Term Limits, Pensions and Weekend at Bernie’s

Last night I had one of those intense, detailed dreams that stays with you after you wake up. In part of the dream I was at a cocktail party and overheard someone saying that he was in favor of term limits. He added that it would be very difficult to pass legislation accomplishing this.

President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, HIllary Clinton, Laura Bush

It looked something like this

I joined the conversation and immediately noticed that Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were in the group, along with their wives.

I said that we did not need term-limit legislation to accomplish this goal. All we had to do was eliminate pensions for the Senators, Members of Congress, the Vice President and the President.

The group fell silent but both former presidents grimaced at the thought. Laura Bush hastened to show me the job application she had just filled out so she could make some extra money. (As if) The Presidency already has term limits, of course.

It was an interesting dream. I will never be in a room with two former presidents to make the case, however, so I decided to put it up here.

Think About Term Limits

The Founders never intended for members of the Legislative and Executive branches of government to hold their positions for term after term, making a career in government. They were supposed to spend a few years in service to their country, then return to private life.

Bill Maher, Strom Thurmond, Weekend at Bernie's

Bill Maher and Sen. Strom Thurmond

Instead we have men and women who have turned  public service into a career and hold their positions for decades. Bill Maher calls this the “Weekend at Bernie’s” Congress.

For those who haven’t seen it, “Weekend at Bernie’s” was a1989 movie about two young businessmen who are invited to their employer’s beach home, only to find that he has been murdered. Thanks to a complicated series of events involving a corporate embezzlement scheme, the two are forced to convince the world their boss is still alive in this slapstick comedy.

The relevant part of the movie is that the two slackers keep hauling Bernie’s dead body around and dressing him up to make him look like he’s alive. The visual metaphor becomes apparent when you see footage of aides wheeling ancient and decrepit Senators and Congressmen in the Capitol to cast votes when they seem too weak to even raise their arms. The reality is more farce than slapstick.

A Privileged Club

These lifetime “public servants” pass laws that exclude themselves from the restrictions they put on others and benefit financially from their knowledge and associations. They take advantage of benefits that many Americans can’t afford or don’t have access to. They gerrymander districts to protect themselves from any repercussions in the next election. And, barring unforeseen upheaval, they keep their smug selves in their cushy jobs for life.

gentlemen's club, Savile Club, London

The Members’ Bar at the Savile Club

London has its private gentlemen’s clubs where very wealthy men go to get away from their families, smoke, gamble ,eat, drink and talk amongst themselves. It seems like the United States Congress has become such a club—except that it grudgingly admits a few women.

This pattern holds for both parties. Now we know that the one thing both Democrats and Republicans can agree on is clinging to their jobs for as long as possible. If we made those jobs a little less cushy, the Members of the Club might not be so inclined to hang around so long.

George Washington’s Good Example

President George Washington set a good example of term limits by leaving office voluntarily after two terms. (The presidency was not limited to two terms until 1951.) Today, few Members of the Club seem inclined to follow that example.

  • Congressman John Dingell, Michigan,

    Congressman John Dingell in the Rayburn Building

    25 Senators have served more than 35 years in office.

  • The oldest continuously serving Senator was Robert Byrd, of West Virginia who hung on for 51 years and 176 days before dying in office.
  • Over 50 Congressmen have served for longer than 35 years.
  • The longest continuously serving member of the House of Representatives was John Dingell, of Michigan, who set a record with 59 years and 21 days in office. He was first elected in January of 1965 and retired in 2015.
  • Over 100 people have more than 36 years of combined service in the House and Senate.
  • 22 of them died in office.

The Pensions

In case you’re curious, here’s the pension structure for the United States Congress.

Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at the age of 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. Members are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary.”

The Salaries and Bonuses

“As of 2015, the base salary for all rank-and-file members of the U.S. House and Senate is $174,000 per year, plus benefits. Salaries have not been increased since 2009. Compared to private-sector salaries, the salaries of members of Congress is lower than many mid-level executives and managers.”

Aside from the grammatical error in the last sentence, I will point out that many members of Congress would not qualify for jobs as mid-level executives. In addition, many managers, and a lot of other Americans, make far less than $174,000 a year and would think they hit the jackpot if the they got a raise to that amount.

This language is designed to make us believe that they all deserve every penny.

The Speaker of the House receives a salary of $223,500 a year—giving him a bonus of $99,500 per year. That makes him the third highest-paid of all elected officials after the President ($400,000) and the Vice President ($258,100)

The Millionaire’s Club

One reason my term-limit scheme might not work, however, is that so many of our Senators and Representatives are already millionaires. In 2014 we passed the mark where most members of Congress were millionaires and we haven’t looked back since. Net worth breaks out evenly at just over $1 million for members of both parties. You can see the 25 richest members of Congress as of 2016 here.

Congress, money in Congress, millionaires in Congress, US Capitol

The U.S. Millionaires Club

We like to believe that wealthy Representatives and Senators don’t need the money we pay them or that is thrown at them by campaign contributors. That doesn’t stop them from taking it, though. Like London’s men’s clubs, the Capitol is populated by the already rich and privileged.

Maybe our Senators and Representatives wouldn’t care if we cancelled their pensions. Or maybe the lure of private-sector salaries, bonuses and stock options would serve as de facto term limits and shorten their time in Congress.

But private money would have to compete with power, authority, access, and Top Dog status. Would big bucks trump hobnobbing with world leaders? It could be a tossup. But I can dream, can’t I?

One thought on “Term Limits, Pensions and Weekend at Bernie’s

  1. Something we’ll pretty-much agree on.

    IN THEORY, term limits need not be enacted. The voters should be able to speak and remove someone with their vote. IN PRACTICE, of course, it’s a different story. I read that, somewhere, that something like 90%+ of House districts are “safe”; i.e., once in, you’re good until you decide to leave or get caught doing something REALLY bad.

    So I propose that House members are limited to four terms. Senators to two terms. And a cap put on mixing it up to, say, 18 years in federal elected office in toto. Or something like this – throwing it out for consideration.

    Two other thoughts for reducing the incentive, admitting ignorance on the details of how things are now:

    1. No keeping election funds that – as I understand it – currently get given to the person if they lose / decide not to run.

    2. No exemptions for any federal person, whether elected or otherwise, to the law. E.g., “Obamacare” doesn’t apply to Congress last I knew. Make it so.

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