When members of the U.S. House of Representatives stand for reelection, for most it s a formality: On average, more than 90 percent of House incumbents win, according to a 2005 report by the Cato Institute. What s behind the incumbency advantage? Campaign financing, for one thing. We taxpayers pick up the tab for incumbents regular offices, staff, publicity, travel, and mailings, so they needn t raise as much money to run. Challengers, on the other hand, must come up with a fortune and do so in dribs and drabs, since Congress caps individual contributions at $2,000.
But the biggest factor is partisan gerrymandering. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that states must ensure that each congressman represents the same number of constituents, the process of redistricting after every census has been aggressively used by state party bosses to protect their incumbents. Because of gerrymandering, almost 90 percent of Americans live in congressional districts where the outcome is so certain that their votes are irrelevant, concludes the Cato report. And it s bound to get worse: In June 2006 the Court ruled that states can redraw congressional districts as often as they please.
Some people were dismayed when Capitol Police didn t give a sobriety test to Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) after he rammed a Capitol Hill security barrier late one night in 2006 and emerged from his Mustang impaired, with unsure balance and slurred speech, according to the police report. Georgetown University law professor Paul F. Rothstein wasn t surprised: They always give [congresspeople] a pass.
Why? Inside Congress author Ronald Kessler says that, historically, most officers have operated under the mistaken impression that the Constitution prohibits arresting or even ticketing congresspeople while Congress is in session. The belief was so prevalent at one time that the Justice Department issued a statement in 1976 explaining the previous policy of releasing members who had been arrested was based on a misunderstanding of the clause in the U.S. Constitution, which forbids only civil arrest, not arrest for a crime. Nonetheless, Capitol Police still coddle and avoid arresting members of Congress. For one thing, protecting congresspeople is part of their mission. For another, Congress controls their budget including top cops salaries.
In a perfect world, our legislators would vote on each bill based on thorough, firsthand analysis. But that s not how it works in Washington. Most congresspeople don t actually read bills, relying instead on impressions gleaned from staff and lobbyists. And in many cases, they couldn t read them if they wanted to: The 700- plus-page Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005, for example, surfaced after 1 a.m. and went to vote early the next morning. That s the way it s done, Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) told the Hartford Courant.
Result: Congresspeople seldom know exactly what they re voting on. Take the 1,600-page Appropriations Bill in 2004 that had already made it through the House before it was discovered that a staffer had slipped in a provision permitting his committee to browse any tax return filed with the IRS.
There have been some attempts to get Congress to change its ways. In 2006, for example, D.C. nonprofit ReadtheBill .org persuaded some reps to introduce a resolution requiring the House to post each bill online for 72 hours before even debating it. But that resolution has been languishing in the House Committee on Rules ever since. A similar bill was introduced in 2007 by Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), but it, too, has since stalled.
Congress is a pretty good gig, financially speaking. Our senators and representatives currently earn upwards of $165,000 a year roughly four times the median U.S. household income. But it s not nearly as lucrative as lobbying, a job congresspeople have begun flocking to once they re out of office. As late as the 1980s, few lawmakers became lobbyists because they considered it beneath their dignity, writes Robert V. Remini in The House: The History of the House of Representatives. But today it s the top career choice for former congresspeople.
According to a 2005 report by Public Citizen, since 1998 more than 43 percent of all eligible departing congresspeople went into lobbying. Take William Tauzin. The Louisiana Republican, and former chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, left the House for a $1-million-plus-a-year job as president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). According to press reports, PhRMA was wooing Tauzin the same month he pushed through the Medicare bill. Tauzin denies it fueled his zeal for the bill, but you can t help wondering how the prospect of that kind of money might influence one s judgment.
Congresspeople love tinkering with our health care. They virtually created the managed-care industry, for instance, with the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, which tilted the playing field in favor of HMOs, ultimately stripping many Americans of all other choices. Meanwhile, congresspeople enjoy more than a dozen options, including prized indemnity plans, which provide reimbursement without limiting the pool of medical care providers, that few workers in the public sector receive. On top of that, for an annual fee of $480, they can get just about all the medical attention they want at the Capitol Office of the Attending Physician, which has five doctors and a dozen assistants on call for routine checkups, tests, prescriptions, emergency care, and mental health services. Who s making up the difference? Taxpayers, naturally, to the tune of $2.8 million in 2008.
What happens once a congressperson is out of office? She needn t fret: Just five years into the job, she s entitled to keep her regular health coverage until she s ready for Medicare. And she doesn t have to pay extra, as you do for Cobra, under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which she voted for in 1996.
Congress is forever changing the rules on retirement plans: limiting contributions, punishing pension underfunding, and making it hard for employers to plan ahead. In 2006 Congress passed yet another complex bill that s wreaking more havoc, according to James A. Klein, president of the American Benefits Council. The new Pension Protection Act includes funding rules that, Klein says, could undermine the retirement security of the very participants the bill s trying to protect. Indeed, less than a month after the PPA took effect, DuPont froze its pension plan and cut back on benefits.
Not that Congress is losing sleep its members pensions are exempt. Most qualify for a 401(k)-style plan with a nice match, up to 5 percent of salary. After five years on the job, they re also entitled to a regular pension, bigger than almost all other federal workers at the same pay and twice what a midlevel executive would expect. If elected before age 30, they can collect in full at age 50; those elected later can retire after 25 years or at age 62. Their pensions rise regularly with the cost of living and can never be taken away short of a conviction for espionage or treason-related offenses.
Working on Capitol Hill comes with a lot of fringe benefits. Congresspeople enjoy taxpayer-subsidized gyms, salons and restaurants, free parking, and a nice office. They also get $1-million-plus allowances per year for staff, mail, and travel home, where they can rent another office and lease a car on your dime, according to the National Taxpayers Union.
On top of that, House ethics rules allow them to accept gifts, luxury jet rides, and free overnight trips of up to seven days abroad for meetings, factfinding missions, and speaking gigs, provided they re related to official duties and not sponsored by lobbyists. Between 2000 and 2005, congresspeople and staff accepted 23,000 of these trips, often to vacation spots and worth nearly $50 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Turns out that 90 were sponsored by lobbyists Mr. and Mrs. Tom DeLay s infamous $28,000 golfing trip to Scotland among them.
Once elected, it s almost impossible to kick a congressperson out of office, even if he becomes mentally incompetent or is sent to prison. To oust a member of the House or Senate, it takes a vote of two thirds of his colleagues which has happened only twice since the Civil War, and five times in all of U.S. history.
House rules do discourage a congressman from participating in committees if convicted of a crime for which he could get two years or more in jail, and his own party may force him from leadership positions even if he s not convicted. For example, Democrats pushed Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) off the Ways and Means Committee in 2006 because FBI agents swear they caught him accepting a $100,000 bribe and found $90,000 cash in his freezer. (Jefferson denies any wrongdoing.) But even if convicted and sent to prison, Jefferson could seek reelection from his cell, as did former Ohio Democrat James Traficant, Jr., in 2002. Traficant received only 15 percent of the vote and lost his seat but he was still allowed to collect his full pension.
The reason lobbyists court lawmakers is that they have the power to help friends and hurt foes. For instance, a congressperson can create a specific tax break or other loophole for a lobbyist s clients, giving them an unfair advantage over rivals. Congresspeople also hold the power to steer federal funds to friends by earmarking money for pet projects a power they often abuse. Case in point: the notorious Bridge to Nowhere, a Golden Gate size span between a small town in rural Alaska and a nearly deserted island, for which Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) persuaded Congress to earmark $223 million in 2005. Similar abuses have increased dramatically in recent years, with the number of earmarks coming out of the House Appropriations Committee nearly tripling, to 15,877 earmarks worth $47.4 billion in 2005, from just 4,126 earmarks worth $23.2 billion in 1994, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Congress is notorious for breaking its own rules: Only a handful of members dock their own pay when absent for reasons other than health, for example. But it s Congress s failure to follow its own legislative procedures that s truly galling. When the joint House-Senate conference committee meets to reconcile different versions of a bill, for instance, House rules forbid adding anything beyond the scope of the version the House has already approved. And once the committee comes up with a compromise bill, the House is supposed to hold at least one public meeting, giving members a written explanation of the changes and three days until the vote. But the conference committee routinely flouts these rules, often making big changes without explanation, then getting the Rules Committee to waive restrictions so they can rush bills through unread. How common is this? In one telling example, the Rules Committee issued so-called blanket waivers for all 18 bills that went through the conference committee from Jan. 4, 2005, through March 2006.
In December 2006, Speaker Hastert took it a step further by letting Sen. William Frist (R-Tenn.) add on to a bill after the conference committee was finished: 40 pages of legislation protecting makers of avian flu vaccine and similar drugs against liability even if they injured or killed patients through gross negligence. Then Hastert got the Rules Committee to make kosher what he d done. Frist s spokesperson claims there was bipartisan consensus for such an incentive, but couldn t explain why it hadn t made it into the text of the bill if it was so popular. Hastert s office failed to return our calls.