In a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) dated Sept. 22, Ralph Nader bitterly complained that while Americans are working harder for less money, members of Congress are doing little legislative work and are being paid more. Nader is not wrong.

Much has been written about the fact that this 113th Congress is on track to be least productive in American History. They have successfully made President Truman's do-nothing Congress look good!

However, this is clearly not acceptable for our country and for the business of our nation.

It would be terrific if we could say that Congress even passed some significant legislation and left out the fluff, but that's not true either. We can cite countless examples of bills that were passed by this Congress that have no merit in terms of our economy or our safety. Take for example the naming of the new bridge in St. Louis, or the bill that allows dead bodies to be exhumed from national cemeteries, if they are deemed to be unfit to be there in the first place. Where's the beef? What have they been doing for the last 21 months — and now they want to be reelected because they worked hard for you? I once knew a salesman who constantly wrote me about how hard he was working. He was fired because he didn't write any orders. At the end of the day, it's not about how hard you think you work; it's about what you produce, and if you don't produce, you don't deserve to be employed in the first place.


Congress does have a mandatory recess in August, but Nader points out that during the span from the beginning of August to the middle of November (after the election — a total of 103 days), Congress will have been in session just eight days. You can't govern from Washington if you’re not there. Every legislative item sits idle if Congress is not in session, especially bills that need to be renewed. How dumb is this?

Being in public service is good and honorable. People who do it generally have a high level of satisfaction, and fully understand that they will receive less compensation but are working for the public good. I'm sometimes asked how much I made when I graduated from Wharton. My standard answer is $138 a month, as a private E-2 in the U.S. Army. When I left the Army Reserve five years later, my effective pay grade was $539 a month (for days worked). The reason for the huge salary increase was because my first drill sergeant told me "son, this is the YOUnited States Army, just work hard now and get yourself promoted quickly. The higher the rank that you get, the less work you’ll have to do."

It would seem that Sgt. Green was correct — I probably could have been a congressman if I kept on that track, and could have been one of the select few who will work eight days out of 103, and get paid a lot of money to do so ($614 an hour, according to Nader). Of course, there are those in Congress who will say that their "in-district work" is just as important as their "in D.C." work, and there is some truth to that, but are they really listening to their constituents when they are in district? The people that I talk to want a government that functions, and they don't want to see those horrible election TV commercials that take formerly normal individuals and transform them into awful creatures that only want to suck your blood and raise your taxes.

My ballgame these days is trade, and Congress has yet to act on renewing the following important issues that affect international trade and our economy. We remain hopeful that Congress will take some action soon.

  • Renew Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) — expired since 2007.
  • Renew the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill (MTB) — expired since 2012.
  • Renew Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) — expired since 2013.
  • Renew the Nicaragua Tariff Preference Level (Nic-TPL) — due to expire in December 2014.
  • Renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) — due to expire in 2015.

The above list contains trade bills of merit that require a simple renewal and dramatically benefit U.S. companies that utilize the legislation. We do need help from Congress — when they are in session.

It was the actor Peter Finch in the 1976 movie "Network" that delivered the famous line "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

What do you think — are we going to let Congress continue on this "do-nothing" path?

Helfenbein is chairman of the board of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. He is a strong advocate for a robust U.S. trade agenda and lectures frequently on the subjects of supply chain and international trade.