Members of Congress serving on a new “select” committee on inequality had no trouble social distancing at their inaugural hearing. That’s because the six seats reserved for Republicans were all empty.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had dutifully invited the GOP to participate, but after she vetoed two of their nominees for a different body — the January 6 Commission — the Republicans picked up their toys and went home in a huff.

To no one’s surprise, Democrats did not cry boohoo. Instead, they carried on with the business of launching the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity & Fairness in Growth.

In opening remarks on July 29, Pelosi explained that the committee will take a values-based, wholistic approach to the problem and recommend policy solutions to the various legislative committees of jurisdiction.

“We feel very concerned about the immorality of inequality in our country and we are going to do something about it,” the Speaker said.

Witnesses at the first hearing came armed with bold ideas.

Professor James Galbraith, of the University of Texas at Austin, urged lawmakers to consider a federal job guarantee to “eliminate involuntary unemployment, set a basic wage standard, and provide willing workers with continuous employment on useful projects.”

In an apparent dig at the billionaire space race, he also called for policies to “bring the new plutocrats back to earth,” including taxes on assets that are hard to hide, such as land and mineral rights.

Shailly Gupta-Barnes, Policy Director of the Poor People’s Campaign, also supported a federal job guarantee and increased taxes on the wealthy — two of the campaign’s 14 legislative priorities. She and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had an impassioned exchange about the need to update obsolete official poverty measures so we can get a true accounting of who is poor.

“We cannot fix what we cannot measure,” the New York Democrat said.

Freshman Rep. Sara Jacobs emphasized the importance of recognizing that poor people didn’t create the inequality problem.

“If my colleagues on the other side of the aisle were here, they would be spending a lot of time talking about merit, and why it’s okay that we have this inequality because of merit. But what I did to inherit my wealth was that I was born,” Jacobs said. “I’ve benefited from this unfair system.”

Republicans aren’t the only ones who believe the rich are rich because they deserve to be — rather than as a result of a system rigged in their favor.

Jason Furman, who served as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors in the Obama administration, made his rosy view of the wealthy clear in his testimony: “In many and perhaps even most cases, their incomes are a result of the large contributions they have made to the economy,” he said.

And yet Furman supports “almost all” of President Biden’s proposed tax increases on the rich because the resources generated would enormously benefit lower-income families through Biden’s jobs and families plans.

In 2009, Furman was an architect of Obama’s roughly $800 billion stimulus plan, which many now view as so modest that it prolonged the Great Recession. He now fully supports the scale of Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar plans. And in some areas, he feels it could be bigger. “You could come back and invest more in pre-school, you could have more generous paid leave. It’s a really great start, but it’s definitely not an end and won’t fully solve all these problems,” he said.

In addition to Ocasio-Cortez and Jacobs, two other Congressional Progressive Caucus members serve on the committee: Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin and CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington. Connecticut “New Democrat” Jim Himes chairs the select committee, while Representatives Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Angie Craig of Minnesota, and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio round out the Democratic side of the body.

By statute, the committee is intended to be active only during the current legislative session, with policy recommendations to relevant committees due by the end of 2021 and all reports published by the end of 2022.

Pelosi said the GOP has a standing invitation to start participating in the committee whenever they’d like.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and co-edits at the Institute for Policy Studies. Justin Campos is an IPS Next Leader.

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