May 27, 1992

May 27, 1992 | Lecture on

Your Congressman: A Six-Million-Dollar Man


(Archived document, may contain errors)

Your Congressman: A Six-Million-Dollar Man

By David Mason It has been particularly enjoyable to be outside of Washington this week, in part because of the reactions I get when I explain..that-I write.about the Congressfor-a living. The usual response is sympathy, as if I had a necessary but somewh a t distasteful job-and there is that aspect to dealing with Congress. But for the most part, I genuinely enjoy my job, for it is certainly a good time to be a congressional reformer. There is a publication in Washington called Rofl Call, which styles itsel f "the newspaper of Capitol Hill." On the day I left Washington a banner headline-across -the -top of the front page told us that a House committee had been forced to temporarily furlough some of its staff, and that other committees faced a similar threat b ecause the House had not passed its annual commit- tee funding bill. The rest of the front page was taken up by stories about the House Bank scandal, the House Post Office investigation, and the possibility that a lot of incumbent Congress- men would be d e feated at the polls this fall. To my mind, this is all good news. Of course, I'm 'nofhappyV'gee someone laid off, eventemporarily, but I think it is a useful lesson for Congress during this nationwide recession: If you don't get your work done on time, an d if you don't satisfy your customers (the voters in this case), there are real, and often unpleasant, conse- quences. If Congress is about to be dragged back into reality by outraged voters, so much the better. My immediate task is to explore the culture o f the Imperial Congress by examining the budget of the royal household. Just how big is the congressional budget? Just how many perks do our elected representatives lavish upon themselves? We started looking into this a couple of years ago and came to the initial conclusion that the congressional budget is bigger than a bread box- a lot bigger. Just how much bigger is difficult to determine-information about the congres- sional budget is hard to find. For executive agencies, getting the budget is fairly ea s y-just look at the Appropriations bills passed by Congress. If you want more detail, there are scores of le- gally required and publicly available budget documents. Arcane and Confusing. Getting information about Congress, on the other hand, is exceed- in g ly difficult. In the first place, the Legislative Appropriations bill that funds most, but by no means all, of Congress's expenses is arcane and deliberately confusing. To find out how much one committee spends, you have to examine five different accounts . A long-time member of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee recently had this system explained to him for the first time-by a reporter. His reaction: "That's fascinating. I didn't know that. You know, you turn up a rock and you're likely to find a lizard.',2

David Mason is the Director of the U.S. Congress Assessment Project at The Heritage Foundation. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation's Annual Board Meeting and Public Policy Seminar, Kiawah Island, South Carolina, on April 11, 1992. ISSN 0272-1155. 01992 by The Heritage Foundation.

I Roll Call, April 9,1992. 2 Congressional Quarterly Special Report, "Where the Money Goes," December 7, 1992, p. I 11.

Even if you finally penetrate the Appropriations bill, you'll discover that many expen ses aren't included. Search all you will, but you will find no funds for Congressmen's salaries. But don't assume they're not being paid or are going broke. Their $129,500 annual stipends, now with au- tomatic cost-of-living adjustments, are provided thro u gh what is known as a "permanent appropriation'!--otherwise known as an entitlement. I guess this makes Congressmen America's richest welfare recipients. Other items which aren't funded in the annual budget include: foreign travel (those infamous congress i onal junkp!@), part of their retirement benefits, free medical cqiN apd.the many execu- tive brinchin@ployees whi6'a're' "d6ta,iled 7"-"thit is,ih' ey 'are Ioan,edio Congress, sometimes for years at a stretch. These costs aren't insubstantial: the average congressional retiree stands to col- lect around $2 million in pension payments. Exempt From Audits. I may still be missing a few items, because Congress-or as it often re- fers to itself, "The People's Body'@-has exempted itself fhxn-_the_F\u237\'92 om of Informat ion Act, as well as from most other laws it passes. Try to get something from Congress and they can just say no. There is, for instance, something called the Capitol Preservation Commission, which was funded by a special sale of commemorative coins rather than by a regular appropriation. That Commission now has $16 million in the bank, but has done nothing in four years of operations. There is no source of public information on the Commission's operad ns, and despite laws call- ----ningfor-4t;:@there has n e ver been an audit of the Commission's funding. In another case, House Speaker Tom Foley decided to have some elevators in the Capitol redecorated, including new marble flooring, at a cost of several million dollars. But there was no opportunity for other C on- gressmen, much less the taxpayers who provided the lavish new convenience, to comment on whether the expense was appropriate. And, by the way, if you visit Washington and go to the Capitol you won't be able to ride on these expensive elevators-they're for Congressmen only! What is the bottom line on the congressional budget? Adding all of these benefits together you find that the average, run-of-the-mill Congressman is, like the TV show of a few years ago-a six-million-dollar man. Appropriated spending for Congress this year will amount to just under $3 billion-an average of over $5 million for each Senator and Representative. Add in pay, re- tirement, travel, medical care, parking, detailed employees, free publications, historic preservation, marble fl o ors and suddenly every Congressman is aTV star. Now, some people inside the Beltway say, "Gee, what's wrong with that? After all, these peo- ple have important jobs. It's just a drop in the bucket compared to the Executive Branch. Corporate CEOs make a lo t more," and on and on. I could argue with all the analogies, but the real problem is 'a lot simpler. With all of the perks, privileges and power, the average Congress- man begins to think he is the six-million-dollar man: He can see farther, run faster, j u mp higher and is just plain smarter than the average 'ol constituent. Pretty soon the Congressman starts- to feel that the folks back home just don't understand. Then, a little later the Congressman starts thinking that he really deserves all of the perks , and you end up, for instance, with the Defense Department providing congressional airplanes that make first class travel on a commercial airline look like the back of the bus. The budget isn't all. There's the deferential staff, favor-seeking lobbyists, f ree meals and vaca- tions, fawning bureaucrats, and interest groups offering adulation. According to the Florida-based newsletter Lobbying & Influence Alert, there are 77 lobbyists for each U.S. Sena- tor and about 24 lobbyists for each House member. It a ll ends in an attitude that breeds scandal:

3 Roll Call, April 8,1992, p. 3.

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bounced checks at the House Bank, money laundering at the House Post Office, ghost employ- ees, using tax money for campaigns,'trading influence for contributions, and then trying to cover it all up. Still, the ultimate evil isn't the perks themselves, but the transformation of our democrat- ically elected representatives into imperial satraps. Bloated Staff. Congress-and our representative democracy-was hurt by this process long before the scandals broke out. The congressional staffs I mentioned are three timesas large today as they were in 1960, and, as Vice President Quayle has pointed out, this allows the Congress- man to do a lot more-to serve, for exam le, on seventeen c ommittees and subcommittees. An R '.. - N. , @ P. . , .. A. obvious quisilon',"fiowevei", is' wheth, 'ier 'A' m,erica as a whole, or even Congress in particular, has benefitted from the rapid growth and gargantuan size of the legislature. In fact, Congres s suffers directly as a result of this overload-mostly by becoming more bureaucratic. Congressional staffs spend most of their time vying to manipulate bureaucracies. The Pentagon alone receives 2,500 phone calls every working day from Capitol Hill-that is nearly five each day from every Member of Congress. And Congressmen write ov&r'l00,000'ldtt&]rs a yid to the*W\u150\'5f Depart- ment-that is almost a letter a day from every Congressman. Now none of this prevented-the $300 hammer or the $500 toilet seat because, b elieve me, those calls and letters aren't mostly to check up on whether the Pentagon is spending money wisely, but to make sure they spend it in the right place. ..Butagaitirwhat's so bad about pork-it is certainly amusing for Heritage to write about leaf y spurge bio-control or the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. But at only $100,000 each, these don't add up very fast-at least not by congressional standards. One illustration may suffice. In 1956 Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act, which in the memory of m ost of you revolutionized transportation in America. In that bill, Congress made a few big decisions-that we would have a new, national highway network, built to then unheard-of standards, and they passed a federal gasoline tax to pay for it. Then they st o pped. They left it up to the Transportation Departments of six successive administrations and fifty states to decide exactly where to put the roads and which to build first. It was a remarkable success. Last year, in contrasti Congress passed another tran s - portation bill that dwarfed the 1956 act in terms of spending, but most of the funds were earmarked by individual Congressmen for individual districts, even down to the level of dictat- ing the timing of a specific traffic light in a small Pennsylvania t own. What was lost in the rush to bring home the bacon was any conception of the national interest, or any significant thought about future transportation needs: should we reform the air travel system, encourage high speed rail, look at private road const r uction? These questions were addressed only insofar as they repre- sented the subject of a research grant for a local university. And when you look back 25 years from now the billions of dollars spent in that bill will have made little noticeable differen c e. What we lose from a bloated, pork-obsessed Congress isn't as much the wasted money as the lost opportunity to make real decisions about major issues that affect us in significant ways. Wave of Reform. Everyone realizes there are many problems with Cong r ess-just turn on the late night talk shows and Congress jokes abound. But I believe things can get better. Historically Congress does change. Congressional reform comes in big waves. There was one in 1946, an- other in 1974, and we are today on the verge o f yet another big wave. Those previous waves were proceeded by a lot of intellectual groundwork, and Heritage is working to provide that groundwork now, so that when 100 or more freshmen Congressmen show up for work in Janu- ary of 1993 we'll have a refor m program ready. Everyone agrees that something should be done, but what can we do? First, be suspicious of in- cumbent congressmen bearing reform plans. Campaign finance reform, for instance, would tax you to pay for politicians' re-election efforts and, in the process, would give incumbents even greater advantages over challengers.

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Second, keep up the pressure. Public outrage over cover-ups of the Bank and Post Office scan- dals have started to rock the cozy incumbent protection machine, and already fifty House Members and half a dozen.Senators have decided to call it quits. Don't be disgusted, stay mad.. Third, think big. Some well-intentioned Republicans on Capitol Hill are talking about 25 per- cent, 33 percent, even 50 percent cuts in committee s taff areas (not all, though). But committee staff is only a small part of the overall congressional staff. Even if we cut the whole congres- sional staff in half, it would still be twice as large as it was when Congress passed that interstate highway bill . I@pep..in mind that, if the o@jective is not to save a few hundred million dollars in staff salaries, but to change the way the institution operates, you need significant, broad-ranging cuts. What about the committe es? Dan Quayle told us recently how he eliminated a few committees when he was in the Senate, but why not get rid of standing committees altogether? People have proposed rotating committee chairmen or members as a way-of-breaking up the iron triangle, whereby long-time committee members become not just part of the problem, but the problem. But Congress got along for over a hundred years with just a few standing committees-and many legislatures still operate that way today. Originally, a bill was introduced, debated for an hour, and then acted u p on. Unobjectionable bills were passed, bad ones died a quick death, and important legislation that might need more consideration was referred to a specially selected ,-comm-ittee-which had as its only purpose refining that bill and bringing it back to the floor. Re- storing a system like that would go a long way toward eliminating the special interest influence and legislative logjams that bedevil Congress. Making Congress More Representative. Last, we need to de-professionalize Congress. Most of us agree o n term limits, but perhaps more damaging than the number of years spent in Wash- ington is the number of days. If Congress is a full-time-job, Representatives have to quit their jobs, pull their children out of school, move their families-in short, sever a ll of their real ties to the communities they represent. While it will require reversing the momentum of twenty years or more of ethics laws, it is worth the effort to make Congress less professional and more represen- tative. We could start by requiring t hem to spend two months at home every summer instead of only one, with the goal of limiting congressional sessions to six months a year or less. While these suggestions sound a bit far-fetched today-at least they do in Washington-real reform is possible w ith continued electoral pressure -and -perhaps term limits. But, -we need to think big, for ff this truly is an Imperial Congress, only a real revolution will change it.

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