Misplaced Anger And Populism

Over the last two years, I have received dozens of chain emails, linked articles, and Facebook notes that all reference the notion of “Congressional Reform”. Variously referred to as the Congressional Reform Act of 20xx and the 28th Amendment, these ideas seem to catch the imagination of folks from all walks of life. Liberals, Conservatives, Libertarians, and unaffiliated angry citizens alike have sent these thoughts (mostly based on one very particular strain) to me as a non-partisan solution to many of our nation’s challenges.

The suggestions are indeed non-partisan (for the most part), but it isn’t immediately apparent that any of them would solve American problems. Critically, however, there is a bigger issue with the concept than whether it would help or not; most of the “problems” the amendment/bill would fix don’t exist. And so it goes with many populist issues; anger at problems derived from complex issues is directed at villains more easily discerned. Solutions that may require nuance, precision, and patience are replaced with sweeping pronouncements and “simple” fixes. This post will debunk some of the suggestions many of you have undoubtedly read. The Rational Middle can prove that the substance of the suggestions are, substantially, a load of hooey. That stated, the motivations of many who proposed and ascribed to this suggestions are important and pure. A functional Congress that honestly represents its constituents is a prerequisite for democracy.

The various proposals contain the same basic items. We will look at these items one by one; some are patently false, and some are certainly candidates for action.

Congressional Pay and Pension

The story goes…members routinely vote themselves pay raises, members can retire with full pay and benefits after one term in office, and members are exempt from Social Security.

The proposed solution…index Congressional pay to inflation, end pensions, and force them to participate in Social Security.

The reality is…member’s pay was already linked to inflation by Congressional action in the Ethics package of 1989. Congress must vote on whether to accept the otherwise automatic raises, which they routinely cast ‘nay” votes on. As to pensions, if the people want to save on the expense of pensions, so be it. It should be noted, however, that it may serve we the people to have talent in Congress, and talent demands competitive compensation. As to Social Security, Congress does participate in the program, pursuant to a mandate in the 1983 Social Security Amendments.


Congressional Adherence To The Law

The story goes…members are exempt from many laws that common citizens find onerous, such as the payback of student loans, sexual harassment codes, and various elements of the health care reform law.

The proposed solution…either an amendment declaring Congress is not above the law or federal law stipulating that Congress is not above the law.

The reality is…Congress is not above the law. There is a student loan repayment program, started by a report within the National Park Service on the difficulties of recruiting qualified applicants to federal jobs, that is designed to make federal jobs more attractive to college graduates. It requires a specific term of service, and offers loan payback assistance to employees. The benefit is far from unheard of in industry but, again, if the people think it a good place to save cash, so be it. Next, per the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, the legislative branch must adhere to all of the civil rights and workplace standards laws as every other business. Finally, Congress is subject to every facet of the Affordable Care Act, to include the individual mandate. During the debate, Democrats even passed an amendment that would mandate Congress participate in the public option health plan.


Congress And Health Care Participation

The story goes…members participate in a health care system different from the people.

The proposed solution…force members to participate in the same plan as ordinary Americans.

The reality…members receive health insurance from their employer, the same as all ordinary Americans. This proposal is beyond confusing; the problem with health care in America is that ordinary folks can’t afford to buy it without employer support. That places burdens on business, and fatally limits competition and the downward cost pressures and upward service pressures that come with competitive dynamics.


Term Limits

The story goes…professional politicians are the problem in America, creating a cult of power and breeding corruption.

The proposed solution…apply term limits to Congress similar to the ones in existence in several states.

The reality…at least this suggestion is focused on a valid point, albeit one with which I am in profound disagreement. We exist at a place in time where it seems that every one, pundit and populist alike, is in a rush to revision America as the “Founding Fathers” saw the nation. Yet the “Founding Fathers” did not see a need for term limits; why is interpreting their intention on this issue any better than on something like gun control? In any case, there is little in the way of evidence to suggest that term limits reduce the influence of money or improve legislative efficiency. Take California; does anyone believe that the Golden State has an efficient state government? I have written more extensively on this previously, but my argument remains the same; term limits offer no solutions to the problems they are designed to address.

Fixing Congress is a noble, and quite possibly necessary goal, but knowing the legislative and constitutional foundations of the body is a must. Our parents cautioned us long ago against believing everything we read; that caution goes double for everything we get from the internet. It matters not whether the plea comes from friends, relatives, or even the Rational Middle…verify with an original source!

The Rational Middle is listening…

2 thoughts on “Misplaced Anger And Populism

  1. I agree with Michael, in that, we must understand the law as it currently exists before making any sweeping changes, particularly to the Constitution.
    We should also make a concerted effort to understand what unintended consequences we might encounter with any changes on which we embark .
    Having said that, something must be done to change our dysfunctional government into one which serves the citizens as honest and responsible brokers of the nation and people’s welfare. IMO, that can be accomplished in large part by removing the influence of money (and those who have it) in elections.
    Banishing Grover Norquist to Pitcairn Island would also help.

  2. IMHHO (In my honest humble opinion), I generally agree with the gist of this series of assertions. I would like to make a couple of assertions of my own that I believe pertinent.

    I don’t take umbrage with the pay of Congressional members when the earn it. When they don’t it is our fault for electing idiots who are unqualified.

    I have a major issue with Congressional adherence to the law. We have too many scoundrels in Congress and to suggest that they are subject to the same laws we are is simply to deny reality. Having said that, I agree with the point that the solution is not to pass “Congressional reform” laws. The founding fathers, in their infinite wisdom, endowed us with all the tools we need to remove corrupt politicians, after which, the laws that apply to the rest of us will apply to them.

    Our federal representatives have a Constitutional protection that is very important and appropriate. Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution states: “The Senators and Representatives … shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either house, they shall not be questioned in any other place.” This clause is important to prevent a despot from eliminating a Congressional check on hi or her power.

    Still, we have the power to remove scoundrels from Congress through the ethics process. The trick is for us to show a little responsibility and elect a Congress with the honesty and integrity to police its own members. Until we the people demand an end to corruption, corporate America will continue to corrupt our Congress. We have the power through the vote to put an end to this corruption and we MUST take that responsibility seriously. It is time to sweep the Congress clean of the corrupt politicians that we have allowed to steal our democracy from us and replace them with honest, progressive representatives who will put Americans ahead of corporations.

    I have little to say about health care except that health insurance is not health care. Health insurance sucks 34 cents of every health care dollar out of health care and should be eliminated. The federal government administers the VA and Medicare with an overhead of approximately $.029, that’s 2.9 cents, on the dollar which would save 31.1 cents per $ if we eliminate private health insurance. In other words, we could provide health care to 31 more people for every 100 who are now currently served by private health insurance. We could virtually provide health care for every American with spending an extra dime.

    On term limits, we already have them. It’s called elections. Don’t like your representative? Limit his term; vote him out of office.

    In summary, Michael, keep framing the discussion and we will continue to critique you.

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