By Tyler Tynes, March 2
A gaggle of top House Democrats derided Speaker Paul Ryan's newly developed GOP task force on poverty on Wednesday, arguing that the group was a "sham."
Taking individual turns at an outdoor press conference, seven Democrats -- including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Xavier Beccera of California -- called out what they saw as duplicity behind the selection of the speaker's squad.
"You cannot put forward a task force on poverty and have people who are serving on that task force who have consistently voted against every opportunity to provide people with the services that they need to keep them out of poverty," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), one of Congress' most ardent advocates for the poor. "It is incongruous. It is a sham."
Last week, Ryan announced members of the new GOP task force on poverty, an issue he’s been vocal about on the Hill since 2013. But Democrats were quick to denounce the group, particularly the members whom GOP leadership selected to serve on it.
DeLauro said Democrats wouldn't allow "partisan posturing" to hold a shadow over those in need. She pointed to the voting records of task force members -- Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), and Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) -- and said they had a history of voting to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Head Start.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said everyone under the Capitol dome should already be ashamed of the nation's struggle with poverty, but he characterized the speaker's task force as a new low, warning that no Democrat will be "silent in the face of Republican attempts to bring to a halt the war on poverty."
McGovern insisted that Ryan's task force was actually advocating a war on the poor.
"It is unconscionable that they would do that," McGovern said referring to the votes that would have slashed funding to impoverished Americans. "But those are the people that are making up this task force to supposedly try to deal with poverty in this country. That's why we say it's a sham. That's why we're skeptical."
It doesn't help the GOP cause that most of the people on its poverty task force are rich white guys. Two are millionaires: Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is worth $7.2 million and Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) is worth $5 million, according to Roll Call's rankings of the richest members of Congress. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) is worth $590,000, and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) is worth $100,000. The final member, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), sadly, is $410,000 in debt.
In total, their average worth is $2.5 million.
Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck said that was a silly detail to quibble with. "Oh stop," Buck said in a email. "This is not a handpicked group of members. These are the chairmen of the committees of jurisdiction over the relevant programs."
With 46 million Americans currently living below the federal poverty line, Democrats here have called for more bipartisan action and support. The hope, Hoyer said recently, is to strengthen anti-poverty programs already enacted and denounce “the failed austerity policies of past Republican Congresses.”
Becerra said some members of the Democratic Caucus have been working against poverty for a long time, whereas congressional Republicans have been "all talk no action" and "asleep at the wheel" not just on poverty, but on many of America's issues.
Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) challenged House Republicans to work with Democrats on promises about raising the minimum wage, strengthening education and housing programs and ensuring the impoverished get quality food.
Pelosi, like her Democratic colleagues, welcomed help from the other side of the aisle but voiced her skepticism.
"We need to confront poverty in America with fresh eyes and new thinking," she said Wednesday. "If Republicans want to join Democrats in a meaningful bipartisan conversation on poverty, we welcome them. But Republicans’ tired, trickle-down agenda is no solution for struggling Americans."
As they stood in the early March chill, Hoyer noted that Democrats have had their own poverty task force since 2013, and facetiously welcomed Ryan to the fray.
"We are here in the cold, but we are here to talk about those people who are being left out in the cold who are victims to our negligence and inaction," Hoyer said. "Speaker Ryan has spoken at much greater length than many Republicans about the importance of combating poverty. I appreciate his words. Those in poverty would appreciate his actions."