Golden Congressional Parachutes
For many years I believed that, in the case of the New Hampshire Legislature, you get what you pay for. Considering we throw a hundred bucks a session at our 424 elected lawmakers, you really have no case to argue with the results. But as the aggravating years turn into excruciating ones on Capitol Hill in Washington, it’s become apparent that, dollar for dollar, the state’s taxpayers — with their obvious flaws and often thickheaded votes — are getting themselves a bargain worthy of Sam Walton. U.S. voters long ago understood that the people we sent to Congress — no matter the state and no matter the party — spend far too many of their waking hours focusing on the first person singular. (I dare you to find me a politician who doesn’t use the pronoun “I” at an exponentially higher rate than any normal human being.) And if they’re spending so much time focusing on the “I,” there’s very little left for the “you” or “us.” Meaning that we’re left with Social Security and Medicare stonewalling, disgraceful budget deficits, an obscene national debt, no coherent or effective energy policy, a misguided war conducted with no oversight … need I go on? This unfortunate state of affairs — the “I”-sore, if you will — has been duly noted over the decades. Remember the term limits movement — an idea now as faded as the ink on Newt Gingrich’s long-forgotten Contract for America? But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, or can’t, do anything about it. It’s time we apply something like the New Hampshire model to the elected squatters on Capitol Hill. My argument is a simple one of economics: There are too many incentives to encourage the congressfolks to stay. The longer they’re in office, unfortunately, the better off they are. I’m not arguing that the $162,500 each member of Congress receives is unreasonable. But the retirement package — a hefty pension and lifetime health benefits — is. In fact, do you know any retirees — particularly out of the private sector — who can say they get such a deal? And such retirement benefits put them even more out of touch with the folks back home, retired or not. In 2004, pension payments for 400 retired lawmakers totaled more than $19 million — it easily passed $20 million in 2005, and who knows what will happen after November? They’re not just encouraged to stay — they’re probably crazy if they don’t. Members of Congress have to serve at least five years to receive a pension — that means three terms minimum for House members to cash in. They’re eligible to receive that pension after they reach the age of 50, and have completed 20 years of service — that’s 10 terms for House members and four elections for senators — or after they reach 62. And, unless you didn’t know, they can get the pensions even when they’re raking in a million bucks or more as one of those overpaid lobbyists they like to become after they finally leave Congress. Thus the retirement package only serves as economic encouragement for these people to stay in Congress — never mind the “public service” B.S. they like to sprinkle their re-election speeches with. With something like a 90 percent or more guarantee that incumbents are re-elected, it’s not exactly difficult to stay. As a matter of fact, if I were in line for a retirement deal like theirs, I’d feel the same way. And you probably would too. Jeff Feingold, editor of New Hampshire Business Review, can be reached at Jfeingold@aol.com.