Congress should be a part-time job

Americans don’t have a high opinion of Congress right now. Polls show that only 21 percent of Americans believe Congress is doing a good job. When it comes to ethics and morality, studies show Americans rank congressmen barely above car salesmen—an unfair comparison, at least most states have lemon laws to protect you from dishonest car salesmen.

Believing they’re unpopular because Americans “just don’t understand” the great job they’re doing, congressmen send out more letters, fight for more pork and earmarks, and make more TV appearances. But the American people dislike congressmen precisely because they know what they’re doing—they’re spending our country into oblivion. Congress has lost touch with the people they are supposed to serve.

Our country is in terrible financial shape, as we compile a massive debt for our children and grandchildren to pay. Right now, each American “owes” $45,000 on the national debt, and that figure is set to rise much higher. What we need to do is institute a series of radical changes that I would call the “Saving Our Grandchildren’s Inheritance” package.

We start by remaking Congress and there are several vital steps American needs to take.

The first: make being a congressman a part-time job. We used to pay farmers not to grow crops so maybe we should pay members of congress not to pass laws. It would fundamentally change Washington, forcing congressmen to spend much more time back in their districts interacting with regular people. It would also encourage greater independence by young members of Congress. Most crucially, under a part-time Congress, congressmen would no longer regard politics as their career.

Plenty of solid research shows Congress feels the need to do something when it’s in session. Looking at Congress over a 25-year period, Professors Mwangi Kimenyi and Robert D. Tollison discovered the more time Congress spends in session, the longer and more complex laws become, and the more money Congress spends.

We also need a series of what I would call Fiscal Sanity Initiatives. For example:

• We need a federal balanced budget amendment. Most states already have to abide by these limits, and Washington should do the same.

• We should adopt a constitutional amendment to require a supermajority in Congress to raise taxes, along with a pay-as-you-go rule to help enforce a balanced budget amendment.

• A supermajority should also be required for government spending that exceeds historical norms as a percentage of GDP.

Serving in Congress used to be just that—an act of service, not a financially lucrative training ground for lobbyists. Our Founding Fathers envisioned that being a member of Congress would be a part-time job. Pennsylvania’s state constitution even had a provision calling for members of the Legislature to “have some profession, calling, trade, or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist.” Otherwise, they feared legislators would come to rely on politics as a career, and they would be unable to “preserve [their] independence.” Back then, farmers would literally leave their fields and go to legislate in our nation’s capital.
 
For almost two hundred years, being in Congress meant holding down another job. As recently as the 1950s, Congress was still largely a part-time institution. Aside from extraordinary times such as World War II, members arrived in Washington by train in January and left in the summer.  Granted, a part-time Congress would face its own ethical issues. How can we avoid conflicts of interest when people simultaneously run a business and pass laws? How could we prevent businesses from hiring congressmen just for the sake of influence? The answer is simple: full disclosure. Let the voters know everything, and they can render their judgment at election time.

Adapted from the newly released book Leadership and Crisis (Regnery, 2010) by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.