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Hey, Congress: This Might Be Why They Hate You

Protest 19 093013 600x399 Hey, Congress: This Might Be Why They Hate You
A protester during the partial government shutdown in fall 2013. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The median American household income was $51,371 in 2012. That’s $122,000 and change less than a rank-and-file member of Congress.

A lot of ink already has been spilled criticizing Rep. James P. Moran’s insensitive comments to CQ Roll Call’s Hannah Hess last week about members of Congress being “underpaid.” To be fair, Washington, D.C., is not a cheap place to live, and salaries are higher here than the national average. Moran’s district in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia had a 2012 median income of $88,233.

But I’ll remind the Virginia Democrat, who fretted pay has “been frozen for three years,” that regular raises and adjustments for cost-of-living are few and far between for the American people. Things are more expensive and wages are flat.

Is Moran an easy target? Absolutely. And he’s not alone.

Outside of the words he spoke, it would be difficult to paint Moran as an elitist snob. He’s among the poorest members. He was raised in a working-class Massachusetts family, commutes to work in a car, not an airplane, and he’s seen his share of hard times. As one of Congress’ more liberal members, Moran has advocated for policies that would boost the poor, increase the minimum wage and invest in programs that would aid low-income communities.

But when you earn six figures, plus more than the national median income above that, you are not underpaid. Period. This is one reason the American people view you as completely out of touch.

A voter might wonder when hearing something like that — from Moran, or from Republican Reps. Michael McCaul or Renee Ellmers — how members of Congress could possibly understand the average American’s life and daily struggle to make ends meet.

By just about any measure, a member’s job is not difficult. Getting there in a hard-fought campaign might have been a challenge, but the work isn’t.

There is no physical labor involved. You can rely on a professional corps of staffers. Your retirement fund is not only secure, it’s guaranteed for life. You work in a beautiful, air-conditioned building in nice offices in a city where there are people sleeping on the streets.

I’ve given some speeches lately about politics in Washington, and I usually include a punchline that Congress’ record-low approval ratings have helped people working as similarly unpopular journalists and stock brokers breathe a sigh of relief.

I appreciate the material, but c’mon.

(See another take over at Hawkings Here: A Case for Moran: ‘Underpaid’ Is Accurate)

While I’m on the subject of how America basically hates you, quit it with the secret votes.

It was bad enough when Senate leaders agreed to keep the debt limit roll call vote off the microphones in a major departure from tradition that had journalists crying foul. In that case, at least the citizens — your bosses, if you will — could go check it out later and know which way you voted. (And who switched. Yeah, our reporters noticed that one.)

But the spectacle late last month on the House floor to pass a “doc fix” measure that didn’t have enough votes should infuriate the American people. It sure pissed off some of your rank-and-file members. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., on the floor to witness the shenanigans, told CQ Roll Call’s Daniel Newhauser, “It made me feel sick.”

Massie was one of a handful of lawmakers present as Arkansas Republican Rep. Steve Womack called for a voice vote — in the span of just more than 40 seconds. As Massie put it, he couldn’t believe “more than 400 members would be misled into thinking there’s no vote and then for the vote to occur.” (Just go watch the video.)

This is not how the people’s House should work.

We all remember when the dead-of-night Medicare prescription drug program vote was held open for three hours as Republicans scrambled to pull together a coalition. People who live and work outside of this town learn about things like that and shake their heads.

And I remember when, in July 2004, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer told reporters the GOP was wrong to stretch votes out beyond 10 or 15 minutes. “I would call a corrupt act leaving the ballot open for so long that obviously the only thing that is happening is the subversion of the will of the members and forcing them in effect to vote the way you want,” the Maryland Democrat said then.

So consider this astonishing description from Dan’s “doc fix” story:

Republican aides said at the time that the bill would most likely be pulled from consideration because it did not have the votes. Yet emerging from the room, [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor told reporters, “We’re still working on it.”

Cantor left the room briefly to meet with Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. That’s when the two leaders, with the backing of their respective leadership and committee chairmen, struck an agreement to call for a voice vote on the House floor without objection, members and aides said. Earlier in the day Hoyer said he would have voted against the bill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked if she went along with the voice vote plan, simply said, “Yes.”

You’re better than this. All of you.

About nine years ago, just as I was starting to cover Congress for the first time, someone asked me if anyone serving in the House or Senate was in it for altruistic reasons. This was around the time of Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham and Mark Foley, with Jim Traficant not far in the rear-view mirror, and to this outsider visiting the city for the first time, they all seemed like jerks.

I didn’t hesitate to defend Congress. Oh, definitely. Plenty of people are in it for the right reasons, I said. I believed it then, and I believe it now.

Whatever you’ve become, you came to Washington for a common purpose: to help others. Power makes it possible.

When I travel around the country, the most frequent question I’m asked is whether things will get better in Washington. I always say that, in the short term, more gridlock is around the corner, because no one genuinely wants to accomplish anything in an election year, and because wedge issues are called wedge issues for a reason. But then I say the media can do a better job not only to hold lawmakers accountable to the voters, but also in being more responsible, less sensational. You can hardly blame politicians for playing to television cameras and Internet traffic because we allow them to do it. Inflammatory rhetoric is rewarded with attention.

So I tell people we can both step up, and that they can demand a better government and a better media.

And in this particular case, Congress deserves all the negative attention it gets. It’s getting harder to stick up for you.

If you want to show the American people you’re not out of touch, that you get it, you’re going to have to try harder to earn that big paycheck.


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