October 17, 2013
I am sure many of you have been following the government shutdown and the last minute brinkmanship to ensure that we won’t default on our debts. It’s sad that we’ve learned to expect so little from Congress that we get excited when they just do their job. The American people deserve better.
But I’m not here to point fingers of blame this morning. I want to share specific ideas for how we can make Congress work better. This is the moral challenge for the next generation of public servants.
Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others. And, even with all the problems we’re facing, I think that it’s still true. Despite what’s going on in Washington today, I wouldn’t trade our form or government for any other. I still believe in our founding principles of liberty and equality for all citizens.
The form of government our Founders invented was flexible enough that, over time, more and more Americans have become full shareholders in our nation. Women, African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans have all obtained the vote and a greater voice in our society. We’re making progress on LGBTQ Americans, too, although we’ve still got a ways to go.
It’s because of this sometimes unsteady progress toward fairness and equality and freedom and citizenship that our country remains a model for the world. It inspired my grandfather, who joined Mahatma Gandhi’s movement for freedom and democracy in India and spent four years in jail for his activities. It inspired my parents to immigrate here to pursue their educations and their dreams for their children. And I’m sure that many – if not all – of you have similar stories.
One of our Founders’ core beliefs was representative government. In fact, they called the lower house of Congress the House of Representatives – meaning that the people who served there were supposed to represent their fellow citizens. These original Representatives came from all walks of life. They were farmers, lawyers, printers, tradesmen. Of course, they were all white men, because those were the only folks who could vote at the time. But as we extended citizenship and the franchise to new groups of people, our Congress became more representative of our nation as a whole.
But something has happened over the past several years that has made our Congress less representative of the people it’s supposed to serve. I think a large part of the problem is that the people in Congress have become detached and disconnected from the lives and experiences of the general public. They have grown accustomed to the power and perks of office and set themselves apart from the rest of us.
While most Americans are focused on getting an education and a good job so they can build a life and support their families, Congress is engaged in political and ideological struggles with little meaning to the average person. They’ve lost touch with the lives of the people they’re supposed to represent.
How did this happen? And how can we change it? These are perhaps the two most important political questions of our time.
Well, lots of people have lots of different ideas about this. I thought today I’d share with you five ideas I’ve developed on how we can fix the problem.
The first problem is that Congress is about the only institution I know of where you can decide your own salary. Imagine that! They get to vote on how much they are worth. Or sometimes they get really clever and write laws that give them automatic raises unless they specifically vote AGAINST it. Can you think of any other job like that?
Now, the current salary for a Member of Congress is around $174,000. And that doesn’t include things like their housing allowances and staff. And maybe they deserve to make that much – although when you look at this current Congress, you have to wonder. But the thing that’s really aggravating to a lot of people is that Congress’s pay has been going up while the rest of America’s has been staying the same – or going down.
The earnings of the average family in our country really haven’t changed much for the past 30 years. But from 2001 to 2009, Congress voted to increase its own pay seven times – which came out to a raise of nearly $30,000. I think some Members of Congress are embarrassed about this. In fact, nearly half of them have decided not to take their paychecks – or to donate them to charity – during this time when they have failed to pass a budget and let the government shut down.
I think that’s the least they can do. But I think we need to go further.
So my first proposal is that Congress should not be paid whenever they don’t pass a budget. And, frankly, I don’t think they should get any raises – even automatic ones – when so many Americans are struggling in this tough economy. So I would propose a pay freeze for Congress. And if I’m elected, I’ve pledged to return any pay raise that Congress decides to vote itself.
The second thing I’d do is to get rid of the Congressional pension system. Congress voted itself a pension and, like with its pay, it’s been pretty generous to itself. You only have to serve for five years before you’re fully vested. Many former Members of Congress end up spending more years collecting their pensions than they actually spent in Congress – even when they end up getting better-paying jobs as lobbyists and consultants.
To add insult to injury, a recent study by the National Journal found that twenty percent of Congress Members are collecting a public pension from a previous job in government WHILE THEY’RE STILL SERVING IN CONGRESS. Some of them are collecting MORE than one. The study cited one new Representative – a Democrat – who is collecting over $250,000 in pension payments while serving in Congress. In other words, her pension payments exceed her Congressional salary! Do you know any workers in the private sector who enjoy this kind of bonanza?
The fact is, very few U.S. workers enjoy any pension benefits these days. Most private sector workers have been moved out of these so-called defined benefit plans into 401(k)s. And that’s for workers who are lucky enough to have pensions at all. The majority of retired folks in this country get by on Social Security, alone.
The problem is that when you’re receiving a cushy pension – or maybe two or three – it’s hard to represent the average person who has to rely on a 401(k). And it’s really hard to represent people whose retirement benefits are limited to their monthly Social Security check. In fact, I think it becomes a lot easier to talk about reducing Social Security benefits and cost-of-living adjustments if you don’t have to rely on that program because the taxpayers are going to be taking care of you for the rest of your life after you leave Congress.
So, my second proposal is that we end this special pension program for Members of Congress and make them rely on Social Security, like the people they represent. Now, if they want to invest part of their salary each month into a 401(k), that’s just fine. But no special pension plan designed only for them.
And they shouldn’t get to collect their other public pensions while they’re serving in Congress. That money is meant for retirement – not as a taxpayer supplement to their Congressional paycheck. I have pledged not to accept any benefits from any pension program.
A third reason that our Representatives in Congress have stopped representing the people who elected them is because they take so much of their campaign money from people with a special interest in bills before Congress. I’m talking about the lobbyists who try to influence how they vote on behalf of their clients, and the political action committees that give millions of dollars to Members who vote their way.
What’s even more absurd is that the politicians are now forming their own political action committees, so they can give to other candidates. In effect, they’re taking money from special interests so they can become their own special interest – exchanging contributions for favors like choice committee assignments and leadership posts.
Now, we could have a whole, separate discussion on the way we finance our elections in this country. I happen to disagree with the Supreme Court decisions that equate free-spending campaign contributors with free speech. And I think the Citizens United decision, which allows any interest group to spend as much as it wants to influence our elections, was a terrible blow to our democracy and needs to be fixed.
But the fact is that elections cost money and a huge source of campaign funds for Members of Congress are the Washington lobbyists and political action committees that want to have their way with our laws and regulations.
It may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right.
So I have decided in my campaign not to accept any campaign money from Washington lobbyists or PACs. All of the money I raise is coming from individual contributors with limits on how much they can give. And if I get elected, I’ve pledged not to start my own PAC. In fact, I think these so-called “leadership PACs” should be abolished. The last thing we need is Members of Congress doling out campaign money to other Members of Congress when they should be focused on representing the folks who actually voted them into office. Average citizens shouldn’t require a political action committee for their voices to be heard.
Some of these special interest groups aren’t content to just hand out campaign money. They look for other ways to influence Congressmen – like sending them on lavish, free trips. There were so many of these free trips being larded on Members of Congress that, in 2007, they changed the rules to limit these trips to two nights when they’re paid for by corporations and unions with lobbyists. But our current Congress has found a way around those rules.
There are very few restrictions when it comes to trips paid for by non-profits. So, of course, the special interests started funneling their trips through these groups. By the end of last month, Members of Congress had taken about $3.3 million worth of trips this year according to records studied by Political MoneyLine. In the month of August, alone, there were about 130 privately funded trips worth $1.7 million for Members of Congress. Often, their spouses and other family members went along.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with travel. It broadens the mind. But there IS something wrong when lobbyists and special interests use it as a back-door way to win influence with Members of Congress. I think it’s time to tighten the rules.
My proposal is to completely ban trips paid for by special interests. If a Member of Congress needs to travel as part of their job, let them do it officially – meaning that it’s paid for by taxpayers. That way, the Member will have to justify the purpose and benefit of the trip to the people he or she represents.
If I’m elected to Congress, I’m going to apply that rule to myself. And I’m going to post my itinerary for any trips on my official website, so everyone can see it. I don’t think taxpayers will resent paying for a trip if there’s a good and justifiable reason for it. The fact is that we end up paying far more than the cost of a trip when a Member of Congress does legislative favors for a special interest that sends him on a junket.
Lastly, I believe we need to end the revolving door between Members of Congress and well connected lobbying and consulting firms. Former Members of Congress should be banned for at least five years from engaging in any lobbying activity. Personally, I have pledged never to become a lobbyist and misuse the trust bestowed by the public for personal profit.
These proposals are the first step towards reforming Congress. Freezing Congressional pay. Eliminating the Gold-plated Congressional pension. Ending the revolving door between government and lobbying. And taking away the money and paid trips from Washington special interests.
These proposals will help turn our Members of Congress back into the representatives of the people that they’re supposed to be. It will make them more like the voters who send them to office, who have to worry about supporting their families on paychecks that haven’t grown in years. It will make them think twice about cutting Social Security benefits and blocking health coverage that millions of Americans rely on. It will make them more like you and me.
But while these reforms sound good in theory, we will never be able to achieve them unless ordinary citizens – including young people like you – get engaged with the political system. I know it’s tempting to just write off Washington. To ignore what’s happening because sometimes it’s frustrating or discouraging. But throwing up your hands and turning away is the wrong answer.
Every generation of Americans has answered the call to make our nation better. The greatest generation sacrificed to defeat the forces of tyranny and protect freedom. The baby boomers helped usher in civil rights and women’s rights and make us a more inclusive democracy.
What then is the task for Generation X and the millenials? I submit to you that our challenge is to reform Congress itself – to rid our political system of endemic corruption and prevent the decline of the American republic. We must restore American democracy to its founding ideals.
So I encourage you to get involved. Even if you’ll still be too young to vote, you can make a real difference.
Find a candidate or a cause and volunteer for their campaign. Go door-to-door. Talk to voters. Talk to your friends and parents. You don’t even have to talk to them; you can Facebook or Tweet! We can use 21st century tools to help stand up for the timeless principle that government must be of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Reforming Congress will not be easy. Nothing has ever changed in this country without the hard work of citizens coming together to overcome the odds. But if you make your voices heard, you can change Congress and change the way that Washington does business. That would be a worthy contribution for my generation and yours to our great American story.