If someone were to ask you what group, world-wide, does the most harm to the American way of life, what would you answer? Al Qaeda? Muslims in general? Maybe you’d get more specific and come down on the Tea Party or the Democrats. You would be wrong. Without question, the group that does the most harm to America and Americans is the United States Congress, a shady conglomerate of nominally-publicly-elected millionaires who spend the majority of their workday raising funds for re-election and the remainder of it actively fucking up your life. If there is a higher concentration of dickbags anywhere else on earth than there is in the Capitol Building, I will eat my hat. And if you have ever seen me at karaoke night, you know how much I love my hat.
Point number one: their salary. Congressmen receive an annual salary of $174,000, somewhat more for the Speaker of the House and party leaders. There are a total of 534 members of Congress, which comes out to an annual salary of around a hundred million dollars a year. Pensions for retired Congressmen come to about another $26 million a year. They also receive generous health plan options which it is difficult to find numbers for, but my best estimate based on what I could find is that the taxpayer shells out about another $4.5 million on that. So Congress costs us, the US taxpayer, somewhere in the vicinity of $130 million per year (just the Congressmen themselves; to be clear, they also have extensive staffs who are paid and receive similar benefits). So why, in all of our talks about austerity and living within our means, have congressional salaries and benefits not been on the cutting block? Some people have suggested that the NEA’s $161 million per year budget is extravagant and wasteful, so how do you justify paying Congress a yearly wage that is approximately four and a quarter times the average American salary? Guess who sets Congress’ salary. Just guess. You’re going to love this.
That’s right, they set their own salary! They can vote to raise their wages every year by as much as they want. The only thing that stops them is that sometimes people actually do pay attention to what they’re doing, and in times like these everyone is keeping a sharp eye out for any kind of wasteful spending, especially raising the salaries of a group of people whose individual net worths already average about $9.15 million. But they sure as shit aren’t voting to lower their salaries either. At a time when public employees across the nation are losing the right to negotiate their salaries and being forced to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, the US Congress (and, to be fair, every state legislature) are maintaining their current pay grades and benefits, as well as the right to raise that compensation at their whim without outside negotiation. If you can think of a single reason why congressional pay shouldn’t have at least some sort of approval by anyone other than the Congress themselves, please stop reading this right now and get back to work, Senator.
Here’s another fun fact: your congressman spends between 25% and 50% of his time fundraising for his re-election campaign. This is time that we are paying them to do such inconsequential things as make the fucking laws that run this country. Let’s try a thought experiment: picture your job. Now, picture spending half of your workday looking for another job. How would that work out for you? Yeah, I thought so. But for our legislators (and, to be fair, pretty much every other elected official) that’s just par for the course. How could we change that? Term limits would mean that at some point they would have to stop fundraising. Problem is, do you know who the only people who can enforce congressional term limits are? Yeah, I thought you did.
Let’s look at some of the delightfully dickbaggish things your congress has done lately, shall we?
I don’t know if you heard about it, because it hasn’t been talked about much in the press, but Congress recently had a minor kerfuffle over raising the debt ceiling. After raging on for months about their individual party agendas and utterly ignoring the will of the people who, in every poll, made it clear that an overwhelming majority of us wanted a plan that included both spending cuts and raised taxes, they passed a bill that was only spending cuts with no appreciable tax increase (though it does assume that the Bush tax cuts will be allowed to expire). Why? Who would agree to a plan that clearly goes against the will of the majority of constituents – not just their own constituents, but all fucking constituents? Congress, that’s who. Let’s take a moment to break down why everyone in both houses are to blame.
- The Tea Party: Seemingly immune to such democratic principals as “compromise” or “discussion”, their stance of “we will get our fucking way or we will take our ball and go home” pretty much drove the debate.
- The Republicans: A large chunk of them fall into the former category. The rest were so terrified by the power that the Tea Party seems to wield that they couldn’t line up fast enough to give them what they wanted. All except for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who came up with the incredibly insulting idea that the American public would be stupid enough to fall for the “but we voted against it!” line if the White House asked for a debt ceiling raise instead of Congress (whose job it is), and if Congress voted no, which the President could veto, putting the blame on the White House even though Congress went along with the plan. It was all a big game of political “stop hitting yourself!” Oddly, nobody went for that.
- The Democrats: As in all things, the Democrats couldn’t give away the farm fast enough. I know I was pushing for compromise above, and I stand by that. But “fine, we’ll give you whatever you want, just stop saying mean things about us on Fox News!” is not compromise. It’s utter and complete surrender.
And all of this played out in the way that everything plays out in Congress nowadays: a knock-down, drag-out fight in public where everyone plants their feet and insists that their party line is the only thing that will save this country and that negotiation is completely off the table, until the Democrats cave. The right continued to call the left socialists and drone on endlessly about “prosperity” and “job creators” (read “more money for the rich” and “our corporate overlords”) and the left took the new and interesting tack of calling the right terrorists, which is the kind of hyperbole the right would never dream of engaging in. And all the while, the American public’s opinion of their leaders on both sides of the aisle fell deeper and deeper into the shitter.
The last time I checked, the republic was based on compromise. Everyone elects the person that they think best represents their interests, and those people go to Washington to debate and discuss, and ultimately hammer out a deal that works optimally for both sides. That is not how things are going lately. We’ve bypassed the “debate and discussion” part in favor of “name-calling and foot-stomping” and entirely done away with compromise, instead holding the entire country hostage while the two parties scream epithets at each other until they take a vote and whomever has the most members in that particular house wins. There’s a word for a small group of people ruling a nation unilaterally: oligarchy.
Here’s something else novel that was going on during this debate: the Federal Aviation Administration – you know, the guys who run our airports and make sure that we can still travel in planes safely – has gone into effective shut-down over a funding dispute, furloughing thousands of workers (who can now expect to receive their next paycheck some time after – ironically – Labor Day), grinding airport construction projects to a halt and ending the collection of taxes on airline fares. The argument is over two things: first, a question over how ballots are counted when a vote is taken to unionize airline employees (the National Mediation Board ruled that a simple majority is required, Republicans want to revert to an old rule where any employee not casting a vote is counted as a “no”) and subsidies for small regional airports. For my feelings on the union issue, see my above statements about Congress’ salaries. As for the subsidies, I could tell you that I personally think they’re important because they allow flights to reach small, out-of-the-way places that would otherwise be hours away from the nearest airport, but that point is made moot by the fact that those subsidies total $16 million and the shutdown, due to the loss of ticket taxes, is going to cost about $1.2 billion. Dear Congress: please check the bathwater next time you throw it out. Apparently, that shit is just full of babies.
I hope you see that the examples given above are solid evidence that Congress does not have your best interest in mind. Their interests lie, in order of importance, in:
- Themselves and
- Their party
Everything else is just getting in the way of soliciting donations. And here’s the kicker: everything I described above has been in the last two weeks. Our nation’s legislature has managed to cause this much damage to the average American citizen in just two weeks. What has Al Qaeda done to us lately? Last I remember hearing about them, we had shot their leader in the head. Is there an elite SEAL team waiting on the roof of the Capitol Building for Boehner and Reid to walk near a window?
I could literally write this article for the rest of my life and not air all of my grievances about Congress. Skipped issues include any kind of actual campaign finance reform (because, of course, Congress would have to pass it), the revolving door between Congress and lobbying firms, Mitch McConnell’s stupid face and ever so many others. Perhaps some of them will be explored in future articles. But for now, I’m going to rally the other Fatal Downflaw staff to vote ourselves a hefty raise. After doing the numbers earlier, I am beginning to feel powerfully underpaid.
POSTSCRIPT: For an excellent discussion of the recent terribleness in Congress, check out this episode of Dan Carlin’s superlative podcast Common Sense. I honestly can’t recommend this podcast enthusiastically enough. It’s an independent (though somewhat liberal-leaning) examination of current events and big-issue topics that I guarantee you will disagree with at least 25% of the time, but which makes such compelling arguments that you are at least forced to look at things from a different perspective.