Posted tagged ‘congress’

Napkin Notes: American Voter Non-Binding Resolution on Congressional Compensation

June 15, 2015

The annual blizzard of annual shareholder voting and meeting announcements have been arriving.  Tucked within the annual Board of Director recommendations for electing or re-electing people I do not know to act on my behalf, is an increasing popular referendum: a non-binding shareholder vote on executive compensation.  The actual influence the vote will have I believe is as yet indeterminate.  What intrigues me is Congress approves its own pay each year.  Maybe the American people should formally have a non-binding opinion on congressional compensation each general election.

Today Congressional approval by the American public stands at 19% and above the all-time low of 9% in late 2013.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx

While pay may not be the primary motivating factor for politicians, a non-binding resolution in general elections in conjunction with individual and congressional approval ratings by an independent third-party may help with informed management our representatives.

Foreign Affairs: Abuses of the Public Trust

March 11, 2015

Now before the Republicans begin to throw stones and claim impropriety trying to score points against a potential 2016 candidates over email accounts and record retention, a pause may be in order. The latest attempts to circumvent the US Constitution, knowingly invite foreign dignitaries to speak to Congress and intentionally circumventing the President of the United States are equally appalling, irresponsible and show reckless disregard.

Article Two of the US Constitution is very clear on this matter in Clause One:

“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America”

and Clause Four:

“The President receives all foreign Ambassadors”

It is not the responsibility of the legislative body, whose powers as the country’s law making body is clearly defined in Article One, to execute or conduct the affairs of the country. Nowhere in Article One Section Eight of the US Constitution (Powers of Congress) is the Legislative Branch responsible for executing foreign affairs. It is an improper stretch to claim that by ratifying treaties executed and negotiated by the Executive Branch, Legislators have the right to insert themselves in foreign affairs and negotiations.

Further writing open letters–as political and business figures commonly do to national periodicals–is another inappropriate and unacceptable meddling into the execution of foreign affairs. Quibbling over legality and whether or not the inclusions or exclusion of their official titles is appropriate or causes undue influence, it is without question against the spirit of the Constitution and an abuse of the people’s trust.

For the political party that promised to bring leadership to Washington DC, it is definitely neither Ethical Leadership nor unquestionably, ethically above board.

By directly circumventing the President, or his designee within the Executive Branch, is grossly overstepping its authority. More grievously, this is occurring during rampant dysfunction within and between both chambers of Congress which is stymied and resorts to procedural slight-of-hand to make halting progress. Rudimentary legislation that funds and provides the appointments and framework for the Executive Branch to then manage the country’s day-to-day affairs languishes.

Congress may be better focused on actually processing, negotiating the finalizing the legislation before it, the business it is responsible for, prior to inappropriately interjecting itself into other areas of related concern but where no responsibility is had.

What is concerning is the theatrics being offered by the US Congress may well compete with Greece’s own domestic and international drama in some horrible Saturday Night Live spoof of the Academy Awards. The embarrassing climax is I am unsure which would win.

There is a good op-ed piece by Elizabeth Cobb Hoffman (no relation) that delves further into the constitutional aspects http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/03/01/netanyahu-invite-is-a-symptom-of-boehners-grudge-match-against-the-u-s-constitution/

When Divided We Stand, United We Fall

February 17, 2014

“The American system of government is adversarial in nature but not a win-at-all-costs system.”

-Anonymous Atlanta Lawyer at a Leadership Conference

It surprised me last December when Congress passed a budget for fiscal year 2014 with such little drama.  Albeit it was almost three months into the fiscal year, which started October 1st, but after the reckless inaction in recent years, it was a marked improvement.  That occurred again last week with seemingly normal legislation to increase the debt ceiling.  After Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, voted to increase the borrowing authority of the United States causing the measure to pass, several in his party changed their votes before the official count to support him.  Those are telling shifting winds in a political party that recently shutdown the government over similar financial controversies.  (Further it is a particular option to change your vote after one knows the outcome before the final recorded vote; one can vote against and decry something beneficial to their district as often happened with government spending during the recession of recent past.  Alas that is another post.)

What has caused the recent drastic shift in political calculus for both parties; over the last few years Congressional dysfunction is seemingly both politically and personally beneficial.  And it is still present.  As political brinkmanship again threatened a politically dramatic show of wills over the country’s financial solvency, the reversal of reductions in military retirement pays—at no small cost to the country—sails through nearly unanimously.  I do not recall those cuts passing with such unanimity in the weeks prior.

It was at a conference on Ethical Leadership many years ago that a local litigator offered a beautiful insight.  The American system of government is adversarial in nature but not a win-at-all-costs system.

If politics is the gaming of a political system, the current sitting Congress, and those of recent years past, would well heed this lesson.  Which Congressmen fail to understand and heed that divided we stand, united we fall?  There is no shame in not winning or getting one’s way.  This country gives freedom to the minority voice.  What is does not offer is permission for the minority to hijack the process until their way is met.  There is a greater good that is seemingly lost in the reckless pursuit for individual interests.  What comes to mind is the colonial America cartoon by Benjamin Franklin of a rattlesnake chopped into pieces.  Each piece was labeled as a state and the picture carried a simple caption: “Join, or die.”  Today’s snake contains more pieces in a world not less fraught with dangers.

From the outside, I prefer relationships in which the other is more predictable and less self-centered than the one I currently share with my representatives in government.

So it again returns to us.  Do we permit this hijacking by any political party?  Do we trust those that represent us or not; if not, we deserve better.  Do we hold them accountable or do we permit ourselves to tolerate an abusive relationship?

Political Disconnect

March 11, 2013

With a mixture of bewilderment and disdain, I read the following article on November 30, 2012.  At least one politician has already announced his U.S. Senate Campaign for 2014.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/30/us-usa-campaign-senate-idUSBRE8AT05S20121130

What fascinates me is the apparent disconnect between what a politician says, what is done and his responsibilities.  Whether it is the stated intention or “playing politics and posturing to one’s constituency,” to me it is a question of priorities.  Given the issues facing the country and that the election in question is two years away, a Congressman thinking this is a good use of his time as entrusted by his citizens is astonishing.

A Congressman earns at least $174,000 per year or ~$1,000 in salary per each ~170 legislative days per year.   Are we as a constituency holding our Congressmen responsible for their results?  This is more than six times the national poverty level.  Are they acting with the degree of professionalism they are being compensated for?

For me I expect a result other than “my way or no way” from individual politicians.  I expect tough compromises since inaction is worse than compromised action for the citizens as a whole.  I believe this selfish focus on one’s campaign is detrimental to the honored position of government service.

Leon Panetta, the outgoing Secretary of Defense, sums it up neatly on a visit to American troops in Italy in January 2013:

“This is not an unsolvable problem,” he said. “People have just got to suck it up and take on some of the risk and … challenges that are required by people in leadership.

“All we’re asking of our elected leaders is to take a small part of the risk that maybe they’ll piss off some constituents. But the fact is that they’ll be doing what is right for the country.1

References

1. Alexander, David. January 17, 2013, “U.S. troops in Italy quiz Panetta about looming budget cuts.” Reuters.  Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/17/us-usa-defense-budget-idUSBRE90G0ZQ20130117

The Value of Integrity for Generation X: The Catholic Church, Business and American Government

March 10, 2013

With the papal resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, there are the inevitable attempts to summarize his tenure.  (Under his care, most poignant are the worldwide accusations of pastoral impropriety, having moved beyond just that of the United States.)  What is intriguing to me is the reaction of Generation X, those born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s, to such institutional “Moments of Truth”.

The Catholic Church requires that priests take a vow of chastity and strongly denounces homosexuality.  Yet when it came to light that priests were raping young boys, the Church reacted not with pious humility seeking forgiveness for these gross violations, but rather with silence, denial and assertions the accusers were lying.  It took years for Pope Benedict XVI to issue an initial apology on behalf of the Church; yet, controversy remains as accountability is muddled, trust is damaged and healing is incomplete.  It was not a case of the pastoral shepherds failing to defend their flocks; rather, some of the shepherds were wolves.

Generation X was taught to be distrustful of institutions who violate the principals and values taught to them by their grandparents, Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation.  Their parents, the Baby Boomers, lived through the civil unrest that heralded in women’s rights, racial equality, and the Vietnam War.  The Baby Boomers instilled a collective mistrust of institutions bred by that war and the boldfaced deceptions of Watergate.  It seems natural that this blended history yields a Generation X skeptical of the Catholic Church’s honesty and authenticity given its actions.  It is disingenuous to scold the flock during homilies when one’s own house is in disarray.

This generation was further shaped by their parents’ exuberances that fueled the stock market crash of 2000.  Financial markets have further eroded trust with a decade of misfeasance, malfeasance, non-feasance and excessive risk-taking: WorldCom, Arthur Anderson, Enron, Lehman Brothers, Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), Bernie Maldoff, UBS, Peregrine Financial Group.  Americans are promised “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.  Only the naïve will believe that everyone will abide by the rules and play fair.  Just as not all priests are pedophiles, not all company executives are compulsively-lying fraudsters driven by self-interests.  While there are always those that will bend (or exceed) the rules and seek an advantage, the breadth and depth of the recent fraud and deceit is stunning.  Again, these negative actions are yielding a strong negative perception by Generation X.  It does offer an interesting question:

How much should one trust a person who has already has lied?  What if he claims he really is not lying this time?

Further the irrationality now gripping Congress is degrading their faith in the people running the institution of American government.  Our forefathers had the foresight for us to pledge allegiance to the flag and the Republic for which it stands, not the politicians themselves.  As George Washington’s declination of a second term shows, the institution and essence of government is larger than any individual.

The generation’s distrust, again, is not in the institution itself, but those who are leading it.  Generation X formed the first generation of “latch-key kids” who came home alone after-school and were responsible for younger siblings as both parents worked.  It is mind boggling to many that politicians have a teenage “my way or no way” sense of negotiation that seemingly prefers no-solution to a partial, compromised one.  This chafes with Generation X who was expected to accept responsibility by the very Baby Boomers who are seemingly unwilling to do the same.  What will be interesting is how social security is handled and will hard, fair choices be made?  Will the Baby Boomers stand with integrity as their parents, The Greatest Generation, did and be a positive role model for their children, Generation X?  Will American government follow the example of the Vatican and American Business and fail their children in this Moment of Truth?  Parents, the children are watching.

Finite and Infinite Games: How Politics Fits In

January 11, 2013

It has been insightful reading news articles and political commentary as 2012 came to an end. There was relief with the brief reprise from the political drama. Then there were individual politicians holding press conferences with posturing, grandstanding, criticisms and promises that next time the results will be more to his wanting. This was generally followed by the disturbingly continued use of yesterday’s news today as justification for political election plans years from now.

I was surprised to find most news articles in these fevered days before the automatic funding cuts placed focus on the coinciding expiring tax cuts and not sequestration itself. The latter is the far larger problem but its impact on the constituency is less direct than the then pending tax increase.

Perhaps because it is a significantly more complicated, politically charged issue, it just makes a more difficult, rare story. Perhaps this is the nature of politics, but to me it has the feeling of another poorly-scripted reality television show.

(Are you feeling lost in what sequestration is? The State of Arizona’s Department of Education contracted for an excellent summary on that here http://www.azed.gov/no-child-left-behind/files/2012/07/sequestration-cheat-sheet.pdf)

My question: If we made such little progress over the preceding 15 months, even with a bi-partisan committee formed to address the matter, what will be done differently in the next two months to avoid repeat of December 31. I do not see public reactions from politicians encouraging or desiring this. That is disturbing to me. Today’s colloquialism describing this is “to kick the can down the road” to describe the constant state of delaying the tough decisions.

I am suddenly reminded of “Finite and Infinite Games” by James Carse.  In his book, finite games are those governed by an agreed upon set of rules and have a defined beginning and end.  The rules cannot be changed and the object of the game is to win.  The outcome of the game is not known beforehand.  An example would be a football game.  The players and spectators know the rules, but no one knows for certain which team will emerge victorious.  Games do not have to be games or sports in the traditional sense and can be fun or serious.  War, for example, is a finite game played until one side concedes victory to the other.

Conversely, in an infinite game the goal is the keep the game in play.  Hence the rules must change if they will bring the game to an end.  It is a game without a defined beginning or end.  The philosophical example in his book is life.  The book then continues on to provide other lenses to view the world that, while not contradictory to this writing, would generate unnecessary clutter.

As I watch college football Bowl Games I contrast them with politics.  Interestingly, politics seems to be morphing into an infinite game.  Politicians, regardless of ideology, seem to prolong their time in office by avoiding the difficult questions for fear of failing re-election.

This exposes a critical flaw in American government.  What is the career path of a politician?  What does a 45-year-old politician do after holding elected office for only a single or a few terms?  There is not a compelling incentive for politicians to leave and there can be a sharp penalty for leaving voluntarily or involuntarily through a failed reelection campaign.

This introduces career politicians who act not in the finite game of a term but rather as the infinite game of maintaining political careers.  This conflict of interest between politicians and American citizens drive politicians to avoid difficult conversations and accountability.  These are both aspects of a finite game and run contrary to the career politician’s interest of an infinite game.

This maladaptation of the political process in not in the spirit of the Philidelphia Convention which drafted the US Constitution.  As history tells us, this was not a document created by unanimity.  The divides were startling and only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the final document.  Yet decisions were made in the interests of the country that were not to the complete satisfaction of all.  All of this happened in less than four months, between May 25 and September 17, 1787.  I cringe in dismay that the current Congress, irrespective of political party, could not accomplish a fraction of such a dramatic feat.

An interesting twist is that the finite games of political terms provide the necessary conditions to inspire action today.  For they inhibit procrastination and self-serving delays with a limited time for action before one’s replacement arrives.  This continual renewal is needed to protect perhaps the most important infinite game: freedom.

Conflict of Interest: Do Congressmen’s Compensation Exceed the $250,000 Being Discussed For Tax Cut Renewal?

December 29, 2012

Today’s financial cliff drama and sound bytes focuses on the amount of annual income below which the current tax rate is not increased.

Income levels of $250,000, $400,000 and $1million have been floated around.  My question is: do our Congressmen have a conflict of interest given their annual compensation of at least $174,000?  Per a January 2012 Congressional Research Service report:

“Since January 1, 2009, the compensation for most Representatives and Senators has been $174,000. Compensation for the Speaker of the House is $223,500, while the President pro tempore of the Senate and the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate receive a salary of $193,400.1

I wonder what is the average annual income for a Congressman?  Those that are married are probably filing jointly with a spouse so that income is included as well as is any other revenue from business interests.  There may be other income sources from investments (The median net worth for a Congressmen – $878,500 for Democrats, $957,500 for Republicans – far exceeds the country’s medium household net worth of $96,000 in 2009.2)

That at least some members of Congress jointly file federal income taxes each year in excess of $250,000 is not an unreasonable hypothesis.  It appears there is an actual or perceived conflict of interest among Congressmen on this matter as they debate an income level of $250,000 vs. $400,000.  As a responsible constituency, we are compelled to ask: “Who specifically is benefiting?” and “Is that a meaningful percentage of Congress?”  These have the appearance of having ramifications beyond “the interests of small business owners.”

This takes on a new perception when the US poverty level for 2011 is defined as total family yearly income of <$22,350 (for a family of four)3  and the average median household income in the United States from 2007-2011 was $52,762.4.  This begs the question, if we pay our politicians more than three times the medium household income in the country and we get the dysfunctional results we have today, how do we change compensation to reflect the value received by the US people?  Just as the commercial sector cannot always police themselves and requests outside intervention, Congress’s recent actions suggests its members cannot responsibly govern themselves.  Given the country’s financial stress, the politician’s themselves should share the financial burden and should renew the tax cuts on incomes below $250,000.

References

1. Burdnick Ida A, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (4 January 2012), Congressional Salaries and Allowances. Page 1.  Retrieved from: http://library.clerk.house.gov/reference-files/112_20120104.pdf

2. Luhby, Tami, The One Percenters In Congress (8 May 2012) CNN Money.  Retrieved from: http://money.cnn.com/2012/05/08/news/economy/congress-net-worth/index.htm

3. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (20 January 2011). Annual Update of the HHS Poverty Guidelines (Federal Registry Notice). Retrieved from http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/11fedreg.shtml

4. U.S Census Bureau, People Quick Facts (2011).  Retrieved from: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

A Social Contact’s Promises and What is Our Word Worth?

January 3, 2012

As Congress finds itself enthralled with re-election, I asked “What is the word of a politician worth?” and “What is the word of our country to our citizens worth?” There are two very different questions.  The latter is an institution I strongly believe in while the former are individuals who often have a self-interest in creating drama and gaming the institution for individual gain.

I question how we make decisions and do we backtrack on the promises of yesterday.  What spooks me, as I publish this article again six months later, is that very little has changed even after the debt downgrade by the rating agencies.  While much can be read in or dismissed about it, at its core, it is a grade on the financial trust other’s have in our government.

______________________________________

As Congress looks at the three largest sections of expenses: Defense, Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security, I want to examine the process.  This shall not a commentary on what to or not to cut.  Rather I am more interested in how decisions are made:  for social security there are discussions on at what age do are reduce benefits offered?  Politicians are scurrying around the country with a tentative plan of reducing benefits to those currently 55 years of age and younger.  They are frantically trying to explain at town hall meetings to those aged 65 and older they will not be affected in efforts not inflame that constituency.

I asked about those aged 55 and less.  These individuals have paid into a program, without choice, with an understanding that after age 65, they will receive payouts based upon a publicly available formula and annual Social Security Administration Statements.  Suddenly the rules are to be changed because decades of neglect end with a frantic period of cramming before the known deadline?  Where has the fairness we highly value and built this country on gone?

Do we back out of a promise made?  As a country do we change the rules to the detriment of many to forgive the mistakes of some?  What is our word worth to our own people?

(A potential solution: two sets of formulas.  All contributions to a certain date, regardless of age, are paid benefits by the historic formula and rules.  From that date forward, contributions paid in and benefits paid out follow a new set of rules.)

What is frightful is that this pattern is repeating again with discussion regarding the debt ceiling.  There is drama and political wrangling but there is very little public disclosure, meaningful discourse, debate or solutions on how to solve the problem: the congressionally approved limits how much debt the country is permitted are almost reached.  The United States find ourselves in a position where we owe more than we bring in and, as a country, need to borrow money to pay our current bills.  It seems that instead of difficult, perhaps unpopular choices being made by politicians in the best interests for the country – what we as the people who elected these representatives to act on our behalf, are paying them to do, and do not seem to be holding them accountable for – are not.  Perhaps there is a difference between government and politics (the manipulation of government to suit ones own selfish ends).

I ask again what is our word worth?  What is the word of elected representatives to serve their country worth?  What is the word of our country’s promises to our creditors?

Will you as a voter objectively hold your incumbents and new candidates to account for misstatements, exaggerations, inactions, lies and broken promises?

Roles and Responsibilities of Elected US Government Officials

December 24, 2011

The following piece was originally written and published July 29, 2011, as the US Congress was trying to address the country’s finances.  Appallingly,  politicians publicly display ignorance over the Constitutionally defined responsibilities of the legislative and executive Branches.

Last night prominent career politicians showed this ignorance again on late night television shows.  The Speaker of the House and Senator John McCain, among others, chastised the US President for holiday shopping instead of crafting tax legislation.

While anyone can create a bill, only a Congressman can introduce it for discussion, debate and vote.  What I see is Republican Congressmen attacking a Democratic President for not creating legislation when that is Congress’ responsibility not the President’s.  Political party affiliation aside, are our elected politicians actually fulfilling their job duties?  Read the Constitution, specifically Articles I and II detailing the powers of Congress and the Executive Branch, and decide for yourself.

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html

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The Roles and Responsibilities of US Elected Officials: Its Breakdown November 2010 to July 2011 over the Debt Ceiling

July 29, 2011

The inability for US elected officials to reach agreement on financial matters today is significantly rooted in their misunderstanding of their roles and responsibilities.  It surprises me the Republican Speaker of the House (the Legislative Branch) openly and continuously attacks the Democratic President of the United States (the Executive Branch) for not furthering along legislation.  This breakdown is more striking than any specific detail of any legislative proposal forwarded today.  Yes, there are a lot of very technical financial points and components to this very complex problem, but who is responsible for each part does not correspond with the actions of our leaders.  We as a constituency need this clarity to determine if we (1) elected the right people to do the job and (2) they are effective at accomplishing it.

Some background:

The Executive Branch has asked for what it needs to solve a problem caused by conflicting Legislative branch mandates: that the Legislative Branch raise the amount of money it authorizes the Executive Branch to borrow to meet the budget the Legislative Branch authorized the Executive Branch to spend.  The Executive Branch has threatened to veto legislation that does not solve its problem.

As a summary primer, our Founding Fathers divided government into three main parts: the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches.  Broadly, the Legislative branch determines the rules or laws of the country, the Executive branch runs the country on a day-to-day basis following these rules, and the Judicial branch (among other duties) settles any disputes that arise and are presented to it.  The Legislative Branch, also called Congress is comprised of the House of Representatives (direct representatives of the people) and the Senate (representatives of the States).  These writings today only focus on the Executive and Legislative Branches.

While anyone can create a bill, only a Congressman can introduce it for discussion, debate and vote.  What I see is a Republican Speaker of the House attacking a Democratic President for not creating legislation when that is Congress’ responsibility not the President’s.  Evidently the House of Representatives portion of Congress does not agree with the Executive Branch’s request; however, that does not abdicate the House of Representatives of its job of proposing, debating and voting on proposed legislation.

The fact that the Executive Branch needs to mediate a discussion between the two chambers of Congress, the Legislative Branch, is again revealing.  This is not the responsibility of the Executive Branch.  Just because the elected leaders of the Executive Branch and the Senate are from the same political party does not mean the separation of duties somehow simply disappears and assigned responsibilities shift.  The further breakdown appears to be that the leaders in Congress are not having constructive discussion.  If they are, their representations to the constituency through the media belie that.  I personally do not want liars, deceivers or those unwilling to have public, candid discourse on difficult topics representing me as elected officials, whether they are doing their jobs well or not.  Today, I see dysfunctional leaders in Congress not effectively executing their responsibilities.