Getting Rid Of Professional Career Politicians

“Let’s just say you’ll pay me because it’s in your interest to pay me.”
—G.D. Spradlin as Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather, Part II
A few days ago one of you suggested that we eliminate full lifetime salaries for Congress.  While members of Congress don’t actually get full lifetime salaries (they do have a retirement pension plan), the point is a good one, and worth expounding a bit.
Our Founders were not professional career politicians.  George Washington tried to decline his salary as President.  And prior to the 1850s, Congressional salaries were largely limited to a modest per diem paid only while Congress was in session.  The country was set up with the citizen-legislator in mind; people engaging in temporary public service for the sake of public service.
The problem today is our system incentivizes people to do things to get re-elected, instead of to do what needs to be done.  As a result, the District today is populated almost exclusively by professional politicians, in it for perpetual personal profit, rather than any genuine desire to engage in public service.  They like the wealth, the trappings, and the power of the office, and they want to keep them.  Of course the easiest way to do that is to promise to give things—preferably by taking them from someone else—to the voters who elect them, and to the special interest groups who fund their campaigns.  Both sides of the aisle are guilty of this.  And so we have this sort of unholy symbiosis where a dependent recipient class continues to vote for the career politician, who in turn gives more and more government freebies and services to the recipient class, and so on, and so on.   
That, ultimately, is why the Beast is as engorged as it is today.
You’re not going to get rid of the government-benefits addicts.  So to correct this problem, you have to get rid of the professional politician.  You could just say throw out all the incumbents, and I have some sympathy for that view.  But without systemic changes, we’d just end up replacing them with different faces who sooner or later would succumb to the same corruption.  No, to make any real fix we have to change the system itself so it doesn’t provide so much personal incentive to remain in office forever for its own sake.  Let me offer some suggestions.
1.         Term Limits
The easiest step, and the one in my judgment most likely to have an impact, is to impose term limits on Congress.  I appreciate the benefits of continuity, and that there is a certain amount of expertise that’s helpful in the legislative process.  But nobody needs to remain in Congress forever.  Daniel Inouye (D-HI) has been in the Senate for 48 years.  Seven Senators have been in office 30 years or longer.  In the House, John Dingell (D-MI) has been in office a ridiculous 56 years (by my count some 174 House members—and the current POTUS—hadn’t even been born yet when Dingell took office).  John Conyers (D-MI) has been in office 46 years.  Another 20 (10 Republicans, 10 Democrats) have been in office 30 years or more.
Even the office of President is subject to term limits.  I would suggest that something like four terms for the House (eight years total) and two terms (twelve years total) in the Senate would go a long way towards curbing the abuses of office and removing the incentive to act as a professional career politician.  
2.         Limit Pay, Benefits, and Profit from the Office
Members of Congress make $174,000 a year (senior leadership positions make a little more).  That’s more than three times the median U.S. income.  They also receive health benefits, and with a minimum five years of service, qualify for the same retirement pension as other federal employees, which can be as high as 80% of the member’s final salary.  Pretty nice work, if you can get it.  And according to a USA Today piece, somehow a lot of these long-term Congressmen have managed to accumulate sizeable net worths:
Estimated Net Worth
John Dingell (D-MI)
56 years (House)
$3.2 million
Dan Inouye (D-HI)
48 years (Senate)
$3.2 million
Charlie Rangel (D-NY)
40 years (House)
$1.2 million
Pete Stark (D-CA)
38 years (House)
$3.9 million
Henry Waxman (D-CA)
36 years (House)
$1.1 million
Ed Markey (D-MA)
35 years (House)
$1.4 million
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
34 years (Senate)
$3.9 million
Nick Rahall (D-WV)
34 years (House)
$2.4 million
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
33 years (Senate)
$2.1 million
Carl Levin (D-MI)
32 years (Senate)
$1.7 million
James Sensenbrenner (R-WI)
32 years (House)
$18.7 million
Tom Petri (R-WI)
32 years (House)
$28.1 million
David Drier (R-CA)
32 years (House)
$8.5 million
Barney Frank (D-MA)
32 years (House)
$3.2 million
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
30 years (Senate)
$3.2 million
Ralph Hall (R-TX)
30 years (House)
$1.1 million
Hal Rogers (R-KY)
30 years (House)
$3.7 million
Of these only Stark (banking), Hatch (law), Rahall (family), Cochran (law), Levin (law), Sensenbrenner (family), Dreier (family/real estate), Hall (law), and Rogers (law) appear to have had significant means of generating wealth prior to entering Congress, suggesting that half or more of these long-term millionaires accumulated their estates while serving in Congress.
Where are the 99% when you need them?
Following their tenure—if they ever leave—it is common for members of Congress to take private sector jobs and/or accept lucrative honoraria, trading on the stature conferred by having occupied a public office.
If you’re interested solely in public service, it shouldn’t take a giant pay and benefits package to attract you, and you certainly shouldn’t still be profiting from the office after you’ve left it.  I submit that an annual salary pegged at, say, double the median should be quite sufficient.  Allow members to contribute to an IRA during their tenure, but they don’t need a federally-funded full pension.  And while it is difficult to restrict members from seeking employment after they’ve left office (particularly if you’re going to limit how long they can stay in office in the first place) it seems like a heavy tax (say, 50%?) on honoraria income would at least allow the public to share in the post-office benefits generated by virtue of the public office itself.  While we’re at it, we might consider requiring all Congressmen to place all investments into a blind trust during their term in office, so we can avoid the ugly insider-trading issues publicized by 60 Minutes a couple of weeks ago.
3.         Limit Lobbyist Perks
Lobbying—attempting to influence a Congressman’s vote on particular legislation or issues—is a long-standing practice in the District, and a solid argument can be made that it is an essential part of our First Amendment right to petition the government.  Indeed, how on earth can my Representative represent me if I’m not allowed to tell him how I think he should vote on an issue and why?  But the potential for abuse is rather obvious, and unfortunately the temptation is simply too great.  Although professional lobbyists are prohibited from giving money or “gifts” to lawmakers, there are few restrictions on what private citizens and organizations can do. 
I would suggest three things to help draw a bright line to distinguish communication from bribery.  One, restrict all in-person communication with a member of Congress or their staff to the Capitol grounds or the Congressman’s D.C. or home office.  Two, prohibit anyone other than immediate family members from directly or indirectly giving anything of value to a sitting member of Congress or their staff.  Period.  Three, restrict expenditures of campaign funds to the payment of expenses directly and demonstrably related to the Congressman’s election campaign itself that are incurred within a Senator’s home state or Representative’s home district during the 12 months preceding an election.
These are not complex solutions, but I submit they would go a long way towards eliminating the incentive to hold office for its own sake (and thus the incentive to legislate to buy votes, instead of to further the best interests of the country). 
Just some thoughts.
Editor’s Note:  Taking some time off for the holidays, so posting may be sparce between now and the end of the year.

1 thought on “Getting Rid Of Professional Career Politicians

  1. Pingback: The Evil Among Us | Chasing Jefferson

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