A good friend forwarded a viral postletter titled Congressional Reform Act of 2011. It proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would limit the generous congressional benefits package and capacity to raise Congressional salaries, and limit their terms. She asked if this is a a good idea.
It should certainly sound good to most of us in an era when approval of Congress has justifiably dipped below 10% for the first time. That's not much higher than the number of people who either pay Congress (about .25% gave more than $200 in 2010) or serve those who do (the "political class," about 6% according to one pollster). The rest of these contented 10% must think Congress still serves them as mere voters.
To think Congress serves voters, you would have to go back before 1976, when the Supreme Court mislaid their dictionary of democracy and said money is speech. Since then five corporatist judges kept their hand on the money-in-politics spigot till January 2010 when they just cranked it wide open in time to get the result that Roberts and the Rights wanted in November.
So punishing Congress in their pocketbook has got to feel good to most people who have been paying attention. But I answered my friend that I must have missed the part where it says no member of Congress may receive any gift while in office or on account of being in office, nor work for compensation at any other job. Because for most of them, their whole pay package from the public is just small change compared to the private money they receive from generous donors for systematically selling out the public's interests. Cutting off their private money supply would really hurt them. Combined with a few other changes, like re-regulating political broadcasting to serve the public, it might even do some good by making Congress responsible to the voters again. That would make it worth paying them decently to actually serve the public instead of that .25%.
If we are not going to cut off their private money supply, why stop with this modest proposal to limit benefits and terms. If we are going to try to amend the Constitution we might as well go all the way. Why stop with the chump change of cutting benefits and forcing them into the lobbying profession sooner than they might otherwise. Why not just cut off their salaries altogether. Almost all of them would continue doing the same work they do now for nothing as long as they get most their money from private sources anyway. They wouldn't starve and the taxpayer would save a dime.
That's what really corrupt countries do. They pay all their government employees next to nothing because it is expected they will live off their corrupt earnings which will be much more lucrative than what the government could pay. For example, the head of the Kabul prison paid $1 million to get his job from Karzai. What does he need with a $100/mo salary. Light his cigars?
But then if we were really smart we could condition the whole pay package deal on not taking money from anywhere else. Keep a clean record with no private "contributions" or phoney speaker's fees from the US Chamber of Commerce? You keep your generous pay package and chosen career path. You don't? You want to resort to that First Amendment right to be corrupted that the Supreme Court gave you as a Declaration of Independence 200th anniversary present? Then don't take anything from us, and start lining up that lucrative job on K street.
Without some such way of getting money out of politics, including a law taxing or prohibiting independent electioneering expenditures, Congress will not change. This proposal as good as it felt on first glance is really lame. The basic reason most people don't like Congress is because they work for a tiny minority of rich people, not for us. So they don't do anything for us and much against us. The richest 1% have gotten about three times richer than us since this money is speech regime started in 1976. That has left little on the table for the rest us. Before 1976 the trend since the New Deal was toward greater equality and people were much happier. The whole idea of democracy and the pursuit of happiness set out in the Declaration of Independence was that we are in charge and our representative would work for us. Now those who are represented don't get taxed and the rest of us taxpayers aren't represented. Where is the real Tea Party now we need them? So the remedy for this situation is for us to pay Congress less so they work even less for us and more for rich people who will be happy to make up the difference for a price? Duh. This is just going to make the problem even worse, if possible. By cutting what we the people pay Congress to work for us will make Congress even more greedy for private money.
New Jersey Republican Governor Christine Whitman calculated that for every $100 of private money received by a member of Congress, they waste $8700 of taxpayers money doling out favors to corporations. Anyone would like to meet that one arm bandit, paying 87:1 on a sure bet. Which reminds of how Casino Jack Abramoff got his name and new career as federal prisoner and now recent parolee. He promised his Indian tribes a 400:1 return. There are examples of much higher returns. But sorry, this is an exclusive casino Congress maintains. Not for every individual. They have expensive lobbyists at the door, and only that .25% of high rollers can afford the ante at the high stakes table where public policies are dealt out..
When the Republicans voted against the public financing of presidential elections, they made essentially the same proposal as this Congressional Reform Act nonsense. Lets us save $1 by just removing, instead of repairing, this broken window where the public pays for presidential electioneering. What a great deal. And then the taxpayers can pay that $400 bill for the money blowing out that open window into the waiting hands of some former client of Casino Jack who will happily pay that dollar to elect their own president. For every public dolar given to finance our elected representatives that gets privatized we will pay from $87 to $400 or more in giveaways. No one has ever studied the total value of all giveaways and damage done compared to the total amount of money in politics. For any but the science-challenged or conflicted, it looks like we have gambled human civilization on earth for billions of dollars just from the carbon lobby. Congress in bought these days for only a couple billion a year. That's would be a one per cent tariff on the bonuses of the bailed out banks.
A better solution than driving Congress further into the embrace of private money -" after all, this is a Constitutional Amendment we are talking about -" is you make it illegal for them to take money from elsewhere. That way you get your Congress back, and then you get to like them again because you can control what they do through the ballot box, including their pay package, benefits and all. This is what used to happen before 1976, when Congress represented voters and not their financial benefactors. Then they were afraid to vote themselves pay increases and special benefits. Why waste a Constitutional Amendment on something that does not fix the underlying problem?
It begins to dawn how dumb an idea this really is, wasting people's time thinking that they are going to change something in Washington with this proposal. Then you realize its not only diverts you from the real problem of private money in politics; and it makes that real problem worse. Doesn't that sound like a typical inside the beltway policy proposal?
Where does such a proposal come from ? A totally anonymous source, an "I" without a letterhead or signature. Hmm. I imagine some smart Republican congressional staffer, formerly in corporate communications, proposing to cut the public's financing of politicians without saying a word about their private funding, so that private funding would even be more dominant, if possible. Meanwhile the proposal will deflect the public discontent into something that makes the real problem even worse. Sounds just like Washington
And then I asked, What's the deal with making this proposal a Constitutional Amendment? The email makes the really lame argument that it's easy "if people want it". The last Amendment, the 27th,(giving rebellious draft age 18-21 year olds the right to vote in the middle of the unpopular Vietnam War) sailed through in a few months and was given a signing ceremony at the White House by Richard Nixon. Gee whiz, we can do it too. That was 1971 - just about the high point of American democracy, five years before the Supreme Court fired their money-equals-speech torpedo at democracy. Lewis F. Powell could complain in his infamous 1971 Memo to the Chamber of Commerce plotting to take the country back from its citizens, without fear of being accused of exaggeration, that "as every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders ... Politicians reflect what they believe to be majority views of their constituents.' . He was not a joking man. That was 1971, this is now. The same words could only be a joke in 2011.
So the idea of getting politicians in Congress in 2011 to vote for anything that they will not get paid to vote for, let alone to cut their own salary is a non-starter. But do so first by a 2/3 majority in both houses and then to get politicians in 3/4's of the state legislatures (many of whom must imagine themselves in the big show some day) is so farfetched as to be a joke.
Then I finally figured out the joke. There is no need for a Constitutional Amendment anyway. All of these proposals could be passed by a simple majority vote in Congress. Nothing in the Constitution would prevent it and it would be much easier to pass a simple law than getting Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment, and then getting 38 state legislators to agree. So why propose something that is harder to do than could be accomplished much more easily? Because the proposal is a joke. A joke to divert our attention from the really serious issue of money in politics. It is not even intended to succeed, and if it did, it is not intended to change anything except to make the real problem worse. Its a lot like the faux Tea Party's ideas in that respect.