Thoughts on Congressional Term Limits and Pensions

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By: Michael Espinos
14 August 2016

I have been seeing a lot of people posting easy fixes to solve the problems with Congress.  What bothers me about this is that we should know that our government is too complex for an easy fix to just swoop in and solve our problems.  You may respond that the complexity needs to be simplified to make our government better and that is also simplistic.  Our government is like a complex biome; you can’t just drastically change it and expect the biome to remain functional.  If we continue to think that easy fixes will solve all of our problems then we are not facing a government but an education problem.  Most adults know that anything that sounds too good to be true usually is but there are entire industries predicated on convincing people to buy something they don’t need and doesn’t work because it will be an easy solution to their problem.  I’ve fallen for it a few times and I’d call anyone who says they haven’t a liar.  That is the problem, we know better yet we fall for it.  When it comes to a complex organization like the Federal Government we as citizens should know that there cannot be an easy fix but we all want it so badly.  Let me address the current easy fixes; afterward I’ll suggest two ideas that may help change the biome of the government enough to make positive changes.

Term Limits

Term limits sound like a great fix and just under one-third of states have some sort term limit for politicians that serve at state level positions.  People argue that it infuses the position with new blood and makes the person in office focus less on holding the office and more on getting the job done.  All of these reasons sound great but there are some downsides that this overlooks.  The first and most important thing that is overlooked is the choice of the voters.  As a voter, I would like to keep an effective politician in office because I know that he has my interests in mind.  If I want to keep someone I have voted into office why should I not be able to keep voting for him?  That is how democracy should work.  The voter’s power is to put whom they want into office.

You may balk at that and say that I don’t know what my legislator is doing in office.  How do I know he has my interests in mind?  I watch what they do.  We live in a digital age and I have apps like Countable and sites like Govtrack that allow me to follow what is going on.  I also know that as informed as I am, I don’t understand a fraction of what goes on in Washington.  That may sound like a reason to attack incumbents but the fact is that it is their job to know how to get bills passed not mine.  That leads me to my second concern about term limits; how will anything get passed if we have a revolving door of legislators?  Many legislators have said that it takes most of their first term to learn the ropes of how congress works.  With term limits, we are kicking them out as soon as they finally learn how to get work done.  That cannot be effective.  Many people point to the power of lobbyists and special interests.  They say that the power of these groups over legislators is ruining our country.  That may be true but when a legislator needs votes they can lean on these contacts to make sure that their membership and money goes to making something happen.  This is the greatest strength of the NRA; they have a small membership and yet they are effective at pushing their agenda more than any other group.  Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver nailed it in the two parts of his piece on the Dickey Amendment. (Part 1, Part 2 )  If we cannot mobilize voters to turn out for issues that matter then we will continue to be dominated by those who can.  I am a union member and we talk about the power as a block of voters but the union leadership doesn’t address communication issues.  This is all to say that just because you don’t trust outside interests in politics doesn’t mean that they don’t serve a purpose.  Additionally, imagine those special interests with access to a flock of new and inexperienced legislators regularly that they can mold into what they want without having to give anything up.

The next major concern I have with term limits is that the turnover will weaken the legislative process.  No one will develop long term goals and in many cases, entire committees that are vital to the nation will be filled with inexperienced members.  Would you rather have someone with over a decade of experience deciding if the National Defense Committee should recommend that Congress authorize a war or someone who has only been in office for 3 months and hasn’t learned how to navigate the building yet let alone become caught up on the intricacies of National Defense and the impact of what their decision could cast the world?  Can you tell me what S. 683: Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015 is about?  That is one of 10,916 pieces of legislation that the 114th Congress has to consider as of this writing.  If a legislator is invested long term in their job they will be invested in making sure that they know the important issues being discussed; they’ll be able to sift the wheat from the chaff.  They will be able to understand why S. 683 has a predicted chance of passing that is zero percent.  They will know what the generic title that is an acronym that is close to the word career.  Is this a jobs bill? If you can’t answer that question and don’t know how to find out then you may want to reconsider term limits.

Legislation1Source

The final concern I have is that this will discourage highly qualified people from seeking office because it is temporary and they will not be able to make a career out of it.  The best choices for the job are not going to run.  It is not as glamorous as it sounds.  There is a lot of work involved being a legislator and it will not be worth the work only to walk away from what you build in just a few short years.  You may get more new blood into Congress but the quality will be diluted by the frequent turnover.  Another aspect that is being ignored is that legislators depend heavily on their staff.  Congressional staffers have a major impact on how the government works and will make careers out of working for a few members of Congress.  Term limits would effectively ruin this network and would further hamper the already inefficient system.

Limited Pensions

Congress has the lowest approval rating ever.  That does not engender goodwill from the electorate toward paying the members of Congress.  It is easy to want to take away that pay.  Since the financial crash of 2008 many voters have faced dire economic straits.  When someone says that members of Congress receive their paycheck for life it will enrage the voter who has had to decide if they should sell their house or take a third job to try and save it.  We have all heard how members of Congress get paid for life and it doesn’t sound fair.  It sounded like a sweet deal to me and I wished I could get in on an easy meal ticket like that.  Too bad it isn’t true.  Congress has a retirement plan that is similar to what many government employees receive.  There is even a relatively easy to understand report that pops up first when you run an internet search for “Congressional Retirement Plan”  If you are elected in November you will need to hold onto your seat for 5 years before you’re eligible for CSRS.  If you are in the Senate this should not be too hard but if you are in the House it becomes a bit more complex.  You may be saying that 5 years is not that long and after that, the money just rains down forever.  That is also not quite true.

Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at the age of 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. Members are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary. source: page 4

That is still not a bad deal you say?  I agree but it isn’t easy to get and I feel that it is important to reward those who serve our country.  You may not like legislators as much as veterans but they do the work of our nation and take a surprisingly similar oath.  This may all seem like an apology for members of a dysfunctional system but it is not.  Legislators know that they will be financially provided for if they do their job.  They only need to worry about being re-elected.  The election cycle is a problem but as we know there is no such thing as a quick fix.  Now imagine you have a legislator who will only be around for a two terms at most.  What is their focus?  They aren’t focused on the voters because after they are re-elected they are no longer held accountable for what they do and that can have serious consequences in its self.  If you have legislators that are only around for a short amount of time they are focused on where their next paycheck will come from.  You tried to remove money from the equation and that is a great idea but someone else will have money and they will be able to buy a 2nd term legislator much cheaper than before.

Furthermore, removing the financial incentive means that you will again push away qualified candidates.  If your years of work will not be counted toward your pension then why should you do it?  This opens the door even wider for corruption and outside influence.  You will not have dedicated lawmakers that know how to play within the system; instead, you will have opportunists that see a short time commitment in a job that no one wants with a potential for a big payday when they are done.  I cannot imagine how that would be in the nation’s best interests.

Alternatives

There has been a quick fix bandied about that is a situational fix that has some merit but needs refinement.  The idea is that legislators should be under the penalty of No Budget, No Pay.  (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3) This sounds like a great idea but it has a similar, albeit lesser, flaw as limiting pensions.  Special interests will find a crack to worm their way into this and supplement the lack of pay to encourage the legislators to further agenda.  There should be penalties for the lack of progress made by Congress but I feel that there should also be financial incentives for getting work done.  It may sound crazy but people work harder when they are rewarded and the Congress costs just over 4 billion depending on which funding bill you read.  That is 4 billion out of an estimated budget of just over 27 trillion for 2017.  That means that the cost of Congress is 0.0147% of the total budget. (House, Senate)  I’m sure you’ll hear at least one story this year about far more than that being wasted on some doomed project.  We can afford to incentivize legislators to be productive.

Budget1Chart values in Billion $ units.  Source

This leads to my final concern.  We shouldn’t have to incentivize them to be productive because we, as citizens, should be involved in the running of our government.  When was the last time you called your representative? When did you write a letter, send a tweet, visit or in any way interact with your elected representatives?  If you have not or cannot remember then you have no one to blame for the running of this country other than yourself.  Your vote gets them into office but it is your responsibility to make sure that the elected officials in office know what you want.  Your job does not stop when you cast your vote.  If you wonder why politicians pander to the party extremes it is because those people feel so passionately about their beliefs that they maintain contact with their representatives and they vote in all elections, not just the presidential ones.  You need to stay informed, stay involved, and stay in contact.  Be a citizen, not just a voter.

 

Additional source:
Legislative Term Limits: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone. BURDETT A. LOOMIS, University of Kansas

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