Monday, March 11, 2013

Playing Fair: Politics

Today is Monday, March 11, 3013

As I was researching things in the political arena that I think of as unfair, I realized that I had been fed some erroneous information on the web.  It's so easy these days to take the printed word at face value, as if something that is printed is automatically true.  For years, I taught my students to evaluate sources of information.  Now it's time to take my own advice.

One of the things that has concerned me is the amount of money members of Congress get for doing their jobs.  According to Frank Hill, a former legislative aide to a conservative member of Congress from North Carolina, the salary for Representatives and Senators is the same, $174,000 per year.  The Legistorm site mentioned in Hill's blog entry states that the Speaker of the House gets $223,500 and the Majority and Minority Leaders, as well as the President Pro Tem of the Senate get $193,400.  Hill says that a legislative aide's starting salary might be around $25,000, and perhaps $45,000 if you have specialized knowledge or experience (such as knowledge of the banking system, if the member of Congress was on the banking committee). 

Hill reminds us that members of Congress must pay to maintain their homes in the districts that they represent, as well as pay for a home in the Washington D.C. area, where property values are high.  If they have kids, they have to put them through school and college, just like everybody else. 

The Congressional Research Service issued this information about salaries for the 113th Congress.  "Permissible 'outside earned income' for Representatives and Senators is limited to 15% of the annual rate of basic pay," but there are some types of outside income that are not permissible, including "compensation for affiliating with or being employed by a firm, partnership, association, corporation, or other entity providing professional services involving a fiduciary relationship, except for the practice of medicine."   Members of Congress also may not allow their names to be used by firms or organizations, serve on the board of associations, corporations, or other entities, or teaching without prior notification to and consent of the House Ethics Committee or the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.  As of January 1991, they may not accept honoraria for speaking engagements, etc.

Also according to the Congressional Research Service, members of congress must pay taxes like everybody else, but they get a deduction for being away from their home states.  The new health care law says that members of Congress may choose to be a part of one of the health care exchanges provided by law, but that this year (2013) these exchanges have not yet been organized. The government health care will be the only plan offered to members of Congress, so if they choose not to have that, then they will have to pay out of pocket for private insurance.  The retirement system also sounds very reasonable - not the outrageous amount given in many emails and posts on Facebook.  "Benefits vary depending on retirement plan, age, and length of service.  Since January 1, 1984, participation in Social Security has been mandatory for all Members of Congress."   Another rampant myth busted.

Allowable outside income is capped at $26,550, but there is no limit on the amount of money they can amass from profits or dividends, socks and bonds, etc.  That's the reason most members of Congress are so wealthy.  Even Ron Paul, who famously declined the Congressional pension, made between $100,001 and $1 million in 2010 from farmland and rental property in Texas.  With outside income like that, I guess the pension plan might seem like peanuts, anyway.

The thing that bothers me about outside income is not rental property, though.  It's investments, especially those that result in a conflict of interest.  For example, it was reported that shortly after the Keystone XL pipeline permit process began, Boehner began to invest heavily in companies involved in the project.  Some of these companies began to donate money to Boehner's campaign.  The Speaker now says he is in favor of the pipeline because it will provide jobs.  Yeah.   According to research by Cornell University, updated in January 2012, Trans-Canada's estimates of how many jobs would be created are unsubstantiated and inflated.  Not only will the project create fewer jobs than anticipated, it may actually kill jobs.  The jobs created by the project will be temporary, and up to 90% of those hired will eventually be laid off.  Most of the employees will be non-local or from out-of-state.  So much for jobs.  

It appears that we may never be able to adequately monitor the investments of members of Congress, but there should certainly be more accurate reporting by the major news media whenever there is a conflict of interest like this. 


The other major thing that bothers me, in spite of recent improvements in the demographics of the 113th Congress, is the disparity between the demographics of the population of the United States and those of members of Congress. 

The population of the United States, according to the 2010 census 72.4% of the population is white, 12.6% is black.  4.8% is Asian, 0.9% is American Indian or Alaska Native.  0.2% is Pacific Islander or Hawaii Native.  6.2% define themselves as "other" and 2.9% describe themselves as a combination of 2 or more races.  Latinos comprise 16.4% of the population, including persons of all races.

The median income of households in the U.S. is $46,326, and for dual earner households it is $67,348.   The bottom 10% earn under $10,000 per year.  The middle 33% earn between $30,000 and $62,500.  The top 25% earn $77,000 and up.  The top 5% earn $167.000 and up, the top 1.5% earn 250,000 and up, and the top 1% earn 350,000 and up. 

The median age of the U.S. population is 36.8 years.  For males it is 35.5 and for females it is 38.1.  20.2% of the population is 0-14 years old, 67% is between 15 and 64, and 12.8% are 65 and over.

Of the 535 members of Congress, here are some statistics:

The Senate is composed of 75 white males (37 Democrats and 38 Republicans) and 19 white females (15 Democrats and 4 Republicans.)  That's 94% of the Senate seats held by whites, even though white people are only about 72% of the population. 

In the House, there are 305 white males (96 Democrats and 209 Republicans) and 49 white women (32 Democrats and 17 Republicans).  That makes a total of 354 whites, or 81.4% of 435 members.

There are only 2 black males in the Senate (1 Democrat and 1 Republican) and no black women.  In the House, there are 27 black men (all Democrats) and 13 black women (all Democrats.)  So Blacks hold only 2% of the seats in the Senate and 9% in the House.

Latinos fare a bit better.  There are 3 Latinos in the Senate (all male, 1 Democrat and 2 Republican). The House has 19 Latino men (16 Democrats and 3 Republicans) and 9 Latina women (7 Democrats and 2 Republicans.)  This means 3% representation in the Senate and 6% in the House.

For Asians/Pacific Islanders, there is only 1 woman (Democrat) in the Senate.  There are 3 men and 6 women in the House (all Democrats).  That's 1% representation in the Senate and 2% in the House. 

The most dismal statistics are for Native Americans, who are represented by only 1 member of the House (male, Republican). 

As far as age goes, the under 40 set are represented by 1 Democrat in the Senate.  In the House there are 13 Democrats and 20 Republicans under 40.  By contrast, there are 12 Democrats and 9 Republicans in the Senate who are over 70, and in the House there are 28 Democrats and 15 Republicans.  With so much representation of the geriatric set, one wonders why there is any talk at all about repealing Social Security.

With their salaries of $174,000, all members of Congress fall comfortably  into the top 5%, who earn $167,000 and up.  Those who have large fortunes in excess of their Congressional salaries fall into the top 1% of wage earners in the United States.  The 50 richest members of the 112th  congress made at least $6 million and up to $305 million.  One wonders how these people can understand what the rest of the country (the 99%) are going through, especially when the sequester cuts hit the fan.

Brian Flynn writes, "A quick trip back to fifth-grade history class reminds us that the House of Representatives was established as the lower house, intended to be 'of the people,' according to James Madison.  It was to insure that individual citizens had a voice in federal legislation while the Senate was meant to be more deliberative and represent the interest of the states. 

"But population growth has cut ties between Representatives and those they represent.  A seat in the House of Representatives has gone from representing 33,000 people to more than 700,000 today."

Flynn says that if we used the original ratio of 1 representative to every 33,000 people, we would have to have 10,000 members in the House!  The founders actually proposed a maximum ratio of 1 representative for every 50,000 people, but that would still require 6,000 members to be seated in the House.  Imagine the gridlock that might ensue!

Flynn mentions also that although fully 40% of the population of the United States describes themselves as "independent," but there is still no viable third party or even a coalition of factions to adequately represent them.  Meanwhile we have a group of ideologues whose dialogue is driven by the far left the far right, with no compromise in sight that might benefit at least some portion of the population. 

I have to say I'm heartened by the increase in diversity in the 113th Congress, but mighty disillusioned by the political posturing and brinkmanship being played out by this same Congress.  In the future, I think it is important for the American people to look more closely at some of the other political parties out there, including some new ones who haven't yet fielded any candidates.  Even though our burgeoning population means that we have less real representation in government than ever before, I hope that the system will one day include more than just two political parties, and that we will continue to elect representatives who more accurately reflect who we are.  :-/


"About Member of Congress Salaries."  Legistorm.   Visited on March 11, 2013. 

Brudnick, Ida A.  "Congressional Salaries and Allowances."  Congressional Research Service.  January 15, 2013.  (nonpartisan news and information web site) "Congressional Demographics."  Visited on March 11, 2013.

"Cornell GLI Study Finds Keystone XL Pipeline Will Create Few Jobs." Cornell Global Labor Institute, Cornell University, ILR School.  September 2011, updated January 2012.

Flynn, Brian.  "What's wrong with Congress?  It's not big enough."  CNN Opinion.  March 9, 2012.

Hill, Frank.  "Congressional Salaries: Too High? Or Too Low?"  Telemachus. December 16, 2011.

"Outside Income Triples for Congress Members."  Newsmax. September 19, 2011.  "535ish Ways to Look at the 113th Congress."  Visited on March 11, 2013.  "The 50 Richest Members of the 112th Congress (2012)"  Visited on March 11, 2013.

"The Speaker's Pipe Dreams: Big Oil Investments Muddy Boehner's Message on Keystone XL."  Political Correction.  Media Matters Action Network.  January 18, 2012.

Wikipedia.  "Demogrphics of the United States."  March 2013.

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