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Response to E-mail: Congressional Reform Act of 2010

Politics - Can't We All Just Get Along?I got another e-mail forward that I responded to. This one was a proposed 'Congressional Reform Act'.

As usual, I've interspersed my comments in with quotes from the e-mail.

THIS IS HOW YOU FIX CONGRESS!!!!!

A friend sent this along to me. I can't think of a reason to disagree.

I am sending this to virtually everybody on my e-mail list and that includes conservatives, liberals, and everybody in between. Even though we disagree on a number of issues, I count all of you as friends. My friend and neighbor wants to promote a "Congressional Reform Act of 2010." It would contain eight provisions, all of which would probably be strongly endorsed by those who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

I know many of you will say "this is impossible." Let me remind you, Congress has the lowest approval rating of any entity in Government. Now is the time when Americans will join together to reform Congress - the entity that represents us.

We need to get a Senator to introduce this bill in the US Senate and a Representative to introduce a similar bill in the US House. These people will become American heroes.

There's not much to respond to in this introduction. I'm not sure the Founding Fathers would necessarily agree with all of these proposed provisions, but I'll get to that below.

**********************************
Congressional Reform Act of 2010

1. Term Limits.

12 years only, one of the possible options below..

A. Two Six-year Senate terms
B. Six Two-year House terms
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

This probably couldn't be implemented by a simple Congressional Act. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton that state imposed term limits were unconstitutional. So, this provision would probably require a Constitutional amendment.
Wikipedia.org - U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton

This also seems like a band aid to fix a more fundamental problem. There already is a system in place to get rid of elected officials that we don't like - the election process itself. The problem is that incumbents have such an advantage, that it's difficult to vote out a bad official. This e-mail is proposing that the solution is to just do away with incumbents. But what if the person really is a good representative for their state? I know that I'm personally a more valuable employee now that I've been working at my job for a few years, and I'd imagine it's the same for politicians. Think about all the experience they acquire, and all the connections they make that allow them to do their job better. A different solution to this fundamental problem would be to try to level the playing field in elections, so that incumbents don't have such an undue advantage, and then let the election process work the way it's supposed to.

The idea in this e-mail is also a bit anti-Democratic. Consider what Justice Stevens wrote in the case mentioned above, "Finally, state-imposed restrictions, unlike the congressionally imposed restrictions at issue in Powell, violate a third idea central to this basic principle: that the right to choose representatives belongs not to the States, but to the people."

2. No Tenure / No Pension.

A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

I'm not sure what the e-mail means by tenure. Politicians aren't guaranteed their positions for life. They have to continually win re-elections.

As far as pensions, I'm not really sure what the problem is with an employer providing a pension plan. Lots of businesses do it. It's how my own grandfather supported himself and my grandmother after he retired. Why should federal employees be forced to come up with individual retirement plans? This also overlaps a bit with Point 4 below, so I'll say a bit more there, as well as at the end of this response.

3. 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.

I'm not sure I follow this point. Congress members already participate in Social Security. That's been the law since 1984 - 26 years ago. It seems a bit silly for a 'Reform Act' to specify continuation of the status quo. (I also wonder how the author of this e-mail intends to go back in time to force congress members from the 'past' to participate in Social Security.)
FactCheck.org - Do members of Congress pay Social Security taxes?

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

Congress doesn't have their own 'Congressional Retirement Plan'. They participate in the Civil Service Retirement System, which is open to all federal employees. Like most retirement plans, they contribute a part from their salary, and their employer (the government) contributes a part.
Senate.gov - Congressional Research Service Repoert: Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress (pdf)

And like I already said, many employers provide retirement or pension plans for their employees, so I don't see why it's a problem when the government does it.

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

I'm not sure I follow the first sentence in this point. Congress doesn't vote themselves pay raises. Since 1989, the raises have been calculated based on cost of living, and the raises have been applied automatically. In fact, a couple times since that law was passed, Congress has voted to suspend their cost of living raise for that year. Maybe whoever wrote this e-mail wants to propose a different method of calculating the cost of living increase, but that doesn't seem like a very grandiose reform – more of a refinement.
Congress.org - How Congress sets its own pay (note this is .org, not .gov)

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

Just like with their retirement plan, there's no special health care system just for Congress or the Senate. They participate in the same health care plan as other federal employees. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is with an employer providing a health care plan.
FoxNews.com - Myths About Congress Exposed

If the author of this e-mail wants the federal health care plan to be available to everybody, that would be a much bigger proposition than simply reforming Congress. It would also be difficult to get such a proposal past all the people who would immediately call such a plan socialist.

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

This is another point that doesn't make much sense. Congress members already do have to follow the law. Why would a ‘Reform Act’ specify that people keep doing what they’ve been doing?

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/11.

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves.

I'm not sure what this even means. What types of contracts? Any contract? Their mortgages and car loans? The author of this e-mail would have to explain just what types of contracts they're referring to before this point could be evaluated.

Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, serve your term(s), then go home and back to work. If you agree with the above, pass it on. If not, just delete.

I'm not sure that's what the Founding Fathers envisioned. James Madison, for example, was Secretary of State for 8 years, followed by another 8 years as president, not to mention everything he did during the founding of the nation. Thomas Jefferson, after being involved in the Revolution, served as a state legislator in the Virginia House of Delegates for 3 years, before becoming governor of Virginia for 2 years, followed by a year in the Congress of the Confederation, after which he was elected a minister plenipotentiary, then served 4 years as Minister to France, followed by 3 years as Secretary of State. After a short 3 year break from politics, he was vice president for 4 years, and then president for 8.

And those were literally the first two founders I happened to look up. If they didn't intend for people to make careers out of politics, it must have been in a 'do as I say, not as I do' sort of way.
Wikipedia.org - James Madison
Wikipedia.org - Thomas Jefferson

This 'citizen legislators' point also seems to run counter to points 2 and 4 from this proposal. Assuming a politician serves at least 12 years (the term limit set in this proposal), that's still a significant chunk of an adult's working life - around a quarter. If we want these positions to attract the best and brightest (as I'm hoping most people do), we have to make the compensation worth their while. I'm not saying that people should get rich off of being elected officials, but it at least needs to be enough to support them in a comfortable lifestyle, while providing for their future. Otherwise, there just wouldn't be any incentive for the talented among the middle class, and the only people who would run for office would be those who are rich enough that the salary doesn't matter, or those who are poor enough that they'd have nothing to lose. For that reason, I don't have a problem with elected representatives getting a decent salary and decent benefits.


After reviewing this, it doesn't really seem like a serious proposal for a new law. One of the points is unrealistic for what can be accomplished by regular laws (term limits), two of the points didn't make sense (tenure & contracts), several of the points wouldn't actually change anything (Social Security, pay raises, obeying the law), and the remainder are simply taking away the job benefits of politicians (health insurance & retirement). And just for good measure, the e-mail threw in a couple questionable references to the Founding Fathers.

I know everybody likes to complain about politicians, myself included, but I don't think we'll improve anything by making the job so unattractive that nobody wants to do it.

Comments

Well stated-this email goes around masquerading as sensible. I recently got it-again-from someone who should know better!

Please tell me how to email this to the nut that email the first part to me ?

Carolyn,

I tried sending an e-mail to you directly, but got a message that the e-mail address didn't exist. So, here's all you need to do to e-mail this to your acquaintance. Simply copy and past the address for this page into an e-mail, and they should then be able to follow that link. For reference, here's the address:
http://www.jefflewis.net/blog/2010/10/response_to_email_congressiona_1.html

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