Becoming Senator Paine   3 comments

November 12, 2003

The Reality Of A Not So Super Committee

Question: How much does a U.S. Senator or Representative earn? Answer: The salary for each is set at $174,000, with leaders (majority, minority, speaker, etc.,) earning as much as another $20,000 for their popularity and, presumably, their expertise.

In 2009 the median personal wealth of our duty-bound senators and representatives rose to almost $1 million ($911,000.) Half of those legislators are millionaires, many of them millionaires one hundred times over (or more). A senator serving a single six-year term can extract $1.2 million dollars from the government. And that doesn’t include the limousines, dining privileges, security, travel, staff, and so on. Depending on the numbers of years they serve the government, legislators can continue to earn 80% of their pay in retirement. No need for calculating those pesky investment rates on their 401Ks or IRAs; and no concerns about the status of Social Security or whether or not it’s a “Ponzi Scheme”.

At this writing the congressional “Super Committee” is floundering as the members attempt to come up with a budget recommendation that is crafted creatively enough to pass both houses of congress. Given the Democrat’s defense of a social safety net, and the Republican’s intransigence on raising taxes, the negotiations are going nowhere. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, is one of the more interesting and palatable people on the Republican side of the aisle. However, this past Thursday, November 10th, Senator Graham took to pandering to the American voting public by suggesting that congress should take a pay cut. “‘If we can’t hit our targets, we need to come up with a new way to find savings,’ Graham told Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Susteren Thursday night. ‘How about cutting congressional pay 10 percent? How about making all of us suffer, not just the Medicare people and the Department of Defense? How about an across-the-board cut, where everybody has to feel some pain if we can’t get our act together?’” Pardon my lack of gratitude Senator, but if your desire is to suffer then really go for recognizable suffering; if you’re going to make a gesture, go for greatness. Commiserate with the 15 million people out of work.

If Senator Graham really wishes to get the attention of his fellow legislators, why not suggest that the Treasury Department completely stop the money transfer from the Federal government to congress. No more salaries for the Senator or his staff? Go out and find some volunteers. Give up your security people? They won’t be necessary since everyone will love you for the grand gesture. No more limos? Try walking or take the bus on your own dime as the District has a wide-reaching transit system. Besides, think of the people-to-people opportunities. No more free travel? Start shopping Kayak or Travelocity for a great fare. And while you’re at it, travel in coach. Moving to the back of the plane will provide you with a greater opportunity to mix with rank-and-file members of society—at least the rank-and-file traveling by plane. And, it will certainly be a different experience than the time spent in those heavy carbon-footprinting private jets, or mingling with others found in the stratosphere of the First Class and Business Class cabins. Hungry? Try packing a lunch and for good measure, close down the congressional dining room. If you want to get the attention of congress and the voters, go big.

The point is, as with most members of congress—from both parties—one must ignore self-aggrandizing pronouncements like the one Senator Graham made on Thursday. Politicians learn quickly, that when all else fails, pontificate. Pander to the voters. When caught in a lie or misdeed, first proclaim your innocence, then profess your ignorance, and finally, redirect the guilt to someone else. (See Herman Cain for details.) Deflect a question instead of answering a question. Offer much, deliver little. Sooner or later the target audience members will all succumb. While he hasn’t converted me to his general political POV, I respect Senator Graham, to the extent that I’ve heard him, observed him, or read about him in the media, but his pay-cut suggestion is a non-starter.

This is not an indictment suggesting that most politicians wish to become corrupt, but rather an observed reality that most politicians appear to be eminently corruptible. Whether to a fractional degree or to the nth degree, corruption is corruption. Their protestations notwithstanding, politicians are malleable to the forces around them. They all too often choose comfort in lieu of principle. Like the fictional Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (at least when compared and contrasted to his fictional protégé Jefferson Smith,) politicians tend to morph into the antithesis of what they were. The idealist is transformed into the surrealist. Their desired image is constantly juxtaposed against who, or what, they really are. Some will declare that they have simply become pragmatists, but that is a cop-out. For others, professing a belief in and adopting a strict adherence to, for example, the theology of Grover Norquist is preferable to free will. Ideology trumps reason.

We often hear of the importance of free will as something that sets humans apart from the rest of the planet’s inhabitants. In short, the concept is that we are allowed to choose, or not:

Harry Frankfurt (1982) presents an insightful and original way of thinking about free will. He suggests that a central difference between human and merely animal activity is our capacity to reflect on our desires and beliefs and form desires and judgments concerning them. I may want to eat a candy bar (first-order desire), but I also may want not to want this (second-order desire) because of the connection between habitual candy eating and poor health. This difference, he argues, provides the key to understanding both free action and free will.

Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus from Princeton, helps us understand our ability as human beings to choose what we perceive is the right path, the right decision. Unfortunately, what we witness daily is a congress that offers fealty to corporations, wealthy individuals, and hard-line ideologues—a trifecta of subservience. Our public servants refuse to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people of America. At the end of the day, our legislators respond to what K Street wants, and not to what Main Street needs. Congress seems to believe that what matters is giving thanks, praise, and compliance to those who funded the last election, and to kneel at the feet of those who will fund the next election. To those in congress, including Senator Graham, instead of offering tokens, offer us something real. The failure of the so-called super committee—if it fails—is a failure of the entire congress. A 10% pay cut? Go cold-turkey and get the attention of everyone in congress by walking away from the money and the perks. Resist the temptation to pander and pontificate and instead make something happen.

Even Frank Capra’s Senator Joe Paine recognized that he had failed ordinary people in favor of greed and giving thanks to the powerful. But that was fiction and this is real life. It would be great to see our senators and representatives work for something larger than themselves, something larger than their own self-interest. Take a break from group-think and become an individual. In the end, even Paine recognized his fall from grace. It’s not too late for the rest of us.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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3 responses to “Becoming Senator Paine

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  1. http://www.emanio.com/edi/EDITransaction.htm Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time 🙂

  2. Senators will take pay cuts right after the NBA players and owners do. I mean 5.5 million just really doesn’t cut it for someone who bounces a basketball up and down a court, because we forget that they also throw it towards a netted hoop. oohhh ahhh.

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