Myths And Reality: Congressional Reform

Don’t believe the hype America; we the people can agree (almost unanimously) on one major political truth. We cannot stand Congress. Every news service, from the supposedly left-leaning mainstream to the obviously right-hammering Fox News, and all points in between, agree that Congress has never been less popular. Gallup has tracked an approve to disapprove spread in excess of 75 points (approval 11%, disapproval 86%), and their results aren’t an outlier. As such, fixing Congress becomes a prime subject for debate in an election year, with both parties struggling (along with other entities with an ax to grind) to find a vehicle for reform that supports their particular cause.

For the last year, chain emails and notes on social networks like Facebook have been pushing a very particular type of fix, variously referred to as the “Congressional Reform Act of 2011” and the “28th Amendment”. This type of grass roots activism has, in our recent past, been successful at changing laws, if not at changing reality. The move towards term limits eventually placed term restrictions on nearly 40% of state legislators and almost 75% of state governors. Whether these limits do any good is an open question that isn’t, in the view of The Rational Middle, asked enough. But the term limit question, at a minimum, was directed at a relevant and real subject. As we will see, the various incarnations of the “28th Amendment” represent nothing more than the nexus of frustration and ignorance in our democracy.

The social media notes first caught my eye (as I believe was specifically intended) when Warren Buffet’s name was attached. The Oracle of Omaha, a famously liberal billionaire and the undisputed champion at earning money on Wall Street the honest way, is just the kind of guy to catch the attention of progressives in viral streams. But he has not, at any point, endorsed any of the recommendations contained in the various proposals. And why should he have? Most of the recommendations are either fixes to problems that never existed, or fixes to problems that were implemented years or decades ago. Let’s look at some of the specific points.

  • “Congress must participate in Social Security”The Social Security Amendments of 1983, among other things, required Members to participate in the program. This is typically the first point in the proposal, and sets the tone by demanding a reform that was implemented by Saint Ronnie the Gipper almost 30 years ago.
  • “Congress must buy their own retirement plans (like other Americans)”; also, “Members get a $190,000 pension for life after serving one term.”-The two concepts are clearly linked in the mind of Americans who, like me, are not going to have a pension to fall back on for retirement. It isn’t immediately clear why we the people have joined the interests of major corporations in waging war against pensions, but Members earn pensions in the same way that most other folks earn one; they pay into a pension fund, and are vested at different levels based on years of service. The FERS system applies to all federal employees, and the 200 or so Members elected after 1984 who retired under this system were earning an average pension of around $36,000.
  • “Congress must not vote themselves a pay raise; pay should be indexed to the rate of inflation.”-This one might be my favorite, as most workers in the United States would love to have a job that paid realistic COLAs every year. Also, this “proposal” is precisely how Congress is compensated already! Members automatically receive an adjustment based on the employment cost index, and actually must vote to refuse the increase (which they did during 7 of the 20 years between the law’s inception in 1990 and 2011.) Interestingly, the “reform” act, as proposed, would raise the pay by the lesser of the CPI or 2.5%, both of which were higher than what the employment cost index would have granted Congress for 2011. You just have to love “reform” bills that cost taxpayers more money!
  • “Congress must get their health care the same way as normal Americans.”-This element is a classic mash-up of liberal anger over the Congress’s inability to adequately deal with the American health care crisis, and conservative anger over the proposal by liberals in Congress to include a public option in their version of health care reform. The facts are quite simple; Members are covered by health insurance provided for by their employer (we the people), with costs shared through insurance premiums. Just like the rest of us. Interestingly, in the midst of the health care reform debate, Republicans inserted what they thought was a poison pill in the House reform bill; an amendment that would force Congress to accept coverage in the public option. Democrats unanimously accepted the amendment.
  • “Congress must equally abide by all of the laws it imposes on citizens.”-This links in neatly with that notion that Democrats in Congress would be happy to pass health care reform that they were somehow exempted from, and the patently false notion that Congress is exempt from sexual harassment lawsuits. Diplomats may have immunity, but Members are not exempt. Just to ensure that nothing was left to chance, President Clinton signed Public Law 104-1 in 1995 which codified civil rights and workplace discrimination statutes in the context of Congress.

Various versions propose term limits, as well as the termination of contracts with past and present Members of Congress. I talk with very few people who object to the notion of barring Members from lobbying Congress or doing business with the federal government after their service is concluded, but how can one construct a law that does not violate the freedoms of commerce that most Americans embrace? I won’t argue against this notion, but I will argue that a fair implementation of the concept is difficult at best.

Term limits are another story unto themselves. I am diametrically opposed to them, for the 6 reasons I list below:

  1. Term limits were not included by the Founding Fathers.
  2. Term limits violate my freedom by taking away my ability to vote for who I believe to be most qualified.
  3. Term limits do not (and have not in state or presidential elections) reduce the amount of money spent during election cycles.
  4. Term limits would increase the intensity and effect of lobbying, as lobbyists would have a compressed time frame in which to get their message across.
  5. Term limits would limit the participation of working class individuals at the highest levels of state government, and within the federal government. The ability to self-fund, by the wealthy or corporately-supported, would trump the slow accumulation of experience, results, and reputation that allow regular folks to work themselves up through the democracy.
  6. Term limits would (and have) increase the importance of major donors at the highest levels of state government and within the federal government.

The quickest route to a reform of Congress is now, and has been, a return to the quintessential notion of American democracy; one person, one vote. Not one white land owner, not one corporation…one person. Real, sustainable, non-partisan campaign media and finance reform is the ticket for Americans. Maybe you would consider joining The Rational Middle and suggesting that course the next time someone emails you the false and misleading “Congressional Reform Act”.


The Rational Middle is listening…