OPINION: How to Fix a Broken Congress

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Almost 90 percent of Americans agree the 113th Congress has failed miserably at their jobs. Some blame Republicans. Others blame Democrats. Still others blame the President. A few blame everyone. No matter who is to blame, the root of the problem remains. Problems demand solutions. Occasionally they demand atypical approaches, even U.S. Constitution altering approaches.

 

Most of Congress’ disapproval comes from its unwillingness or inability to tackle big issues. Almost nothing on the national deficit, immigration, healthcare or tax reform is expected to pass before re-elections this year. Why? Because senators and representatives are far more focused on getting re-elected than actually fixing the issues. More worried about keeping their job than doing their job.

 

They should be.

 

Serving in Congress pays great, has amazing health benefits and the retirement package can’t be matched. A regular congressional member gets paid $174,000 a year. Party leaders get paid $193,400 per year. The Speaker of the House makes $223,500 annually. All paid with tax dollars, of course. Automatic pay raises based on the employment cost index are built in as yearly raises as well, unless they vote not to receive it. More money per year guaranteed, regardless of job performance. Even a 1 percent raise grants them almost an extra $2,000 per year. Again, totally paid for by the tax dollars.

 

Then comes the retirement package. After five years of service, members of Congress are guaranteed pensions. That’s less than one senator’s term and equal to two and a half representative’s terms. At age 62, five years of service gets the full retirement package. Someone can retire at 50 after 20 years of service with a full pension. A congress member serving 25 years may retire at any age with the full pension.

 

Current congressional pension plans are based on the “high-three” system. The plan takes the average of their three highest paid consecutive years multiplied by their number of years served multiplied by 1.7 percent. That is maxed out at 20 years. Any years served beyond 20 years takes the same “high-three” multiplied by years served over 20 years. The worst pension any congressional member may receive then is just shy of $18,000. Again, out of tax dollars.

 

As of October 1, 2012, there were 527 retired members of Congress receiving an average of $58,860 per year. Keep in mind the federal poverty level for 2014 has been set at $11,670 for a single person and $23,850 for a family of four. Those 527 members receive a combined $31,019,664 a year. Add that with direct pay for currently serving members, and our Congress costs almost $125 million per year .The federal government retirement system is facing an over $670 billion shortfall. That kind of payout is certainly not helping it or any of the other financial problems facing the country.

 

So how do we as Americans put our $125 million back to work and achieve better than an 11 percent satisfaction rate? First, get Congress back to the way it was intended to serve. The average number of years served by a senator prior to 1880 was five years. That has now increased to 13 years. For representatives, it has gone from four years (two terms) to ten years (five terms).

 

Some states attempted to pass laws limiting how long someone may serve in Congress but it was ruled (correctly) unconstitutional in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton. The Constitution establishes in Article I, Section II that representatives be elected by the people to serve for two year terms.

 

Each state is guaranteed at least one representative. Article I, Section III says for senators to be chosen by state legislations to serve for six-year terms. Amendment XVII altered that in 1912 so that senators are now elected by general election as well. Neither section provides for term limits. The only way to legally fix it is to pass a constitutional amendment.

 

An amount of 27 amendments have been applied to the Constitution. Article V provides two methods by which the Constitution may be altered. Two-thirds of both houses of Congress may ratify an amendment, which must then be confirmed by three-fourths of the states’ legislatures (38 of the 50 states). The other way is for two-thirds of the states’ legislatures to call for a constitutional convention. All 27 amendments have been proposed by Congress and passed by the states. The states have never used the second method.

 

Here is the proposed solution. A constitutional amendment limiting senators and representatives to 12 years service in either house and a combined 20 years total in Congress. However, acknowledging the power of the voice of the people, a great person may arise chosen and loved by the people who should keep serving. Should a candidate win an election for what would be their final term by two-thirds of the vote, they would be eligible to run for another term at that term’s conclusion. They would continue to be eligible to run for more terms so long as they continue to win re-election by two-thirds of the vote.

 

Also, raise the minimum number of representatives from one per state to three. If each state gets a minimum of three electoral votes, then why not three representatives? To keep the original balance intended by the Constitution, return selection of senators to the state legislatures so that they are selected to represent state interests. The Constitution was amended because of state legislatures hanging when electing resulted in prolonged empty seats. If legislation is unable to select a senator in a set time limit, the choice would fall to that state’s governor to select the replacement.

 

At the same time, pay needs to be drastically adjusted. There is no reason why a member of congress, a servant of the people, should make almost 15 times the federal poverty level. There is no reason their pension should be so easy to come by and almost double the federal poverty level for a family of four. Yes, these are elite positions in society and should reflect as such. Congress will need to pass a law capping their pay at $100,000 per year and pensions should be rolled back to match the federal poverty level. Pensions would be available after serving one term as senator and three terms as a representative. Any congressional member able to reach the max term limit would be eligible for a pension equal to the federal poverty level for a family of four ($23,850 as of this year).

 

Why do it like this? First, it helps shake up and break so much of the gridlock plaguing Congress. Second, it rebalances the states’ and peoples’ interests. Third, it more evenly redistributes congressional power across the country. Fourth, it frees up tax dollars to go where they are actually needed. Fifth, it helps make the job about the money and not about the perks. The pension actually pays out less than social security. Who would want only that for retirement?

 

It’s an idea. A springboard. A hope. One that will never truly see the light of day. Almost 50 percent of Americans work with no retirement plan. Who would willingly vote themselves out of a job and a pay cut and back into that? Certainly not the people we elect from among us whom we believe best able to represent us. Imagine them having to go back into the private sector and rejoin the average American in their middle class struggle to provide for their families and secure their future. That would mean they would only serve their constituents for a short time and then have to go back and live normal lives amongst them. Unless they were just amazing servants of the people and overwhelmingly loved and supported time after time. A truly beloved politician. A Congress that’s actually about being there to try and do what’s best. What a dream.