the words of Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, their proposal offered “the promise of huge tax breaks for some of the wealthiest people in the country, while lowering Social Security benefits for retirees and the disabled.”

The “gang” Senator Durbin led made a choice. They wanted to balance the budget,# so they had to choose between raising taxes on the rich and slashing programs that benefit ordinary folks. They went hard for the later. Their plan would have lowered the top tax rate from roughly 35% to between 23-29%, while closing a number of unspecified loopholes.# And this is despite the fact that the top marginal tax rate has been in free fall since the early 1960’s when we taxed the rich at rates over 90% right here in this very country. No wonder Paul Ryan (WI – R) praised the plan for promising to let corporations and the wealthy off the hook when it came to taxes. At the same time, Durbin led his team to propose restructuring Social Security. Setting aside the details, the bottom line is that these cuts would be both harmful and cumulative, so that by the end of this decade cuts would reach 3% and within 30 years the cuts would reach 9%. This would mean that within the next 30 years, a beneficiary scheduled to receive $15,000 in Social Security income would have received $1,200 a year less.# Moreover, independent analyses of these changes have shown that these cuts to Social Security will disproportionately harm communities of color.

Now, Congress never accepted the proposal made by Senator Durbin’s “gang of six.” Instead, they formed a super-committee that reached a stalemate in December of 2011. Of course, the super-committee did reach one important decision: they decided that Congress is incapable of reaching a deal unless they are forced to work together. In the words of the conservative commentator David Brooks: “They said to themselves, we’re going to force ourselves to cut a budget deal with each other. And if we don’t do it, we will hit ourselves in the face with a hammer. And that will be so bad, we will do it.” Brooks is almost right on that one, except that Congress isn’t planning to hit themselves in the face with a hammer, they’re planning to hit us.

Unless Congress does something, social programs in this country will be cut by $600 billion dollars on January 1, 2013. If that happens, in Illinois alone:

  • Over 57,000 fewer students will receive Title I grants and with them over 650 jobs will be lost.
  • Over 820 “Head Start” jobs will be lost and that program will serve over 3,940 fewer children.
  • Over 306,000 mothers, children, and families will loose benefits from the Maternal and Child Block Grant.

Our communities are already suffering as the result of corporate greed and failed political leadership. We can’t afford to lose more.

And this is what brought us to Senator Durbin’s office in August. Congress has put our communities on the chopping block and we know from last time around that Senator Durbin isn’t fully committed to saving them. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and his colleague Harry Reid have written an open letter calling on the members of Congress not to cut Social Security. To date, over 29 Senator have signed that pledge, including both Senators from my home state of Washington and both Senators from Oregon, where I went to college. Yet Senator Durbin’s name is conspicuously absent from that list. As a current resident of Illinois that makes me more than a little mad.

Senator Durbin is the Majority Whip for the Democratic Party. That means that Senator Durbin is officially charged with leading the Democrats who currently control the Senate. What happens there is supposed to happen under his leadership. And yet, it looks to me like Senator Durbin hasn’t been taking much of a leadership role on this issue. We were visiting his office that day to let him know that our communities need him to take a leadership role on this issue. We need him to make choices that protect the members of our communities and ensure that we move forward together. Fortunately, this isn’t over; there’s still time for Senator Durbin to lead the Senate in a direction that benefits our communities and, this time around, we’re going to be there to help him make that choice.