According to a CRP study reported last week by CNBC, there are 261 millionaires currently serving in Congress. 1 in 5 had accumulated wealth of over $10 million and 8 of the 261 members were worth $100 million or more. Many members have investments in companies that were at the center of the financial crisis and are also heavily invested in health care drugs. During the period from December 2008 to December 2009, the wealth of their members increased by an average of 16%. Is it any wonder that our current Congress experiences a lack of urgency when it comes to repairing our economic situation? Or that many of our representatives stepped into the spotlight to talk about our blossoming economic recovery?
Perhaps Congress is “recovering.” The rest of us are not so lucky. Looking at these numbers, it is not hard to understand the fundamental disconnect between the hoi polloi suffering at near 10% unemployment or chronic underemployment and policy makers who enjoy great salary, health care, free travel and other fetching perks. Small wonder that members of Congress were mortified by furious constituents at town halls last year, railing at egregious spending, terrified about their own economic prospects. To many in Congress, the world looks pretty rosy.
Elitist cluelessness and insensitivity was much in evidence as Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer proposed a military pay freeze to accompany President Obama’s suggested 2-year freeze on pay increases for federal workers. The military is underpaid to begin with, as opposed to federal workers who often make higher wages than their counterparts in the private sector. Hoyer proposed no such wage freeze for himself and his compatriots, who enjoy automatic salary increases every year.
A friend teaching within the Los Angeles Unified School system in California offered a frightening local example of a national bureaucratic attitude. Several years ago, LA Unified paid tens of millions of dollars to overhaul their payroll system. The resulting disaster saw thousands of teachers incorrectly underpaid or worse, not get a salary check for six months or more due to computer malfunctions and what one could only assume was bureaucratic incompetence. While some teachers attempted to sue to get their paychecks, a judge threw their suit out, claiming their complaints did not rise to a justified level to proceed. The Administration was doing the “best it could.”
A radical experiment might have clarified the butter for this unsympathetic judge: withhold his paycheck for six months and like the complaining teachers he saw fit to dismiss, let him find himself with no alternative but to run up credit card debt month after month to pay for his mortgage and groceries. His frustration might well have risen to a “justified level” to offer redress for these teachers’ grievances.
The same holds true for Congress. Until those making, enforcing or refusing to enforce the laws of our land experience firsthand the ramifications of the standards they establish for others, we will see a continuation of empty talking points detached from credible solutions, particularly where our economy is concerned.
As Democrats and Republicans in Congress duke it out over the choice to extend Bush-era tax rates, there is no room for political posturing or actions designed to cast opponents in a bad light. It is unconscionable that in December 2010, the economy, which has been is a devastating tailspin for several years, should have been on the back burner for so long while Congress horse trades and maneuvers on the START Treaty, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the DREAM Act. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, for example, could have been repealed last year when the President had the political capital to do so – now it is being used once again as a political football. The President and Congress should have the ability to multitask, but they must also prioritize.
While these other issues are most important, there is no reason and no excuse to continue kicking the can down the road, using demagoguery to distract from passing a responsible budget, or stalling and performing half measures rather than stepping up to make effective decisions that will help taxpayers and spur job growth in America. Both sides engage in these tactics and have for years. We have no time for Democrats or Republicans who play war games with legislation while they live in comfort, immune from the consequences of their actions.
Pontificating is easy. Paying the bills is hard.