Thoughts on Yet-Another Badly-Conceived Populist Mass-Email

I got yet-another of those populist emails about how Congress should be run differently, and I figured I’d offer some rejoinders.  Altogether they sum to this: Maligning Congress and talking like Representatives and Senators don’t work for a living is a poor perspective from which to propose reforms.  I find it strange that so many erstwhile-Conservatives who assert that we have lost our way and must morally renew this country express contempt for officials they have elected in the same breath, assuming that no specialized knowledge or experience is needed to legislate for a country of 310 million people in the 21st century.
The 26th amendment (granting the right to vote for 18 year-olds) took
only 3 months & 8 days to be ratified!  Why?  Simple!  The people
demanded it. 
That was in 1971…before computers, before e-mail, before cell phones,
etc.

Of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, seven (7) took 1 year or less
to become the law of the land…all because of public pressure.

I’m asking each addressee to forward this email to a minimum of twenty
people on their address list; in turn ask each of those to do likewise.

In three days, most people in The United States of America will have the
message.  This is one idea that really should be passed around.


Congressional Reform Act of 2011

1. Term Limits. 12 years only, one of the possible options below..

A. Two Six-year Senate terms
B. Six Two-year House terms
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms 

I don’t like it.  I haven’t heard a convincing argument why preventing either legislators or executives from running for reelection makes government more-accountable.  Who is responsible for reelecting politicians?  We only send them back to Washington/the State capitals/the county seat/city hall/town hall when we want to.  Term limits are thus anti-democratic.  I wish such proposals (which are really manifestations of resentment for elected officials) would go away.
My professor for American Public Policy back in college made an interesting point about term limits: If you term-limit elected officials, you lose much of the sum of experience that allows legislators and executives to contend with the State and Federal bureaucracies, or those in the private sector lobbying them for tax breaks, subsidies or favorable regulatory changes.  So, while term-limits in theory could get rid of some of the legislators bringing home the most pork (which has actually always been a very small component of the Federal budget), they could actually result in bigger and more perversely-structured government.
2.  No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman collects a salary while in
office and receives no pay when they are out of office.
3.  Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.
All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social
Security system immediately.  All future funds flow into the Social
Security system, and Congress participates with  the American people. 
This one makes sense to me.  Congressional Republicans might look ascance at risky and inefficient ideas like President George W. Bush’s grandiose plan to divert some of our Social Security funds into private investment accounts.  Such a measure would have brought catastrophe had it been implemented before the 2008 Financial Crash; we would have been bailing-out our seniors as well as the largest banks and the Big 3 American automakers.  Congressional participation in Social Security could help lead future discussions of our oldest entitlement to really focus on its long-term solvency rather than using it to…um, “change the course of history.”
4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all
Americans do. 
…Uh, just as Americans who can afford to do.  This email assumes the average American is middle-class and has good finances; this isn’t true.
5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise.  Congressional
pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.
Why shouldn’t Congress be able to vote itself a pay raise?  It’s not like it does constantly.  We assume a lot when we assume the right people will be willing to go to Congress on any salary.  Right now the Speaker of the House earns $223,500 in annual Congressional pay, and the Majority and Minority Leaders in both the House and the Senate earn $193,400 a year in Congressional pay.  That might sound like a lot, until you consider they are only making about as much money as a top-paid college professor–or far less than they could be making as lawyers (which most of them are by trade, as is logical).  Now consider this fact, posted on the AFL-CIO’s website:
“In 2010, Jeffrey R. Immelt received $21,428,765 in total compensation.  By comparison, the median worker made $33,190 in 2010. Jeffrey R. Immelt made 645 times the median worker’s pay.”
What even the AFL-CIO doesn’t mention in this space is that General Electric Corporation paid no corporate taxes this year after making over $10.8 billion in profits in 2010.  Actually, General Electric has apparently filed for $1.1 billion in compensation from the Federal Government for domestic losses last year.  I think this focus on Congressional pay is a sick distraction from the fact that lots of talented people are being siphoned off into top office jobs that pay millions (or tens of millions, or hundreds of millions) and practically being encouraged to dodge Federal taxes while deciding at their leisure that millions of Americans who definitely work for a living (or at least did) are economically superfluous and must fend for themselves.
6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in
the same health care system as the American people.
Why not just give the American people their health care system, since it’s obviously better?  This is what President Obama was saying from the beginning.  Bear in mind that every other country in the developed world has a socialized health care sector, and that those countries all pay less per capita for health care than we do, and that roughly all have higher life expectancies and lower child mortality rates than we do.  The AMA and the insurance companies screamed back in 1965 when President Johnson proposed universal health care but said nothing when Medicare (Federal health care for the elderly) and Medicaid (Federal health care for the poor) were instituted; that’s because insurance companies didn’t see any profit in taking care of sick or poor people–that is, the people who need help.
7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American
people. 
That’s…already the law.  Don’t you remember Senator Kennedy getting told he was on a no-fly list (due to an administrative mistake, of course) and not being allowed to fly?  Did he say “I am a Senator!” in a booming voice and was promptly shown to a plane?  No, the TSA barred Senator Kennedy from flying, just as it does with the 6-year-olds it flags as supposed airline security risks.

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective
10-1-11

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen.
Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves.

Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers
envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then
go home and back to work.
I actually just find this closing offensive.  Who is this person to say members of Congress don’t work?  It’s pretty clear he or she has no idea what Congressmen and Senators do.  They hold frequent investigations and draft and modify legislation, pass budgets and vote on treaties and Executive appointments.  At the same time they are handling a variety of demanding and often angry phone calls, correspondences and requests from their constitutents (who could be as few has half a million or as many as 37 million) almost constantly.  The horse-trading and deal-making is an inevitable component of trying to build support for political causes you care about; if you never traded votes, how should you get other members of Congress to support the measures you care about?  Members of Congress are often called crooks and cheats, but the truth is their impulses aren’t very different from ours (except that they may momentarily be following the career path that is least lucrative for them).  I actually feel bad for them, considering the cynicism and hostility they have to put up with and still ask anonymous hundreds of thousands or millions of us to let them keep their job every 2 years or every 6 years.  (Naturally I feel even worse for Congressional and Senate staffers, who have no power but get some of that invective from resentful constituents themselves, and have to be respectful because the boss has to run for re-election).  The Founding Fathers may have envisioned citizen legislators, but they also envisioned a country in which only white male landowners needed a vote, in which their were no political parties, and in which we didn’t have a standing army.  This was a pre-Industrial landscape of about 4 million Americans (rather than 310 million), with the United States occupying about 1/3 of its current territory.
My point isn’t to say that the Founding Fathers didn’t do a find job, or that they didn’t mean well, or that they didn’t know what was what; my point is simply that their vision of citizen-legislators isn’t a good model for the national legislatre in a country of our vast size and population, facing complex and sensitive issues both domestic and foreign.  The issues Congress faces are complex-enough that serving in Congress absolutely can be a career, and with so many inducements of wealth and celebrity from fields which are clearly not as essential we are lucky to have men and women in Congress who care about politics and at least know how to debate and draft bills.
Anyway, the Liberal Ironist will be back on in a while with a post about Easter.
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