Columns » Ernest Dumas

The joke's on us


President Bush was just spoofing when he grinned at a white-tie crowd of rich folks and uttered the words that Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11" made famous: "This is an impressive crowd. The 'haves ' and the 'have mores.' Some people call you the 'elite.' I call you my base." The crowd roared, and it was hard even for critics not to appreciate this sort of self-deprecating political humor. But that was in the election year of 2000. Never a week passes that the humor does not wear thinner. The lines are not a joke but a doctrine. This week, or early this week to be exact because there will be further examples, it was the celebration of Bush's new overtime rules, which took effect Monday. Regulations promulgated by Bush's Labor Department make 6 to 8 million workers ineligible for time and a half when they work overtime. Business groups have wanted more freedom from overtime rules for decades but every administration but this one, which includes Reagan and Bush I, couldn't find it in their hearts to hammer families that way. But this is an administration where a memo from a corporate lobbyist is apt to be rubberstamped as national policy. Virtually every regulatory division in Washington is run now by agents from the businesses it regulates. If a "have more" wants even more and there's no law against it, the Bush administration will find a way to fork it over. The Labor Department says the new rules just provide "clarity" and will end confusion and halt lawsuits over who ought to be eligible for time and a half and under what terms. It says the rules only affect professional people and will not rob blue-collar workers of overtime. But it depends on whom you call blue-collar. A police sergeant, for example? Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania who faces a close election, went to a rally of protesters Monday and said that as soon as Congress returns from recess Sept. 7 he will introduce legislation to overturn Bush's rules. But even if the Republican Congress overturns the rules, a ridiculous assumption, Bush says he will veto the bill. Whatever else the overtime regulations do they will save business billions and cost workers the same. That has been the tradeoff since Jan. 20, 2001. You've heard enough by now about the effect of the president's three rounds of tax cuts. By the year 2010 when all of them kick in, more than half of the cumulative income tax cuts will accrue to the richest 1 percent of Americans. But don't take some liberal's word for it. Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin, until recently the chief economist for Bush's economic council and a key adviser on his tax policy, issued a report last week from his new post as head of the Congressional Budget Office that, yes, the Bush tax cuts were heavily skewed toward the very wealthy. Contrary to another pronouncement from their former economic adviser, Bush and Cheney say the tax cuts are growing the economy and creating jobs. Cheney said the other day that "real income and wages are growing." But he needs to be specific. Corporate profits have risen 62 percent since the 2001 recession ended but wages over that same period are down 0.6 percent. The median income has gone down each year; the poverty rate, after declining for 11 years, has been rising since 2002; food stamp participation, which declined after 1992, is now on the rise again. People of low and modest incomes are hurting. A compassionate conservative would have raised the minimum wage at least a modicum. It's now at its lowest in 50 years adjusted for inflation. Even a nickel increase in the minimum wage could not get out of a House committee and Bush let it be known that he would never permit a minimum wage increase to become law. The New York legislature - one house Democratic and the other Republican - overwhelmingly approved a state minimum wage increase, but with the Republican Convention coming to town to crown President Bush Gov. George Pataki, one of the featured speakers, did what he had to do to prevent a small offense to Bush. He vetoed the bill. Meantime, back in Washington the Republican Congress is perfecting another round of giant tax cuts for 1.1 percent of U.S. corporations - generally those whose executives have ponied up the largest campaign stash in history, and Bush's executive agencies hunt for new ways to help the privileged. How's this one? The Bush Treasury Department is advancing new rules that give the green light to companies to raid the pension benefits of millions of workers and retirees through a scheme commonly known as "cash balance pension conversion." Treasury will defy court decisions and allow companies to take millions away from the retirement incomes of people over the age of 40 who have already seen huge losses in their 401(k) plans owing to the weak economy. Hey, the man's got to protect his base.

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