Six-Million Dollar Man

DAVID MASON

July 03, 1992|By DAVID MASON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- How much do you think your own senator or congressman is worth? Perhaps more important, how much does he think he's worth?

Based on the congressional budget, nearly $6 million.

To understand what's wrong with the Imperial Congress, it's essential to examine the budget of the royal household. However, the Legislative Appropriations Bill, which funds most of Congress's expenses, is arcane and deliberately confusing. To find out how much one committee spends, for example, you have to examine five different accounts.

But even if you wade through all the accounts, you'll discover that many expenses aren't included. There are, for instance, no funds for congressmen's salaries. Their $129,500 annual stipends, now with automatic cost-of-living adjustments, are provided through what is known as a ''permanent appropriation'' -- more commonly known as an entitlement.

I suppose that makes congressmen America's richest welfare recipients.

Other items not funded in the annual budget include: foreign travel, a portion of retirement benefits and medical care. That adds up to more than pocket change. The average congressional retiree, for example, stands to collect nearly $2 million in pension payments.

What is the bottom line on the congressional budget? Appropriated spending for Congress this year will total nearly $3 billion -- an average of more than $5 million for each senator and representative. Add in the perks not included in the appropriation and the average member of Congress becomes a $6 million man.

Everyone agrees that something should be done, but what?

First, be suspicious of incumbent congressmen bearing reform plans. Campaign-finance reform, for instance, would tax you to pay for politicians' re-election efforts and, in the process, would give incumbents even greater advantages over challengers.

Second, keep up the pressure. Public outrage over cover-ups of the bank and post-office scandals has begun to rock the cozy incumbents' protection machine; already, about 70 House members and half a dozen senators have decided to call it quits. Don't be disgusted, stay mad.

Last, we need to de-professionalize Congress. Term limits are a good idea, but perhaps more damaging than the number of years spent in Washington is the number of days. Unlike earlier days of smaller government, Congress is a full-time job, forcing representatives to quit their private work, pull the children out of school, move their families -- in short, sever all their ties to the communities they represent.

Real reform would make members of Congress less the political professional and more a representative of the people. We could start by requiring them to spend two months at home every summer instead of only one, with the goal of limiting congressional sessions to six months a year or less.

Continued grass-roots pressure and term limits are the beginning steps to de-throning the emperors on the Hill. But we need to think big, for an Imperial Congress will not passively submit to reform; only a real revolution will change it.

David Mason is director of the U.S. Congress Assessment Project at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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