“Congressional Reform Act”…is crap.

Recently a list of “New Rules” for Congress (the latest titled “Congressional Reform Act of 2012”) has been circulating from the usual suspects (Facebook, mass emails from older relatives, etc.) and is regarded as clever. While the spirit of it is commendable (who wouldn’t want to see the “above us” politicians reduced to common man status), it is an incredibly glib and uninformed document. What makes my blood boil is when inane copy like this is attributed to someone that is admired. In this case it’s Warren Buffett. I suspect we link it to him since he is probably the most successful businessman in the U.S. (maybe not as many bucks as Bill Gates, but he certainly knows how to pick successful businesses to invest in). And as such, it makes us feel good that even the epitome of the “1 percenters” wants our Congress to feel the pain of the common citizen.

I admire Buffett, not just that he’s successful on his own merits, but understands that wealth isn’t meant to be hoarded, but used, whether by funding new industries or ideas, or by returning it back to society to better us all. So to see such a weak, transparent set of “rules” being attributed to him makes me shake my head. I suspect that Mr. Buffett is far too diligent and thorough to submit something this vapid to public scrutiny.

With that, I’m going to punch some holes in this document and write some appropriate solutions, ones that fulfill the need to bring Congress “down a peg”, but not in an unrealistic, flippant way.

Original: “No Tenure/No Pension”

First, there is no Congressional “tenure”. Tenure implies that the ability to stay in their position indefinitely is granted by an authoritative body. Yeah, that would be the WE of “We the People…” fame. We grant them terms by electing them, to the length of time specified by the Constitution. They are not there “indefinitely” unless WE keep putting them there.

Second, if you are going to revoke pensions for Congress, for full fairness, you would have to pull the Federal Pension for ALL federal employees, right down to clerks and secretaries. In 2010, federal government civilian employment for full-time workers was 2,583,7681. That means dropping pension benefits for all those people, just to make Congress hurt.

Revised: “Term Limits/Pension consummate on time served: small benefit for the 1-term Representative (2 years) versus the six-term Senator (36 years).”

Original: “A congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they’re out of office.”

My understanding is that no congressperson (or any employee of the government) gets “paid” when they leave office (of course they may be placed on payrolls as “consultants” for agencies, but that’s not the argument here).
What the author may be going for here is that a congressperson should not be receiving an income from private industry while serving their time in office. Sure, that’s reasonable: treat it like Jury Duty, be sequestered from private industry. It would lower access by private interests – having “their guy” in office – but doesn’t stop PACs and the like from “contributing” to their campaigns, etc. The other part of this is to make the salary competitive enough for a person to leave private industry to take on serving the people. U.S. Senators receive an annual salary of $174,000. While a vast majority of Americans would love that much per year, the median net worth of the Senate in 2010 was $2.56 million (that’s a salary less than 0.1% of median net worth per year!). They don’t become Senators for the money. Not having money already is becoming a barrier to entry for “average folks” to run for office.
If the idea is to make being a congressperson their “job”, then let’s bar them from serving on Boards or being officers at a company or even working at McDonald’s. They can still make money from speaking engagements, books, and the like.

Revised: “A Congressperson shall not actively participate in private sector business endeavors during their term of office.”

Original: “Congress (past,present,and future) participates in Social Security.”

Um…they do. They have, since 19842. Prior to that they participated in the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), with the idea of allowing long serving congressional employees incentive to retire and allow younger legislators to come into service. Since 1984 elected members of Congress have MANDATORY Social Security participation, and can elect to participate in the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). They cannot “double dip”, and FERS only covers what SS does not. Members of Congress are eligible for Social Security by the same criteria as other citizens, and FERS requires terms of service and age limitations, like other retirement plans. Members of Congress contribute from their salaries into these programs3.

Revised: “…”(There is no 3)

Original: “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.”

Lesse…If we take away the aforementioned FERS plan, that leaves them with…Social Security. Okay, so let’s take whatever annuity they would’ve earned from FERS and return it. Based on the numbers I’ve seen, it wouldn’t amount to more than 0.002% of Social Security’s annual payout45.
Congresspeople collect Social Security “with the American people” already. As for “not being used for any other purpose”, you can set up controls to ensure that FERS money goes into the SS fund. Social Security benefits are kept in trust funds and disbursed solely to provide benefits. The debate over SS running out is not about money being used “for…other purpose[s]” but that assessments are far below disbursements, and the funds are running low.

Revised: “Congress must rely solely on Social Security only as their provided retirement income.”

Original: “Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.”

They do: It’s called FERS. Members of Congress pay into it (and Social Security) from their salaries. Congresspeople can even decline FERS and collect Social Security only. And, based on the median income for Senators above, I’d suspect that most have VERY comfortable retirement instruments at their disposal.

Revised: “Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.”(hey, broken clock and all…except they already were doing this)

Original: “Congress will no longer vote them selves[sic] a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI(?) or 3%.

This is one that could truly be enacted and would be reasonable. It does seem that the legislation that goes through the smoothest (short of non-effectual “declarations” meant to make people feel good) are Congressional pay raises. But are pay raises that dramatic? The “author” proposes 3% as a measure. Here’s the Senate salaries for the last 5 years6:
2008: $169,300 – 2.4% raise from 2007
2009: $174,000 – 2.7% raise
2010: $174,000 – 0.0% raise
2011: $174,000 – 0.0% raise
2012: $174,000 – 0.0% raise
So maybe not so much – the salaries seem to hold for 2-3 years at a time, then they’re raised, around the 3% as proposed by the author. So glossing over the fact that, over time, the cumulative rate is actually less than 3%, it would still seem reasonable to raise salaries by a modest cost of living value automatically rather than enacted by legislative action (that would introduce a huge plethora of constitutional and oversight issues, but whatevs).

Revised: “Congress will receive a ‘cost of living’ salary increase yearly based on an approved formula, not to total over 3% per year, replacing salary increases enacted by legislation.”

Original: “Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.”

Members of Congress do not have “their” health care system. The health care system references the entirely of the medical services offered in the U.S.: Hospitals, Physicians, Clinics, Insurance providers, and associated participants. So Congress already uses the same health care “system” as the American people (unless the “author” is referring to some “shadow” health care that only Congress can use, which at the point those words exit your mouth you sound as if you donned your tinfoil before you started).
Okay, so maybe it meant their “health care coverage”. Fine, we can do that. Members can participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), the same program available to all federal employees. By accounts, it seems to be comparable to comprehensive heath care provided by most major HMOs like Blue Cross. We could exclude their eligibility from the program, but then again we’d have the provider denying coverage for reason of occupation (which may not be permitted under the Affordable Healthcare Act of 2010, though some of the members’ heads exploding over the cognitive dissonance if it happened may be worth it).
Suppose we do remove their health coverage. What’s their option? Probably they’d buy their own, and on a Senator’s salary it’s not an unreasonable expense (and with the average Senator’s net worth, it’s very reasonable). So at the end they’d still get pretty good coverage, just not through the health care coverage they would be paying into from their salaries anyway.

Revised: “Congressmen/women must purchase their own health insurance while serving their term.”

Original: “Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.”

Well, duh. And so should the mafia, drug users, tax evaders, etc. etc. The phrase is pretty specious, but I get what it’s going for – that their rank should not have any privileges that are not afforded average citizens.
Fair enough. Probably a better way to state what is meant is to truly enforce Congressional Ethics laws, broadly and regularly, and not just when it is publicly or politically expedient to do so. But then the Ethics committee is made up of Congresspeople, and history has shown that self-monitoring leads to failure to act impartially, for fear of quid-pro-quo. Unfortunately, there’s not any outside agency (like the other branches) to do this monitoring without inviting bias. I suppose “we the people” could arbiter it, but we as a nation get close to blows over “American Idol” voting, so I wouldn’t trust us either.
It should be made clear that legislators, who create the laws, must act as a model for abiding by those laws. There needs to be transparency on what Congress does and who it deals with, and for the most part it is there. The more simplistic demand would be no more “junkets” on federal funds, or use of federal resources for non-governmental work (i.e. plane rides on Air Force transports for personal use – looking at you, Sununu!).

Revised: “Members of Congress are obligated to act in accordance with the laws of the land, and reprimanded for abuse of their office.”

Original: “All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 12/1/[20]12. The American people did not make these contracts with Congressmen/women.”

Okay, this statement is so far beyond vague as to be cryptic. “Contracts”? With whom? Private industry? Ephemeral constructs like the “Contract with America” Gingrich’s Congress whipped up? The emotional tenor of the statement suggests “back room” dealings by Congress with agencies both secretive and sublime.
Yeah, it’s naivete to think there aren’t “back room” deals with corporations and organizations. Thankfully in our modern age of instant communications things like this get harder and harder to conceal. Naturally we want our legislators to represent the best interests of their constituents, rather than enhancing their own portfolios or securing favors to backers over productive decisions. Then again Members of Congress tend to be your A-Types, who’ve worked these kinds of deals in the private sector to garner the money needed to secure their election. Those kinds of behaviors don’t just vanish; at best we hope they use these skills to improve the nation in the process.
The way I learned it, our government is part democracy, part republic. The democratic part is where we vote on whom we want to represent us, rather than a local “elder” being sent to be our mouthpiece because of some forgotten criteria. The republic part is there because we are not a direct democracy: we the masses don’t vote on laws directly, we have our representatives act on our behalf of their own initiative. Why? Because he can’t vote to please everyone he represents every time. And, frankly, we’d want him to vote such that it best suits our nation’s needs, not what specific individuals want to see happen. But there’s the rub: we trust them to be our avatar, but in fact they’re free agents. We only hope they act in our best interest. Then again, that democratic side does give us a measure of correction.
Oh, and the arbitrary cutoff date is also ridiculous. Do we as a nation garner some sort of fee after that date?

Revised: “Congress should act in full transparency while executing the duties of their office. All dealings with the private sector, both domestic and international, that involve federal funds must be disclosed to the public. Infractions against the law or policies of the nation will be dealt with severely, including criminal prosecution.”(Sadly, as I wrote that, I thought about our dealings with federal funding in my job, and I think this sort of thing exists. But as stated before, Ethics in Congress is arbitrary at best)

I fully understand why crap like this gets written – its not about facts or correct interpretation. It’s to elicit an emotional response in people whom they hope won’t spend the effort to check if they are baseless (the stuff that keeps dolts like Glenn Beck employed). But when they are attributed to a man who obviously would know better than to let a flimsy list like this into the wild makes me angry. It’s piggybacking on a name to enhance it’s useless mantras into something believable.
So your lesson today, kids, is this: Never stop asking for facts. If there’s a wild claim with no information to back it up, ask why. Then spend the effort to find out for yourself. Once you get researching on your side you will not fall for this kind of empty appeal.

(NOTE: Mr. Buffett, I can send you bank transfer info should you wish to compensate my defense of your good name).

1. http://www2.census.gov/govs/apes/10fedfun.pdf
2. http://www.ssa.gov/history/1983amend.html
3. http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RL30631.pdf
4. http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RL30631.pdf
5. http://www.ssa.gov/pressoffice/basicfact.htm
6. http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/senate_salaries.htm