Congress Gets Special Treatment, Again

For years, Congress enacted laws that did not apply to Congress.  The Affordable Care Act was supposed to be different, however.  It provided that members of Congress and their staffs would not receive gold-plated coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and instead must purchase insurance through the on-line exchanges.  Notably, the law made no provision for taxpayer subsidies of the cost of such insurance.  In short, Congress and its staffers would have to pony up for insurance just like the rest of us schmoes.

DSC04196Then Congress had second thoughts.  Without subsidies, Representatives, Senators, and staffers would face “sharply increased costs.”  That, in turn, might cause a “brain drain,” as dedicated public servants left for more lucrative private employment.  Those considerations, at least, were offered as justification for a new proposed rule promulgated by the Office of Personnel Management after intervention by Congress and President Obama.  Under the proposed rule, taxpayer contributions will be allowed to continue for exchange-purchased plans for lawmakers and their staffs.  The taxpayer contributions will cover about 75 percent — 75 percent! — of their health care costs.

It’s a mystery how the OPM can conclude that taxpayers must pay for a subsidy when the Affordable Care Act says nothing about it.  More basically, though, the justification for the subsidy is laughable.  What is the evidence that there are any brains, among members of Congress or their staffs, that we should worry about being “drained”?  How much thoughtfully crafted legislation has come out of Congress lately?  The last I checked, members weren’t even bothering to read the voluminous bills that get written and voted on at the eleventh hour.  And there is no sign of brilliance in the legislative maneuvering, on both sides of the aisle, that has produced nothing but pointless bickering and idiotic solutions like “supercommittees” and “sequestration.”

In reality, members of Congress aren’t worried about brains — they are worried about protecting their own little fiefdoms, where they are treated like royalty by staffers who are prized not for intellect, but for loyalty and a laser-like focus on the crucial, ultimate goal of getting their member reelected at all costs.  If the loss of a 75 percent subsidy that most private employees could only dream of will cause those staffers to look elsewhere for employment, Congress has only itself to blame.  The alternative jobs undoubtedly will be lobbying and consulting and NGO jobs, where the former staffers will trade on their government experience and ability to obtain “access” to their former bosses and others on Capitol Hill.  If Washington, D.C. were not an insiders’ heaven, lucrative outside employment opportunities for the staffers who are pure political hacks would be non-existent.

Members of Congress are elected to represent us; they don’t thereby become an elite class.  They shouldn’t be treated any differently than the rest of the country, and neither should their staff members.  Shame on us if we let this latest outrage pass without recognizing, and acting on, the fact that Congress has once again immunized itself from the pain and aggravation that we will experience as a result of laws that Congress and the President have enacted.

Helping Out Hollywood, NASCAR, And Anyone Else Who Can Afford To Hire High-Powered Lobbyists

We’re starting to learn more about what was in the “fiscal cliff” measure that the President supported and Congress cravenly passed at the eleventh hour.  Of course, the information shows that the legislation is loaded with targeted provisions, tax breaks, and loopholes for special interests — just as any rational person predicted.

For example, the bill included a film production tax credit for Hollywood that allows deduction of millions of dollars in production costs if a TV or movie production occurs in an “economically disadvantaged area” — whatever that is defined to mean.  Supporters say the tax credit helps to keep productions from going overseas and “helps get investors who would like to have a significant impact in their taxes reduced.”  Sure, sounds good!  Let’s make sure that Hollywood fat cats get a bit fatter, so producers, directors, and actors can continue to make sober public service announcements that lecture us not to engage in the crazed gun violence that every Hollywood production seems to glorify.  And I’m sure we can all be confident that the millions of dollars that the Hollywood moguls and “stars” have contributed to political campaigns had nothing to do with Congress’ reasoned judgment to extend this tax break.

In the bill there’s also a tax break for NASCAR, to allow accelerated (no pun intended) depreciation for anyone who builds a racetrack.  Apparently all of the races on TV and gear that you see people wearing are misleading and, in reality, NASCAR is struggling and needs all the help it can get.  Perhaps the tax break recognizes that high gasoline prices have hit the owners of those powerful, gas-guzzling cars even harder than they hit the rest of us.

IMG_2787As the Washington Post reports, the fiscal cliff legislation also includes tax breaks, tax credits, and subsidies for banks and multinational corporations, Manhattan apartment developers and railroads, and even manufacturers of plug-in two-wheeled electric scooters.

With our current system, it’s all about who you know, who you can afford to hire to lobby for your cause, and whether they have the access and power to make sure that, when the last-minute deal goes down and an emergency bill is passed that the vast majority of members of Congress haven’t even read, your pet provision is included.

It’s a great system, if you are one of the people who can afford to play the game.  If you’re one of the rest of us, who can’t afford a gold-plated lobbyist to represent your interests, you’re left defenseless.  Of course, average citizens are supposed to have representatives in Washington, D.C.  They are called Senators and Representatives, but who can count on them to protect our interests?  Most of them didn’t even read the entire bill that they voted on.

Lobbyist Heaven — And Lobbyist Hell (II)

When the idea of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was raised, I expressed the hope that Congress would take steps to ensure that the people who served on the “Super Committee” did not trade on their membership for fundraising purposes.

Alas, my hopes were promptly dashed.  According to Roll Call, about two hours after Representative Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat, was named to the “Super Committee,” emailed invitations to a fundraiser touted his appointment and asked attendees to make a “suggested contribution” of $1,500 to “Becerra for Congress.”  The email pointedly states: “This will be Mr. Becerra’s first event since being named to the commission and may be one of the first for any of the twelve members of the group,” and adds, “This event could give all attendees a glimpse into what will most assuredly be the primary topic of discussion between now and the end of the year.”

Becerra says he did not know about the solicitation.  “I did not know, did not ask, would not ask and I will not ask any of my supporters to use my appointment to the select committee for purposes outside its principle [sic] focus,” the Roll Call article quotes him as saying. “That’s my position today and that’s what my position will be for my tenure on the committee.”

Let’s take Representative Becerra at his word.  Isn’t the real problem, though, that in our current system flunkies and cronies and lobbyists can do the wink-wink/nudge-nudge messaging for the candidate, who stays above the unseemly touting?  Incidentally, the Roll Call article reports that the fundraiser is going forward, despite the controversy about the email and invitation linking Becerra’s service with a suggested contribution to his campaign.  I wonder how many $1,500 checks will be made out to “Becerra for Congress”?

Lobbyist Heaven — And Lobbyist Hell

Here’s an interesting side-effect of the debt ceiling compromise:  the 12 members of Congress appointed to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction charged with coming up with a plan to wring $1.5 trillion in savings out of the federal budget will be extraordinarily inviting targets for intense, all-out lobbying.

This should not surprise anyone.  Even by Washington standards, $1.5 trillion is a lot of money.  AARP, farming interests, NPR, corporations, hospitals, colleges, state and local governments, and all of the various special interests who could lose part of their federal funding or their special tax breaks will be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their turf and make sure the cuts come out of somebody else’s hide.  Lobbyists who have good relationships with any of the Joint Select Committee members will be in high demand.  Lobbyists who don’t will be sucking wind.  And for the special interests, it’s not a bad deal — instead of having to lobby 535 Senators and Representatives for years at a time, they only need to influence the decisions of 12 people who must submit their recommendation within a few months.

So, every lobbyist on K Street will be keenly interested in who gets appointed to the Committee.  Let’s hope that Congress takes steps to ensure that whoever is selected to serve on this stunningly powerful, temporary entity doesn’t have the opportunity to capitalize on their status by having constant fundraisers between now and the date the Joint Select Committee’s recommendation is due.  The “Divine Dozen” are being entrusted with enormous responsibility.  They should all pledge not to seek any campaign contributions, fund-raising support, or any other form of benefit during their term of service on the Joint Select Committee.  The Committee’s recommendation will be controversial enough without people wondering if a few well-placed contributions influenced its decision-making.

Another Demonstration Of Why Balancing The Federal Budget Is Such A Huge Challenge

ABC News had an interesting story today that demonstrates why cutting spending and balancing the federal budget is so difficult.

The story is based on an email sent out by an unnamed Democratic staff member on the Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee that will address the Labor and Health and Human Services budget.  The email set up a meeting with hundreds of lobbyists who support programs that fall within that budget and encouraged them to band together to oppose cuts to that budget.  The article quotes the email as saying that “[o]ne thing everyone should be able to agree on now is that a rising tide lifts all boats,” and that a higher budget allocation “improves the chances for every stakeholder group to receive more funding.”

Don’t you just love the phrase “stakeholder group”?  It aptly captures the reality of the out-of-control federal budget, where every bloated federal program is strongly supported by some interest group that has a huge stake in continuing to get funding for their pet program.  And now, thanks in part to the efforts of committee staffers who in reality are beholden to those interest groups rather than to voters, legions of K Street lobbyists will be hired and funded and encouraged to band together to stoutly resist the funding cuts that are essential to restoring some form of fiscal sanity to the federal budget.  The mind reels at the prospects of legions of lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill and of the legislative logrolling, campaign contributions, and stealthy cloakroom deals that will define the budgeting process during this Congress as a result.

Those of us who are interested in reducing the budget deficit and the federal debt shouldn’t kid ourselves.  The people and entities who are dependent on federal programs are highly motivated, well-funded, and will do whatever they can to see that efforts to cut spending are blunted and frustrated at every turn.

What’s Wrong With Bankers?

As UJ notes in his recent post, Democratic Representative Mary Jo Kilroy always notes that her challenger, Republican Steve Stivers, was a “banking lobbyist.”  I assume that means that focus groups are indicating that “banking lobbyist” has sure-fire negative connotations, like “axe murderer” or “convicted felon.”

Representative Kilroy’s negative harping on Stivers’ service as a “banking lobbyist” is weird because lobbyists, of course, routinely interact with legislators — like Kilroy.  If the notion is that lobbying is some intrinsically corrupt job, it is because the legislative process of which Kilroy is a part is corrupt.  What kind of message is that for a Member of Congress to be sending?

Perhaps the negative element of “banking lobbyist” that Kilroy is emphasizing is not the “lobbyist” part, but the “banking” part.  If so, it’s too bad.  Grampa Neal was a banker, and a pretty successful one at that.  Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Grampa helped steer his bank safely through the Great Depression, made lots of very prudent loan (and no-loan) decisions that helped businesses and families, and presided over the bank’s steady growth over a period of several decades.  If Grampa Neal ever used a lobbyist, I am sure it was done properly and for good reason.  I therefore don’t necessarily associate the phrase “banking lobbyist” with something nefarious.

I guess we will find out in November whether voters in the 15th District think “banking lobbyist” has worse connotations than “incumbent Member of Congress.”