Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Modest Amendment

Looking out over the morass that is currently the US economy, it is clear that changes are needed. Everywhere we look, greed and stupidity seem to reign supreme, and from the sounds of the squawks coming down from Capitol Hill, nothing seems likely to change. Blithely ignoring its own complicity in creating the mess, Congress is preening like an oversized, waddling turkey, with every member rushing to denounce the outrage du jour arising as a result of their various hastily-conceived, hastily-crafted, and never-quite-read-or-even-looked-at-too-closely bailout packages.

If produced and choreographed professionally, the result would be a hilarious, if wildly improbable farce, filled with pratfalls by the pompous and well-earned comeuppances abounding. Unfortunately, the price tag for this production is proving well beyond the means of its target audience. While it might be amusing at matinee prices, having the country pay the $1 trillion price of admission has removed most of the show’s humor, and left the troupe’s backers—the increasingly angry taxpayers of this country—up in arms.

The play’s traditional next act—sharpened pitchforks, hot tar, and plenty of feathers—strikes at least one observer as entirely too predictable. While venting outrage on the chorus line of fools and incompetents who led us into this mess may satisfy us for the moment, there is no guarantee that a new cast of characters would do any better. Replacing our current set of fools with another would, it is true, carry the advantage of sending the whole sorry lot packing. But just replacing them with an entirely new set of fools will hardly solve our problems. It might provide a few more sordid plot lines to the melodrama that American Politics seems to be trending toward, but it will do little to fix our present train wreck of an economy—or keep us safe in a world filled with people who hate us.

On the other hand, the simplest solutions often work best, merely because there is so little that can go wrong with them. So perhaps it’s time we tried applying to Congress a lesson in reality familiar to every small business owner or working parent. In short, giving to Congress a slice of life from the “little people” who appear to factor into none of their equations.

Congress and the President often pay lip service to the role of small business in this country. But they do not understand what real responsibility is like at the level where people work and earn a living. Unlike the Federal government, the millions of Mom & Pop operations in this country can’t live on non-existent earnings, year after year. They have to make their payroll. And pay their bills. And pay their taxes. And if there’s nothing left over for them to take home after all their expenses are met, they can’t simply print money to pay themselves.

Our elected leaders, on the other hand, have billions of dollars in other people’s money to play with. And can always get more—either by raising taxes, or by printing it. Predictably, this has led them to be a mite careless in their stewardship.

The solution, it seems to at least one petulant observer, would be to give them an “ownership stake” in the bottom line: simply put—they should be paid out of the money left over after paying all the bills. If there’s none left—if, for example, the country is running a deficit—then they’ll get an IOU for their salary. Just like all the naive taxpayers in California, who thought a tax refund entitled them to actual money. Or, better yet, in addition to the country’s thanks for doing such a wonderful job, they’ll just get a dollar. After all, if it’s good enough for the CEOs of the various and sundry failed companies we’re bailing out by the billions of dollars, it should be good enough for Congress—whose spending habits We The People have been bailing out for years. In fact, we could probably even raise their official salary: by the looks of things, it wouldn’t cost us anything. And who knows—we might even attract a few people to public office who knew what they were doing. Or some naive souls who still think of public service as a sacrifice made for the Public Good, rather than a means of helping friends and colleagues help themselves to other people’s money.

Of course, there may be a few bugs to work out. We wouldn’t, after all, want to let Congress guarantee their salary simply by jacking up tax rates too high. (That risk would be nearly as obvious as the risk of giving billions of our dollars without strings to people whose chief claim on the money is their ability to squander billions of their own dollars). So we might want to add a provision to restrict the Government’s share of our money to a reasonable amount—enough to do everything it needs to do, but not enough to get into too much trouble. Twenty percent of our Gross Domestic Product should do it (though the amount isn’t cast in stone; the modesty of this proposal does not, after all, include an immodest claim of infallibility). After all, that’s twice the amount they’d get if everyone simply “tithed” their income. And we could always include a provision letting Congress go above their new constitutional “Cap” by declaring a state of National Emergency—during which, of course, all elected Federal officials would gladly defer all but a nominal dollar of their salary until the crisis they led us into is passed.

Assuming that most state legislators would be more willing to impose some sort of control on Congress than they would be to face the pitchforks of their disgruntled constituents, getting three-quarters of the states to approve the amendment should pose few problems. This means that all we’d really need would be a two-thirds vote of each House—which, given their adamance that those in charge of failed companies should be willing to serve for a dollar a year, would only be a problem if hypocrisy dared to show itself publicly in the halls of Congress.

Proposed Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

(1) The salaries of the President, Vice-President, and all members of Congress shall be payable on the first day of January of each year, for the ensuing year. Such officers may elect to defer their salaries over the course of the ensuing year; the salary of newly elected officers will become payable upon taking office.

(2) Except for any officer mentioned in Section (1) who was newly elected to a first term of office during the preceding year, and notwithstanding any other provision of law establishing their salaries or other remunerations, neither the President, Vice-President, nor any member of Congress shall be entitled to draw more than one dollar ($1) in salary, in any year in which the budget of the United States runs, or is projected to run, a deficit. For purposes of this Section, all federal expenses, including trust funds and any and all special appropriations, shall be included in the calculation of a deficit. The refund of any salary paid to an affected officer during a year in which the budget is in deficit shall be payable by the officer to the Treasury of the United States on April 15th of the following year. Failure to make a timely payment of excess salary shall be grounds for removal from office.

(3) Except during times declared by Congress to be a National Emergency, the tax revenues of the United States shall be limited to twenty percent (20%) of the Gross Domestic Product, as calculated by the Department of the Treasury. Excess taxes collected shall be proportionately refunded by April 15th of the following year, unless Congress has established a proportional system of tax credits to accomplish the same purpose.

(4) During a time of National Emergency declared by Congress, the President, Vice-President, and all Members of Congress shall draw a salary of one dollar ($1) per year, until such time as Congress declares that the emergency is over.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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