Congress Takes Off
“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” —George Bernard Shaw
Try to picture this: You walk into your boss's office around the middle of February, smile smugly and declare, “Well I'm through for the year. I just did my last piece of substantive work for you, and it's an election year after all, and I have other things to do. Of course, I'll expect my regular paycheck, all my health and other benefits. And don't forget that guaranteed pension.”
Ridiculous, right? Could never happen. And if it did, you'd be fired on the spot. But then, you are not a member of Congress.
After Congress and the president extended the payroll tax cut extension at the end of February, it was quite clear that no legislation of any significance would come out of either chamber until after the election. The senators and representatives might hold a hearing or two, primarily for election-year headlines. They might even pass a few minor bills with no chance of a White House signature. They've hung a sign on Capitol Hill for the rest of the year: “Gone Electioneering.”
Each day the disconnect increases between our representatives and us. The lives they lead, the people they are accountable to, have little or nothing to do with the way we live and work. This is non-partisan, equal-opportunity arrogance. It knows no party lines.
Some of you have heard me tell this story already. I owe the eye-opening perspective to the former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. who regularly appears on MSNBC's “Morning Joe.” Imagine, Ford was telling host Joe Scarborough, if you went to your boss and declared: “Well that's it for me for the year. I've done all the work I am going to do. But of course I will still expect my salary and benefits.”
Capitol Hill is not the real world. The unemployment rate is low in Washington, D.C. Housing prices are strong and rising. Members of Congress do not worry about health care, or whether their lifetime pensions will disappear.
And yet we blithely continue paying these men and women to stop doing the people's work in an election year, while they scramble to keep their jobs. Paying them, as well, to destroy the fabric of lawmaking with their childish squabbling, and to selfishly refuse to compromise on the most important debt, tax and regulation issues before them.
Now imagine what the D.C. landscape would look like with a few modest changes. First suppose that some 80% of congressional districts were not “safe” for the incumbent and decided in primaries controlled by both parties' more extreme elements. (Our insightful guest columnist Dan Bartlett explains further on page 43, why the extremes are electing our Congress these days.)
Suppose, too, that members of Congress were only eligible for the same health insurance as you and me. Suppose their retirement options included only Social Security, and not the far more generous pensions they are guaranteed for life if they've put in five years on The Hill.
With these changes in place, how long do you think it would take for Congress to take on a more moderate hue? How long before it would install more meaningful health care reforms, and make sure Social Security stays solvent? Will it happen? Not if we don't get more involved. We must make it clear to our elected representatives that enormous pay for little work is unacceptable. That gridlock and passing on our most intractable tax and debt reform problems to future generations—kicking the can down the road—is unacceptable.
We tend to be extremely cynical about Congress and the political system. But that is unacceptable as well. We must step up and speak out. Here at MSCI we intend to do just that.