We're going to try something new here today. Well, before we get to that, we have to apologize for not warning readers last week that we were taking a break for Veterans' Day. Which brings up a related subject: there will be no Friday Talking Points next week, either (the day after Thanksgiving), as we plan to be lounging on the couch in a tryptophan haze. Consider yourselves warned, this time.
Back to today's column, though. We're going to try an experiment today, and try to tighten these columns up significantly. They started off as very simple columns which didn't run all that long, and now they've grown to monstrous proportions. So we'll be (mostly) doing away with this introductory bit here, and moving straight to the awards and the (hopefully, shorter) talking points. We'll see how it goes, and we'll see what readers think. Let us know in the comments, as always. Comments which start with: "You know, it's really annoying how you revel in the editorial 'we' during these columns..." will, as usual, be ignored (by us). We, to coin a phrase, will not be amused.
OK, enough silliness, let's get on with the show.
We've got two Honorable Mention awards to hand out before we get to the main event. First up is all the folks in Wisconsin who are gathering signatures to recall their Republican governor. Now, signature-gathering out here in California is hard enough, having to stand around accosting passers-by in front of a supermarket or other public space, but I can only imagine what it is like to do so in the Wisconsin winter. So we have to give everyone gathering signatures up north for the next few months a collective Honorable Mention... and a quick cheer for the Green Bay Packers, while we're at it.
Senator Bernie Sanders is also worthy of an Honorable Mention this week, for an article he wrote for the Huffington Post, in which he begs Democrats to "stop caving." Always good advice for Democrats, sadly enough. Everyone should read Bernie's article, as it is definitely worth your time.
But the winner of the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week is none other than Representative Gabrielle Giffords. And not for her "strong victim fighting for survival" human-interest story, either. Instead, for writing to the so-called "supercommittee" and suggesting the radical idea that if Congress wants to cut some spending, why not cut the pay for House and Senate members?
The Washington Post wrote an article on Gabby's effort:
Slashing lawmaker salaries was one of the last major issues Giffords advocated before she was shot in the head at a January 2011 constituent event. Only days before the shooting, Giffords had proposed legislation to cut the salaries of senators and representatives by five percent.
"Members of Congress can't ask any American to cut back before we are willing to make some sacrifices of our own," Giffords said at the time.
The article also has a link [PDF download] to the text of the letter Gifford's just sent -- signed by 11 Republicans and 14 Democrats (so far):
Several pieces of legislation have been introduced this Congress in both the House and the Senate to cut Member salaries and curb gold-plated Member retirement benefits, including the only bill introduced in the 112th Congress by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. These proposals show that compensation reductions can result in real deficit savings. For example, a five percent cut to the $174,000 Member salary would save $50 million over a ten year window, while a ten percent pay cut would save $100 million. Adjustments to Member benefit packages, which can be worth 47 percent of salaries, according to reports, could also result in millions of dollars in deficit savings.
United States Members of Congress are more generously compensated than legislators in almost every other country in the world. Legislators in the developed nations receive on average salaries that are 2.3 times higher than the average full-time worker, while we receive salaries that are 3.4 times higher than the average full-time wage. Only members of the National Diet of Japan, earning a salary 3.7 times higher than Japanese workers, outpace Members of Congress.
The last time Members of Congress took a cut in pay was on April 1, 1933 -- the midst of a Great Depression. At a time of similar economic turmoil and record deficits, Congress should not require sacrifices of others without tightening its own belt.
Bravo, Congresswoman! [or maybe, "Brava!" -- my Italian is pretty non-existent, I must confess....]
Sure, this would be merely symbolic. $100 million is a rounding error (especially over a 10-year period) on Capitol Hill. It's less than pocket change, to the budget seen as a whole. But symbolically, this would be huge. And if we start talking about staffing money and retirement packages, it could grow significantly.
For championing this issue -- not for doing so under extraordinarily tough personal circumstances, but for the issue itself -- Representative Giffords is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. Go Gabby! Cut Congress' pay!
[Congratulate Representative Gabrielle Giffords on her House contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]
We are pleased to announce that this is one of those weeks when no Democrat seriously disappointed us (or the public at large). We keep thinking "Maybe we weren't paying attention, maybe we missed somebody doing something idiotic" -- which is always a possibility. As always, let us know in the comments if you've got a suggestion for the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. You can even go back two weeks to suggest a candidate for the MDDOTW award, due to the lapse in columns last Friday.
Of course, we're polishing up a statuette just in case we have to award one next week for whichever Democrat on the supercommittee caves and votes for a Republican plan. And don't worry, even with the Thanksgiving break, we'll still remember this if it happens.
Volume 189 (11/18/11)
In honor of Gabby Giffords' MIDOTW stance, we're going to devote the entire talking points section this week to Congressional salaries and perks, and related subjects.
Once again, it's not about the money saved, in this particular instance. It is all about the shared sacrifice, and symbolism.
The Occupy Wall Street movement may be floundering, but the frustration that sparked it is still out there, and still burning fiercely. Democrats need to tap into this energy, and for the life of me I can't think of a more appropriate way to start. So here are my suggestions for what Democrats should come out in support of over the next few days.
Our salary, or nothing
This is the tangent to the issue, so we'll get it out of the way first. The issue arose during a hearing where the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac leaders were grilled before Congress, but it should be applied to everyone.
"Any company in America who receives a taxpayer bailout -- no matter what type of company it is -- will conform to the federal employee pay scale. Not one thin dime of taxpayer money will go to any company unless it accepts this rule. The highest-paid executive in any bailed-out company will get exactly the pay that members of Congress receive. Oh, and they'll get a bonus, too -- they'll get to keep working at a job. If these terms are unacceptable to any executive, well, good luck getting hired elsewhere at some exorbitant salary with 'led a company which failed miserably' as your last employer recommendation."
Immediate 17% cut
Gabby Giffords has the right idea, but even she didn't push it far enough.
"If the supercommittee fails to vote out a bill, then we face what some have estimated as a 17% across-the-board cut to all federal domestic programs. If the supercommittee fails to act, I strongly urge Congress to immediately cut its own budget by 17 percent. I demand a 17 percent pay cut for every member of Congress, a 17 percent reduction in budgets for staff and office expenses, and a 17 percent cut in all perks. If we can't cut our own budgets 17 percent -- by next week -- then what moral right do we have to ask the rest of the government to make the same cuts?"
Ten times minimum wage
This one would have some real teeth, far into the future.
"I am introducing a bill which ties congressional pay to the minimum wage. I don't think members of Congress deserve more than ten times what the lowest-paid worker receives by law. The minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, which works out to an annual salary of $15,080. My bill will set the absolute ceiling for any member of Congress' wage to be $150,800. From now on, if Congress wants to raise its pay, it must do so by raising the minimum wage one-tenth of the amount of our own pay raises. If Congress wants to keep their cost-of-living adjustment, then a proportional COLA must be in place for the minimum wage."
Public sector pensions
This is one where recent Republican language can be turned against them.
"Republicans across the country have made an enormous political issue over the pensions of public sector workers such as firefighters, police, and teachers. They say we have to slash these pensions to balance our books. OK, let's start with our own. I am introducing a bill which will end the current pension program for Congress, which is likely the most generous public-sector pension program in all of human history. All of this will end. Instead, we will all get a 401K plan and Social Security and Medicare, just like most private sector employees receive. We are going to set the example for America by only allowing ourselves the same pension that the average American worker gets -- and not a penny more."
Congress follows all laws
This one is slightly off on a tangent, but it's such a popular one that I had to include it.
"I am calling for a constitutional amendment which states 'Congress may not pass laws which do not apply to Congress.' This amendment will further state that any laws currently on the books which exempt Congress from any law the rest of America must follow is now null and void. Congress should not be able to carve out exceptions for itself when passing laws. If Congress passes a workplace law, then they must follow this law. If Congress passes a rule all businesses must follow, then they must also follow the new rule. Few Americans are aware of how Congress exempts itself from its own laws in this fashion, but when informed of the practice, few Americans like what they hear. I am calling for this to come to an end, and I am confident that amending the Constitution to do so will be wildly popular with the public."
100 percent transparent
If we're going to live in the Citizens United world, let's at least see where the money's coming from.
"I am calling for a campaign finance law which requires everyone paying for any political activity to be publicly identified. If corporations want to spend money in the political arena, we should know who they are, and how much they are giving. No political advocacy entity will be able to have anonymous donors anymore. Full public disclosure for political groups, parties, candidates, PACs, SuperPACs, lobbying, advocacy groups -- everyone. Every dollar which pays for politics in this country -- and who donated it -- needs to be public information. Period."
NASCAR jackets for Congress
This idea has been floating around the internet for a while. I certainly can't claim this as an original idea, but it is still the best radical idea in the field of campaign contributions I've ever heard.
"I am introducing a bill I call the 'NASCAR Jacket Bill' which will require all members of Congress to wear -- whenever on the floor of Congress or at a public event -- visible patches from every corporation or lobbying group they've taken money from in the past ten years. Since this 'sponsorship' of Congress is so widespread, let's allow the public to see who is buying whom. Congressmen will be forced to display patches from every group who donates money to them -- and the patches will be larger and more colorful, depending on the amount of money given (just like NASCAR sponsorships are rewarded, in other words). Let the public see this legalized bribery, on every television screen on which a politician appears. Let the people decide for themselves whether they want to vote for a politician who has been bought and sold in this fashion. Give Americans the visual evidence of where the money in politics comes from, by forcing NASCAR jackets on each and every member of Congress."
-- Chris Weigant