As Americans all across the country continue to struggle, we find ourselves looking to our elected officials to find solutions. But unfortunately, for the following reasons (and probably many others), Congress represents more of a problem than a solution:
(1) Congress is nothing but a collection of rich stiffs. About one percent of all Americans are millionaires, but roughly 47 percent of those serving in Congress are. Don’t misread me here: there’s nothing wrong with being rich. But there is a problem when the people creating tax and economic policy fail to understand the financial stress a typical family faces.
(2) Automatic pay hikes: Every year, members of Congress get an automatic cost-of-living increase in their pay, which is now $174,000 per year—about 4 times as much as the average worker earns. For the last two years, Congress has voted to forego its annual raise. But even flat pay would be a luxury to millions who have endured pay cuts, been relegated to part-time status or lost their jobs.
(3) Immense benefit packages: While pensions and social security are all but extinct at this point, and 401K’s are freakishly risky, congressional retirement plans (and, for good measure, retirement healthcare plans) are in every way far more generous than benefits typically offered to private-sector workers. Some estimates have fringe benefits alone being worth about $82,000 per year to a federal legislator.
(4) Free parking: In addition to generous pay and gilded benefits, members of Congress enjoy a long list of conveniences and other perks, including free parking on Capitol Hill and at priority lots at Washington, D.C.’s two airports. This may not sound like too much of a perk. But if you ask a person living in a major city, this is mind-blowing.
(5) Earmarks: Congress has temporarily banned these pet spending projects, which evade ordinary budgeting procedures and often amount to home-district favors for donors or supporters. But some lawmakers want them back. The test will come in 2015, when the next Congress will either extend the ban or revoke it and start delivering overdue favors.
(6) Resting on one’s laurels: In the business world, competition punishes the obsolete and rewards those who innovate and deliver. Congress, however, holds a monopoly on legislating, so it still operates by ancient procedures and dallies indefinitely on urgent matters. There’s no measure of effectiveness for the body as a whole (except for approval ratings. Maybe.), so our beloved Congress people are usually not interested in getting things done. Believe it or not, some members of Congress actually believe that gridlock—a euphemism for accomplishing nothing—can be in the nation’s interest. Wow.
(7) Lobbyists: For every member of Congress, there are about 22 registered lobbyists who donate money, throw fundraisers and manipulate legislation to the benefit of corporations and interest groups. Some of the most powerful lobbyists are former members of Congress, who form a “shadow Congress” more influential than pressure from voters.
(8) The Media: Journalists, bloggers, and pundits jump on every argumentative word in Washington, while under-reporting key issues like unemployment and poverty that matter more to everyday people. This makes politicians even more narcissistic and combative, since they know they’ll generate coverage if they say something controversial.
(10) Voters: Politicians manipulate voters every day with half-truths—or outright lies—about taxes, spending, and many other issues that directly affect the nation’s prosperity. They have also mastered the fine art of using what I call the “Trojan Horse Method”, campaigning heavily on some issue just to get elected, but wreak havoc in other ways once they’re elected. A lot of this is on the typical voter. Too many voters embrace feel-good propaganda they want to hear, instead of learning the basic facts about issues they care about. They should do a better job of calling out dishonest politicians—and shunning media outlets that stoke political food fights.
These are the people we elect to protect our interests. In other words, we’re all screwed.