April 3, 2011
Radically Reform CongressBy J. Robert Smith
In March, Sean Duffy, a freshman Congressman from Wisconsin, was confronted by constituents over his salary. Duffy's constituents didn't appreciate that a U.S. House backbencher was pulling down $174,000 annually plus benefits. Moreover, Duffy's constituents didn't understand why any Member of Congress was making $174,000 a year (the House Speaker earns $223,500 annually).
Congress is out-of-touch. But if Americans want more responsive government out of Washington -- and less government -- it's time to end the tyranny of the professional politician. The House and Senate need citizen-legislators. But don't expect representatives and senators to voluntarily enact fundamental reforms; paychecks, status, power, and influence aren't easily surrendered. Voters and taxpayers will need to insist that Congress change.
With an annual U.S. median household income of about $46,300 ($67,300 for dual earners), it's not surprising that many Americans see congressional salaries as outrageous. The notion still floats around that Members of Congress are fellow citizens who sacrifice time from their real careers to serve their country. But for too many Members of Congress that's not the case -- and it hasn't been since, at least, the early 1970s.
However off-putting, congressional salaries are just part of the problem that makes Congress increasingly remote. The House of Representatives, in particular, is badly in need of an overhaul.
The U.S. House is supposed to be the legislative chamber closest to the people, but the 435 members of the House are representing larger and larger numbers of constituents (approximately 700,000 constituents per representative presently). And full-time employment and life in Washington removes representatives from the day-to-day lives of their fellow citizens. Weekend visits back home just don't cut it.
The nation is afflicted in two ways: first, by liberal or progressive ideology; the second by professional politicians.
Progressivism, which gained impetus in the early 20th Century, is the rationale for big government. Big government is a full time operation and has given rise to full time overseers. This development didn't happen overnight, but happened it has. Those who defend a full-time Congress argue it's necessary to counterbalance a powerful presidency and to ride herd on the estimated 2.75 million federal bureaucrats.
Clearly, longer term, liberalism needs to be marginalized to weaken the foundations of big government. Conservatives have been engaged in doing so since the 1950s; events now may be helping facilitate liberalism's decline.
In the short run, though, there are strong arguments for making Congress part-time and growing its numbers. Separating "professional" from "politician" may prove an important step in changing mindsets among federal legislators.
Giving the U.S. House an increased membership and part-time duty -- among other ideas -- should make service more attractive to citizens who don't see politics as a good career move and a chance for a lucrative income (during and after their congressional careers).
Congressional reform means opening up Congress to inspired amateurs -- citizens who would opt to serve the nation if not forced from their communities to serve full-time in Washington, D.C.
The good news is that most congressional reforms don't require constitutional amendments. The Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate itself in many important aspects.
Congress can and should enact these reforms: At least halve the number of days Congress is in session annually; cut congressional pay by better than half, phase out congressional pensions, and reduce other benefits; downsize congressional staffs and insist that most staffers are state and district based; implement remote hearings and votes from congressional districts and states; and up the membership in the U.S. House.
Finally, push Congress to send a term limits amendment to the states. Rotation in office is worthy when wed to other reforms, but term limits alone is no solution for what ails Congress. California legislators are term-limited, but look what a mess they've made there.
Let's take a quick look at a few of the suggested reforms.
Although Congressman-elect Allen West complained to the incoming House Republican leadership that Congress wasn't scheduled to meet enough in 2011, the trouble is Congress meets too much. The fewer days, the better.
Let's work from the simple premise that a legislator's job is to legislate. Undoubtedly, congressional liberals legislate a lot because they want more government, more taxpayer dollars flowing to their constituencies and to the special interests that support them (Republicans aren't above those considerations, either).
But there's also non-ideological reasons why, in modern times, Congress after Congress produces so many laws: job justification. If a lawmaker isn't producing law, then can the lawmaker make the strongest case to voters that he's doing his job? Oversight is pretty mundane stuff. New projects or programs, new or expanded benefits, are sales points when incumbent legislators seek to be rehired every two or six years. And when candidates want office, they typically advance a laundry list of legislative solutions.
As Herman Cain says, "[there's] too much regulation, legislation, and taxation."
The Texas legislature meets only every other year -- and briefly. Texas is not top-heavy with government. Texas' business climate is attracting plenty of Californians (among others) who are sick and tired of the red tape and high taxes in their home states.
Rolling back congressional sessions means fewer opportunities to create and pass legislation. If Congress meets only part-time, then it follows that Members of Congress should be expected to give up full-time salaries and benefits. No more pensions. If Social Security is good enough for average citizens, it should be good enough for part-time legislators.
Congressional staffers are mostly full-time employees; not all of them are engaged in constituent services (helping your Aunt Mimi with her Medicare benefits). Senior staffers are involved in researching and drafting legislation. Cutting the output of laws means reducing congressional staff sizes and operating budgets.
In a world of advanced communications, there's no reason why legislators can't conduct congressional business from their district or state offices - and that includes hearings and votes. Representatives and senators could vote through secure channels. The key benefit is legislators conducting congressional affairs at home among their constituents, not in Washington surrounded by lobbyists and enablers. Having daily and, often, immediate feedback from constituents should help legislators keep proper perspective.
Lastly, the U.S. House has too few representatives. The framers never intended there to be one representative for nearly three-quarters of a million citizens. The framers wanted the lower house to be close to the people. But a larger membership in the U.S. House needs to occur only after the previously mentioned reforms are enacted. The nation doesn't need -- nor deserve -- a big full-time U.S. House.
When the U.S. House capped its membership at 435 members in 1911, each legislator represented about 200,000 Americans. Today, that translates roughly into 1,500 legislators in the U.S. House. The number is unwieldy. Some proposals call for adding 200 new legislators; others call for doubling the U.S. House's size. Certainly, a formula can be arrived at for increasing U.S. House membership that holds to the spirit of the framers' intent. Increases in membership could be phased in.
To massage an old line from retired Senator Fritz Hollings, there's too much legislatin' going on in Washington. America needs less Congress -- and one closer to home.