Last week, a relatively unknown Democratic Congressman from Virginia became the poster boy for D.C. tone deafness when he declared that Congress needs a raise. My first thought, like almost everyone else’s, was that it was a good thing he’s retiring because he’d do less damage to his political future if he found himself next to a dead under-aged male hooker in a room full of reporters. While this is likely still true, once I gave it a little thought, I found myself agreeing with Rep. Jim Moran. Congress does need a raise. It’s one step in preserving our democracy. Bear with me. This will make perfect sense in a bit.
If Facebook is any sort of American laboratory, it seems that one of the few ideas that’s genuinely bipartisan, at least among citizens, is that congressional salaries should be cut, not raised. If Congress is asking us to sacrifice, isn’t it only right that they should too? In theory, I’m right there with the majority of Americans. Congress – especially the John Boehner Congress – seems like a super cushy job, at least for most of them. But that has nothing (nada, zilch, NOTHING) to do with their salaries.
“Riiiight,” you say. “Congress makes more than five times the annual salary of the average American. They also have great health insurance and a pension.”
Of course, you’re right. They do make a lot more than most Americans. But that’s not why Congress is a cushy job. The reason it’s a cushy job is that bribery is legal in the United States, at least if you’re in Congress.
As it stands right now, Congress has more millionaires than a country club in Greenwich, CT. Washington has become a game that is rigged for the rich. Already wealthy people see Congress as a wealth stepping stone. They enter Congress with a million dollars and they leave poised to make many times that.
We don’t want Congress to be made up exclusively of people who don’t need a salary. We want people who understand what it’s like to live only on a salary. We want people who understand living paycheck to paycheck. We want people who understand the working poor. That’s not to say that millionaires can’t work for the betterment of others – the Kennedys have proven that to be true – but Congressional salary isn’t the source of Congressional tone-deafness. That can be blamed on the horribly broken system. Here are my ideas to fix it:
1. Publicly funded elections Yes, I know. The Supreme Court thinks that money is speech and corporations are people. This one is a very tough row to hoe. Candidates can choose public election funding, but as long as 10s or hundreds of millions are being poured into their competitor’s coffers – either directly or indirectly – it would be tough for a publicly funded person to be elected to a school board. But, if Americans got together and said, “enough is enough,” and only voted for publicly funded candidates, it can be done and it might not even require a Constitutional Convention.
2. Get rid of PACs and SuperPACs – Unfortunately, there’s little Congress or the voters (again, short of a Constitutional Convention) can do to stop the bigger than the mountain-sized snowball that has completely engulfed politics, but there are things that can be done, although it may take a new balance on the Supreme Court, which as much as many liberals will hate, means another Democratic President (unless a conservative judge retires within the next two and a half years).
3. Change Congressional investment rules – Did you know that if you’re in Congress, insider trading is legal? Think about that for a second. If Congress passes a law that benefits XYZ Oil (or Wind, or whatever), they can legally buy that stock before even your stock broker is aware of the pending legislation. Some members of Congress tried to fix that, but as you can imagine, people tend not to like their revenue streams being cut.
My proposal is that the entire investment portfolio of the candidate and of the candidate’s family has to be put into the country. That’s right – they have to go to Treasury Bonds. They might not get rich, but you can guarantee that if they are legislating to protect their own pockets, it will be for the benefit of the country.
4. Eliminate lobbyists’ checkbooks – Lobbying is a great idea gone completely awry. A traditional lobbyist is a citizen or a business owner, who is asking Congress for legislative help. There’s nothing more democratic. However, as we know, that’s rarely the way it works. Now, lobbyists are mega-law firms. They aren’t allowed to directly give Congress people money, but they can make promises. Often, those promises are jobs – whether they be post-retirement or for family members.
The only solution for that is that for at least five years from retirement, Congresspeople and their families be prohibited from taking jobs at lobby shops or with any industry that their legislation has directly benefitted.
5. Shorten election cycles – In the U.K., the entire election cycle takes about a month. In the U.S., well, pundits would argue that the 2016 election is already underway. Technically, though, the primary season begins in January – a full 10 months before ballots are counted. If our politicians weren’t constantly running for office, they could actually get a lot more done.
6. Make Congress work for their money – The John Boehner Congress has become a joke. In 2013, they averaged about 28 hours a week with just 99 days spent
trying to repeal Obamacare passing (or not passing) laws. That doesn’t mean that they only work 28 hours a week. In fact, they work a lot, but the majority of that work is spent raising money and running for office. See number 1 and number 5.
7. Give Congress a raise (or a living stipend) – I mostly had you until this point, didn’t I? First off, ignore all the Facebook memes that talk about outrageous post-office pensions and benefits. Nancy Pelosi is not set to earn $803,000 per year for the rest of her life, no matter what your Republican uncle says.
Congress members earn a salary of $174,000. They do not earn a pension after just one year of serving – that takes five years, which means surviving three elections. They aren’t eligible for a pension until they no longer hold any federal office and until they are of retirement age. The average pension for Congresspeople serving on today’s pension plan and who have served on average, more than 15 years, is around $40,000 per year. They also collect Social Security, but only if they pay into it from another job. If they serve less time in Congress, they collect less.
As for insurance, they buy their insurance, with contributions from the government, from the Affordable Care Act exchanges. They’ll continue to have to pay, unless they’re on Medicare, after they retire.
Congress is a horrible job. At best, half the people in their hometowns hate them. At worst, 90% of the people in the entire country hate them. Campaigning is a nightmare for candidate and family alike. Odds are you, and certainly I, would rather repeatedly be stuck in the eyes with tiny needles than run for Congress. Far more importantly, though, is that it’s doubtful that we can afford to run for office or to serve in Congress.
Yes, Congresspeople make $174,000 a year, which is a lot more than I make and chances are it’s more than you make. We’ve already established that most people don’t want the job, so by that factor alone, it should pay more than average. It’s also a job with a lot of responsibility. If you compare it to most jobs of equal power and responsibility, it fares very poorly. This is why most highly educated, highly qualified people stay within the private sector.
We need to ask ourselves, though, who do we want in Congress? Don’t we want people to truly represent the people or do we want people who are in a financial position to afford a low-paying (or no-paying, as some people advocate) job and who use it as a stepping stone to big wealth?
In order to run for Congress, most people have to quit their jobs. Most spouses also have to quit their jobs. Unless they live in an area bordering D.C., Congresspeople have to have two homes. When you think about that, is it any wonder our legislative branch is stacked with millionaires?
I’m not suggesting that salary should be a motive for people to run for office, but it shouldn’t be an impediment either. If we’re not comfortable giving Congresspeople more money, let’s provide them with housing in D.C. and a living stipend for when they are in Washington. When you look at the big picture, claims that somehow, Congress will be more sympathetic to our plights if they are making minimum wage, seems both shortsighted and knee-jerk. It will do nothing but ensure that only the very wealthy run. Once we make Congress a place to neither become rich nor cause economic hardships, we will start to see a more representative Washington.
|Wendy Gittleson is a political and corporate freelance writer. She’s the former senior editor for Addicting Info and a writer/editor for Liberals Unite, Restoring Sanity and the satire site, Nine Inch News. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter.|