Warren Buffett and the Mythical 'Congressional Reform Act'

It's easy to see why someone wouldn't want to serve in Congress, given this misinformation campaign.

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Why are so many members of Congress retiring?

Look no further than the following spam E-mail, which purports to be a petition of sorts circulated by billionaire and reform advocate Warren Buffett. It says:

Warren Buffet [ sic] is asking each addressee to forward this email to a minimum of twenty people on their address list; in turn ask each of those to do likewise. In three days, most people in The United States of America will have the message. This is one idea that really should be passed around.

Congressional Reform Act of 2011

1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they're 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%.

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/women are void effective 1/1/12. The American people did not make this  contract with Congressmen/women.

Congressmen/women 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.

If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S.) to receive the message. Don't you think it's time?

THIS IS HOW YOU FIX CONGRESS!

[ See the latest political cartoons.]

Actually, it's not at all how you fix Congress. But more to the point, the fake "petition" is filled with inaccuracies about Congress.

Congressmen do not have "tenure." They run for re-election. If you don't like your congressman, vote him or her out. They do pay into Social Security, just like everyone else, and are not immediately vested with a full pension, as people oddly seem to believe. They are welcome to invest in separate individual retirement accounts if they like.

Congress has not been voting pay raises for itself. Generally, Congress gets an automatic cost-of-living raise, but has sometimes voted not to give itself even that. Since 1994, Congress has gone without a pay raise nine times (four of those times occurring in the past six years). And if the federal workforce gets a pay freeze, as is currently being discussed, Congress's pay is frozen as well.

Congress doesn't get free healthcare or even a special plan. Like all federal employees, they choose (and pay premiums for) a private healthcare plan from a menu of choices.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

It's true that Congress as an institution doesn't abide by the same laws. They can hire and fire staff at will, for example. There is an argument that Congress should be held to many of the same laws they pass for everyone else, but some are not workable. Should a Republican be forced to hire Democratic staff, for example? That wouldn't be reasonable.

It's not clear what "contracts" the misinformed author of this bogus E-mail petition is citing. Congressmen cannot earn outside earned income while in office. What contracts would be considered void? Mortgages? Marriage licenses? This is absurd. And the idea that lawmakers receive no pay when they are out of office? What does that mean—that if someone serves one, two-year term, he or she can never work again? Are they meant to go on welfare instead?

And yet, this kind of E-mail is common on the Internet. Lawmakers say they frequently have to send E-mails to outraged constituents explaining that the characterizations of Congress are simply untrue. But the rumors keep coming back, forcing members and staff to constantly defend themselves against charges that have no basis in fact.

Incendiary E-mails like the bogus Buffett petition aren't an argument for cleaning up Congress. They're a better argument for civics tests for voters. And it's easy to see why someone wouldn't want to serve in Congress, given the misinformation campaign.