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Last Updated:
Wednesday, October 11, 2006 08:04:32 PM

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What Your Congressman Won't Tell You  
by Brigid McMenamin, Forbes Magazine,
Oct 11, 2006

Last Updated: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 08:04:32 PM

. "I can't lose."
This year 404 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are standing for reelection. For most it's a formality: On average, more than 90% of House incumbents win, according to a 2005 report by the Cato Institute.

What's behind the incumbency advantage? Campaign financing, for one thing. We taxpayers pick up the tab for incumbents' regular offices, staff, publicity, travel and mailings, so they needn't raise as much money to run. Challengers, on the other hand, must come up with a fortune — and do so in dribs and drabs since Congress caps individual contributions at $2,000.

But the biggest factor is partisan gerrymandering. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that states must ensure each congressman represents the same number of constituents, the process of redistricting after every census has been aggressively used by state party bosses to protect their incumbents. "Because of gerrymandering, almost 90% of Americans live in congressional districts where the outcome is so certain that their votes are irrelevant," concludes the Cato report. And it's bound to get worse: In June the Court ruled states can redraw congressional districts as often as they please.

2. "I'm above the law."
Some people were dismayed last spring when Capitol Police didn't give a sobriety test to Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) after he rammed a Capitol Hill security barrier late one night and emerged from his Mustang "impaired," with "unsure" balance and "slurred" speech, according to the police report. Georgetown University law professor Paul F. Rothstein wasn't surprised: "They always give [congressmen] a pass."

Why? Inside Congress author Ronald Kessler says that historically, most officers have operated under the mistaken impression that the Constitution prohibits arresting or even ticketing congressmen while Congress is in session. The belief was so prevalent that the Justice Department issued a statement in 1976 explaining the "previous policy of releasing members who had been arrested was based on a misunderstanding of the clause in the U.S. Constitution," which forbids only civil arrest, not arrest for a crime.

Nonetheless, Capitol Police still coddle and avoid arresting members of Congress. For one thing, protecting congressmen is part of their mission. For another, Congress controls their budget — including top cops' salaries.

3. "Read the bills I vote on? Who's got that kind of time?"
In a perfect world, our legislators would vote on each bill based on thorough, firsthand analysis. But that's not how it works in Washington. Most congressmen don't actually read bills, relying instead on impressions gleaned from staff and lobbyists. And in many cases, they couldn't read them if they wanted to: The 700-plus-page Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005, for example, surfaced after 1 a.m. and went to vote early the next morning. "That's the way it's done," Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) told the Hartford Courant in January.

Result: Congressmen seldom know exactly what they're voting on. Take the 1,600-page Appropriations Bill in 2004 that had already made it through the House before it was discovered that a staffer had slipped in a provision permitting his committee to browse any tax return filed with the IRS.

There have been some attempts to get Congress to change its ways. In February, for example, D.C. nonprofit ReadtheBill.org persuaded some reps to introduce a resolution requiring the House to post each bill online for 72 hours before even debating it. But that resolution has been languishing in the Rules Committee ever since.

4. "Congress is just a stepping stone to big money — in lobbying."
Congress is a pretty good gig, financially speaking. Our senators and representatives currently earn $165,200 a year — four times the median U.S. household income. But it's not nearly as lucrative as lobbying, a job congressmen have begun flocking to once they're out of office. "As late as the 1980s, few lawmakers became lobbyists because they considered it beneath their dignity," writes Robert V. Remini in The House: The History of the House of Representatives. But today it's the top career choice for former congressmen. According to a 2005 report by Public Citizen, since 1998 more than 43% of all eligible departing congressmen have gone into lobbying. Take William Tauzin. The Louisiana Republican, and former chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, left the House for a $1 million-plus-a-year job as president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. According to press reports, PhRMA was wooing Tauzin the same month he pushed through the Medicare bill. Tauzin denies it fueled his zeal for the bill, but you can't help wondering how the prospect of that kind of money might influence one's judgment.

5. "My health care benefits are way better than yours..."
Congressmen love tinkering with our health care. They virtually created the managed-care industry, for instance, with the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, which tilted the playing field in favor of HMOs, ultimately stripping many Americans of all other choices. Meanwhile, congressmen enjoy more than a dozen options, including the prized indemnity plans only 3% of workers with coverage receive. On top of that, for an annual fee of $480, they can get just about all the medical attention they want at the Capitol Office of the Attending Physician, which has five doctors and a dozen assistants on call for routine checkups, tests, prescriptions, emergency care and mental health services. Who's making up the difference? Taxpayers, naturally, to the tune of at least $2.5 million this year alone.

What happens once a congressman is out of office? He needn't fret: Just five years into the job, he's entitled to keep his regular health coverage until he's ready for Medicare. And he doesn't have to pay extra, as you do for Cobra, under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which he voted for in 1996.

6. "...and so is my pension."
Congress is forever changing the rules on retirement plans: limiting contributions, punishing pension underfunding and making it hard for employers to plan ahead. Just this summer Congress passed yet another complex bill that's likely to wreak more havoc, according to James A. Klein, president of the American Benefits Council. The new Pension Protection Act includes funding rules that, Klein says, "could undermine the retirement security of the very participants the bill's trying to protect." Indeed, less than a month after the PPA took effect, DuPont froze its pension plan and cut back on benefits.

Whatever the outcome, Congress won't be losing sleep — their pensions are exempt. Most qualify for a 401(k)-style plan with a nice match, up to 5% of salary. After five years on the job, they're also entitled to a regular pension, bigger than almost all other federal workers' at the same pay and twice what a midlevel executive would expect. If elected before age 30, they can collect in full at age 50; those elected later can retire after 25 years or at age 62. Their pensions rise regularly with the cost of living and can never be taken away — short of a conviction for espionage or treason-related offenses.

7. "I enjoy great perks and gifts, and it's all legal."
Working on Capitol Hill comes with a lot of fringe benefits. Congressmen enjoy taxpayer-subsidized gyms, salons and restaurants, free parking, and a nice office. They also get $1 million-plus allowances per year for staff, mail and travel home, where they can rent another office and lease a car on your dime, according to the National Taxpayers Union.

On top of that, House ethics rules allow them to accept gifts, luxury jet rides and free overnight trips of up to seven days abroad for meetings, fact-finding missions and speaking gigs, provided they're related to official duties and not sponsored by lobbyists. Between 2000 and 2005, congressmen and staff accepted 23,000 of these trips, often to vacation spots and worth nearly $50 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Turns out that 90 were sponsored by lobbyists — Mr. and Mrs. Tom DeLay's infamous $28,000 golfing trip to Scotland among them.

With elections looming, there has been talk of reform. In January, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called for a ban on such trips and gifts, but come May he was happy to settle for the sham cleanup proposed by the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act — which would offer optional ethics classes for congressmen but allow them to go on accepting gifts.

8. "I simply can't be fired."
Once he's elected, it's almost impossible to kick a congressman out of office, even if he becomes mentally incompetent or is sent to prison. To oust a member of the House or Senate, it takes a vote of two-thirds of his colleagues — which has happened only twice since the Civil War, five times in all of U.S. history.

House rules do discourage a congressman from participating in committees if convicted of a crime for which he could get two years or more in jail, and his own party may force him from leadership positions even if he's not convicted. For example, Democrats pushed Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) off the Ways and Means Committee last June because FBI agents swear they caught him accepting a $100,000 bribe and found $90,000 cash in his freezer. (Jefferson denies any wrongdoing.) But even if convicted and sent to prison, Jefferson could seek reelection from his cell, as did former Ohio Democrat James Traficant Jr. in 2002. Traficant received only 15% of the vote and lost his seat — but he was still allowed to collect his full pension.

9. "Lobbyists love me because I deliver the goods."
The reason lobbyists court lawmakers is that they have the power to help friends and hurt foes. For instance, a congressman can create a specific tax break or other loophole for a lobbyist's clients, giving them an unfair advantage over rivals. Congressmen also hold the power to steer federal funds to friends by earmarking money for pet projects — a power they often abuse. Case in point: the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere," a Golden Gate-size span between a small town in rural Alaska and a nearly deserted island, for which Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) persuaded Congress to earmark $223 million in 2005. Similar abuses have increased dramatically in recent years, with the number of earmarks coming out of the House Appropriations Committee nearly tripling, to 15,877 earmarks worth $47.4 billion in 2005, from just 4,126 earmarks worth $23.2 billion in 1994, according to the Congressional Research Service.

10. "Rules are meant to be broken."
Congress is notorious for breaking its own rules: Only a handful of members dock their own pay when absent for reasons other than health, for example. But it's Congress's failure to follow its own legislative procedures that's truly galling. When the joint House-Senate conference committee meets to reconcile different versions of a bill, for instance, House rules forbid adding anything beyond the scope of the version the House has already approved. And once the committee comes up with a compromise bill, the House is supposed to hold at least one public meeting, giving members a written explanation of the changes and three days until the vote. But the conference committee routinely flouts these rules, often making big changes without explanation, then getting the Rules Committee to waive restrictions so they can rush bills through unread. How common is this? The Rules Committee issued so-called blanket waivers for all 18 bills that went through the conference committee from Jan. 4, 2005, through March 2006.

Last December, Speaker Hastert took it a step further by letting Sen. William Frist (R-Tenn.) add on to a bill after the conference committee was finished: 40 pages of legislation protecting makers of avian flu vaccine and similar drugs against liability even if they injured or killed patients through gross negligence. Then Hastert got the Rules Committee to make kosher what he'd done. Frist's spokesperson claims there was "bipartisan consensus" for such an incentive, but couldn't explain why it hadn't made it into the text of the bill if it was so popular. Hastert's office failed to return our calls.


Source: http://www.smartmoney.com/10things/index.cfm?story=november2006&pgnum=1

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