Why Politicians Don't Get No Respect
Deep Throat said it all: "Follow the money."
Pennsylvania lawmakers want a $11,402 raise--up from the $69,649 per year they get now. Already the fourth highest-paid state legislature in the country, the Keystone state boys and girls would surpass New York ($79,500) and Michigan ($79,600). Only California pays its legislators more-- ($99,000 now, $110,800 come December).
The average Pennsylvanian earned $38,532 in 2004.
Should lawmakers earn twice the state average and 8-1/2 times the minimum wage of $5.15?
Is this not positively indecent?
On the other hand, could it be that state legislators and members of Congress are held in such low regard--and accomplish so little--because they are all wildly underpaid?
The U.S. Congress as Wedding Crashers
Many years ago I read a story of three freshmen congressmen rooming together in a Washington, D.C., studio apartment because they could not afford to get a place of their own--a throwback to the college frat experience and the movie, "Animal House.'
Trying to support families back home, these three desperate and displaced politicians spent an inordinate amount of time wheedling invitations to corporate conferences, diplomatic receptions, lobbyists' bashes and Georgetown dinner parties--even debutante balls--in order to eat.
Like poor snakes, they did not have a pit to hiss in.
Sometimes they just showed up, introduced themselves as congressmen ("Oh, what an honor to meet you congressman! Thank you for coming!"), scarfed down drinks, grazed at the mighty buffet spreads and slipped out the back door.
In short a congressperson that is not a millionaire--or married to Teresa Heinz--is living on the edge and probably behaving like something out of the movie "Wedding Crashers."
In fact, if screenwriters Steve and Bob Fisher had striven for a reality film--which, by the way, was set in Washington, D.C.--they would have made Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn congressmen rather than marital counselors.
In this hilarious caper of hijinks and high testosterone, no less a political luminary than John McCain (R-AZ) in the company of James Carville (the Ragin' Cajun) joined Wilson and Vaughn at a National Cathedral wedding, thus validating the entire premise that members of Congress are above all party animals.
Matt Drudge ran a headline chiding McCain for starring in a "boob raunch fest."
McCain's retort: "In Washington, I work with boobs every day."
A Congressperson's Paltry Salary
Currently the base salary for senators and congresspersons is $158,000 per annum.
Congresspersons and senators are forced to maintain two residences--in their home district and in the nation's capital.
How much does it cost to live in Washington, D.C.? If the national average cost-of-living index is 100, the nation's capital is 181 making it one of the most expensive places in the world to reside.
Along with travel allowances to get to and from their districts, members of Congress are allowed a $3,000 tax deduction to help maintain a separate residence.
That's $250 a month. In Washington, D.C., $250 a month would get you one-third of a broom closet in a rooming house and allow you one shower a week in the communal bathroom. Breakfast not included.
In these circumstances, $158,000 a year is simply not a living wage.
Two kids in college would put a member of Congress in the financial tank for years.
For many House and Senate members, the situation is dire.
Congress--The Have's and the Have-Not's
Congress can be divided into two groups--those with net worth of over $1 million and those without.
Writing in USNews.com, Lou Dobbs states that 30 percent of members of Congress have a net worth of $1 million or more.
That means 70 percent--or roughly 375 legislators--are not millionaires. With two residences and constant separation from their families, they must be living hand-to-mouth, not only frantic over where the next meal is coming from, but also on a perpetual fundraising treadmill in order to get reelected.
According to a 2000 study by the University of Maryland, the average House member spends 2-1/2 days out of 10 dialing for dollars and jollying up big and small contributors.
An aside: In a run for the presidency, a candidate must raise $75,000 a day, seven days a week.
So what is really happening in Washington?
The millionaire congresspersons are leading normal lives in comfortable digs, taking their families out for an occasional dinner and mixing with other millionaires.
Presumably their 375 poorer colleagues are spending endless hours on the party circuit, scrounging for food, drink and campaign dollars.
In addition, according to the HILL Newspaper, more than 40 House members are up to their eyeballs in credit card debt. The leaders: Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), with "between $80,000 and $175,000 spread across seven credit cards"; Duncan Hunter (R-CA), with $75,000 to $250,000 across five accounts; and Gary Ackerman (D-NY), with a total balance due of $50,000 to $100,000.
In the mad scramble for food and funds, how can a member of Congress have time to think through a position on anything?
Instead, I am absolutely convinced that the majority in Congress is not only sleep deprived, but also perpetually suffering from raging hangovers and agita. They are forced to rely on smartypants young aides with bizarre, activist agendas to supply them with speeches for the chamber floor and questions to ask in committee hearings.
Tune into C-SPAN and you find a bunch of posturing popinjays with leaden eyes and sour faces energetically blowing off about issues that can only be described as trivial and tangential at best.
Who remembers Brian H. Darling? He was legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) who wrote the "Talking Points Memo" that persuaded Congress to jump into the Terri Schiavo brouhaha. Darling wrote, "This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue." Congress wasted the people's time and wound up getting its fat fanny whacked by every court in which the case came up.
The most recent example of how Congress is consumed by trivia is this story in the July 29th AdAge.com:
Sen. Conrad Burns is proposing legislation that would give the federal government oversight authority for the accuracy of media rating systems.
How could a United States senator care two hoots about media rating systems unless some little aide stuck a bee up his nose or some cable company lobbyist bought him a steak dinner at Capitol Grill?
Little wonder we are looking at a pathetic 29 percent approval rating of a Congress totally out of sync with those who elected them.
The Solution: Pay Legislators a Decent Wage
Members of the House and Senate each should be paid $600,000 a year to keep them honest and focused on the people's business rather than their own.
They and their families could maintain two residences, live like normal human beings and pay off their credit cards, rather than plying the D.C. party circuit for food and trolling for cameo parts in Owen Wilson flicks.
In terms of the national budget, this proposed increase would be a drop in the swimming pool.
On July 27, Public Citizen issued a press release that said 43 percent of lawmakers who left office since 1998 have become lobbyists. Presumably these wildly underpaid ex-pols--quite reasonably--feel the need to start making some real money.
Given the poor job they did as legislators, one has to draw the conclusion that under the current system they screw over taxpayers when they come to Congress and again when they leave.
My Congressperson's House
In addition, I would propose that every Congressional District set up a 501(c)(3) corporation titled, "My Congressperson's House."
Ongoing contributions would provide a nice (but not grandiose) dwelling in downtown Washington, D.C., completely furnished down to bed and bath linens and flowers on the tables--plus a housekeeper--for representatives and their families to live in during their time in the capital. The cost to the member of Congress would be the $3,000 housing allowance they now get.
After all, the president gets the White House and the veep lives in the 9,150 square-foot Victorian mansion on the grounds of the Naval Observatory--both supplied by Uncle Sam. Why should not other elected officials have the same perks?
And while I am at it, Dick Grasso, president of the New York Stock Exchange, received $187.5 million in compensation during his eight years as CEO while his executive assistant received $240,000 and each of his two drivers were paid $130,000.
Why should a horse whisperer like Grasso be paid $187.5 million when the president of the United States--responsible for the largest economy in the world as well as the lives and fortunes of 250 million citizens--makes a piddling salary of $400,000?
Let's pay the president $5 million a year and be done with this silliness.
Takeaway Points to Consider
* In the chiaroscuro world of state legislatures and Washington, D.C., dark truths exist that relate directly to the corporate world.
* If workers are paid less than a living wage, expect them to moonlight and be tired much of the time.
* I remember once when some administration crowed that 350,000 new jobs had been created a guy in the Midwest said, "Yeah, and my wife and I have four of them."
* U.S. households received 4.29 billion credit card offers in 2003. Probably a number of your associates--just like members of Congress--are maxed out and scared to death.
* In the July 28th Washington Post, Carolyn E. Mayer described the new breed of debt collectors and how they can impact the productivity of employees that are financially in over their heads:
Embarrassing calls at work. Threats of jail and even violence. Improper withdrawals from bank accounts. An increasing number of consumers are complaining of abusive techniques from some companies that are part of a new breed of debt collectors.
They are debt buyers, outfits that acquire unpaid bills from credit card firms and other credit providers for pennies on the dollar and then try to collect. Some of these companies go after bills so old that consumers can no longer be sued for them in court or punished for them on their credit reports.
Web Sites Related to Today's Edition
John McCain Defends Wedding Crashers Role
Congress Job Approval 29%
Ex-Congressmen Become Lobbyists
U.S. Cost-of-Living Index
Millionaires in Congress
House Members With Credit Card Debt
Dick Grasso's Pay Package