Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rick Perry Wants an (Unconstitutional) Part-Time Congress

Rick Perry, after his brain freeze in a recent debate when it came to which government departments he would abolish if he were President. In an effort to salvage his campaign, he's started announcing his plans to "reform" government, starting with the legislative branch. What's his plan? A part-time Congress.

The U.S. does not need a full-time Congress that is more focused on increasing its perks instead of reducing spending. America needs a part-time, Citizen Congress – populated with those who choose to serve not for profit, or for the promise of a high-paying lobbyist job, but for the good of their communities, states, and the nation. Even with a 50 percent pay-cut, Congressional members would still make a significantly higher income than the average American.11 By changing the way Congress operates, and moving towards a part-time legislature, Congressman will have the freedom to live in their communities, engage their constituents, and truly speak for the people they represent. Rules preventing members of Congress from holding private sector jobs must also be repealed. – When lawmakers hold the same types of jobs as their constituents, they will gain a much greater understanding of how congressional laws impact the real world.

Reaction has been swift, with Matt Yglesias calling it dangerously unsound. The Daily Mail calls it a populist attempt to regain his standing. It's one of those "sounds good" to the Republican base proposals, but doesn't stand up to the reality of Congress. It even doesn't stand up to a fact check, as Matt Glassman points out:
I haven’t checked if his statements about inflation are true (I have no reason to doubt them technically), but if they are true then almost all the real increase in congressional salaries took place in the 19th century.* According to the inflation figures Perry used, real prices fell by almost 50% between 1815 and 1907, while Members’ salaries went from $1500 to $7500. There’s the entirety of the 10-fold increase he cites.

Members make approximately 1.7% more in real dollars than they did 100 years ago. So if the salaries of the legislative branch ran wild because something changed in Washington, that something took place in the 19th century, not the 20th.

So the "make far more than ever before" is a fabrication, when checked against a constant dollar scenario. Yglesias points out some other problems:
You can see this along a number of dimensions. One is that if members of Congress need to work second jobs, their business relationships will involve conflicts of interest. A second is that to the extent that earning extra income takes up more of members of Congress’ time, they’ll become more dependent on lobbyists and special interest groups for information and assistance with their projects.

It's an astoundingly bad idea from any number of standpoints. Beyond the fact that people expect that their congressional representatives will work full-time at it, the idea that they will "work at a job" when not in session is ridiculous. Even in states which have "part time" legislatures, it often turns into a full-time job for the legislators and their staffs to do the job properly. What the proposal does is to ensure that only the very wealthy can take the time to become members of Congress.

But even beyond it being impractical, there's another facet. It's unconstitutional. A quick read of the United States Constitution, Article 1 says so.

Section 5 - Membership, Rules, Journals, Adjournment
Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.
Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.
Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.
Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.
Amendment 27 - Limiting Changes to Congressional Pay. Ratified 5/7/1992. History
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
In other words, he can't do it. Only Congress can do so, and only Congress can change its pay. So what he's doing is simply posturing, and it's meaningless. He can't do it, and he can't force Congress to do it. Only Congress could make those sorts of changes to itself, and not even the Republicans would go along with that. Which is something that any serious candidate who studied government would know. Saying this just shows that Rick Perry is not a serious candidate, but that he even is being considered a contender just shows how far the Republican Party has fallen.

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