February 7, 2011

Ethics, Corruption & Transparency in Congress

In dealing with the fiscal and other problems dealt to this country by elected officials (and by extension, the voters who put our elected officials into power), the 2012 Republican candidates will have a variety of different ways to go:

A.      Focus on the size and scope of government- i.e. prioritize where government should be and don’t let it exist anywhere else. An example of this is cutting the Department of Education.

B.      Focus on the cost of government, thus achieving the same goal as A through fiscal discipline as opposed to actual elimination of departments, etc. This would include cutting the cost of the federal government equivalent to the cost of the Department of Education, and seeing what areas that fiscal discipline eliminates.

C.      Focus on utilizing federalism. One example of this is Social Security; some conservatives are for social programs only on the state level. Thus, they only want the federal government out of the way, not government as a whole.

One thing strongly intertwined into the fiscal debate is corruption. Intertwined with that are transparency and Big Government/Big Business collusion. For example, under President Bush it was Halliburton who received special treatment and non-competition contracts, and such contracts are prevalent in the Defense Department under both parties. The new Halliburton is General Electric, whose CEO is currently an advisor to the President and whose company recently received a waiver from certain EPA regulations. This collusion is harmful to the state of affairs in the federal government, and it is harmful to the American people, few of whom are able to achieve such preferential status with elected officials.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I propose the following changes to how our federal officials conduct business during and after their time of public service.

Transparency

All candidates for Congress, President and Vice President (as well as all incumbents) will have any and all donations posted on their official and campaign websites on the main page. Each campaign office and each official office shall also have this list. The list will include, from left to right:

Name(s) of donor(s)

Amount given

Related industry of donor

Interest group ratings related to industries of donor

This will all be done within 24 hours of receipt.

Voting for Imbalanced Budgets

Through a Constitutional Amendment, no Member of the House or Senate will be allowed to vote for an imbalanced budget on the floor of his or her respective chamber. If this happens once in a single term, the Member will lose his or her entire pay for that calendar year. If it happens twice in a term, that Member will leave office. If it happens three times in a career, that Member will be forced to leave office.

The above rule does not take effect during an officially-declared time of war (via Congressional declaration), nor during the first year of an economic recession.

This also applies to the President and Vice President of the United States.

Member & Staff Pay

The House recently diminished the annual office allowance by 5%. This is a good start. However, this should continue to drop to 70% of the 2010 level of allowance. Additionally, Members in both chambers will be limited to a $75,000 salary starting in 2012, and that salary will rise with the cost of inflation. The President’s and Vice President’s pay will be cut back to $200,000, and will only rise with the cost of inflation.

All of the above pay requirements shall be negated in a time of economic recession, and pay will follow the average loss of income by the totality of all workers in the United States during economic recessions. Pay will then start over at the amount received in the last year of the recession.

Except for leadership offices and committees, all D.C.-based House staffs will be limited to seven staff members, with the following as a guide:

1 Chief of Staff

2 Legislative Assistants/Legislative Directors

1 Press Secretary/Communications Director

1 Legislative Correspondent

1 Staff Assistant

Currently, House staffs are allotted up to 18 members, between district and D.C. staffs, and four part-time staff, according to Source Watch. This shall change and be limited to 14 total staff members. If Members wish to hire more than seven staff in the D.C. offices, and 14 staff total, it shall be done through his or her personal assets.

While Senate offices are not limited by staff number, they are limited by staff cost, according to Source Watch. Staff allotments shall be diminished by 15%.

One weakness to this approach is states where a Member of Congress is the only Rep. for the whole state, such as North and South Dakota. Any suggestions on how to improve the idea?

Also, I mostly ignored Senate staffs because, unlike the House where districts are relatively homogenized (number of constituents, etc.), two Senators may cover a small state (such as Rhode Island) or a large state such as Texas or Alaska. I don’t know if a proper solution can be found, perhaps by distinguishing between large, medium and small states, similar to what is already done?

Laws Related to Lobbying After Congressional Service

No former Congressional staffer or Member shall become a lobbyist within five years of service, nor work for a lobbying firm within those five years. Once those five years are complete, no former Member or Congressional staffer may lobby any Members that once employed them or were on Committees related to Member responsibilities. Additionally, no Committees the staffer or Member worked for or with (in the personal office) may be lobbied by former staffers or Members.

Since this is an issue of the public trust and corruption, any first violation of this law will result in ten days in jail and a $50,000 fine. Any second violation will result in one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

Outside Money Earned

No Member of Congress nor the President or Vice President of the United States shall be allowed to utilize money made outside of his or her annual salary unless that money already is in existence. Any monies earned as a Member, Vice President or President outside of salary shall be invested or otherwise put aside, not to be used by anyone until that person has left office. Nor shall a spouse, family member, friend, lawyer or anyone else be allowed to utilize such monies.

Also, no Member, President or Vice President shall be allowed to invest, nor shall their family, friends, lawyers or any others, during their time in office, in any business or company outside that which they have already invested in. We ban insider trading, and this is basically the same thing. If any Member, President or Vice President, or any other person associated with any federally-elected official attempts to invest while the person is in office, they shall be prosecuted under applicable insider trading rules.

Some modern examples of income that would be banned under the above rules are Senator Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) book, written in 2009; and President Obama’s books, for which he still receives income. Also, many times Members invest in businesses they have an interest in (for example, many Texan Members invest in oil). While none of these are unethical in and of themselves, they are unethical for elected officials to be involved in.

Post-Service Monies

No Member of Congress or Vice President or President shall receive pay from their public servant position after their final term ends. The President’s Secret Service protection detail will stop protecting a former President after five years, not the current ten. All Members of Congress will forego receiving Social Security as part of the means-testing required to properly reform the program.

All of my monetary reforms regarding Members may seem harsh, but I think they are reasonable. In 2010 The Washington Post reported that 251 Members of Congress (out of 535) were millionaires, and the median income was over $600,000. While some Members did have negative asset values last year, I suspect the fact that they don’t have to report the value of their homes somewhat mitigates this. Additionally, several Members are potentially (even the study the Post cited was not certain as to the value of a number of Members) millions of dollars in hole, likely meaning their lack of monetary value is not a lack of annual income so much as simply a lack of knowledge of the basics of finance.

I support term limits, but did not include them in my list above because a) there is some evidence that it would empower staffs to be more knowledgeable than the Members for whom they work, and b) it does essentially say that I believe the American people are too stupid to vote out bad politicians. I’m hesitant to put them forward as proposals for government reform, mostly because as I think and read and discuss more about term limits I am less gung-ho about making them law. I do support self-imposed term limits, and encourage them.

As I said at the top of this, fiscal change is absolutely the top priority for our elected leaders. The corruption and transparency reforms I have outlined above, while perhaps not feasible in and of themselves, provide an outline for changes to federal elected service that are critical to bringing Congress back to the people. Any 2012 candidate who offers such changes would be looked upon very positively, I suspect.

P.S. I spoke with my father about these proposed regulations, and he brought up an excellent point: if we require laws telling government officials not to give special treatment to their friends, not to help themselves via the public dollar, not to do the many unethical, immoral and criminal things the rest of us would be jailed for…than the rules are too far broken. Additionally, he pointed out, when Congress does to Social Security what Enron executives did to their investors and is not held accountable, in what way are the rules even fixable?

My response to these valid points is this: Short of a revolution, one must work within the framework one is given. I don’t like having to suggest these regulations and standards, and wish the American people would vote more often for ethical representatives. Until they do, enacting my proposed rules (or similar ones) are a good buffer against many of the unethical, immoral and criminal things many Members of Congress do.

by @ 7:35 am. Filed under 2012 Misc.
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8 Responses to “Ethics, Corruption & Transparency in Congress”

  1. Sadie Says:

    Just a couple things to point regarding member pay and MRAs.
    The budget for Members also includes flights home to their district so they can meet with constituents, and a large part of a Member’s budget goes to responding to constituent mail and concerns. Most offices have a policy of if a constituent sends in an email or letter, you get a letter or email back, and Members do pay for postage contrary to popular belief. Furthermore, typically about half the staff in a Congressional office work on casework, such as helping constituents with Social Security, Disability, Veterans Affairs, etc. If you cap the total number by an arbitrary level, you’re going to disadvantage the people who need those services. I understand the desire to reduce budgets, but by requiring the use of private funds to pay for what would clearly be needed, you would require only the very wealthy run. While there are many millionaires in Congress, there are also some former school teachers who would be a disadvantage to his constituents. I can see it now- “Vote for me because i’ll pledge my fortune to actually get things done for you!”
    Secondly, in regards to pay, the vast majority of members have two homes, one in DC for the work week, and one at home with their families. While many members do live together to reduce costs, it’s difficult to find any apartment for less than about $1400 per month, even for a small studio apartment. Considering the increased living costs for Washington DC, the pay for Members isn’t abnormally large.

  2. pea-jay Says:

    I’d also add there would be some difficulty putting reps from nearby districts in MD and VA on the same financial footing as those in CA or AK. The transportation costs are on an order of magnitude greater for those far off reps.

  3. MPC Says:

    A Congressman that makes $500,000 including all his assets a year may seem bad, but taken in comparison with your average venture capitalist (think Mitt Romney) that makes tens of millions a year, the Congressman seems downright stingy.

    Ultimately Congressmen are just reflections of us. That’s all democracy promises to give. Insofar as that chamber is entirely run by hugely powerful monied interests on both sides, it only reflects the values of America at large.

  4. MPC Says:

    If we were really serious about eliminating the influences of money, we would simply make the giving *or* receiving of cash or gifts to Congressmen a capital offense.

    Parsimony would rule Washington. Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?

  5. yeah Says:

    If Republicans were really serious about eliminating the influences of money, they would have screamed bloody murder like the Democrats did when the activist Supreme Court overtuned 100 years of precedent so international corporations can now buy our congress – like the Koch brothers have now done in having most of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in their pocket. But we all know that the GOP is NOT serious about spending limits or money over people – fiscal responsibility is a Democratic trait – as history has shown.

  6. David Shedlock Says:

    Your recommendations are mostly over the top, in my humble opinion, Mr. Revere, but then you were never one ride with the crowd :-)

    Seriously, I think that the source of corruption is not the money that comes in to elected officials and candidates, it is the money and influence that comes from those “public servants”. We cannot really watch all the possible ways money can pass under the table to politicians. It is much easier to watch the outflow.

    Politicians would not get a dime from special interests, if the politicians had no power to pay them back in some way. Pols get millions of bucks from oil execs or defense contractors or birth control organizations because they return the favor with billions in return.

    Stop the outflow and you will stop the inflow.

  7. JohnInFlorida Says:

    “Stop the outflow and you will stop the inflow.”

    Truer words were never spoken …

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