The draft report from the Fiscal Responsibility Commission, subject of my previous post, has some proposals for reform of how Congress makes (or doesn’t make) expenditure decisions. Frankly, I do not understand them. Perhaps this is because the draft report is simply a series of slides, not really a report. Or maybe these things are too complex for a simpleton like me to understand.
Separately, there is apparently a proposal to cut Congresspersons’ pay, and even one to reduce their pay every year that the government runs a deficit.
But these won’t work, for a very simple reason: Senators and Representatives aren’t doing the work for the salary. It costs far more to get elected to these posts than the salary, plus expense allowance, that these people receive. (Wikipedia quotes a 2004 report that it cost $1,000,000 for a House seat and $6,000,000 for Senate, but surely those costs are higher now.) Senators and Representatives may be in it for the money, but the money they’re in it for isn’t their salaries. Rather, the power and prestige of the office can be monetized in various other ways.
So Congresspersons don’t care about their salaries, but they do wish to hold office. In theory they can be voted out if they perform poorly, but this doesn’t seem to work very well. What to do?
The Art Auble Plan
Many, many years ago, I worked briefly for an economist named Art Auble. The economics profession has come in for much-deserved criticism in recent years, but Art Auble was a wise and honest man. This was during the era of the Vietnam War and the military draft, which were pretty unpopular around our neighborhood. There could be such a thing as a just and necessary war, and we don’t want to hobble to efforts of our government to defend us, but how could we prevent a draft for a bad war? Art Auble had a proposal:
Each year (I think it was annually, but perhaps he proposed some other period), while the draft was in effect, Congress would have to vote whether to extend it. If they voted to do so, then every Congressman and Congresswoman would be drafted for the duration. Patriots would value the chance to serve in a real war to defend their country. Of course most of these folks aren’t fit for real military service, infantry or fighter pilot or tank mechanic, but they’re all capable of doing something useful, whether office work or toilet cleaning or receptionist, everyone has something to contribute. A special election would be held to fill the 535 vacant seats. After a year, another vote, and if they extended the draft we’d need another election.
I thought it was a great idea, but of course it didn’t happen. I don’t know whether fear of the Art Auble plan was the reason, but the draft was eliminated. There are those who miss it and want to bring it back, in one form or another, but I’m not among them.
Applying the Art Auble Plan to the Federal Deficit
So why couldn’t we apply a version of the Art Auble Plan to our free-spending Congress? Of course we’d have to find some honest auditors, not a simple task but it probably could be done. They would also have to be very smart, hardworking, and expert in governmental games. At the close of each fiscal year, these auditors would look at actual federal receipts and expenditures, depreciation schedules, assets and liabilities, all the places where dollars might be hidden, and determine whether operations were reasonably in fiscal balance.
If there was a deficit, more than, say .01% of GDP, Congress would be liquidated. Maybe that’s the wrong word; I don’t favor capital punishment, but all seats would be declared vacant and new elections held. We’d need a rule prohibiting members of liquidated congresses from running again, at least for a decade or so.
To prevent lobbyists from controlling the government, we might need some provision to de-register all lobbyists who had any contact with a liquidated Congress. Sort of like the way we might deal with a communicable disease.
There might be a few other details to iron out, and I’m a bit concerned about finding those auditors, but I think something like this plan could get us pretty close to a balanced budget.