While the rhetoric in Washington is making the transition from subdued to spit-in-your-face, the bare-knuckled saloon brawl that passes for our country's legislative process is in full swing again.
And once again it promises to disgust people of every political stripe who dare to watch.
Welcome to another season of take-no-prisoners ideological combat.
You would think the White House and Congress, faced with approval ratings that rank only slightly above cancer and terrorism, would make some sort of magnanimous gesture to assure the American people that they share the pain caused by our faltering economy. And that this is the time for deeds, not words.
But we get none of that.
So I propose a plan that could prod our elected officials into doing something meaningful: When they speak of downsizing government, slashing spending and bold action to reduce the deficit, they can begin by looking into the mirror.
The plan I have in mind would end the disconnect between our representatives and their unemployed, foreclosed on, barely-making-ends-meet constituents by cutting congressional pay and benefits.
Such a proposal would probably fall short of eliminating gridlock in Washington but it just might spur Congress to action if members share in the consequences of the prolonged economic downturn that they apparently are incapable of resolving.
The jobless rate rises? The national debt grows? The issue is treated as
nothing more than a political football? Hit them in the pocketbook. And keep hitting them until the problem is resolved.
A few brave congressional souls agree.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, for example, introduced the Shared Retirement Sacrifice Act of 2011, which would require lawmakers to wait until the age of 66 to collect their pensions. Currently, lawmakers can retire as early as 50 with a full pension depending on how long they served.
"The reason I introduced my bill ... on this shared sacrifice in terms of retirement age is I hear lots of members of Congress ... say we should raise the retirement age for Social Security," Brown told CNN.
Brown points to the fact that a member of Congress who gets elected at 35 and retires at 55 can draw a pretty good pension then while other Americans can't draw Social Security benefits until they reach 66.
"So, my thought there was that members of Congress should not be able to get their pension, no matter how many years of service they had; they should get no pension until any earlier than a Social Security beneficiary should get theirs," he said.
Brown pointed out that it's important that lawmakers "sort of align as much as possible their lives with the people who we represent, so we understand things better and, you know, we still make more money than most people, of course."
Others are fighting this good fight with mixed results.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., has found it difficult to drum up interest in her bill to cut the pay of members, the president and the vice president by 10 percent. The measure has just one co-sponsor.
"It's more uphill than I expected," she was quoted as saying. "To me it seemed like a no-brainer idea."
Reps. H. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., and Mike Coffman, R-Colo., also have measures that would cut lawmakers' pay by 10 percent beginning in 2013. And Coffman's bill would implement a massive furlough program, requiring most executive-branch workers to take two weeks of mandatory unpaid leave in 2012.
Then there are the bills that would tie lawmakers' pay to whether they do their job. According to the Washington Post, Rep. Randy Hultgren's, R-Ill., legislation would mandate that if Congress has not completed all of its appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, then members' paychecks would be held in escrow until they finish their work.
While this may make it appear that the fresh breeze of common sense is wafting through the halls of Congress, similar legislation has been introduced 25 times since 1973 by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but only once has such a proposal made it out of committee, according to published reports. That bill, introduced by Sen. Don Nickles, R-Ok., never got a floor vote.
Apparently, sharing in sacrifice is an alien concept in Washington.
Putting a cap on congressional pay and perks is not a new idea. Ben Franklin suggested at the Constitutional Convention that members serve without pay. The idea was rejected by the Founder Fathers and although congressional service was part-time in the nation's first 100 years, it has been a full-time job since.
Not everybody, however, believes cutting congressional perks is a good idea.
Wrote author Robert J. Spitzer: "Every member of Congress has a hand on the tiller of our ship of state. It is as important a job as one can envision, and their pay should not be the whipping boy for our frustrations with the inherent difficulty of their jobs and the intractability of our problems ... we must admit that at least some of the contempt citizens hold for Congress is in truth a reflection of ourselves."
Noble words but it ignores the fact that most major corporations and businesses of every size in this country reward employees on the quantity and quality of work performed.
Why not hold our elected representatives to the same standard? Can't you just see the headlines now? "Congressional pay slashed because of legislative ineptitude."
We can dream, can't we?
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