(Drew Johnson is a Senior Fellow with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance) Congress returned to Washington this week for what will likely be a short session focused on doing as little as possible besides ensuring that government doesn't shut down when the federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Doing as little as possible has become a common theme for this Congress. Congress has failed to pass any of the 12 required appropriations bills necessary to keep government open for business. Lawmakers have also failed to pass a budget since 2009 and done little to meaningfully addressed entitlement reform or the debt. Perhaps worst of all, Congress failed to make the spending cuts required by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction -- a.k.a. the Supercommittee -- before the deadline to prevent automatic cuts. (Those automatic spending cuts will also likely never take place if this do-nothing attitude continues into the next session.) This lack of action has led many pundits to use words such as, "lazy," "pathetic" and "failed" to describe the gridlocked Congress. Perhaps not surprisingly, Congress' job approval ratings are reaching all-time lows. In poll conducted jointly by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal in August, only 12 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing. Despite doing next to nothing in recent months, United States senators and representative receive a salary of $174,000 per year -- a pay that puts members of Congress among the top 5 percent of wage earners in the United States. But that hefty income is only the beginning.
As Congress prepares to embark on another recess (they just had one for President’s holiday), Politico reports that the thrill is gone for many lawmakers. According to Politico, “They don’t make national policy anymore. They can’t earmark money for communities back home. The public hates them. And perks little and big, from private jet travel to a little free nosh now and then, have been locked down by ethics rules. As they head for the exits this year, many leaving Congress say the prestigious job of being a congressman sucks now, and that’s why lawmakers young and old are trading in their member pins for a new life in the private sector.” The truth is that they choose not to make national policy, earmarks aren’t really gone and there are still perks associated with being a member of Congress. The only accurate part of the sentiment is that the public does hate them, as evidenced by a 10 percent favorable rating.
On Sunday January 22, 2012 Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) announced that she will be resigning from Congress. Rep. Gifford’s prime legacy will be the shooting that occurred in January of 2011. As Congress returns from their winter break, taxpayers should also remember another legacy that Rep. Giffords will leave, her desire to cut congressional pay. In July of 2011 Our Generation and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) released a report titled, “Are Taxpayers Getting Their Money’s Worth? An Analysis of Congressional Compensation.” The report exposed that Members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000 per year, as well as generous fringe benefits that increase their total compensation to $285,000 per year. From the very beginning Rep. Giffords was supportive of the report and sent a “Dear Colleague” letter asking members of Congress to co-sponsor legislation to cut congressional compensation. Rep. Giffords also urged the Super Committee to consider a congressional pay cut as part of their mandate to cut spending by more than $1 trillion over ten years (see Huffington Post article here).
The 1970’s sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” depicts a dysfunctional classroom of trouble making students. When Americans “Welcome Back Congress” next week from their Christmas break, a group of dysfunctional and trouble making members of Congress will begin work on reducing the national deficit and debt. With a work week of only 2 days next week, there won’t be much time to get anything done so the following week is when the legislative process will begin to heat up when Congress returns for a full work week (by congressional standards) and the President gives his State of the Union address. Since last year’s State of the Union, the national debt has increased by $1 trillion despite numerous spending fights with threatened government shut downs, a debt ceiling crisis averted with sham spending cuts, and a Super Committee that failed to come up with $1 trillion in spending cuts over ten years. The first order of business when Congress returns is to cut spending and taxes to put the country back on the proper fiscal path.
When the 112th Congress took over in January, 2011, there was quite a bit of excitement and anticipation that the newly elected members (including dozens of tea party members) would be aggressive in demanding real spending cuts and accountability. With a near-miss government shutdown in April, a debt ceiling scare in August and the failure of the super committee in November, last year was filled with missed opportunities to institute real spending cuts. With the federal debt eclipsing $15 trillion in 2011, Congress has quite a bit of work to do in 2012. In addition to the annual budget fiascos that are typical of Washington, D.C., there are seven key areas (Agriculture, Defense, Energy, the Food and Drug Administration/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tax Reform, Telecommunications/Technology, and Transportation) that will determine if Congress and the President are serious about bringing spending under control and having a more efficient government.
One year ago on December 1, 2010, President Obama released the findings of The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform which was led by former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senate Whip Alan Simpson (R-Wy.). The Commission released a report on potential spending cuts that would eclipse $2 trillion from 2012 to 2020. Recommendations include: selling excess federal real property; repealing The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act which was created in Obamacare; and reducing net spending on mandatory agriculture programs. The report was very candid when it stated that, “Our country has tough choices to make. We need to be willing to tell Americans the truth: We cannot afford to continue spending more than we take in, and we cannot continue to make promises we know full well we cannot keep.” Instead of being used to cut spending, the report has been more useful as a virtual paperweight (I am not even sure of any copies were actually printed up).
On November 9, 2011, the Obama Administration issued a press release bragging about its efforts to rein in spending on items such as cell phones, smart phones, laptops and swag including, “plaques, clothing, and other unnecessary promotional items.” The White House estimates that these savings could amount to billions of dollars. While taxpayers should applaud these efforts as every dollar counts when it comes to saving money, it will take much more than cutting out free Department of Energy t-shirts to get the debt and deficit under control. And, let’s be honest, how many people do you see walking around with a federal government branded t-shirt or coffee mug? And, if you did, would that really make you feel better about the government?
With the failure of the Super Committee to meet their deadline and find $1.2 trillion in budget savings over the next decade, Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) president David Williams released the following statement. "Congress has once again failed the American taxpayer with the collapse of the Super Committee. It is time that our representatives in Washington do what we elected them to do-serve the American people and help get our economy up and running again. Instead, they continue to play political games while taxpayers are left holding the bill for our government's out-of-control spending problem. This failure to reach a compromise on an issue of such importance is just another reason why Congressional pay should be cut by at least ten percent. With a country that is $15 trillion in debt, Congress must come together and find a way to cut spending now.” To read TPA’s Congressional Compensation Report and learn why taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth when it comes to Congressional salaries, click here.
Today, November 17, 2011, the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) will be tested. Now, before you get too excited, this test will be nothing more than a dog and pony show to keep its funding alive and try to silence the critics. As one of the harshest critics of the program (see previous blog posts here and here), the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) sent a series of e-mails mails to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Medium Extended Air Defense System Management Agency (NAMEADSMA), the Army, and MEADS International on November 8, 2011. The only response was from NAMEADSMA. While we appreciated the response, the answers were less than satisfactory and raised even more questions.
During the next two weeks taxpayers will see some of the elements of the of the August debt ceiling agreement come together with a vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) and the report from the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (aka the Super Committee). In typical Washington fashion, there are two potential outcomes for both the BBA and the Super Committee. A weak BBA and a discordant Super Committee could foreshadow a future filled with fake spending cuts and tax increases.