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Keith E.
Democrat MN 5

About Rep. Keith
  • Progressive Caucus Message

    by Representative Keith Ellison

    Posted on 2013-02-14

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    ELLISON. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

    Mr. Speaker, my name is Congressman Keith Ellison, and I would like to open up by talking about the progressive message. The progressive message is the message articulated by the Progressive Caucus, and the Progressive Caucus is that organization within this body, within this Congress, that is here to unapologetically say that all Americans should have the right to go to the doctor and get basic health care in this richest country in the history of the world. All Americans should have civil and equal rights and be treated fairly based on whatever color, whatever their sexual preference might be, whatever nation they might be from.

    We're the ones who say let's have comprehensive immigration reform with a path towards citizenship, and let's absolutely pass the DREAM Act. The Progressive Caucus is that caucus that boldly and unapologetically says Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are great programs; and we need to protect them not only for today's seniors but for tomorrow's seniors, too.

    I would like to start out, Mr. Speaker, by talking a little bit, as I talk about the progressive message, starting out with just a few observations about the State of the Union speech. I personally thought the State of the Union speech was awesome. I thought President Obama was great, and I was really proud of President Obama as he delivered that State of the Union speech in this very Chamber.

    This Chamber was full of dignitaries from all over the world-- ambassadors, Senators, the United States Supreme Court. And in front of them, in front of the American people, President Obama specifically identified 24 Americans who joined Members of Congress as their guests. And these folks who President Obama identified were victims of gun violence. I was so proud to see President Obama specifically give these folks encouragement to keep on speaking out, continue to tell their story so that we can arrive at a place where the U.S. Congress will be on their side to bring forth sensible, sane gun violence prevention.

    You know, President Obama's wife, our First Lady, Michelle Obama, had seated next to her her own guest, parents of young Hadiya Pendleton whose life was taken away from her. She was shot down in Chicago. But only a few weeks before, she had been performing for her country at the President's inauguration.

    And so whether it was ordinary Members of Congress who just brought different people, or it was the President or the First Lady, the people who can speak most eloquently about the need for sane, sensible gun violence reform were here, Mr. Speaker. They were here and were present in this gallery so they could be a witness and a presence on the need.

    And what did President Obama say? He said give us a vote. He said give us a vote. Now, I say to the Republican House majority: Why are you afraid of a vote? Let's have a vote. Let's count who is for sane, sensible gun violence prevention and who is not; who is for closing loopholes that allow people to escape background checks; and who's for filling up background checks and making sure that anybody who gets a firearm, an instrument that is dangerous by any account, at least we know that this person is sane and legally qualified to have one. Let's see. Let's have a vote. I don't think that anyone should be afraid of the vote, because if you are proud to say, no, we don't want any background checks, then stand up and say that. Be on Mr. LaPierre's side of the NRA. But if you believe we need to make sure that guns stay out of the wrong hands, that's a vote that the American people should have, and I was so proud that the President made that clear.

    I personally think that the President was right in saying give us a vote when it comes to things like high-capacity magazines. You know, these high-capacity magazines, designed for the military, don't have any place on our streets. And the people who want to stand up and defend them, let them defend them. Let them defend them right here on the floor if they have the audacity to do so. And let us talk about millions of Americans, over the course of years, who have been tragically injured and hurt with bad gun policy.

    Let us talk about the victims in Aurora who were shot by somebody with a high-capacity clip. Let us talk about people who were victims in Milwaukee. Let us give the message about the folks who were shot down in Tucson by somebody with a high-capacity clip.

    The fact is that the President said give us a vote, and I agree 100 percent. We need a vote on these sane, sensible gun reforms.

    I'm going to leave this topic now, Mr. Speaker; but I do want to just make mention of my own guest. My own guest was a young man named Sami Rahamin. Sami, 17 years old, a brilliant young man, but really just a regular teenager, he happened to be on a bus going to Madison, Wisconsin, when he saw a message come across his phone which said there was a shooting in what he knew was his neighborhood.

    He texted back to his father and said: Dad, be careful because there's supposedly a shooting in the neighborhood. But the text never came back because one of the victims of that shooting was Sami's dad.

    [[Page H538]] Ruvin Rahamin was an immigrant to the United States. He came to the United States in search of the American Dream, but he died the American nightmare because a person who is mentally unsound, mentally unstable, easy access to the most dangerous weapons came to a work site and shot down five people, including Ruvin who was an awesome guy, a wonderful constituent of mine. He's missed. But because of his son carrying on the legacy, he will never be forgotten because Sami is telling the story about how much we need sane, sensible gun prevention measures.

    So enough about the gun issue. The State of the Union speech was awesome for another reason, which I definitely want to make note of, and that is the fact that he went right to the very heart of what I believe is the defining issue of our time, and that is income and wealth equality in our country. Our country, this is the land of opportunity. And we know that some people are rich and some people are middle class and some people are poor. We believe we're a country that can provide a ladder up for anybody who wants to work hard. And for those people who are too sick to work or too aged to work or too young to work, we believe in the social safety net to take care of them.

    {time} 1650 We believe in income and economic mobility in America. And yet the President put his finger right on it when he talked about how we've seen people making $14,000 a year working full time; but because they are paid so little, they are still in poverty.

    I was so proud the President made this point. It's a point that needs to be made. There are people working in restaurants, people who are cleaning up, people in our hospitals, people who are doing the really tough jobs. I'm talking about the jobs where you've got to take a shower after you get off work, not take a shower going to work, you've got to take one when you're done with your day's work because you've been working hard, you've been building things, you've been maybe cleaning up things, you've been lifting people, you've been doing the hard work. And many of these folks are scraping by on really low wages. The President clearly has a heart for these folks and wants to see them come up. And I was glad the President was able to do that.

    Mr. Speaker, you should know that over the past 30 years income for the average American has stayed flat, while the richest 1 percent of Americans have seen their income more than triple. This has not happened by accident. It has been a set of policies put in place through the Tax Code, through trade policy, through the loss of manufacturing, and a number of things.

    There's been a number of policies that have gotten us to this place, but there's been one philosophy, and the philosophy is simply this: if we give a lot of money to the richest Americans, maybe they will take their excess wealth and put that into plant and equipment and hire people.

    This is known as supply-side economics. We don't want to have any regulations on them. They can do what they want with the water, they can do what they want with the meat, they can do what they want with the air. No regulations or against regulations. We don't want to tax them. They don't have to pay for our roads, our bridges, our schools; they don't have to do anything like that. They get to keep all this money. And it's all under the assumption that they will take this money that they amass and put it into plant and equipment and hire people.

    Well, this philosophy has proven to have failed; this philosophy has caused income inequality in America. And the President correctly said that we have got to do something to create more economic viability for the poor and middle class in America. I was so happy to see him do it.

    Mr. Speaker, you should know, the President didn't say this, but it's absolutely true, that the wealth of the richest 1 percent is over 225 times larger than the average household, higher than it has ever been, higher than it has ever been.

    Mr. Speaker, we look back at the Gilded Age and we think, oh, boy, wasn't income inequality bad way back then. Well, it's worse now. We've got to do something about it, and our President knows that. I am very pleased to see that. And the President, while he gave a message of economic hope and understanding to the working and middle classes of our country, the politician who gave the alternative, Mr. Marco Rubio, when he wasn't getting glasses of water in the middle of his speech, he just really articulated the same old thing: money for the rich, less for everybody else.

    Mr. Speaker, we cannot continue to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires while cutting investments that the middle class relies on, while cutting programs that help local governments keep on police, keep on teachers, keep on people who fix our roads and firefighters. We cannot cut the Federal workforce, as is about to happen--I'll talk about sequester in a little while--and we cannot make these economic decisions and hope to have a strong economy.

    We've got to invest in our roads, our bridges, our grids, our electrical power grids in transit to move people around quickly. We've got to make these investments. We've got to invest in research; we've got to invest in our schools. This is what's going to make America a strong country. This is what's going to put more people to work. More people paying taxes means we're going to have more taxes, and that will help us lower the deficit.

    The Republicans have it all wrong. They think that by slashing the Federal Government, then that's going to make our economy better. All it's going to do is create a situation where you've got more people out of work, fewer people paying taxes, fewer people putting in tax revenue, and then the deficit will go up.

    I'm going talk about the sequester in a moment; but I just want to say, as I highlight a few things about the State of the Union speech, how important I thought the President's remarks were.

    Let me turn for a moment--another thing about the State of the Union speech--Mr. Speaker, on the issue of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. First of all, I want to encourage people to not refer to these programs as entitlements. I don't even like doing it myself right now.

    What they really are is social insurance. You know how insurance works. You pay a premium and then when you need it, you can use it. Well, you get 6 percent taken out of your paycheck every week or two weeks or a month or however often you get paid. You're paying into Social Security, you're paying into Medicare, you're paying into Medicaid.

    The bottom line is these social insurance programs are not some giveaway; they're not welfare. They are important social insurance programs to provide income security for people when they are aged, when they are too ill to work and disabled, or when their parents die and they need support. That's what these programs are about.

    I'm glad that we are here to talk about how we preserve these programs. The President mentioned it. He said he wanted to strengthen Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for generations to come. I quite agree with this. He said: But any reform should come through protecting these programs, not just cutting these programs to finance tax cuts for the wealthy.

    I believe that we should not have any benefit cuts to these programs. We don't need to. There's plenty of places to cut, plenty of loopholes to close, and we can get money elsewhere. But I'm glad the President made mention of the program.

    I also want to mention, Mr. Speaker, that one of the places we can find savings for social insurance programs is we need to allow Medicare part D to negotiate lower drug prices. Medicare part D is a prescription drug benefit that the Republicans negotiated and passed in 2003. This particular program put into law that there could be no negotiation of drug prices. This has made the program more expensive. About $158 billion would be attainable as savings if we were allowed negotiation.

    The President also said we're going to get out of Afghanistan. I think this is great. The President announced that we would bring 34,000 troops home from Afghanistan by this time next year. That's fantastic. My own son is a member of the U.S. Military. I'm very proud of that. I actually don't want to see [[Page H539]] him deployed to Afghanistan. I want to see him in a place where he can defend this Nation, as he wants to do. I think that it's time for us to go home.

    The President didn't say we're going to abandon Afghanistan. We will be there diplomatically, we will be there training their soldiers, but sovereignty means that you protect yourself. It's time for the Afghan people who want to be sovereign to take responsibility for their own security.

    I want to turn now to the subject of immigration. I think right now, and I think the President made clear, that we may be at a point, and I pray that we are, where comprehensive immigration reform is within the reach of Congress to pass.

    I'm proud to be joined by my good friend Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado. This is an important issue to you, Congressman, and I want to yield to you to share your thoughts on immigration.

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