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by J.P. Prag 3 months ago in voting / politics / politicians / legislation / congress
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We need to fire everyone in Congress, cut almost all of their pay and benefits, and take away their toys

Northern elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park on February 9, 2019. Photo and description by RHODODENDRITES, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

» KEY POINTS

  • Congress is a do-nothing organization because they have unlimited time and resources and are paid handsomely no matter what.
  • In order to create some urgency and perhaps make Congress more productive, we need a set of Constitutional Amendments to require turnover and make sure Congresspeople have far less of everything.
  • At the end of the day, we would return Congress to what it was originally conceived as by the Founders: a part-time, citizen legislature.

Pick your big political issue...

Is it infrastructure? Or perhaps it is immigration? What about the response to COVID-19? Could it be the latest laws passed by particular States because of the lack of overriding Federal guidance? Are taxes your main concern? What do you think about the current military engagements and disengagements around the world? Does a very specific clause in a massive communication statute bother you to no end?

Whatever it is, just ask yourself: has Congress really done anything about it? Congresspeople are highly paid, work extreme hours, employ a massive support staff, and have near limitless resources to self-fund anything they could ever want to do. Yet despite all that, almost nothing gets done, even when one party has majority control of both chambers. They certainly do not need more time or money to make actual accomplishments, so what is the problem?

The answer is actually that they have too much time and money! There is no urgency because they can waste resources, do nothing, and still get paid more than almost all other Americans. What is their incentive to do a better job and be more efficient and productive? There is none because over the years Congress has turned itself into a monolith of inaction. Should we continue to put up with this intransigence, especially since it will only get worse?

No, a resolution is necessary to align membership in Congress to the position as it was originally envisioned by the Founders: a part-time, citizen legislator. In order to do that, there is a simple, three-step solution:

  • Fire everyone;
  • Cut hours, pay, and fringe benefits;
  • Take away their toys.

And through a set of Constitutional Amendments, this is how it can be done...

» FIRE EVERYONE

One of the reasons that members of Congress do not align to any factor of the populace (age, wealth, belief structures, etcetera) is because people join Congress and for the most part never leave. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS)—an agency of the Federal Government—in the 116th Congress the average time for members of the House of Representatives was 8.6 years while the Senate was 10.1 years. Average is an interesting statistic, but distribution of total stints in Congress (no matter which chamber) gives a clearer picture:

A table demonstrating that many Congresspeople have been in the legislature for way too long.

Members of both divisions also have a large amount of prior experience in government not only from serving in the other chamber, but also as legislators at the State level, Governors, appointed positions, and more. In other words, the vast majority of the Legislative Branch is filled with long-time employees of one government or another.

Male northern elephant seal at Año Nuevo State Park on February 9, 2019. Photo and description by RHODODENDRITES, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The CRS also has a chart that makes it clear: since the beginning of the first Congress to now, the tenure time in the Legislative Branch has been on a straight upward trajectory. Sure, there are dips and bumps as you go, but overall it has been ranging upwards, most especially post the Civil War. Yet despite that, the CRS refuses to write the obvious conclusion:

Too much time serving in government is the antithesis of a representative democracy.

Being in Congress creates an inherent bubble around legislators that disconnects them from the actual concerns and opinions of their constituents. There needs to be turnover in order to get current perspectives and knowledge into the Capitol Building. In other words, every member of Congress needs to be forcibly retired at some point. The only way we are going to do that is with an Amendment to the Constitution:

No person shall be elected to the House of Representatives more than twice nor to the Senate more than twice, and not more than four times for all of Congress. And no person who has held a position in Congress for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected shall be elected to the House of Representatives or the Senate more than once. But this clause shall not apply to any person holding a position in Congress at the time of ratification until the end of his current term.

Does that sound familiar? It is practically an exact crib (some would say plagiarism) of the 22nd Amendment that limited the President to two terms. Prior to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no President had ever served more than two terms. After FDR, it was clear that a rule was needed to force the issue and make sure that no single person could amass that much power and control over America’s policy and its future. The progression to ultra-long serving members of Congress has been a much more gradual slide, so it has not hit as many people in the face like FDR did. Besides, Congress was on board with limiting the strength of the President; they are not on board with limiting their own power and earning potential.

Male northern elephant seal with four pups at Año Nuevo State Park on February 9, 2019. Photo and description by RHODODENDRITES, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This Amendment would reduce employment to two terms in each chamber of Congress, but does allow a person to serve in both for up to two terms each. Under today’s Constitution, that would mean up to 4 years in the House of Representatives and 12 years in the Senate for a total of 16 years. If we included the set of Amendments from the prior chapter, that would make the House and the Senate four-year terms each that happen simultaneously. As such, this would mean that a person could serve up to 8 years in each chamber for the same total number of 16 years. Either way, these Amendments could stand on their own or work in conjunction for a more complete solution.

Sixteen years may seem long, but it is only the potential and requires moving between two different chambers and winning in two disparate systems. People may lose their seat and have to come back in later or not at all, so overall the chambers should still end up with a good deal of new blood while allowing a fair amount of long-term people to stay involved. After all, it is reasonable to have both brand-new people and those with experience on a regular basis, but at the same time make sure no one is serving for an entire generation or beyond.

However, as noted, that has not limited how much time these people could spend in any level of government. With former State-level legislators, Governors, Presidents, Judges, appointed positions—there are just too many other nooks and crannies that a person looking to make a career out of politics could sneak into and have the government cover the bill. If a Political Party wants to pay its members for their service, that is the Party’s business. That does not mean that the government should be paying for the Party to retain and use its power and influence. Because of that, we need another Amendment to make sure all of the government is safe from the careerists:

No person shall serve more than a combined twenty-five years in total in any elected or appointed position or combination thereof within any part of government, with no differentiation between local, State or Territory, Federal, or Foreign government. But this clause shall not apply to any person holding an elected or appointed position at the time of ratification until the end of his current term. Additionally, this Clause does not apply to staff and civil servants that support the functions of Government, nor those serving in the military or militia.

This Clause is about limiting the total amount of time that someone can spend working in Government; not just the Federal Government, but all of Government in any role that is not a support staff or public servant position or involved with the military. Those people are employees, but when it comes to elected and appointed positions, they are supposed to be in service. As such, they need to time out so that we do not create despots. Dictators need not be the master of an entire nation, but they can be someone who controls which legislation is available for debate, which organizations get money, or who can participate in the PTA bake sale. We need a function to clear away people who have served for too long—not because they necessarily are bad people or have done anything wrong, but simply because service is supposed to be temporary and we need new and different ideas on a regular basis.

At 25 years, a person could spend 16 years serving in Congress and 8 years serving as President with one year left over. Or a person could spend 12 years as their Town Selectman, 10 years as Mayor, and 3 years as Governor. Or another person could spend all 25 years being a Judge. The possibilities and paths are endless!

Male Northern Elephant Seals fighting for territory and mates on February 2, 2008. Photo and description by “MIKE” MICHAEL L. BAIRD, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most importantly, it limits (though does not eliminate, other laws would need to do that) a bit of cronyism. For instance, the President could not just appoint someone to a plush government position that has no turnover. That would not be a support or civil servant position, so that person would have to realize that if they wanted to do something else—like be a Senator—they could not stay in that position forever. These rewards would be fewer and further between.

When you lay it out, 25 years is roughly a generation. Someone could be in the public eye and in service to it for all that time, but then another generation can come in. It will not work out perfectly like that because everyone will be on different schedules and experiences, but there would be a constant sweep of new people ready to be in service to our country with fresh ideas and hopeful desires.

» CUT HOURS, PAY, AND FRINGE BENEFITS

Now, those amendments may bring in fresh blood, but if their experiences are the same as the current members of Congress then there will be no change. Eventually, they will become just like their predecessors. For that, we need to get much deeper into the job description of a Congressperson itself.

Going back in time, it was never the intent of the Founders that membership in Congress would be a full-time job with a massive salary and benefits. As a matter of fact, making a legislature be a part-time job is not uncommon in our country at all. Among the States, 14 explicitly make their legislatures be part-time and another 26 have a system that makes it so legislators cannot earn a full income in their government jobs. Even large (in area and population) States like Texas and Florida have a part-time legislature.

When a State does have a full-time legislature, the compensation costs immediately skyrocket. In those where the legislature spends around half of their time working in the government the average salary is about $19,000 per year. Yet even when the median time spent working in government is around 85% (not even “full-time”), those numbers jump to about $82,000 per year. And that does not even begin to get into the non-monetary costs of passing unnecessary law and creating over-criminalization since the legislators do not want to look like they are resting on their laurels when they are in session—even if they have nothing to discuss!

Now that we understand the costs (both literally and figuratively) of having a full-time legislature, what can be done? Taking lessons and wordings from State Constitutions that have part-time legislators, we can add an Amendment to the Federal one:

Both the House of Representatives and Senate shall be limited in the number of days they may meet per legislative year and the number of hours they shall meet in any single day. While either chamber of Congress is in session, each shall meet no more than three days per calendar week.

Using this logic, Congress would be restricted to 60% of the total number of working days in a fiscal year. This is a start, and we will cut them down further later. For now, though, let us temporarily put aside “time” and move on to “money”.

Your run-of-the-mill Congressperson receives $174,000 per year for their services, with additional pay for leadership positions, and not including benefits. True, as of the early 2020s, Congress has forgone their automatic pay raise they assigned themselves since 2010, so their pay has been stagnant for quite some time. Despite this large number being far above the national average, how does it compare to the past?

At Año Nuevo State Park on February 9, 2019. Photo and description by RHODODENDRITES, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
  • In 1969, Congresspeople made roughly the equivalent of $296,000 in 2019 dollars. By that measure, one could say Congress has cut their pay nearly in half!
  • Yet in 1855 when Congress permanently changed to an annual salary system, they were making about $88,000 in 2019 dollars. In other words, modern Congressional pay is nearly double what it was when they first started using this method.
  • Before that, though, in 1815 Congress tested the annual system for the first time and set wages around $25,000 in 2019 dollars.
  • If we go back to 1790 during the first full year of Congress, their pay would have been about $32,000 in 2019 dollars. This equates to $20.83 per hour.

What does this all tell us? Well, it seems like earlier members of Congress had a different idea about what compensation meant than later members. More so, of the 39 delegates who signed the Constitution, 41% were in the first Congress. In other words, the pay scales we see in the late 1700s and early 1800s are in line with what the Founders and writers of the Constitution intended, not what we see today and not even what we saw starting in the mid-1800s.

When looking at that original $20.83 per hour, it looks very similar to Living Wage calculations. The Living Wage, unlike the Minimum Wage, is calculated according to what it really costs to survive in a given area. As such, could we not peg the wages of Congress to the Living Wage? To do this, we would again add an Amendment:

Direct monetary compensation shall be limited to and equal to the Living Wage rate in the Seat of Government commiserated with the hours scheduled by each chamber of Congress. Additional non-monetary compensation may only be awarded as designated in other parts of the Constitution.

There are many Living Wage calculations and factors that we can go with, but for now let us just assume one that is $25 per hour. If we just say Congress should only be a 50% part-time job (1,040 hours per year), then their expected salary would be $26,000. Is it not amazing how that comes out almost exactly in line with the 1790 to 1815 numbers? Maybe it should be a bit more, maybe a bit less, but no matter what it is certainly a noteworthy pay cut that would be in line with their diminished schedules. Also, of much import is that “limited to” clause, which means that Congress cannot grant itself other monetary compensation in service to the Government (i.e., getting paid extra to serve on a committee or in leadership).

At Año Nuevo State Park on February 9, 2019. Photo and description by RHODODENDRITES, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

But what about that “non-monetary compensation” mentioned in the Amendment? We are talking about more than just health insurance here (although we are considering that, too). One of the reasons Congresspeople are paid so much now is because of the high cost of housing in Washington, D.C., which of course is a trap of their own making. If we are going to reduce what Congress is being paid, the cost of being in Congress needs to be covered another way. However, for a part-time job, Congresspeople should not be expected to set up and maintain a residence in the seat of government, only come for a visit from time-to-time. And as the prior Amendment alludes, we will need another one to determine what Congresspeople are entitled to:

The Federal Government shall purchase and maintain a property or several properties to house all members of Congress when they visit the Seat of Government of the United States. The property or properties shall be sparse and utilitarian to only serve the temporary housing needs of just the members of Congress when visiting the Seat of Government. In addition to room, the Federal Government shall provide board, transportation, and all other basic needs while members of Congress travel to and from and stay in the Seat of Government.

Congress already has a right to purchase and maintain property via Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution, so this is just a minor expansion of those existing powers. Creating what amounts to a government-run hotel for legislators is really no different. However, what we are actually doing is eliminating any excuse for more direct compensation. This is why the Amendment goes into items like “board” (food); “transportation” (the plane, train, taxi, and other automotive costs of getting to and staying in Washington, D.C.); and “other basic needs” (things like the utilities and water to keep the living spaces going, as well as security). With these principal costs covered, Congresspeople should not need that monetary compensation to take care of these necessities themselves.

A southern elephant seal (nicknamed “Momoa” by locals) resting on the Whakatane River estuary. Photo and description by USER:AIR55, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons on January 2, 2019.

Furthermore, since Congresspeople do not need to move to Washington, D.C. they do not need to bring their families with them. That is why this Amendment is specifically about housing just the members of Congress and that the space be sparse and utilitarian. As the Amendment states, this is just to provide a “temporary” location for the Congresspeople, so it does not need much except the basics of any modern hotel room. That is not to say it should be an uncomfortable Soviet-style cement block with a mattress on the floor, but that Congresspeople do not need multi-million-dollar brownstones. If a Congressperson wants to buy something like that with their own money, that is their prerogative; the cost just does not need to be shouldered by the taxpayers in one way or another.

Therefore, if their lodging, food, transportation, energy, and all other basics costs are covered, they do not need much of a salary anyway. All of those non-monetary components do add up to quite a bit of real value, but at least it is being controlled at a Federal level so that individual Congresspeople are not being influenced by either what they can afford or the gifts and discounts given to them by those looking to get something in return.

» TAKE AWAY THEIR TOYS

Beyond the direct costs and timetable of the Congresspeople themselves, there is one other item that comes from being a full-time worker, and that is the apparent need for an oversized staff on the government payroll. As of 2019 there were about 12,000 people directly assigned to the personal staff of the 535 members of Congress. There are specific limits as to how many people can be hired and into what type of positions, but those were all created by laws Congress passed itself. How much money each member gets is also set by a Congressional appropriations committee. Basically, aside from a Presidential veto of the entire budget, Congress has complete control over how much staff and money they assign themselves.

Southern elephant seal in Hannah Point, Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands on January 18, 2016. Photo and description by Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

As noted before, since legislatures feel pressure to do work when they are in session all the time, then they need more human capital in order to pull that off. These staff people are gathering information, conducting analysis, crafting policy and actual bills, and doing much of the labor required because excess workload has been created. It is a chicken-and-the-egg situation, except we know that there is more work for staff because legislators are making it for themselves by feeling their time needs to be productive.

Meanwhile, the actual Congresspeople spend significant amounts of their time doing non-government activities—mostly fundraising. As such, they need to further offload their work on to others. Congresspeople should be doing all of their own work and research (or at least using Executive Agencies to bring research and analysis to them), and employees of the legislature should be limited to the operational functions needed to run Congress and not personally work for individual legislators on the government dime. Afterall, the legislators were the ones elected to do the job. Why should they be allowed to outsource their workload to an unelected person? By Amendment:

Congress may appropriate funds for a staff to cover the organizational and functional needs of Congress. Organizational and functional staff shall be shared by all members of Congress equally. Congress may not appropriate funds for staff assigned to individual members of Congress or groups of members of Congress. No staff member of the Government of the United States may be assigned to a single Representative or Senator or any group of Representatives or Senators.

Now we must be clear: there is a need for a support staff. Someone needs to keep the building clean, turn the lights on, run the IT infrastructure, prepare materials, and do all the functions that would make any business run. Government employees are essential to doing the jobs that help everything flow as normal. There are also people that theoretically work for Congress but act in more executive roles like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Capitol Police. Altogether, this is not to say that there should not be anyone working for Congress, only that Congresspeople should not have personal staff to do their self-aggrandizing bidding.

On Macquarie Island on October 28, 2007. Photo and description by BROCKEN INAGLORY, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The person who should be responsible for the individual activities of the legislator is the legislator themself. This would also remove the temptation of using support staff for activities outside of running a legislative session (i.e., having them do fundraising activity while taxpayers cover the costs despite the lowly enforced Hatch Act). The only assistance Congresspeople need is to make sure they can attend a legislative session. That is the role of the support staff, and this Amendment will help make sure it is nothing more.

How will they, though, decide how the act of legislating happens? Congress currently does not have fixed days and times they must adhere to. As such, legislation can often go to the last minute and beyond. In other words, there is no pressure to get anything done because there are no limits to the amount of time Congress can be forced in session. For this, we must Amend the Constitution and take this power away from them:

Each chamber of Congress shall set a regular schedule for itself with specific days and hours in which its members shall meet. Once set, these days and times shall not be moved, cancelled, or extended unless an emergency is declared by the President of the United States.

Having this amendment would be the first step to stopping Congress from using time as a weapon. Here, we state that there are certain days and times set up for Congress to meet and those days cannot be modified except in the case of an emergency. In particular, the emergency declaration would have to come from the President, so this is a check on Congress from being able to force a change in schedule on themselves.

The idea of this is that Congress will have regular and expected hours instead of going through endurance tests and other tricks. On the other end, it stops Congress from creating new sessions when no one is available in order to push through legislation. Bills should not be about circumventing the system to make them happen; but should be about closely following the process.

As promised before, in order to keep Congress part-time it is necessary to limit not just the number of days per week, but the number of hours they can work per session and the length of those sessions. This will eliminate the last component of “time as a weapon”—pushing a particular agenda simply by wearing people out by keeping sessions going:

All sessions must begin after seven o’clock in the morning and must end before ten o’clock in the evening at the Seat of Government. Furthermore, each session shall last no longer than six hours. Going beyond this scope may only be granted if an emergency is declared by the President of the United States.

By giving parameters and limiting how often and how long Congress can get together, it will force them to use their time properly, prioritize, vote, and move on to the next item—and cut down their hours further, making them closer to half-time. Some Congresspeople seem to take pride and brag about working on legislation until 3:00 a.m. when they should feel ashamed for procrastinating and not being able to accomplish their work in an acceptable timeframe. And again, only an emergency declaration by the President would be able to expand these sessions.

With their days and hours under control, we can remove their final piece of power: needing to be there in person.

Through the decades, Congress has created a set of rules that say a Representative or Senator must be in the chamber to vote. They generally cannot even vote by proxy or even vote while out in the hallway yet still in the same building. Even if their hologram were projected on the Senate floor, that person could still not vote by current rules. Some allowances were made in the House of Representatives during the COVID-19 Pandemic, but these will most likely be rescinded as the disease retreats. All the Constitution says is that Congress shall assemble at least once a year and that a quorum (that Congress can define) is needed to vote. It says nothing of the where, why, and how a vote is to occur.

Elephant seal colony near San Simeon, California. Photo and description by USER:CILLANXC, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, Congress has chosen to make their lives more complicated than necessary. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, having Congresspeople in a specific location was needed because communication and travel was slow. The day the telegraph was invented was the day this practice should have started to unravel. One of the core issues with the Constitution is that it is hyper-focused within the timeframe it was written. The Founders could not imagine the possibilities we have now, and we may not be able to foresee the possibilities to come.

By refusing to keep up with modern technology, Congress is costing American taxpayers money by forcing Congresspeople to almost always be in Washington, D.C.; and that in turn creates the “costs of doing business”. It is a vicious cycle that just keeps repeating itself. With the proper scheduling and technology use at home they should not have to be there in person, at least not all of the time. Of course, then, we need one last Amendment to make that happen:

Congress shall make all methods of debate and vote available to its members such that members need not be in the Seat of Government or any designated location to perform legislative duties. All technologies as are available shall be allowed and required to be used to limit the need for each chamber of Congress to meet in person. Representatives and Senators may respond to roll call, debate, cast votes, or perform any legislative duty by any legal method available.

The idea is that a Congressperson can engage in the process, debate, and vote from any location so that they are not tied to the District of Columbia. For sure, there will be times when they do need and want to get together. However, those times should be fewer and far between. With this remote ability and scheduling control, Congress would actually have the ability to meet more regularly (even during “off hours”) instead of taking long, regular breaks to visit their constituents. This way, they would actually live among their own people that they are supposedly representing!

A young elephant seal on September 29, 2010. Photo and description COURTESY OF DR. BRANDON SOUTHALL, NMFS/OPR., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Again, though, all of that would be up to each chamber to decide what works best. All they would have to do is stay within the limitations of their timetable. And if there is anything the COVID-19 Pandemic has made abundantly clear is that remote work using tools like Zoom, Teams, and the like is not just possible, it is oftentimes preferable and more productive. There is no reason—with proper security protocols—that Congress could not do the same.

Though we cannot accurately predict the future, perhaps there will be reliable 3D holographic communication, or virtual spaces, or some other method not yet conceived. We simply do not have enough foresight to see what will be available, so we need to leave it open to even better options to come. Unlike our forefathers, we should not bind ourselves and our descendants to the specifics of our particular epoch.

The above piece is an excerpt from Always Divided, Never United: And Other Stories During a Time of Pandemics and Politics by J.P. Prag, available at booksellers worldwide.

Have the troubles of our age ripped us apart more than any point in history? Or has it forever been this way?

Learn more about author J.P. Prag at www.jpprag.com.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Medium.

votingpoliticspoliticianslegislationcongress

About the author

J.P. Prag

J.P. Prag is the author of "Always Divided, Never United", "New & Improved: The United States of America", and "In Defense Of... Exonerating Professional Wrestling's Most Hated". Learn more at www.jpprag.com.

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