Editorial September 16, 2016

 

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

It is a simple process; we elect Representatives and Senators to represent us on some specific issues or the even more simple process of voting for representation by Party. Our founders gave us this process so that our views are heard and acted on. We also agree to pay our elected officials (average $174,000) and somewhat more for Majority and Minority leaders and Senators.

So we send them off to work for us and, as a rule, don’t seem to pay much attention after that but we should at least consider if we are getting our money’s worth.

There are ways to calculate the value of what Congress does; one way is to calculate an elected official’s value by measuring the amount of time he or she is on Capitol Hill. But much of the work that leads to introduced legislation begins in the State or District associating with constituents, necessary fund raising, as well as speeches and other meetings to attend. We hear the argument that they only have a four day work week in Washington with much time spent at fundraisers but those four days in Washington are very long days of floor time and meetings for fundraising, with constituents or otherwise.

We would get a better calculation of whether or not we are getting our money’s worth by looking at productivity. Productivity can be measured by how many bills were debated and / or acted on but that too is not accurate since a high volume of legislation does not mean quality legislation.

There is, however, a connection between work time and productivity that can be measured by the intent or effectiveness of legislation introduced and debated on the floor.

Let’s assume elected officials are human enough that they need some time off. To that end they have regular ‘District Work Periods’ which probably are just that but they also have the entire month of August free which may offer some down time but probably also involves various meetings and events with constituents. They return in September ready to continue on with the effort to finish a budget for the next fiscal year, fulfil year-end legislative wish lists and finally go home for three weeks through the December holidays and return to work in early January. That is how it has usually gone. While many issues are addressed through legislation the budget, authorization, and spending bills are the basis of most all other legislation. The budget, then, is critical and in no uncertain terms is the essence of why we send them there.

This year we saw a decidedly different schedule; that four week August break became seven weeks considering it started in mid-July and ended in early September. The extension is about time campaigning for reelection. Unprecedented in the 11 years we have been watching Congress both bodies plan on taking off the entire month of October and two weeks in November adding up to six more weeks out of Washington. Adding those two breaks together totals 9 weeks Congress would normally be in town doing business but will be putting work aside to campaign. With a base pay of $3,346 per week we should not have to pay the $30,114 to each Member for that nonproductive time. If the budget and spending bills are the basic measurement of productivity this 114th Congress is sorely losing. $30,114 times the 535 Members totals $16,111,000.

The other area we might look for wasted time we shouldn’t have to pay for are political messaging or ideological bills that any reasonable freshman congressperson knows will never get passed into law. Let’s take for example the over 60 bills, mostly from the House, that aimed to repeal, dismantle, or otherwise cripple the Affordable Care Act. Let’s say each bill had to be written, introduced, passed through committee and then brought to the floor for debate. Because all of those bills were never expected to bear fruit they were a waste of time and so a waste of taxpayer money used at the expense of the necessary legislation Congress must consider in order to satisfy the base back home. If each of those bills took up 5 hours from writing through floor time we are seeing over 300 hours wasted. That’s over 8 days adding another week to the 9 weeks of campaign breaks. If we clawed back that money only from those who sponsored and or voted for those bill (let’s say 200 Members per bill) we would add another $700,000 for a total of $16.9 million. Other taxpayer savings might include the committee investigating Benghazi that reportedly has cost us $7 million and has not achieved its goal of finding the smoking gun. Now our savings are at $23.9 million. Add to that the hundreds of hours that will go into a continuing resolution in place of legitimate appropriation bills and taxpayers will see even more savings by not paying for low or no productivity but also for the hours of time and money spent to rectify the situation.

There is a  justification for this that would put Members of Congress on the same playing field as those who are affected by their legislative priorities; as the House Freedom Caucus and even some moderate Republicans scour for cuts to benefits they think necessary to avoid raising taxes, an activity certainly to make life difficult for some benefit recipients who, rhetoric has concluded, should be working and not relying on the government to get by, those Members should too be accountable for the government income they get each week. It is reasonable to consider that a Member of Congress facing a salary reduction would be more careful about what they spend their time on.

Hamilton on Congress

Social Media’s Challenge to Democracy

By Lee H. Hamilton

I’ve been involved in politics for the better part of a lifetime, and have spoken at a lot of public meetings over the years. There’s one question, I think, that I’ve heard more than any other: “If I want to be an informed citizen, which sources of information should I consult?”

For many years, I had a set answer for this. Read one or more of the respected national news sources, I’d respond: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Financial Times, The Economist, etc. I’m not sure how good that answer was at the time, but I know for certain it would be woefully inadequate now. Younger people, in particular, get far more of their information from social media than from traditional news sources.

The internet and social media have upended our expectations of what it means to be well informed. Platforms and websites that take advantage of online and mobile connectivity are like a firehose, providing enormous quantities of information, opinion, news, statements, videos, images, analysis, charts, graphs – all of it instantly available. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms have become the way many of our citizens communicate. They have become a force for mobilizing large groups of people to apply political pressure on short notice.

The question is, what impact does this have on the public dialogue, and on representative democracy?

Clearly, these are powerful tools. As the rise of the Tea Party and the alarm over price increases for the EpiPen demonstrate, they can galvanize large, energetic groups of people who oppose a specific target. They make more information quickly available from more sources. They make it possible for users to do their own fact-checking (I can tell you, it’s quite intimidating as a speaker to watch members of the audience checking up on what you just said).

They allow people to get into the action and take part in political dialogue. They give citizens multiple ways to engage the attention and interest of policy makers – and give policy makers multiple ways to gauge public opinion and seek to understand the interests and needs of constituents. They’ve brought new groups into the public dialogue who were not there before, adding fresh voices to the process and broadening our understanding of what it means to be American.

But if information has become more ubiquitous and powerful, so has misinformation. It spreads rapidly, passed along from user to user with no check. Posts tend to have no room for nuance; arguments can be explosive and arguers aggressive; drama and hysteria fuel polarization; special interests can’t help but take advantage of the context-free nature of social media.

All of this makes it far more difficult for policy makers to sift through everything coming their way on any given topic. If a significant portion of the information that’s available consists of misleading graphs, false facts, misstatements, and outright lies, the process of arriving at good policy becomes fragile and laden with traps.

Which is why the sheer quantity of information bestowed on us by social media does not necessarily improve the quality of public dialogue. It does not always help citizens make good choices.

And that’s really the key question: Does the ubiquity of information available through social media really help citizens understand complex issues, weigh competing arguments, and reach discriminating judgments about politics?

Or does it overwhelm them with bursts of information that is so mixed as to quality that people simply throw up their hands – or, worse, charge full-tilt ahead based on a false understanding of reality?

The answer, of course, is that it’s a mixed bag. The jury’s still out on whether we’re becoming better citizens because we have more information and opinion at our fingertips. Certainly, the information world we live in today is putting more stress on individual voters to make discriminating choices and on our representative democracy, which rests on institutions that were designed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Our political process has proved resilient over centuries, and has served us well. But social media pose a powerful challenge. They’ve brought great gifts and equally great risks, and we’d be prudent to be cautious.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.


On the Issues

Louisiana Floods

The White House request (of $2.9 billion) is for rebuilding damaged homes and infrastructure, helping small businesses and funding community development projects. It comes as Gov. John Bel Edwards returns to Washington to press the case for money to help Louisiana. CBSNEWS

Climate Change/ Military

The effects of climate change endanger U.S. military operations and could increase the danger of international conflict, according to three new documents endorsed by retired top U.S. military officers and former national security officials. Reuters.

Kerry – Carter Syria Ceasefire RIF

“The agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry announced with Russia to reduce the killing in Syria has widened an increasingly public divide between Mr. Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who has deep reservations about the plan for American and Russian forces to jointly target terrorist groups.” NYTimes


Foreign Affairs

$38b for Israel

“The terms of a new $38 billion aid package for Israel were confirmed in a White House statement obtained by Reuters ahead of a State Department ceremony on Wednesday to sign the new 10-year pact. The package constitutes the most ever given to any country…” Reuters

Suing Terrorists

“The US House of Representatives unanimously voted Sept. 9 to allow the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue Riyadh in US court, defying President Barack Obama and an army of Saudi lobbyists. The voice vote follows similar action by the Senate in May…  ” Al Monitor.

More Intel on Russia

“The mobilization involves clandestine CIA operatives, National Security Agency cyberespionage capabilities, satellite systems and other intelligence assets, officials said, describing a shift in resources across spy services that had previously diverted attention from Russia to focus on terrorist threats and U.S. war zones.” Washington Post.


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