Friday, October 22, 2010

Do Not Muzzle the Ox

There are two hot button topics that receive a lot of attention these days— Congressional retirement and Congressional pay. Unfortunately most of what you hear about Congressional retirement is just plain false and I believe much of the ballyhoo about Congressional salaries is not justified.

The often repeated rumor is that a Representative or a Senator receives their full salary for the rest of their lives even if they have only served one term. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that rumor is pure poppycock. Representatives and Senators participate in the same retirement plans that are available to federal employees with one notable exception; they are fully vested in their retirement after five full years of service whereas federal employees are partially vested after 10 years and fully vested only after 20 years of service.

All Members of Congress elected in 1984 or later, like all federal employees hired after that date, participate in the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). They pay into the Social Security system at the rate of 6.2% of the first $97,500 of their salary and they pay into the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund at the rate of 1.3% of their full salary. The federal government matches their contributions to those funds just like your private sector employer matches the 7.5% you pay into the Social Security fund. Representatives and Senators elected prior to 1984, like federal employees hired before that date, are participants in the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). After 1984, they were all given the opportunity to stay in the CSRS or convert to FERS.

Representatives and Senators are fully vested in the FERS after five full years of service, but they may not draw upon that retirement until age 62 with the following exceptions. If they have 20 years of service they may start drawing retirement at age 50 after they leave Congress, and if they have 25 years of service, they may start drawing retirement at any age after they leave Congress.

The amount of their retirement pension is based on the number of years served and the average of their highest three years of salary, but by law, their pension may never exceed 80% of their final salary.

According to the Congressional Research Service, “As of October 1, 2006, 413 retired Members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or in part on their congressional service. Of this number, 290 had retired under CSRS and were receiving an average annual pension of $60,972. A total of 123 Members had retired with service under both CSRS and FERS or with service under FERS only. Their average annual pension was $35,952 in 2006.” (

Now that the retirement myth is busted, let’s turn to the issue of Congressional pay. Many people believe we ought to have more of a citizen Congress that requires Members of Congress to earn their money in the real world and to not be paid by the federal government. Indeed, the Founding Fathers had this same debate during the Constitutional Convention with Benjamin Franklin arguing for no pay. However, he did not prevail and the first Members of Congress were paid a per diem of $6.00 a day when in session. Members of Congress began receiving an annual salary in 1855 and the rest is history. Current Members of Congress are paid $174,000 per year except the Speaker of the House who gets $223,500 per year and the Senate and House Majority and Minority Leaders who each receive $193,400 per year. The salary levels are calculated by the Office of Personnel Management and these salaries become the basis for Judges’ salaries as well as the salaries of senior federal executives.

Now, one can certainly debate the merits of these salaries and what level of salary is appropriate for the job, but the Founding Fathers clearly understood the Biblical principle that you should not muzzle the ox—in other words it is only fair that if the ox helps you harvest the grain and turns the mill stone to make the flour then you should not prevent the ox from eating while it works. We have certain expectations of our Congressmen and Senators and we should pay a fair wage for the work they do on our behalf. And, when re-election time comes around, we should hold them accountable for the job they have done.

More to the point, we want smart, energetic, and principled leaders to run our country, therefore we ought to expect to pay them a salary commensurate with their skills. The reality is that most Members of Congress have extraordinary skills that would probably enable them to earn more money in the private sector than they get paid in Congress. Many Members of Congress have left much higher paying jobs to enter public service in order to help make this country a better and safer place to live.

Certainly, in most communities across the United States and compared to the average American salary, $174,000 a year is a very comfortable income. But, let us consider that Members of Congress must maintain two households, one in their home district and one in the Washington metropolitan area. Moreover, unless you are willing to commute over one hour each way on top of your 10-12 hour day at work, sometimes seven days a week, then you will probably be paying somewhere between $800,000 to $1 million for a modest town home within 30 minutes of the Capitol.

The Bible also says in Proverbs 30:9, “For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name.” There are countless stories in recent times about Congressional corruption, or at minimum, questionable business dealings by several Members of Congress. Certainly, an appropriate salary should help reduce the need and temptation to seek outside income, and at the same time, a salary that is not too high will help our representatives remember from whence they came. But, whatever the salary is for Members of Congress, let us remember we pay them because we expect a lot from them and we do not muzzle the ox.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Stop the Bush Bashing

To coin the often used phrase, “I am mad as heck and I am not going to take it anymore!” It has been almost two years since George W. Bush left office and he is not just still the focus of the Democrats, but even Republicans have taken to blaming Bush for whatever issue they face today.

Enough is enough. George W. Bush has retired to Crawford, Texas, and in the most dignified retirement from public life in decades, he has stayed completely out of the public fray over politics and the debate about the changes this country is going through.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I worked for George W. Bush from 2002 through most of 2008. I consider it an honor to have served under his Administration and leadership. Although I never met him personally, he would periodically gather all of his political appointees to one location and share with us his vision for public service. He would tell us he ran for President and came to Washington, DC, to do a job and that at the end of that job he would go home to Texas. He encouraged us to focus on that particular part of government we wanted to improve when we came to Washington. He told us in 2004 to forget the politics; that was his job. Our job was to serve the American people and strive to improve the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. He talked about the Oval Office. He pointed out the obvious; it has no corners. His point was that there is no place to run to in that office that did not turn you back to facing the difficult and sometimes intractable issues that face every President. But, George W. Bush is a man of faith and that faith gave him a sense of optimism and it also gave him strong convictions about what is right and what is wrong.

It is George W. Bush’s faith in Jesus Christ that I believe made him the object of so much scorn throughout and even after his Presidency. Just as many of today’s critics of the Tea Party, it seems to be vogue in America to belittle Christians. It is almost as though the intellectual elite believe you have to have your brain siphoned out to be a Christian. Even the way the words “Born-Again Christian” cross their contorted lips seems to belie their underlying seething and disdain of anyone who is a person of faith. And of all the ironies of life, these are the same people who preach tolerance.

Much of the criticism of George W. Bush revolves around the War on Terror and specifically the war in Iraq. George W. Bush did not ask for or seek to go to war. It is as though Americans have already forgotten that on September 11, 2001, less than nine months into his Presidency, America experienced the most devastating foreign attack on American soil in history. Moreover, the attackers could not be identified with any nation, and in fact, were just part of a loosely connected network of terrorists who believe America is the great evil. America struggled in Viet Nam because it had never faced guerilla warfare and we struggle today because the War of Terror is the most unconventional warfare planet earth has ever witnessed.

George W. Bush did not pick this fight, but he did just what any other red-blooded American would do when attacked. He undertook every possible effort to secure the safety and security of America. He did this by increasing homeland security and taking the war to the terrorists, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Oh, I know, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 did not originate in Iraq. Nonetheless, every available piece of intelligence reviewed and supported by the intelligence agencies, Republicans and Democrats alike, suggested Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and that he was actively supporting terrorists in Israel by paying $50,000 to the families of suicide bombers. Saddam used weapons of mass destruction on his own people and is widely considered to have been one of the cruelest of the post-World War II dictators. A free and democratic post-Saddam Iraq will be a stabilizing influence in a part of the world that seems to breed instability.

Another action for which George W. Bush has been roundly criticized, and this time by Republicans and Democrats alike, is the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) or the so-called bank bailouts. While it is always in fashion to be a bank basher, banking is without a doubt at the center of every aspect of our economy. Read your history; it was the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent failure of the banking industry that led to the Great Depression. Again, George W. Bush acted, in cooperation with Congress, to enact TARP. As a result, the banking industry did not collapse and indeed virtually every dollar invested in the banks has been repaid to the federal treasury and there has not been a calamitous failure of banks that might have bankrupted the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Border security is also an issue for which people like to say George W. Bush did not defend our borders. Nothing could be further from the truth. I actually worked on border security issues because the Department of the Interior is responsible for managing lands along nearly one half of the US/Mexico Border. I helped author a Memorandum of Understanding among the Interior, Agriculture, and Homeland Security Departments that increased cooperation, granted access to the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and increased border security. It was the Bush Administration that completed nearly 700 miles of border fence over just a few short years. And it was George W. Bush who tripled the size of the CBP forces along the border and who ordered the National Guard to assist the CBP.

History has a way of proving over time the real value of any President. Richard Nixon, who was humiliated when he resigned in the face of imminent impeachment proceedings, has now been acclaimed as one of the best modern Presidents for his foreign policy and especially his diplomacy that led to substantially improved relations between the free world and Communist China. He got the US out of Viet Nam, a war started by John F. Kennedy and escalated substantially by Lyndon B. Johnson, in as orderly a manner as was possible.

Perhaps even more significant is that at the time of his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the most unpopular President in our history. He was, of course, blamed for the Civil War which led to nearly one million American casualties. The scars of that war are still healing and goal of freeing slaves and providing them their Constitutional and God-given civil rights are still a work in progress. But, at one end of the National Mall in Washington, DC, stands the Lincoln Memorial, one of the largest monuments ever built to honor a President of the Untied States. As history shined favorably on Abraham Lincoln, I believe one day that same vindicating light will shine upon the Presidency of George W. Bush.