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.