Vail Valley Voices: Reps must cut back, too
May 31, 2011
Since I found it very difficult to discuss economics without the conversation disintegrating into political diatribes, several years ago I decided to concentrate on things which to me were nonpolitical and could be discussed without rancor or name-calling.
Specifically, there were three things I wanted anyone running for office seeking to represent me to do:
• Vote to overturn the automatic annual congressional pay raise, which does not require a recorded vote or debate.
• Take a 10 percent pay cut for a least a year.
• Reduce their “office” expenses by 10 percent.
I started this tack during the last presidential/general elections. The purpose was not to dent the deficit, but to find candidates who were willing to show the spirit necessary (in my opinion) to right the course of our nation. Recently, I tired of the lack of response by my senators, Udall and Bennet, and sent them both the following:
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“In 2006, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (S. 2590) that requires all spending by federal departments and agencies be posted online in a searchable format for the public.
“Then-Sen. Barack Obama, a co-author of the law stated, “This legislation marks a small but important step in the effort to change the culture in Washington, D.C. American taxpayers soon will be equipped with a significant tool that will make it much easier to hold elected officials accountable for the way taxpayer money is spent.”
“The website created by this legislation, USASpending.gov, unfortunately remains grossly incomplete primarily due to the recalcitrance of the Senate and House to make data readily available to the ordinary, hard-working, tax-paying American citizen, despite the monies being largely ours. I am speaking, of course, on behalf of the less than 60 percent of American citizens who actually pay any federal taxes.
“While the great majority of Americans were staring into the face of financial woes, loss of jobs and income, dissipation of retirement funds and plans, the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations bill provided $3.138 billion to fund the operations of Congress in fiscal year 2010, an increase of more than $100 million from the $3.035 billion enacted in fiscal year 2009. This was done by a House and Senate dominated at that time by your party – the Democrats.
“Now in general we know “each member of the House and Senate receive annual allowances to run their offices. These office allotments may be spent on staff salaries, travel, printing, mailing, and other items and services for their offices. Office allowances generally range from $1.3 million to $1.6 million for each House member, according to a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service. Members of the Senate receive more than $2.7 million each.”(Perry Bacon Jr., ‘House to put office spending online,’ The Washington Post, June 4, 2009.)
“We also know the secretary of the Senate publishes budget data for each Senate office every six months and the House of Representatives publishes similar office budget information every three months. But this data is not available online and is published in limited quantities not easily available to – again – the ordinary, hard-working tax-paying American citizen. Are you getting my drift?
“Supposedly ‘any unspent money from the allowance is returned to the U.S. Treasury, and, therefore, cannot be rolled over to the next year.’ While some members do return unspent tax dollars, others go on a ‘use it or lose it’ spending spree. A Wall Street Journal review showed that ‘the increased year-end spending went not only toward equipment but also to fund year-end “bonuses” to aides. The average House aide earned 17 percent more in the fourth quarter of the year, when the bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to an earlier Journal analysis. Payments ranged from a few hundred dollars to $14,000’ (Louise Radnofsky, ‘Lawmakers bill taxpayers for TVs, cameras, Lexus,’ The Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2009). I know that members of Congress determine for themselves if such allowable expenses are appropriate, but I am sure you would agree with me when I say that taxpayers should also be given the ability to review the expenditures so they can reach their own conclusions as well. After all, it is our money.
“Request you provide me the following data and documents which are public, but not readily available to ordinary tax-paying citizens:
• Senate budget data for your office for each six-month period you have been in office.
• A breakdown of the amount and disposition of any year-end funds you did not return to the U.S. Treasury while you were in office by year.
• A statement summarizing your efforts to reduce office costs, and the extent to which you have been successful. Feel free to go into detail on the actions you have taken and the amounts you have saved and returned to the Treasury. By doing so, you can demonstrate how you are sharing in the sacrifices of your fellow American constituents.
“You have never replied to my earlier inquiry as to why you failed to support Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) amendment to the Omnibus Bill that would have ended the onerous (and odorous) practice of automatic Congressional pay raises, period.
“Actually both you and Michael Bennet voted – to my extreme displeasure – to table the amendment, effectively killing it. I am sure, as a responsible representative and American, you would agree that such raises should be subject to debate and a public record vote, just as other legislation. Sen. Russ Feingold’s comments summarize my feelings: “The automatic pay raise for members of Congress is inappropriate. As every working American knows, it is an unusual thing to have the power to raise your own pay. Few people have that ability. Congress should exercise that power openly, subject to regular procedures that include debate, amendment, and a vote on the record.”
“Please explain why you killed the corrective amendment and what you are doing to eliminate the practice of automatic pay raises. I am well aware of the temporary halt to raises you voted for but Congress in fact received a substantial pay raise (roughly $4,700 each) as a result of this system in January of 2009 (which benefited you when you took office). Most Americans were losing income and hopes at that time (and still are) and would have loved to have such a generous amount granted automatically.”
Bennet sent me a reply stating that he had voted to suspend his otherwise automatic pay raise twice, while Udall replied with a position paper on foreign aid. I consider both unacceptable. I do not support any candidate – Republican, Democrat or Independent – who cannot share the pain of that 53 percent (2009 IRS data) of Americans whose federal taxes pay their salaries and fund the federal government and whose retirement funds, savings and salaries have seen major reductions.
John A. Valersky is a a retired Army colonel. He entered the Army upon graduation from the Colorado School of Mines in January 1968 and returned to live in Edwards in 1994. He spends his time working for non-profit organizations such as the Vail Valley Foundation, working as a program manager and related jobs in construction, and attempting to avoid knee replacement.