Friday, October 14, 2011

How Not to Fix Congress

An unidentified writer has apparently touched a nerve with his plan to “fix” Congress, titled the Congressional Reform Act of 2011.  Two people have already sent me his e-mail, apparently convinced that the ideas expressed by this do-gooder would solve the problems with our bickering, partisan legislature.

Here is the proposed plan to accomplish what seems impossible:

1.     1. No Tenure / No Pension.
A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when
they are out of office.

2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All
funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security
system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system
and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for
any other purpose.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay
will rise by the lower of CPI or 3 percent.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the
same health care system as the American people.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American
people.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective
1/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen.
Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress
is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen
legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to
work.
 
Naturally, this approach ignores history.  The framers of the Constitution expected and probably wanted Congress to be a kind of cork in the bottle.  

They never envisioned the Supreme Court creating legislation, such as developing the idea of privacy into abortion laws, for example.  Nor did they have any political parties.  On the other hand, they knew all about political partisanship from simply viewing English politics.  They also were well aware of the differences between liberal and conservative members of the Continental Congress.  

The Constitution itself required compromise to gain approval – the Bill of Rights was added later because the framers realized that passage of the main document would not happen unless the rights we take for granted were amended to it. Even the bicameral plan for Congress – a Senate and a House of Representatives – was a compromise.  It soothed smaller states fearful of being overwhelmed by their larger counterparts and guaranteed that any bill making its way through the labyrinth would be thoroughly examined.  

The result has been a slow-moving government that, in time, somehow manages to get a few things done.  Thomas Jefferson, considered our smartest president, recognized exactly what would happen:
“If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour?” he wrote.
 
Nevertheless, Jefferson was able to get the Louisiana Purchase through Congress as well as other important legislation.  A lot depends on the congressional leaders and the ability of the president to motivate them.  President Lyndon Johnson did a great job with that; President Barack Obama is having more difficulty, burdened with extremely partisan legislators more interested in political gain that the public’s needs.

Of course, every few years someone comes up with a plan to resolve the “problem.”  Such proposals won’t work simply because the system is functioning as designed.  The whole process would have to be changed – something no one is advocating – just accomplish the goal of ending legislative logjams.
On close examination, this most-recent proposal has little merit.  Let’s look at it one point at a time.

1. No Tenure / No Pension.
Every employee is entitled to a pension. Educators have tenure; elected officials do not.  They can be voted out of office at any time and recalled.  Why shouldn’t they receive a pension for their time in office?  To isolate one group and deny them pensions would be illegal.

 2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.
Sounds like a good idea.  However, many private pension plans exist.  My wife is in one.  It's neither wrong, immoral or excessive.  Besides, Social Security has enough problems without adding new recipients.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.
Why?  I don't.  My plan is part of my university benefits.  That’s true for many Americans. 

4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3 percent.
That's already in the Constitution.  Congress cannot vote a raise for itself; only for future Congresses.  Personally, I dislike setting fiscal standards since unforeseeable conditions invariably arise.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.  
The system is broken.  We all know that.   Our elected officials avoid the mess by using military physicians.  They have no co-payments and get free medicine.  That’s true for the military, too.  Elected officials probably would fund repair of our system a bigger priority if they had to participate in it, but I understand why they have to use a separate system.  As public people, higher profiled senators, for example, have to limit public exposure because of the problems their presence can cause as well as safety concerns.  They also face severe time restraints as well.  This suggestion is well meaning, but would cause immense hardships for both doctors and patients.  Personally, I’d rather Congress repaired the system.  I really don’t care if the representatives actually use it.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people. 
They are required to now -- all citizens are.  That's why elected officials have been arrested from time to time.  They are protected in only one instance:  to allow legislators the opportunity to speak their mind without concern, they are shielded from slander laws while speaking in Congress.  That’s it.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12.  
That is illegal.  No one can arbitrarily break a contract.  I also have no idea what contract the author is opposed to.  Is he recommending the abrogation of existing laws?  Congress may be stuck in molasses, but I doubt anarchy is a better choice

Frankly, I like French author Victor Hugo’s view:  "I don't mind what Congress does, as long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses." That certainly makes more sense than the Congressional Reform Act of 2011

 Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion, religious history and, occasionally, current events.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus.blogspot.com.




Barack Obama

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