Monday, February 20, 2012

Congress Desperately Needs an Overhaul

Last week, I received an email that offered key reforms that could improve our federal government and its effectiveness. Supposedly these measures are being proposed by Warren Buffett of the famed Berkshire Hathaway and owner of Shaw Industries. I am not sure if these are Mr. Buffett’s ideas or not – but they are good ideas nonetheless.

At a recent meeting of Rep. Tom Graves’ Economic Advisory Council, many of these same proposals were discussed. The difficulty of getting Congress to reform itself notwithstanding, something has to be done if our country is going to get the kind of elected representation it deserves.

Our Founding Fathers intended that America be represented by citizen-statesmen. Elected officials were to offer their service to the country, serve honorably, and go home. It is my belief that service was intended to be an honor and a sacrifice for the good of the nation not the elected. Career politicians were never the desire of those who designed the greatest democracy on earth. Accordingly reform #1 provides that members of Congress not be granted tenure nor receive a pension. A Congressman should collect a salary while in office but receive no pay once out of office. And their service should be limited to two terms for a Senator and six terms for a member of the House of Representatives.

I have not always been an advocate for term limits on the basis that it is hard enough to get qualified people to run – why would you want someone who is doing a good job to be term limited arbitrarily? But given that members of Congress have become so entrenched in a system that overly advantages incumbents, now may be the time to guarantee citizen-statesman by instituting term limits.

Reform #2 would allow a Congressman to participate in the Social Security system just like all other Americans. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund upon the successful approval of the legislation would move to the Social Security system. All future funds would flow into the Social Security system. These funds would not be allowed to be used for any other purpose. If members of Congress want more retirement coverage, they could purchase their own just as all Americans do.

Even during the last three to four years in an economic recession not seen since the Great Depression, members of Congress have continued to receive generous pay increases. While Americans are losing their jobs and suffering pay cuts, our members of Congress have insured that their pay continue to rise. Reform #3 would prohibit Congress from voting themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay would rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

I would further advocate that certain minimum standards be adopted that establish if they get paid at all. For instance, the primary responsibility of most Boards of Directors is to insure the financial solvency of the organization they serve. Similarly, I feel Congress” number one priority should be establishing a budget and living within it. Our current elected members of Congress have operated our country for over two and a half years without a budget. By the end of this year, we will once again face a government shut-down due to politics. For every month beyond the budget deadline that a budget is not passed, I would propose Congress receive no pay.

One of President Obama’s major legislative successes was his passage of the Affordable Healthcare Act. He and the Democratic controlled Congress wanted all Americans covered by health insurance. Ironically, the healthcare plan approved for all Americans is not the same healthcare plan that covers them. Reform #4 would require Congress to lose their current health care system and that they be required to participate in the same health care system as the American people. They should not have a plan that is dramatically better than that which protects its citizens.

Recently in the news it is alleged that members of Congress have profited from key investments based on their access to insider information. Why is it that a business leader, stock broker, or an individual investor can be imprisoned for such (remember Martha Stewart) but not members of Congress. And now that these activities have surfaced, Congress agrees to investigate itself. Why not the Security and Exchange Commission? Reform #5 - Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people. This one just seems obvious.

And finally, reform #6 - All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective
immediately upon the passage of the Congressional Reform Act and signed by the President. Unless these measures are immediately enacted, the very same members who approved them would be tempted to work the system to their benefit during any grace period or waiting period.

The cynic in me says that even these simple, yet reasonable reforms have little chance of being enacted and being allowed to reshape our democratic process back to one of honor and built on trust between the elected and the governed. But given the absurdly low approval ratings the American people give the current members of Congress, maybe with enough awareness and publicity we can get some traction behind this movement.

It used to be that most Americans disliked Congress, but loved their member of Congress. It would seem that even individual members have lost the trust of the citizens they represent. The bickering and division along party lines have become the norm, not doing what is right and moving our country forward. We deserve better!

If you agree with these simple reform measures, send them to your members of Congress and demand they pass the Congressional Reform Act. If enough of us demand action, maybe we can improve Congress and our Nation.

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