"I call it my...I-Feel-Your-Pain...Plan"

Last year's congressional financial disclosure forms reveal that among the 100 senators at least 40 admit to being millionaires (of course, these figures don't take into account those who will become rich after their internships in Washington, once they are promoted to positions as lobbyists and executives for the industries they currently are charged with overseeing).

Although the magoos are fairly evenly divided between the parties (22 in the GOP, 18 from the so-called Party of the People), the three wealthiest solons are Democrats: John Kerry, whose net worth of at least $164 million makes him the richest (and who, being married to the mega-rich Theresa Heinz Kerry, should probably be listed, rock star-style, as "number 1 with a bullet"); Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, who has at least $111 million; and John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia, worth at least $82 million.

The House of Representatives, whose sessions also might be accomplished more fittingly at Bohemian Grove, similarly includes no fewer than 123 millionaires, or nearly a third of its 435 members. [To make a parochial aside, for those of you who have wondered why Venice, California Representative Jane Harmon so often takes positions contrary to the interests of her district, it may help to know that she is the wealthiest person in the lower body, with Kerry-esque assets reportedly worth more than 160 million dollars.]

No one begrudges these worthies their fortunes. Aside from those staked by ancestors, many worked hard to build up their car dealerships, extermination companies and mortuaries to where they could afford to retire to cushier environs.

It's just that their good fortune tends to put them at a distance from the too-much-month-at-the-end-of-the-money condition of so many Americans. That is, to take only one example, if we judge by the length of time, now more than half a century, that it has taken not to achieve a national health insurance policy (an inalienable "...right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health..." -- FDR, State of the Union, Jan. 11, 1944. See Impractical Proposals 9/2/2004).

Can we really expect stewards who have legislated themselves full health care coverage, huge expense accounts and ample retirement benefits, who work shortened weeks and only part of the year, and who have no need to balance checkbooks, meet payrolls or, for that matter, take out the trash, to effectively represent the interests of regular people?

You, too, would probably find an issue such as national health less pressing if you were similarly fixed.

There is, however, a simple reform that would transform congressional attitudes toward many of the issues that bedevil ordinary citizens: Elected officials should be paid an amount equal to the average wage of the folks who live in the area they represent.

Call it the I-feel-your-pain...Plan.

There are several ways to calculate what an average person makes.

Arbitrarily, let's take Oakland, California. According to government estimates, the median income for a household in that city is $40,055, and the median income for a family is $44,384 (we can only guess that the difference between a household and a family is children). The median income for males is $37,433 and $35,088 for females. The per capita income in the city is $21,936. 19.4% of the population and 16.2% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total people living in poverty, 27.9% are under the age of 18 and 13.1% are 65 or older.

Whether legislative delegates receive $44,000 annually or $40,000 or $37,433 or $35,088 or $21,936 will make little difference in the overall impact of the I-feel-your-pain...Plan, especially if they have to take care of their own health costs, travel expenses, etc., out of whatever, after taxes, they take home.

Nobody is trying to be unreasonable here. It's not as though anyone is suggesting they try to live on the minimum wage.

The positive impact on public policy should be obvious. Now, under I-feel-your-pain..., when they meet to consider such issues as trade policy, the minimum wage, health insurance, child care, public safety, schools, transportation, parks and rec, etc., members will do so with an immediate not to say visceral appreciation of the effect of their actions on average lives.

How many days from the convening of the first Congress after this plan is adopted do you think it will be before the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, say, or the Bush tax cuts are up for sober reconsideration?

The plan won't be difficult to organize administratively (although, with self-interest being the chief animator of public policy, it might be harder to enact even than national health). Upon certification of election, newly chosen pols will relinquish control over their finances to blind trusts (as you probably thought is already required, and as some indeed do). From then on, each will receive a salary equal to that of the average inhabitant of his or her district.

Nothing extra will be provided, although members will of course have the same access as the rest of the populace to food stamps, low cost hot lunches at community centers, usurious short term loans against future paychecks, and the many other advantages enjoyed by the poor.

Regrettably, new delegates to Congress will almost certainly have to move to more modest digs (they might even be forced to live in the District of Columbia!), but the experience of looking for the apartment they can now afford will offer them valuable insights when they come to legislate housing and lending policies. In fact, under I-feel-your-pain, not a few representatives will qualify for public housing, though waiting lists will in all likelihood preclude their moving into accommodations before their term is up.

Unfortunately, meager as the salaries of most congresspersons will be under the plan, a majority probably won't qualify for food stamps (to be sure will take a visit to the local Social Security office, where additional useful insights await).

Those fortunate enough to arrive in their new job already covered by health insurance will find more food for thought when they try to continue coverage with their new employer.

New members may need to scope out a way to get to the Capital by public transportation and they might want to educate themselves about the location of the nearest emergency room should, god forbid, they have an accident or fall ill.

Spouses will have to work, of course, and even members themselves may want to consider taking a second job.

It will probably be advisable at first to take a little extra time helping the kids adjust to public school.

Admittedly, for some members the transition will not be easy. Not to pick on poor John Davison Rockefeller IV (his not being responsible for the sins of the fa-, well, great-grandfather, and all), but let's say you are a senator from West Virginia. In 2002 (and wouldn't you know, you'll have to rely on figures that are a little behind increases caused by inflation), the per capita income in your state was $21,738, or $81,978,262 less than the cushion you're used to.

Going from a life of privilege to the life of the common man might take adjusting (it's possible some sort of counseling is available at a clinic in your new neighborhood, especially if a local benefactor has been found to fund it), but surely living on $30,000 a year will be less traumatic knowing you will go back to your old life when your term is up.

To take a more randomly chosen example, the representative from Illinois' 15th Congressional District will be living, like his average constituent, alas, on the district's per capita income of $19,524. In Oregon's 5th District, similarly, the per capita annual income is $22,307. Worst off will be the member from a largely Hispanic-immigrant district in Los Angeles where the per-capita income is $6,997 a year, although on the bright side the district will be rich in potential candidates among that portion of the citizenry who will perceive of the job as an opportunity to get ahead.

On the other hand, in a few cases being in Congress might not be bad at all: the member from Manhattan's Upper East Side will be raking in $41,151 per year, the average income in New York's "silk stocking" district. No doubt representatives from places like Carmel, Shaker Heights and Greenwich, Connecticut will do all right for themselves, too, or at least better than the US per capita income of $27,857 (among senators under I-feel-your-pain, Joseph Lieberman and Christopher Dodd will make the most -- $43,173 -- and Trent Lott and Thad Cochran the least -- $23,448, which seems only fair given their relative contributions to the public weal).

By comparison, the current salary for rank-and-file members of the House and Senate is $158,100 per year. The leaders of both houses do better, $176,600 except the speaker who gets $203,000. A cost-of-living increase takes effect annually unless Congress votes to not accept it (here's another comparison: the purchasing power of the aptly named minimum wage peaked in 1967). In addition, by their own hands Members of Congress receive generous retirement and health benefits. They can retire with 80% of their salary at 50 if they've served at least 20 years, and they can retire anytime after 25 years in office or their 62nd birthday.

This is not to single out the legislative branch. No part of the government comes near mirroring the economic makeup of the country. The Bush cabinet is the wealthiest in history, over 80 percent millionaires and nearly half with fortunes of more than $10 million, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The members of the Supreme Court are not shopping at Wal-Mart, either.

Having demonstrated its efficacy at the highest level of government, the I-feel-your-pain...Plan can be applied to all elected offices: the Governor of Mississippi, for example, would earn $21,120 per year, a far cry from the next Mississippi ceo's $125,500. Being mayor of sunny Long Beach, California might seem like a pleasant enough job even at $19,040 per annum until you realize the current mayor gets $93,283.93.

Of course it can be contended that the I-feel-your-pain...Plan will discourage America's best and brightest from public service. But it can be argued with equal force that the proposal will make running for office more attractive to idealists and the public spirited. In any event, the point of I-feel-your-pain is not to address the sagacity of elected officials (there is an abundance of intelligence at every level of society), but their compassion (not so much); less about the qualities of governors, more about the integrity, the righteousness, of governance.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails