President Obama is in the news this week, for voluntarily giving up five percent of his yearly pay, to show solidarity with federal workers who will be adversely financially affected by the sequester cuts. This will save the American taxpayer $20,000. This may be a drop in the bucket, so I thought I'd offer up a suggestion as to how to save a lot more money, on a permanent basis: abolish the offices of the two congressional chaplains.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate spend a lot of money on hiring a spiritual leader. I do not argue that these positions should be abolished on constitutional grounds, but rather for budgetary reasons. And I certainly won't quibble over which of the favorite three target categories for budget-cutting these chaplains should fall under -- waste, fraud, or abuse -- to avoid diversionary theological arguments.
This isn't to say there aren't constitutional arguments to make over the issue. James Madison, known as the "Father of the Constitution" (who should know a thing or two about "original intent," one assumes), did just that, in his retirement:
Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?
In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.
The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority] shut the door of worship against the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. To say nothing of other sects, this is the case with that of Roman Catholics & Quakers who have always had members in one or both of the Legislative branches. Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed a Chaplain? To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers, or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor.
Madison was right about the reluctance to hire a Catholic. The House didn't do so until the year 2000, in fact. The Senate was a bit more tolerantly modern, and hired a Catholic for a single year (in 1832) -- but has not done so since. Every single chaplain for both houses has been a Christian of some flavor or another, for all of American history. No Jew, no Muslim, no Hindu, no Buddhist -- indeed, no religion other than Christianity -- has ever been deemed worthy for either post.
The Supreme Court took up the issue of the constitutionality of the post in 1983, and decided, using the weakest legal reasoning possible, that congressional chaplains were kosher (in a manner of speaking) -- because of "history and tradition." To put it another way: because it's been done for a long time, it's OK. Ask any first-year law student to eviscerate that argument, they'll be happy to help.
Setting aside all of that, however, there's the hard cold financial fact that United States taxpayers shell out a lot of money for these two men (no woman has ever served in either post). Both positions are full-time salaried jobs, and they aren't exactly "vow of poverty" salaries, either. The Senate chaplain rakes in over $150,000 per year and the House chaplain pulls down a cool $172,500 -- slightly less than members of Congress are paid. Added together, the budget for both of these offices costs taxpayers around a million bucks each and every year.
This is not an issue of saying "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or having currency with "In God We Trust" on it, both of which cost taxpayers nothing (either way). This is a bottom-line budget issue, and should be seen as such. What, after all, do the taxpayers get for this money? The congressional chaplains are supposed to be spiritual advisors to members of Congress, and open each congressional session with a prayer. Neither is necessary. There is, in fact, a long line of volunteers to provide opening prayers to Congress. None of them is paid a dime. As for "spiritual advice," what about members of Congress from differing religions or sects than the current chaplain?
When our national government was begun, perhaps a case could have been made for having a go-to spiritual advisor handy for members of Congress. When Congress was in session, they were far removed from their homes, and could not easily communicate with their own personal pastor. This hasn't been true, however, for a century (at least). The advent of the telephone destroyed this rationale, to put it another way. Any current member of Congress experiencing a crisis of faith or requiring religious counsel can just pick up the phone and converse with their own chosen religious leader. Problem solved. If in-person counseling is truly needed, there are any number of houses of worship within a ten-minute taxi ride from Capitol Hill.
I do not argue today that opening prayers should be abolished in the houses of Congress, or that members do not need occasional spiritual counseling. I do not argue the separation of Church and State issue, either. Those are arguments for another day, and I set them aside for now. I argue instead that we just can't afford this any longer. Once (perhaps) a necessity, official House and Senate chaplains are no more than anachronisms, and costly ones at that. All of the duties of the congressional chaplains could be easily carried out by either other congressional custodial staff (scheduling volunteer chaplains for opening prayers, for instance), or by volunteer faith leaders who are eager and willing to provide prayers to Congress, for free. Any congressperson needing further spiritual guidance can either pick up the phone, or do a quick web search for the closest house of worship of their choice to the Capitol.
By abolishing these two positions paid for by taxpayer dollars, we could easily cut fifty times what President Obama is voluntarily giving up from his own salary. While congressional chaplains might have been seen as a necessity in days of yore, in the modern world they are nothing more than a luxury -- a luxury we just can't afford any longer, no matter how much "history and tradition" is involved.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant