Thursday, August 14, 2014

Means testing Congressional pay and pensions

The Constitution of the United States says that Congress can set it's own rules, and determine its own pay. Seems like the pay of members of Congress has gone up while the number of days spent actually working has gone down. Worse, nearly all the members of Congress are multimillionaires.

Do these people represent you and me? Recent statistics show that the bottom 40% of the population owns about 0.2% of all wealth in the United States. Seems to me that the bottom 40% have little to no representation in the Congress. But that same chart linked to above, shows that the top 1% owns 34% of all the wealth. To put it differently, the top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 70% combined. This condition is not sustainable in any democracy.

Truth be told, at least one study says that we no longer have a monopoly, we now have an oligarchy. What else can you say about a country that allows the wealthy to buy the laws they want for themselves and then claim that they earned all that money with their itty-bitty hands - by their own efforts?

In the days of the Reagan Administration, there was a constant debate over means testing for public benefit programs like welfare and Social Security. Men and women on public assistance now have to find work and prove that they're working to get on the dole, as it was called. It has been well documented that millions of WalMart employees receive public assistance, some even call WalMart the biggest welfare queen in America.

We now have a nearly permanent underclass of working poor. Men and women who, seemingly by design, are there to make the wealthy feel better about themselves. What good is it to be on vacation if everyone else can go on vacation, too? Shouldn't everyone else be working? Isn't it better for democracy if people are too busy with work to protest in the streets? That would make those one-percenters feel a lot better now, wouldn't it?

I can remember the talk of means testing in the Clinton administration. I remember the "workfare" programs. The jobs bills with amendments that would require welfare recipients to work. The pressure for means testing was constant, unrelenting and eventually, permanent. Now we have it. Everyone who asks for help must demonstrate that they have no other means to earn the money they need to live. Seems reasonable, right?

Members of Congress now earn about $174k a year, have a plush health plan and get a pension for life. Historical records show that there have been only a few pay cuts: 1874, 1932, 1933, and 1991, but even that, was temporary. After every cut, pay eventually marched up again.

Even the pensions are pretty plush, with average pension payments in 2002 ranging between $41,000 and $55,000. And get this, they vest after 5 years of service. How cool is that? Well, not that cool. If you only served 6 years, the pension would amount to about $17k a year. Still, that would add nicely to any Social Security check you might receive upon retirement.

Since Congressional pay and pensions are public benefits, I propose the following:

  1. All members of Congress must submit to drug testing, just like any other job. If you're snorting coke first thing in the morning, you probably shouldn't be in Congress anyway.
  2. All members of Congress must submit to means testing to receive that plush salary. If you're middle class and own a home in Podunk, Ill., you'll qualify. But if you're a member of the board of directors in several corporations in the same industry, no, you won't qualify.
  3. All members must submit to means testing for that plush pension. If you're already rolling in the dough, you won't miss the pension. The proceeds can go into the Social Security trust fund for everyone else.
Every member of Congress says that they are patriots. With means testing, they can prove it. 
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