Magazine article The Nation

Tea Bag Party

Magazine article The Nation

Tea Bag Party

Article excerpt

In the Soviet Union these days they sentence bureaucrats to long prison terms for such crimes of blatant elitism and cynical self-service as the 535 members of the U.S. Congress very nearly pulled off without punishment. For while the mills of perestroika grind fine upon an overweening bureaucracy, the ordinary procedures of politics in this country are poorly prepared to deal with undemocracy in the bloated public sector. The issue here was of course the 51 percent pay raise that Congress wanted and could have had, automatically, by the simple expedient of not voting against it. Congress lost it, in more ways than one, and a fresh breeze of populism and participatory politics wafted into Washington.

Over the past two decades, eight upward adjustments of salaries, pensions and perks (bureaucratese for gorging at the public trough) have gone through without a hitch. The system sidesteps every pretense of accountability. A ninemember "bipartisan" commission, composed entirely of millionaires and multimillionaires, recommends the raises, which then go into effect if they are not explicitly repealed. The President is happy to sign off when the time comes; after all, many of the judges and senior bureaucrats included in the salary spiral are political appointees, and Congress itself is always appreciative of the executive's favors.

But this time the people said no. Not the people's elected representatives, or the people's tribunes in the press, or the managers of the people's affairs. Ordinary folks who haven't had an inkling of their own power since the 1960s -if thenfound ways to be heard, and to magnify their voices.

Ralph Nader and his public interest cadres have been fighting Congressional pay raises for years, without success, but this latest campaign caught on in ways the others had not. It's grueling work. Nader appeared on more than 200 radio and TV talk shows. Naderites alerted, informed and lobbied the media, sent out a slew of fact sheets, corrected Congress' skewed statistics and generally burnt up the phone and fax lines with an all-out effort to kill the raise.

Looking back, Nader says, the turning point came last December 16 -"the umpteenth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party"- when a listener called a radio talk show in Detroit to suggest a "tea bag party" to protest the pay raise. A populist nerve had been touched. Forty or more talk show hosts networked, Nader reports, and the intifada went national. Soon, hundreds of thousands of tea bags poured into Congressional offices.

Some independent television stations and many radio talk show hosts joined in the protest, but the major networks -and the major national newspapers -remained disdainful or downright hostile to the popular uprising. …

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