Deficit Reduction: A Modest Proposal

Like Casey Anthony for some people, deficit reduction was a story I couldn’t stop watching. They each inspire a similar mix of disbelief, fascination and dread. If this evil can exist and go unpunished, we are in terrible trouble. And as a single woman not that far distant from Social Security and Medicare, talk of cutting benefits so that the very rich and the companies they run can keep their tax breaks—trust me, we’ll be hearing it again soon—has personal resonance. I have a dog in this race.

Fortunately the White House has been accessible and transparent, just as the President promised during his campaign. Last summer I actually got an e-mail from Vice President Joe Biden, inviting me, as a federal employee, to contribute my ideas for eliminating wasteful government spending. There was to be a prize for the best suggestions.

I told him First of all, you should check your e-mail lists, because I am not and have never been a federal employee. But since you asked. . .

I want you to know that I am in complete agreement that the first steps in deficit reduction should be the elimination of wasteful spending on programs that coddle deadbeats. A little tough love should get them to live within their means, stop going to the doctor for every little thing, and save for their own retirements—in short, wean them from the nanny state. So here are my suggestions for where to start cutting:

(1) Congressional salaries and expense checks. Some people, particularly members of Congress,  might argue that that money has already been promised and we’re obliged to pay. But that’s what our global bondholders are saying about raising the debt ceiling: It’s just meeting our obligations. Since we’re prioritizing obligations according to which ones we’re going to welsh on first, I urge Congress to remember that smaller government, like charity, should begin at home.

(2) Next, I recommend a longterm freeze of Congressional salaries at their level during the last budget surplus—2001, I think, when President Bush inherited the surplus created by President Clinton, who did not, as I recall, need a Constitutional amendment to balance the budget. That way, instead of using their recesses to drum up funding for the next round of campaign rhetoric, members of Congress would have to go back to their districts and actually compete for available jobs. I believe that was the intention of the Founding Fathers, that the citizen legislators would go back to their farms and small businesses when the Congress wasn’t in session. You say times have changed? Tell it to the conservative caucus….

(3) And speaking of the 18th century, to which many members feel they should legislate a return, I suggest the elimination of air conditioning in any room where Congressmen or their staffs meet to conduct the people’s business. That way, they can duplicate the conditions in  Philadelphia in the 1770s and 1780s when the aforementioned Founding Fathers managed to rise above the bracing stench of their own sweat long enough to actually accomplish something. The Declaration. The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. Indeed, the temperature in Independence Hall may have motivated them to act with all due haste.

(4) Reduction or elimination of all congressional entitlements that exceed those available to the general public—i.e., pensions should be no higher than Social Security and not collectible until age 67. Health benefits should be limited to what is available under Medicare, with all other insurance and medical expenses paid for out of the officials’ own personal savings, and of course there should be absolutely no taxpayer-paid parking, housing, transportation, or free lunch. Any such gifts or donations from lobbyists or corporate donors, as well as gifts of cash, vacations, hookers, haute couture, illegal drugs or use of corporate jets, should be declared, assigned a market value and taxed as regular income.

(5) Charge for the Congressional gym. Since Congressmen no longer use such venues to communicate off the record and come to informal agreements, but rather, at least in one case, to take photographs of their thinly veiled private parts for Internet distribution, they should have to pay the going rate for use of the facilities. Here in New York City, that would amount to at least $1,700 per year per member of Congress (you have a pool, I believe; that costs more). Add a locker, really good towels, an occasional massage and tips and its about $2,500. With 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, that’s more than $1.3 million right there, not a large sum, but maybe enough to pay the electricity, and as American families know, at crunch time when the bills are due, every little bit helps..

(6) Since corporations are now people, according to the Supreme Court, with the same constitutionally protected speech rights as you and me, they should pay income taxes at the same rate. It’s not an increase in taxes. It’s just equality under the law. Sorry General Electric, Exxon, Chevron, et al….. I know that might leave you with less money to buy politicians, but it’s the price of living in a democracy.

Now here’s the kicker: I sent off my letter—I’d been invited, after all—and I got a reply. It said that due to the volume of letters coming in, the White House couldn’t process my recent message. Funny. I got the same response when I answered former campaign manager David Plouffe’s White House letter telling me about the President’s latest video, when I said I wasn’t interested in any more speeches, I’d like to see some action. Oh well, responsiveness wasn’t really an important campaign promise, not like defending Social Security or the rights of workers to organize.

So I guess Vice President Biden never actually got my e-mail. Too bad. I was hoping the prize for best suggestion included cash.