Robert B. Charles, Contributor, Association of Mature American Citizens
Over coffee in diners and pasta in kitchens, Americans are saying one thing: Washington, grow up. They know most fellow Americans rise for work, act responsibly, and earn an honest living. Whatever they think of President Trump – who appears to keep promises – they disdain the know-it-all, self-satisfied, smug-as-a-bug Congress.
Last week, in an act of breathtaking hubris, Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) used her newly-reclaimed gavel and pedestal to simply disinvite a President of the United States from delivering the Nation’s Annual State of the Union address. Average Americans, whether they planned to watch or not, should be aghast.
Never mind this tradition is constitutionally authorized under Article II, section 3, clause 1. Never mind, the speech is a mainstay – on the nation’s calendar since Woodrow Wilson’s in-person address in 1913, with 95 given in-person to Congress. Never mind the address is expected by Americans – and viewed around the world as a touchstone of our republic’s health.
One person – Nancy Pelosi – pulled rank, declaring the speech will not happen. Every American – Democrat, Republican, or neither – should be asking what is up, and more specifically, what is wrong with this Speaker. The audacity of this act is almost beyond rational comment. Is there no respect in this House for history? For the office of the presidency? For the expectations of the American People?
And why did the Speaker do this? Because the president insisted on 5.7 billion dollars to finance a barrier on America’s Southwest Border – to protect our health and safety. That barrier – a wall – aims to deter, prevent and slow illegal immigration and drug trafficking into America’s towns and cities. The President aims to protect the country, a labor that he is constitutionally sworn to undertake – just as Nancy Pelosi and her Democrat Caucus are.
So the President asked 5.7 billion dollars be added to a one trillion dollar bill. Now, there are a million billions in a trillion, so the president is asking less than one percent of that bill – for the wall. Or less than 2 percent of discretionary spending in it (i.e. non-entitlement funds). But no, say the Democrats. And for a mule-kick in the teeth: No State of the Union.
Here is the interesting part. Forced to do so, this President just canceled the State of the Union. But last week, he took a constitutional shot at the Speaker, cancelling her “CODEL” by military plane to Europe and Afghanistan.
Mean? Disproportionate? On one hand, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-GA) called the spat “sophomoric.” And one has to wonder, where will this clash of constitutional prerogatives end? Probably nowhere good. Likely, Congress steps up to the President’s compromise, or he goes with a national emergency and initiates an executive transfer.
But look closer. Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are showcasing the runaway privileges of Congress – and the President is calling them out. Not only are they not doing their jobs, they are having fun on your hard-earned money. What the President did – either intentionally or by happenstance – in denying Nancy Pelosi her free plane is shine a light on Congressional perks. There are many.
Here is what hard-working Americans often do not know. Congress takes tens of millions of dollars in free trips around the world every year, at taxpayer expense. On the cheaper end, they use tax dollars for commercial flights. These (rather oddly) average $10,000 per trip. Members and staff in 2016 took 557 such trips, averaging $10,000 per person per trip, Europe to Far East. While overall costs are hidden, public reports record at least $14.7 million in taxpayer dollars in 2016 for these commercial trips. That will top $20 million this year, according to Treasury.
More often and mostly unreported, congressional delegation trips (so-called “CODELs”) and staff delegation trips (“STAFFDELs) use top-end military planes for these festive outings. There are hundreds of these annually, averaging more than $100,000 per trip – just for the plane. Onboard, they gets free drinks, food, security and every comfort.
More, they big per diem money that allows buying extras, a host room where they stay, and no customs agent on return. Why do you think CODEL trips return late at night? No announcement? Reporters and cameramen are asleep, while members take their hauls quietly home.
These trips contain “down time” which is often spent shopping, purchasing everything from fancy foreign rugs and local handiwork to exotic foreign gifts. Most left unreported, that is your “fact finding.” Truth is, in floor debates, drafting legislation and in hearings, they use a Congressional Research Service report, most days.
What of other perks? Members of Congress get $174,000 in salary, and half the year off (239 days to be exact). They get free downtown and airport parking, free gym privileges, free healthcare subsides, and a retirement plan that offers a $59,000 pension, versus average American’s social security of $15,000. They get free medical care downstairs in the Capitol, for all shots from foreign travel inoculations to the flu.
It gets better. Until otherwise corrected, they are all exempt from dozens of laws, slander and libel on chamber floors to avoidance of Freedom of Information Act requirements. They are not required to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Act requirements, despite holding hearings on why others don’t.
Beyond that slush fund to pay off harassment claims – again using your money for their settlements – they are exempt from compliance with protections against retaliation for whistleblowers, posting worker rights, prosecution for retaliating against employees, requirements to train employees about workplace rights and legal remedies, or record-keeping requirements for workplace injuries and illnesses. Who is holding the hearings on those issues? Not Nancy Pelosi.
How can all this be, you might ask? Allow me to answer a question with a question: Who passes these laws? Who has the power to exempt themselves from OSHA to provisions of insider trading? Congress, of course.
As Democrat-controlled House members grouse about White House security clearances, mark this too: No member of Congress is required to go through a full-field security check or to pass even a SECRET security clearance, before they can demand and see anything.
Nor are they required to conform to traditional requirements issuing subpoenas. Rather than bound by standard federal practices, congressional processes are insular and self-set. Thus, Democrat counsel has been known to call Republican deposition witnesses and tell them not to comply with majority subpoenas. One would think Canons of Ethics, but not here.
So, as the Nation waits for the State of the Union speech that will not occur – since an untethered, unbridled House Speaker has canceled it, we might be inclined to ask: Where is the check on Congress, which seems not only against fences, but increasingly unfenced? When will rationality and accountability return? When will Washington grow up?
Robert B. Charles was an Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former US Court of Appeals Clerk for Judge Robert Beezer, taught at the Harvard University Extension School, and currently leads a consulting group in Washington, DC.
The Association of Mature American Citizens [AMAC] [https://www.amac.us] is a vibrant, vital senior advocacy organization that takes its marching orders from its members. We act and speak on their behalf, protecting their interests and offering a practical insight on how to best solve the problems they face today. Live long and make a difference by joining us today at https://amac.us/join-amac.