2009-02-20 / Columnists

It's My Turn

The Culture Of Corruption In Congress
Commentary By John Whitehead, President, Future of Freedom Foundation

"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." — Mark Twain.

The economy is in a tailspin. More than 860,000 people lost their homes in foreclosures in 2008, while more than three million foreclosure notices were sent out by mortgage lenders. Roughly 11 million Americans are out of work. And more than 37 million Americans, including 12 percent percent of our senior citizens, are living in poverty.

What are our representatives in Congress, many of whom are millionaires in their own right, doing about the toll this recession is taking on America's lower and middle classes? For one thing, they've given themselves a $4,700 pay raise, which will cost the U.S. government an additional $2.5 million this year. That's on top of their six-figure salaries and the millions in taxpayer dollars spent to maintain offices in their home state and in the nation's capital, as well as other benefits such as free life insurance, a generous retirement plan for life, 32 fully reimbursed road trips home a year, and travel to foreign lands. Then there are the "extras," including discounts in Capitol Hill taxfree shops and restaurants, $10 haircuts at the Congressional barbershop, free reserved parking at Washington National Airport, use of the House gym or Senate baths for $100 a year, free fresh-cut flowers from the Botanic Gardens, and free assistance in the preparation of income taxes. And don't get me started on the pitiful number of days they actually work, when they're not off fundraising or campaigning for their next election.

However, serving in Congress wasn't always about perks and entitlements. In the early days of our country, members of Congress were paid $6 per day — and that was only while they were in session. It wasn't until 1815 that members actually began receiving an annual salary to the tune of $1,500 per year. And if they wanted to employ an assistant, they had to pay that salary out of their own pockets. For many members who were not fortunate enough to be independently wealthy, it meant working second jobs in order to augment their personal income. In other words, they were statesmen who served out of a love of country and a sense of duty.

Yet even statesmen are not immune to the lure of power and money. Before long, the revolutionary ideal of "good government," led by public servants who act selflessly and promote the greater good, was overshadowed by a culture of corruption in Congress.

The culture of corruption that eventually came to pervade Congress was epitomized by the Salary Grab of 1873. On March 13, the last day of their term, members of the 42nd Congress, nearly half of whom would not be returning, voted to give themselves a retroactive pay increase that amounted to a $5,000 going-away present. The "salary grab" quickly gave rise to a nationwide sense of outrage over Congress' perceived culture of corruption.. This, in turn, gave rise to a reform movement that succeeded in replacing the "spoils system" of filling government jobs with civil service reform.

Yet human nature being what it is, reform rarely lasts long. Inevitably, legislative checks on corruption give way to renewed efforts to sidestep such controls until we find ourselves in our current strait, in a vicious cycle of corruption and minor reform.

Needless to say, Congress is on the downswing of that cycle and has been for quite some time. Abuses of office run the gamut from neglecting their constituencies to engaging in self-serving practices, including the misuse of eminent domain, earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracting in return for personal gain and campaign contributions, having inappropriate ties to lobbyist groups and incorrectly or incompletely disclosing financial information.

Pork barrel spending, hastily passed legislation, partisan bickering, a skewed work ethic, graft and moral turpitude have all contributed to the public's increasing dissatisfaction with congressional leadership. Thus, it is little wonder that a recent USA Today poll shows Congress with a 19 percent approval rating.

You'd be hard-pressed to find employees with such dismal performance evaluations getting a pay raise of any kind. Conveniently, Congress doesn't have to worry about that since they voted in 1989 to give themselves an automatic raise every year.

Some members of Congress have announced their intentions to refuse this year's salary increase if Congress does not first vote to suspend it, and legislation has already been proposed to refuse next year's increase. However, the public's discontent over Congress' pay raise is really not about the $2.5 million pay increase. (After all, we spend roughly that amount every 15 minutes in the war in Iraq.) It's about having representatives in Congress who truly understand what it means to represent and relate to their constituents, many of whom are struggling right now to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Today, many of our politicians live like kings. Chauffeured around in limousines, flying in private jets and eating gourmet meals, all paid for by the American taxpayer, they are far removed from those they represent. Such a luxurious lifestyle makes it difficult to identify with the "little guy" — the roofers, plumbers and blue-collar workers who live from paycheck to paycheck and keep the country running with their hard-earned dollars and the sweat of their brows.

For his part, Obama has taken a small but symbolic step in the right direction. Declaring that "families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington," Obama announced his intention to freeze the salaries of White House employees who make over $100,000. Now Congress needs to do their part.

Winston Churchill once said that "a politician thinks about the next election — the statesman thinks about the next generation."

It's time for our elected representatives in Congress to stop acting like politicians and start remembering that they exist to serve the people, not themselves.

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