Executive Director Reports

Ho Ho Ho! The Senate played Santa to the nation's wealthiest

The post-election drama that played out in Congress at year's end made for a holiday story that warms your heart, if you're a millionaire.

In case you hadn't heard, the recession's officially over.

Maybe you didn't know that if you were among the tens of millions of Americans worried about finding or retaining a job as the year was drawing to a close, or those scraping together a few dollars to buy Christmas gifts for the kids.

But the moguls in the New York financial district knew well that corporate profits had hit record levels in the third quarter of 2010.

Their biggest concern was exactly when to open up their wallets to themselves - their version of holiday spirit. Should they grab their super-size bonuses before or after the first of January?

You see, just like you and me, they have concerns. No, they didn't have to worry about losing their jobs or paying their bills as the holidays approached, but they nevertheless faced grave uncertainty.

The Bush tax cuts were about to expire. The Democrats were pushing to extend them to all families making less than $250,000 annually.

To their great dismay the financial crowd faced the very real possibility of having to pay a higher tax rate on their bonuses, which are traditionally handed out after Jan. 1 and were projected to be north of $150 billion (that's "b").

Their dilemma: break with tradition and give themselves bonuses before the new calendars are placed on their desks, or maintain the old order and face the frightening prospect of paying taxes at Clinton era rates (when unemployment hovered around 3 percent).

The threat was very real. President Obama had pledged to extend the tax cuts only for those families making less than $250,000, and the House of Representatives, that unruly body where a mere majority can pass legislation, had voted to extend the tax cuts only to the first $250,000 of income.

This bill wouldn't have meant empty Christmas stockings on Wall Street, it just would have meant that theirs might not be made of pure silk.

They might have had to strain a little more to pay for the upkeep of a fancy townhome on New York's tony East Side, or maintaining a beach home in Waikiki or a ski chalet in Colorado. They might have had to stiff the limousine drivers or the doormen on their tips..  They might not have been able to buy that $1,000 bottle or champagne or that $500 box of cigars.

When you're in that kind of trouble, it's nice to have friends in high places. It makes for a happy ending, like every Christmas movie. And the richer you are, the happier you'll be.

In this case, the role of Santa was played by the U.S. Senate, where a minority of members have the ability to thwart the will of the majority. If 41 of 100 senators say you can't vote on a piece of legislation, you don't.

Like their brethren in the lower chamber, who had all voted against limiting the tax cut to the first $250,000 of income, the 42 Senate Republicans stood should-to-shoulder to protect their beleaguered friends from Wall St.

Not only did Senate Republicans block a vote on targeting the tax cuts to low and middle income families who could actually put the money to good use, but they blocked a vote on legislation extending unemployment benefits, money for folks who desperately needed it just to put food on the table.

Eventually, the Republicans did relent and allow a vote on legislation to extend the tax cuts to the middle class and benefits to the unemployed. But they exacted a high price: maintaining income tax breaks for the wealthy, and an even bigger bonanza for the super-wealthy whose family estates exceed two million dollars.

So rather than a lump of coal, the unemployed had a little something for their stockings when they woke up on Christmas morning.

And those of us fortunate enough to still have a job were able to enjoy what was for us a normal holiday, though one clouded by what lies ahead in an uncertain future.

But the rich and powerful on Wall Street celebrated a holiday with their stockings brimming and no space left under the tree for any more gifts.

As they pushed away from their holiday tables, sated from the bountiful plates, they were secure in the knowledge that the government would not capture a greater share of their January bonuses. Nor need they fear that, should they succumb to the effects of their gluttony, the IRS would visit their heirs.

Such is the state of our nation as we begin 2011.

There's something terribly wrong with this picture, and if working families don't quickly wake up to this fact, the erosion of the American middle class, which built an economic engine that was the envy of the world, will continue unabated.