The Right’s New ‘Welfare Queens’: The Middle Class
Two weeks ago, I was invited to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on the subject of the economic problems of the middle class. Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, who became chairman of the committee in February, let me know that he wanted someone to bring news from outside Washington to the hearing. He wanted me to tell a few of the stories about hard-pressed Americans from my book “The Unwinding,” to help him steer the committee’s agenda in a new direction. This isn’t the sort of request I regularly receive, so I said yes.
There were four other panelists that Thursday morning at the committee-room table in the Dirksen Senate Office Building: the chief economist of the small-business lobby; the director of the left-leaning Tax Policy Center; an economist from a Chicago financial-services firm; and Lawrence Lindsey, who was a top economic adviser to George W. Bush and an architect of the huge 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, and is now a consultant in Washington. Looking down from the dais were Wyden and the committee’s ranking Republican, Orrin Hatch, of Utah, along with a handful of other committee members who were present at various points during the hearing: the Republicans Charles Grassley, of Iowa, and John Thune, of South Dakota, as well as the Democrats Debbie Stabenow, of Michigan; Sherrod Brown, of Ohio; and Michael Bennet, of Colorado.
I said my bit, as did the other witnesses. Then came the questions. Congressional hearings are not the place for truth to emerge, or even for a sustained inquiry into the truth. They are performances, and each actor already has his or her lines memorized—especially the senators, whose questions direct the flow of discussion, and who rarely seem interested in building on or digging deeper into what has gone before. By the end of this hearing, there was no question which character’s voice dominated: it was Lindsey’s, perhaps because he was more familiar with the workings of Washington than the other witnesses were. But I don’t think he pushed the discussion in the direction that Wyden had hoped.