The state of our middle class

Tuesday’s State of the Union address will put a spotlight on the defining issue of the year: Who is on your side?
Americans will ask of their leaders, do you protect the middle class or special interests? Do you help middle-class paychecks by increasing the minimum wage, or do you help oil companies’ profits by extending their taxpayer subsidies?

On these pocketbook issues, Democrats enjoy the support of the American people.

Middle-class security is the defining issue of our time. Millions of Americans find it more difficult than ever to join the middle class through hard work and determination, and more still find it impossible to stay there. We must change that — with practical solutions to grow our economy and create jobs, to lift families up into the middle class, and to help them stay there.

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In our vision, everyone from the rich to the middle class to the families struggling the most would have a chance to succeed and continue to prosper. But that is far from the reality we face today — under the Republican agenda, the top 1 percent gets even wealthier while everyone else is left out in the cold.

On issue after issue, middle-class families are forced to contend with Republican lawmakers that are not on their side — and that are actively stacking the deck against them.

Rather than work to strengthen the middle class with smart investments in schools and infrastructure, fair reform of the tax code and economic growth, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the Republican House have taken us in the opposite direction.

They cost our economy $24 billion and 120,000 jobs when they shut down the federal government. They have refused to rebuild America’s infrastructure because they are too busy repealing healthcare reform and putting insurance companies back in charge of healthcare. They have not brought an immigration bill to the floor but have crowded the agenda with constant attacks on women’s access to healthcare. They cut off emergency unemployment insurance for Americans looking for work but continue to protect special tax treatment for the wealthiest Americans.

There is a deep hunger in this country for real solutions and for real cooperation to make progress for the middle class. When the president speaks in his State of the Union address, I think he will make the case for both and call on all of us to come together and recommit ourselves to growing an American economy that works for all Americans. And I hope that, in this election year, a few House Republicans might heed that call.

But I’m not holding my breath. This Republican House is not beholden to the broader American electorate — it is beholden to the Tea Party and its out-of-whack priorities. The tail is now wagging the dog, and the tail only goes to the far right. Whenever any House Republican takes a tiny, tentative step toward compromise or moderation, he is swiftly whipped back in line or challenged in a primary. Poll after poll shows that by wide margins, Americans want to raise the minimum wage and want to extend unemployment insurance — but with the Tea Party calling the shots, both have been left on the dust heap of this Republican majority.

Remember, when Democrats held the majority in the House, in our first days we raised the minimum wage. On Day 1 of this Republican majority, they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and have tried almost every day since. In the final days of the Democratic majority, we repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This week, under the Republican majority, we will consider yet another reversal of women’s rights.

It all comes back to priorities and that central question of who is on your side. If House Republicans continue to put Washington special interests ahead of the middle class, the list of missed opportunities and Congress-inflicted burdens that weigh down hardworking families will continue to grow.

That is the debate I hope the president will frame tonight. And it is a debate that will carry on through this fall, when Americans will have the opportunity to elect problem-solving Democrats who will stand on the side of middle-class families — not Washington special interests.


Israel has represented New York’s 3rd Congressional District since 2001. He is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.