After we released our report last week entitled “A Citizen’s Guide to Congressional Pay and Perks,” a caller on a radio talk show said: “With all these huge budget deficits and scandals, what’s the big deal about a few millions of dollars of Congressional nest-feathering? Sounds like a lot of much ado about peanuts to me.”
That’s a fair question. Let’s see how the large messes in Washington are connected to relatively small sums of Congressional self-largess. Political leadership is the focus of the powerful corporate interest groups in Washington. If these groups can win the leaders of the House and Senate, of the key Committees and Subcommittees, they can almost always win their demands. Lubricating the campaign war chests of these politicians and elevating them to an affluent life-style are the two roads to getting what these lobbyists want.
Everyone knows by now how millions of dollars from the oil, insurance, banking, auto, drug, food and other industries make friends and influence people on Capitol Hill. What is less known is how perks widen the socialization process where legislators and lobbyists become bosom buddies.
Members of Congress receive perks from three different sources: (a) taxpayer funded perks such as travelling first class on airplanes and charging it to one’s Congressional office account; (2) lobbyist-funded perks paid by special interests -usually corporate interests, and (3) perks paid by a member’s campaign funds where are mostly funded by vested economic interests.
The latter two sources represent among the most lucrative and sordid investments in America. For a few hundred of thousands of dollars, a group of manufacturers or wholesalers or mining companies can secure millions or even billions of dollars in subsidies unnecessary or inflated government contracts or avoidance from having to comply with needed health and safety standards.
In the next few weeks, for example, the tobacco and health insurance industries will be filling Congressional coffers with money, flying legislators out to resorts for “seminars” plus plenty of wining, dining and recreation at the expense of trade associations or individual companies. Why? To head off heavier taxes on tobacco and tighter controls on health insurers that are expected from Clinton’s health insurance proposals.
Whether spent by a legislator from his or her campaign funds or whether the legislator receives the luxuries, vacationland trips, four star meals and tickets to the theatre from company influence-peddlers directly, the impact is amazing. Lawmakers, who spend lots of time cavorting with the rich and powerful, end up cutting political deals with them and eventually becoming regularly indentured to them, even if, as some liberals did, they start out suspicious of such hobnobbing.
Over the years, social reporters would use the phrase “social is political” in describing Washington’s social activities on the newspapers’ society pages. They would have a hard time overestimating such an observation. Perks are the way through a legislator’s door and into their mindsets. As on inveterate “golf-link” lobbyist once told me regarding his numerous invitations to Senators, “if you play together, you stay together.”
In the meantime, what of the working Americans who have no perks to offer their Congressional Representatives. Can they expect their political leaders to lead by example, instead of by hypocrisy, in these times of massive budget deficits, financial mismanagement, scandals and cutbacks of essential services? Unlikely. A Congress that has doubled it pay and pensions in ten years, while raising taxes on social security recipients, freezing the minimum wage below a living wage, and telling folks that they have to tighten their belts, is a Congress that has seriously impaired its moral authority to govern.
Sacrifice should start at the top. Congress, in the early Thirties, knew this when they cut their own pay twice during the Depression. Contemporary Congresses, presiding with the White House over a broke government, give themselves the biggest raises in Congressional history and retain pension, insurance benefits and a list of perks a train-length long that would have shocked earlier legislators.
We are urging a national campaign to cut the Congressional pay from $133,600 to $89,500 or where it was in 1989 before Congress started their big time pay grab shenanigans. We also are urging a flat prohibition on personal use of campaign funds to pay for such things as meals, drinks, golf outings, clothing, vacations and the such.
HR 2839 is the bill to cut the pay and HR 208 is the bill to prohibit personal diversions from campaign funds. Ask you Representative for free copies, and if you want to do more, write Gary Ruskin, Congressional Accountability Project, P. 0. Box 19446, Washington, DC 20036.