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Congress: AWOL and Out of Control

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Taken as whole, with exceptions, the American people have the strangest attitude toward the Congress. Our national legislature spends nearly a quarter of our income and affects us one way or another every day of the year. Yet too many people withdraw in disgust instead of making Congress accountable to them. Warren Buffett once said, “It’s time for 535 of America’s citizens to remember what they owe to the 318 million who employ them.”

People have a low regard for Capitol Hill. Polls show less than 20% of people approve of what Congress does and does not do. In April a poll registered a 14% approval rate. People know that Congress takes a lot of days off – all with pay. Senators and Representatives work over 100 fewer days than average Americans do. Specifically, members were in session 157 days in 2015 and 135 in 2014. This year the House is scheduled to be in session for only 111 days, with the August recess alone stretching nearly six weeks.

People also know that these politicians feather their own nests. At a minimum, members of Congress receive a $174,000 annual salary, plus a great pension, health and life insurance, assorted deductions and expenses. These are benefits that many Americans can only dream of getting.

Even when Senators and Representatives are in Washington, Congressional leaders expect them to spend about 20 to 30 hours per week dialing for campaign for campaign dollars – for their re-election and for their Party’s coffers. Asking for money in or from their office is illegal, so members of Congress trot out daily, on your nickel, to “call centers” in nearby office buildings.

Congressman David Jolly (R-Florida) was told at his party headquarters that he was expected to raise $18,000 per day as his “first responsibility.”

When not dialing for dollars, members of Congress go to fund-raising parties at fancy restaurants or the homes of wealthy donors.

We’ve all heard a popular refrain from folks back home reacting to their absentee lawmakers. “It’s good they’re not in Congress making government bigger, increasing taxes and causing mischief.” The lawmakers, on their part, argue that time away from Congress is time with their constituents back home.

There is some useful truth to this claim, even though that time is also used to raise campaign money and schmooze with political backers and allies. Contact with the voters is becoming impersonal – over the internet instead of the diminishing public town meeting and its eye-to-eye contact.

But let’s be serious. Your Senators and Representatives have a job description. It is to move the country forward for the people by wisely enacting tax laws, spending programs, evaluating the president’s nominees, empowering voters with clean elections, upholding their Constitutional duties, such as making foreign and military policy, and overseeing the sprawling executive branch, exposing waste, corruption, recklessness and obeisance to the powers-that-be by not fairly enforcing the laws of the land.

The Congressional oversight function requires logging hours and hours of public committee hearings scrutinizing the performance of federal agencies and departments on behalf of the people. Congressional staffers need to be investigating or following leads sent to them by citizens or government whistleblowers regarding the federal bureaucracy.

Members of Congress do not have time for this responsibility when they are spending so much of their workday asking for money and implying agreement with the demands of the “monied interests,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s phrase.

This is why Congressman Jolly introduced the “Stop Act,” which would ban all federally-elected officials from directly soliciting donations. Members of Congress can attend fund-raisers but others would have to ask for the money. No more direct telephone calls to the “fat cats” for checks. So far he only has nine co-sponsors for his bill.

Congressman Jolly says this is not “campaign finance reform,” it is “Congressional reform,” adding “members of Congress spend too much time raising money and not enough time doing their job. Get back to work. And do your job.”

Hey America! No more withdrawal cynicism. Shaping up or shipping out your members of Congress can be our great national civic hobby! There are plenty of opportunities for improvement and it could be lots of fun. Don’t forget there are only 535 of them and they put their shoes on every day like we do!

Start small and build. Announce to your lawmakers with a letterhead – “Congress Watchdogs from the xxx Congressional District. The people want you to do your jobs!” The benefits of this effort are better lives and livelihoods for all Americans.”

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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