Skip to main content

Congressional greed, public disapproval, and the power of incumbents

Written By | May 22, 2014

WASHINGTON, May 22, 2014 — The latest public opinion polls show that 84.7 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress conducts business.

Despite this incredible disapproval rating, members of Congress have an uncanny knack for getting reelected. From 1964 to 2012,  incumbents retained their positions in droves. The lowest return rates were in 1970 and 2010, when only 85% of those who won election were incumbents. In 2012, Congressional approval averaged 15 percent — a number similar to current polling results — yet 90% of incumbents won re-election.

One possible factor helping those members of Congress win re-election is financing loopholes and big money.

A new book from a conservative advocate of tighter campaign finance regulation seeks to draw attention to a number of questionable, but legal, activities that place the spotlight on Capitol Hill.

Peter Schweitzer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, wrote a previous book focusing on how members of both parties enriched themselves by trading stock based on information they obtained by virtue of their position in Congress. The book helped lead to the Stock Act, which banned insider trading for representatives and senators.

It is Schweitzer’s hope that his new book, “Extortion,” will push Congress to address loopholes in the campaign finance system, including the banning of “Leadership PACs,” which permit politicians to solicit and spend money without the same restrictions they face when using their campaign committees.

In Schweitzer’s view, these groups have become slush funds that enable lavish lifestyles while they exist, in theory, to help members of Congress finance their own campaigns and help political allies.

The book details the extravagant spending of both Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) presided over s leadership PAC that spent $10,000 on golf at Pebble Beach, nearly $27,000 at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, and $107,752 at the Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Florida. Sen. Roy Blount (R-MO) spent $65,000 at a resort on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) used his leadership PAC to spend $64,500 on a painting of himself. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) used hers to pay for catered parties at her home several times a month.”

Peter Schweitzer accuses Congress of running an “extortion racket.”

He notes:

“Consider this: of the thousands of bills introduced in Congress each year, roughly 5 per cent become law. Why do legislators bother proposing so many bills?  What if many of those bills are written not to be passed but to pressure people into forking over cash?  This is exactly what is happening. Politicians have developed a dizzying array of legislative tactics to bring in money. Take the maneuver known inside the Beltway as the ‘tollbooth.’ Here the speaker of the House or a powerful committee chairperson will create a procedural obstruction or postponement on the eve of an important vote. Campaign contributions are then implicitly solicited. If the tribute offered by those in favor of the bill’s passage is too small (or if the money from opponents is sufficiently high), the bill is delayed and does not proceed down the legislative highway.”

Another tactic is what Beltway insiders call “milker bills.”

Schweitzer describes them this way:

“These are bills designed to ‘milk’ donations from threatened individuals or businesses. The real trick is to pit two industries against each other and pump both for donations, thereby creating a ‘double milker’ bill.  President Obama and Vice President Biden seemed to score big in 2011 using the milker tactic in connection with two bills:  the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act.  By pitting their supporters in Silicon Valley who opposed the bills against their allies in Hollywood who supported the measures…Obama and Biden were able to create a sort of fund-raising arms race.”

Schweitzer points out that,

“The reason these fund-raising extortion tactics succeed is that politicians deploy them while bills are making their way through Congress, when lawmakers possess maximum leverage. That’s why at least 27 state legislatures have put restrictions on allowing state politicians to receive contributions while the legislatures are in session.”

There is strong reason to want to remain in Congress. In addition to the massive abuse of money, members of Congress are often exempt from laws that govern the rest of America.

In the continuing controversy over the Affordable Care Act, for example, Americans learned that congressional staff members were to receive subsidies not available to other Americans, many with far lower incomes.

Traditionally, Congress has exempted itself from laws and regulations it imposes upon other Americans, from Social Security to affirmative action to occupational health and safety rules.

Recently, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a constitutional amendment stating: “Congress shall make no law applicable to a citizen of the United States that is not equally applicable to Congress.”

This amendment also contains two provisions that apply that same principle to the executive branch and judicial branch of government.

Sen. Paul declares:

“Under this amendment, Congress, federal judges and even the White House will no longer be able to exempt themselves from the laws they create, uphold or sign—as they all regularly do now in a plethora of ways…Obviously, amending the Constitution is no small task.  It requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and must be ratified by at least 38 states. However, which politicians will now publicly say they truly think Washington should be exempt from the laws they make for the rest of us? What possible excuse would members of either party come up with for not supporting this amendment?”

When Americans view Congress with dismay, they have many reasons for doing so. When the Affordable Care Act was first being promoted, Nancy Pelosi, as House Speaker, said, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.” Now, we can see where passing bills no one has read can lead.

One question that remains to be answered: who exactly are the 8.4 per cent of Americans who do approve of the job Congress is doing?

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.