“There is no distinctly native American criminal class, except Congress.”
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
Mark Twain, responsible for the foregoing, was being funny. His remark, however, is steadily becoming a little more true and a little less funny.
The U.S. Congress, through indirection and guile rather than by overt vote, has managed to give itself a pay raise. The national press, for once anxious to establish itself as really patriotic, reasonable, and fair, has in most part agreed that the heavy responsibilities of congressmen merit the additional compensation.
What nobody seems to acknowledge, however, is that neither businessmen nor professionals command their salaries according to their responsibilities but according to how well they meet them. If a company executive officer doesn’t do his job right he gets sacked or demoted. Not so a congressman—providing he plays the political game right, he’s there, forever.
Though most Texans have held Senator Lloyd Bentsen in high regard, he has been discovered to preside over a breakfast club whose individual membership tab of $10,000 went into his reelection fund. The senator has admitted a mistake—but of what? Of committing a gross impropriety or of failing to conceal the club’s existence? As it is, the club has been disbanded. Senator Robert Bird, the Majority Leader, on the other hand, is less sensitive, keeping his breakfast club intact, its membership fee a paltry $5,000.
How many other congressmen maintain breakfast clubs, and at what cost to the members, we are not told. But apparently the device is not an uncommon one in our Congress.
And who are those who belonged, or belong, to these breakfast clubs? It is safe to assume that they are persons who want, for reasons worth more than $5,000-110,000, to talk at leisure to an official of great influence in the government. Their belief in the possibility of getting, for their money, government action favorable to them or their companies must be exceptional. I don’t know what the legal distinction might be, but to a layman that sounds like the prostitution of influence and power.
What is the chance of an ordinary citizen getting the careful individual attention of such a senator or representative? Unless he is a friend or a person of unusual wealth, importance, or influence, the prospect is a mighty slim one. Even a written request would in all probability be answered by a staffer or by a form letter. After all, a congressman is deluged by scores, maybe hundreds, of calls and letters every day and cannot even think of giving each one his personal attention. But not so for the breakfast club member.
But we were really talking about pay. A conscientious, smart, and courageous congressman, capable of distinguishing right from wrong and understanding geopolitical realities as well as the needs of American society, is worth more than any of them get. There are, fortunately, a considerable number of such congressmen, an example being the recently deceased Washington Democrat Henry Jackson. Jackson was properly conscious of the requirements of his constituents, but his knowledge of world affairs enabled him to balance one consideration with the other.
We should ask ourselves, what is Congress for? It may sound a bit simplistic, but 1 should say its principal purpose is to represent the people in the enactment or modification of legislation necessary for the administration (a) to protect the country; (b) to govern the country properly; and (c) to manage the country’s foreign affairs. But whatever one’s personal definition of the function of Congress, it seems logical that performance, not simple responsibility, should determine congressional pay raises.
If Congress were meeting its responsibilities, this country would not be suffering from many of its longstanding, long-unresolved problems. As we all know, it took the Congress nine years to come up with ineffectual legislation to curb the flood of illegal immigration across our southern border. The House of Representatives is discussing drug control legislation which, for lack of sufficiently severe penalties for drug traffickers, has no possibility of solving the terrible drug problem. Congress has recently enacted, over the President’s veto, a “water quality” act recently characterized by James J. Kilpatrick as a bureaucratic monstrosity, meant to benefit individual congressmen. Left altogether unsolved by the Congress are such crucial problems as the national debt, the budget deficit, the burgeoning crime rate, widespread pornography, an inadequate system of education, increasing poverty (despite the billions of dollars spent for its eradication), as well as the creation, through the neglect of children, of ever larger generations of welfare recipients.
Congressmen sometimes blame the inadequacies of existing law on the interpretations of the Constitution by the Supreme Court. This charge is justified, but is there no solution? Must this democracy fail to operate properly on that account? The Constitution includes provisions for its own amendment, an admittedly long and a complicated process, but good government may demand that this process be again set in motion. It is hard to believe the Founding Fathers intended to establish a government incapable of operating for the good of its people.