. "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
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
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
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
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
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 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.