The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Lies, Controversies, and Allegations

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the Netroots Nation political conference in 2018. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: I relent and drink from the firehose of statements, lies, stories, controversies, allegations, and accusations of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — from her Malthusian impulses to her strangely delayed district office to what her stance on Congressional staffer salaries actually means for her office.

Ocasio-Cortez: ‘A Legitimate Question, You Know, Is It Okay to Still Have Children?’

“There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question, you know, is it okay to still have children?” — Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, discussing climate change in a livestream Sunday night, while chopping vegetables in her kitchen.

There is ample evidence that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is over-covered by both the mainstream media and conservative media. She’s been in office about two months. She is near the very bottom of House Democrats in terms of seniority. There is considerable evidence that Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t take her or “the green dream, whatever they call it” seriously.

But she embodies what a loud section of the online Left wants to see and what a loud section of the online Right loves to denounce and probably fears. There is probably no figure in American life doing more to push the Overton Window to the Left. In making her arguments, she is impassioned and often flat-out wrong on the facts — contending that the Pentagon misspent $21 trillion over 17 years  (the total budget for the Pentagon during that time period was about $8.5 trillion), that unemployment is low because “everyone is working two jobs,” and that “ICE is required to fill 34,000 beds with detainees every single night.” She whines when fact-checkers point out that she gets things wrong.

Even when she has an easily defensible position, like the argument that the city of New York gave Amazon far too generous a package of incentives to open a new headquarters, she flubs basic facts, contending that the tax breaks the city offered represented money that can now be spent elsewhere.

She urges people to stop using disposable razors, to eliminate meat and dairy from at least one meal a day, and that allowing billionaires to exist is immoral.

She is the progressive id; she says out loud what plenty of her fellow believers think but hesitate to state publicly because they fear the reaction from others. When she gets things wrong, she’s describing how things feel to her instead of how they actually are — that the Department of Defense is unimaginably wasteful (in a way the rest of the federal government is not), that Trump’s election triggered a catastrophe for the U.S. economy, and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is unjust, draconian, and cruel on an epic scale.

Ocasio-Cortez expresses the repressed desires of the progressive movement — as Trump did so for a significant chunk of the conservative movement — and because of that, we should expect her to only become more prominent, arguably the de facto leader of the Democratic party, even if she holds little formal power. (Does anyone doubt that Ocasio Cortez’s endorsement could make or break several Democratic presidential candidates?)

Last night, while discussing the Green New Deal and climate change, her stream of consciousness comments seemed to argue that the threat of climate change made parenthood morally unjustifiable, or at least morally troubling:

There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question, you know, is it okay to still have children? And I mean, not only just financially, because people are graduating with twenty, thirty, a hundred thousand dollars worth of student loan debt, and they can’t even afford to have kids in the house, but also just this basic moral question, what do we do? And even if you don’t have kids, there are still children here who are in the world, and we have a moral obligation to them, to leave a better world for them. This idea that if we just, you know, I’ve been working on this for X amount of years [sic] it’s like, not good enough. We need a universal sense of urgency. And people are trying to, like introduce watered-down proposals that are frankly going to kill us. A lack of urgency is going to kill us. It doesn’t matter if you agree that climate change is an important issue. At this point it doesn’t matter. If you believe climate change is a problem, that’s not even the issue. The issue is, how urgently you feel the need to fix it.

Any lawmaker with any familiarity with the One Child Policy in China would be wary about floating these kinds of arguments. We don’t want government officials going anywhere near the argument that one size of a family is moral and a different size is immoral. It’s funny how quickly the argument “my body, my choice,” disappears outside of its most prominent context.

Separately, the New York Post asked whether Alexandria Ocasio Cortez actually lives in her district, and a day later the congresswoman confirmed that she had moved to a different address within the same congressional district.

The article stated that the congresswoman doesn’t have a district office, which is technically true but not for long; a district office is under construction and is expected to be open by early March. The congresswoman blamed the government shutdown for the delays, but other freshmen members of Congress managed to get their offices up and running. In fact, the legislative branch appropriations bill passed before the shutdown, meaning that there should not have been any disruption to the funding of her office.

Ocasio-Cortez also bragged that she will pay every staffer at least $52,000 per year, considerably more than most Congressional staffer salaries for lower-level staff. She has separately pledged to pay interns at least $15 an hour.

The less you know about the budget process for congressional offices, the more her $52,000-per-year stance sounds bold or wasteful. (Congressional staff salaries are public information; you can browse them here. Considering the responsibilities, hours, cost-of-living, and lack of job security, I’d argue that the vast majority of staffers are underpaid. Congressional staffers, please remember me making this argument next time I need a phone call returned.)

Each member gets an office budget consisting of three amounts. The first is roughly $1 million for staff salaries, divided among employees at the member’s discretion. The second is a separate sum for official office expenses, which is calculated based upon local rental costs in the district and the distance between a member’s district and Washington. (Way back when I covered Congress for a wire service, I did a story on how Hawaiian representatives are often among those who return the most unused money to the U.S. Treasury at the end of the fiscal year. This was less driven by any inherent fiscal conservatism than the fact that members went home less frequently than other members on weekends, because of the travel time.) The third is an amount for official mail, which is calculated based on the number of nonbusiness addresses in the district.

Congressional staff salaries have a wide range from job to job and from office to office. A study last year found that the office of Representative Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), had the highest median salary at $81,491; Representative Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), had the lowest median salary of just $35,925.

Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to pay each staffer $52,000 means that she will have fewer staffers than other offices, unless she uses some sort of other personal funds to hire additional ones — unlikely, considering how she’s lamented her modest means. Even fiscally conservative members of Congress come to different conclusions about how best to use the money available for hiring staff. Some believe the preeminent objective should be to keep staffing costs low, while others believe that hiring the highest number of capable staffers (and paying them enough to keep them) represents the best avenue for constituent service — which is, of course, a big reason why they were elected.

As the House member who gets the most media attention next to the speaker, Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t bother with the usual communications avenues. As of this morning, her Congressional web site has four press releases — three from her first day — and the lone “In the News” article links to Wikipedia.

ADDENDUM: CPAC is this week! If you’re going to be there, I hope you’ll join me for a panel on podcasting — how to start, what works, what doesn’t, lessons I’ve learned with Greg and Mickey, and lots of other useful advice.

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