America needs to rally.
Jobs are pitifully scarce. Incomes are falling. The U.S. government, like many American families, has taken on too much debt. The hangover from a brutal recession now looks like it could last for years, with the once-dominant U.S. economy sliding into a chronic state of disrepair.
During pivotal moments in the past, Congress has helped steer the nation back toward prosperity with bipartisan action like the tax reforms of 1986 and the welfare reform that passed a decade later. In 2008, Congress passed emergency bank-bailout legislation that turned out to be unpopular, but probably saved the nation from a financial meltdown and the first depression since the 1930s.
These days, however, Congress has lost its mojo. Recent negotiations over extending the government's credit limit turned into a fiasco, with needless fighting and a weak last-minute deal that left the biggest issues to be decided later. The dysfunctional squabbling over such a vital element of the global economy led, of course, to a downgrade of the nation's credit rating and a plunge in consumer confidence—just as economists began to worry that a double-dip recession might occur.
Now, Americans expect Congress to cause more problems than it solves. Nobody on Capitol Hill is in a hurry to enact President Obama's $447 billion plan to create jobs and provide tax relief, or provide a workable alternative. More big battles over the debt are on the horizon. Even routine spending bills bog down over political disputes, as if it's a fine time for government to go on holiday. No wonder 82 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the job Congress is doing, a far worse rating than they give President Obama, or practically anybody.
What's wrong? The founding fathers knew that the legislature they created would be rancorous and petty at times. We seem to be at an especially low ebb, however, with members of Congress acting as if they're the last to know about vexing problems facing the nation. Here are 11 reasons why Congress seems so out-of-touch.
Too many rich people. About 1 percent of all Americans are millionaires, but roughly 46 percent of those serving in Congress have a net worth of $1 million or more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. There's nothing wrong with being rich. But there is a problem when the people creating tax and economic policy for the whole nation are unfamiliar with the kind of financial stress faced by a typical family with a median income of less than $50,000 per year.
The 2010 elections brought more than 100 new faces and a zeal for reform to Capitol Hill. But Congress remained a rather elite group. More than 40 percent of newly elected representatives, and 60 percent of new senators, are millionaires, according to CRP. Congress may even have gotten richer, overall, thanks to the influx of new money—at a time when America as a whole is getting poorer.
Automatic pay raises. Every year, members of Congress get an automatic cost-of-living increase in their pay, which is now $174,000 per year—about 3.4 times as much as the average worker earns. For the last two years, Congress has voted to forego its annual raise. One bill introduced this year would cut members' pay by 5 percent, while another would dock pay for every day the government fails to operate. But such token bills come up every now and then, and never garner meaningful support. Meanwhile, many Americans would be delighted to earn the same amount of money they did a couple of years ago, instead of getting by on reduced pay or part-time work that doesn't nearly cover all the bills.
Gold-plated benefits. Few Americans get a full pension anymore, while health benefits dwindle every year and many companies evade the cost of benefits by hiring part-timers and independent contractors instead of full-time staffers. But in Congress, the good times roll on and on. Members of Congress are eligible for two types of retirement plans and a retirement healthcare plan that in nearly every way are more generous than benefits typically offered to private-sector workers. In Congress's version of a 401(k) plan, for example, Uncle Sam (funded by taxpayers) matches contributions up to 5 percent of pay, while in private-sector plans the company match is usually 3 percent--and some companies don't even offer matching funds anymore.
A recent study by Our Generation and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, two nonprofit research groups, found that fringe benefits for members of Congress are worth about $82,000 per year—which raises total compensation to well over $250,000. There may be a retirement crisis in many parts of America—but not on Capitol Hill.
Free parking. In addition to generous pay and gilded benefits, members of Congress enjoy a long list of conveniences and other perks, including free parking at their workplace on Capitol Hill and at priority lots at Washington, D.C.'s two airports. Small rules, it seems, don't apply to them either.
Lobbyists. For every member of Congress, there are about 22 registered lobbyists plying the halls of the Capitol, throwing fundraisers, donating money, and manipulating legislation to the benefit of their clients. A recent tally by website TPMMuckraker found that at least 172 federal lobbyists are former members of Congress. Some critics think this "shadow Congress"—funded by corporations and various interest groups--is nearly as powerful as the real one. Whatever the case, lobbyists certainly have more sway over Congress than voters writing plaintive letters or placing earnest calls to their elected officials.
Earmarks. Congress has temporarily banned these pet spending projects, which evade ordinary budgeting procedures and often amount to home-district favors for donors or supporters. But some lawmakers want them back, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, who insists that Congress knows how to spend money better than bureaucrats in the executive branch. Many reform groups oppose earmarks, with the National Taxpayers Union arguing that the horse-trading involved is often a way of rounding up votes and getting lawmakers to support (or oppose) measures they might treat differently on the merits alone. A test will come in 2013, when the next Congress will either extend the ban, or revoke it and start delivering overdue favors.
Speeches to nobody. Back in the 1980s, when C-Span began broadcasting congressional business, some members started giving speeches to an empty chamber just to get on TV—with viewers at home unaware of the charade. Posturing for the cameras is now routine in Congress, where many legislators cultivate an on-screen avatar that's often more partisan and sensational than the lawmaker tends to be in person. Expanded TV coverage of Congress is a welcome bit of sunshine, but TV creates a false sense of dialogue with voters: While it transports members of Congress into living rooms across America, it does not offer viewers a louder voice in Washington.
A lack of competition. Setting up an alternate legislative branch would probably be unworkable, but it might spur Congress to eliminate a multitude of outdated practices that make it one of America's most inefficient and opaque institutions. In the vaunted private sector—extolled by politicians of every party—competition forces companies and workers to stay sharp and productive, or bear the consequences of obsolescence. Congress, by contrast, still operates by ancient procedures and dallies indefinitely on business that seems urgent to most people, like addressing the weak economy or the mushrooming national debt. There's no measure of effectiveness for Congress as a whole, and some members even insist that gridlock—a euphemism for accomplishing nothing—is in the nation's interest. Try that one on your boss some day, and see how long you last.
No penalty for ignorance. It was kind of quaint back in 2006 when now-deceased Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a Republican, explained that the Internet is a "series of tubes." Yet members of Congress sometimes reveal a dangerous degree of ignorance on vitally important issues they have considerable power to regulate. Earlier this year, the science journal Nature argued that the House Energy and Commerce Committee had "entered the intellectual wilderness" by expressing "willful ignorance" on climate science. Over the summer, The Economist called Republican debt-ceiling negotiators "economically illiterate," as Michele Bachmann and others dismissed the idea that a default on the nation's debt would be economically damaging.
Just recently, Republican leaders sent Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke a letter that left economists scratching their heads over claims that a weaker dollar and more borrowing by consumers would harm the economy. You'd never know that Congress has its own library—one of the best in the world—plus a sizable staff of experts able to prepare detailed research reports on almost any issue.
The media. If an argumentative word is uttered in Washington, some news organization will be sure to report it, with a full reaction and counterargument from whoever was targeted by the offending jab. The press in all its forms—mainstream media, bloggers, and unvarnished opinionators--does a workmanlike job keeping up with the grind of activity in Washington. But it also focuses obsessively on spats, personalities, and the inside baseball of politics, while underreporting issues that matter more to real people. The press is more likely to cover what politicians say about poverty or jobs, for example, than what's really happening—especially if the politicos jazz up the story by criticizing each other's positions. This inflates the natural narcissism of politicians and encourages bickering, since lawmakers know they need only say something controversial to generate coverage.
Voters. Sorry, people, but regular citizens bear some of the blame for the sorry state of affairs in Washington. Politicians manipulate voters every day with half-truths—or outright lies—about taxes, spending, retirement, healthcare, immigration, and many other issues that directly affect the nation's prosperity. Too many voters embrace feel-good propaganda that they want to hear instead of learning the basic facts about issues they care about. They should do a better job of calling out dishonest politicians—and shunning media outlets that stoke political food fights. If voters want something better, they need to start by knowing what it might look like.
Updated 10/3/2011: This story was changed to include Our Generation as a sponsor of the study on Congressional fringe benefits.