WASHINGTON — Americans love a morality play, or at least that's what the media say. That's why we care that Martha Stewart is home from jail and that Michael Jackson showed up late to court in his pajamas last week. These stories aren't just about celebrity, they're about ourselves and our common national values. We see them as a window on our culture.
Of course, the celebrity factor doesn't exactly hurt either. Is the Jackson trial so important to the US psyche that we should have reenactments of what happened in the courtroom replayed every night on TV?
While Martha was settling in at home and Michael was holding his courtroom pajama party, another morality play was unfolding in Washington with far fewer cameras and commentary. The Senate last week shot down one bill and passed another - and the fates of those respective pieces of legislation tell us more about ourselves than all the programming on the E! network combined.
On Monday, the Senate defeated a bill that would have raised the nation's minimum wage by $2.10 over the next 26 months. The bill was defeated by the Senate Republicans, who argued that the increase would stifle job growth.
That's a legitimate concern, though one that doesn't seem to bear up to scrutiny. The last two times the minimum wage was increased, in 1996 and 1997, the unemployment rate fell in the following months. And the wage is in need of a bump - adjusted for inflation, the 1997 $5.15-an-hour wage is worth only $4.33-an-hour in 2005.
Senate GOPers noted that the nation was still coming out of hard economic times, and proposed a more moderate increase of $1.10 over 18 months. That wasn't an unreasonable alternative, but they crammed their substitute bill with so many antiworker provisions (restrictions on overtime pay and the ability of states to raises wages for restaurant workers, for example) that they knew it would fail.
Then, fresh from defeating the minimum wage increase, the Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would change bankruptcy rules, making it harder for the those who go broke to cancel their debts and start over. Not a bad idea, right?
Well, yes and no. Everyone is for making sure people don't abuse the system and simply declare bankruptcy to get rid of credit-card bills that were run up on flat-screen TVs and trips to Paris. But the bill does nothing to exempt those who are stuck with massive debt from healthcare costs - which Congress is doing little to control. It ignored the fact that one-third of all personal bankruptcies are declared by families that meet the federal definition of poverty. And the legislation does nothing to punish credit-card companies that offer cards to people they know to be bad risks.
Worst of all, the bill keeps intact the "millionaire's loophole," a provision of the current law used by wealthy individuals as a shelter from creditors. There are five states that allow people who live anywhere in the country to establish trusts that cannot be reached by federal bankruptcy proceedings. One amendment proposed limiting what could be sheltered to $125,000. It was defeated.
So in one week you had the Senate saying, sorry, but the country just isn't in the position to give people working at the bottom of the pay scale a raise because times are tough, while simultaneously telling those same people that times may be tough but bankruptcy isn't an option. Oh, yeah, and if you are very wealthy, well, bankruptcy really is an option.
There are no former pop stars or domestic goddesses here, but if these political choices don't offer a revealing look at our common national values, what does?
And with all the cameras sitting outside a courthouse in California and an estate in Connecticut, there are a few questions to ponder. At what point does Michael Jackson doing something weird cease to be news? And what exactly can the trials and tribulations of Martha Stewart - who emerged from prison with a TV deal, a still-massive fortune, and a court order confining her to the horrors of a 153-acre estate - teach us about anyone other than herself?
Of course, C-SPAN will never have the glitz of E!. But the morality plays in Washington do have one advantage over the events that are dominating the news today. They impact lives, lots of them. Now if they could just get the interest of the people and the media.
Maybe Ted Kennedy could wear his pajamas to work next week.
• Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.