Fixing Congress Means Fixing the Government

I am sure that many readers of antiwar have seen the Internet message that is making the rounds about congress. It is attributed to Warren Buffett and provides a solution to the problem with the nation’s legislature. Per Buffett, make every congressman accountable for his actions vis-à-vis driving up the national debt: “You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for reelection." It would require a constitutional amendment but Buffett is reportedly confident that the popular support for such a step exists to move the process along rapidly. I personally would also add to the amendment mandatory term limits of two consecutive cycles in either the House or Senate before requiring the would-be professional politicians to rejoin the real world.

Some versions of the email also pile on the evidence that congress takes care of itself much more assiduously than it does the American people, though some of the numbers and details it cites are wrong. In reality, a congressman gets paid $174,000, together with generous pension and health insurance benefits that are vested after five years in government. Buffett recommends that congressmen only get paid while they are actually serving in office and that they have basically the same medical insurance and pension options that the Americans who elect them have, meaning that they will have social security and Medicare benefits as a result of their government service. They can, of course, arrange for other supplementary private plans using their own resources. Buffett also notes that they should not ever be allowed to vote to give themselves pay increases, an eminently reasonable suggestion.

The Buffett message does not address the revolving door as lobbyists which is where former congressmen and government officials really cash in. Let’s face it, lobbying in the United States is legally authorized corruption, the brain child of a congress that wants to perpetuate its right to profit personally by promoting programs that in no way benefit the American people. But the Buffett proposal is nevertheless a good start in exposing the most visible and extremely corrupt tip of the iceberg that is our government.

The real story behind Buffett’s outrage is, however, that congress is not unique. It could easily be considered a role model for how the rest of the government functions. Why do you think the average government employee costs the taxpayer nearly $125,000 per year when a school teacher in the U.S. earns less than $40,000? Why are there more general officers and admirals at the Pentagon today than there were during the Second World War? Why have bureaucrats in the senior pay grades proliferated since Obama took office? It is all because the entire federal bureaucracy operates as if it were congress.

For those of us who are concerned with the corrosive effect of the military-industrial complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower correctly described as military-industrial-congressional before he was convinced to remove congressional, there should be a recognition of the fourth element in the equation, which is the federal bureaucracy itself, a monster that has grown dramatically in the past twelve years, doubling in size and cost. This has been most evident on the national security side of the ledger, but every federal department has also grown.

To be sure there are federal employees who are honest and hardworking. Indeed, most might fit that description. But the media concern for the "plight" of the civil servants who have been laid off in the current sequester is a bit over the top. No one has lost his or her job and the government has pledged to provide full back pay even though they are not working. Most are also collecting unemployment benefits. Compare that to the millions of people who actually lost their jobs in the 2008 economic meltdown that was in large part caused by government malfeasance.

A case could easily be made that many government employees are overpaid and frequently protected by their peers, particularly in the military. General William Ward, who was until late 2012 the four star commanding general of the newly created Africa Command was cited in a Pentagon inspector general’s report "for multiple forms of misconduct". The report claimed he had used military vehicles to take his wife to spa treatments and shopping trips, stayed at government expense in a $750 a night suite in a hotel in Bermuda, misused government aircraft to transport family and friends, lodged in a number of hotels at government expense while not engaged in official business, and demanded a five vehicle motorcade every time he had to visit Washington. He also accepted dinner and tickets for Broadway shows from a defense contractor and stayed in the Waldorf Astoria with staff members and family when he was in New York on vacation.

Ward should be in jail but he was not court martialed in spite of the IG report and was only punished by allowing him to retire as a three star general at $208,802 instead of as a four star general with a pension of $236,650. This is symptomatic of the fact that the bureaucracies that federal employees work in frequently could care less about the American people because their principle day-to-day objective is to protect themselves and grow bigger, hence the recent reports of how many agencies went on a "use it or lose it" spending spree at the end of September so they would use all of the money in their budget in spite of the sequester. The federal fiscal year starts on October 1st and if all money is not spent from the previous year the budget for the following year is reduced commensurately. This circle the wagons to protect our equities is a general rule for bureaucracies and explains why there is a tendency in Washington not to hold anyone accountable for anything: no one wants the public to start figuring out how inefficiently and corruptly run their government actually is. This inability to link performance with actual interests has a particular impact on foreign and defense policies, where the sums expended on wars and international meddling are vast, frequently poorly managed, and so little understood by most Americans that they are willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt.

The ill-advised launching of a few barrages of cruise missiles at Syria, which was the White House’s fervent desire back in August could have cost as much as five billion dollars or so by the time it was all over, an act of war carried out just to establish the "credibility" of the White House. Would it have been money well spent to kill a few hundred Syrians? The Navy meanwhile keeps building multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers even though they are highly vulnerable to much cheaper missiles and although it already has eleven of them while the Air Force is getting the problem plagued and cost overrun prone F-35 fighter at $100 million a pop in a $857 billion program even though the aircraft is demonstrably not needed for national defense.

Government employees swear an oath to uphold the constitution of the United States but they quickly find themselves in a situation where they will be rewarded only if they are completely loyal to the internal dynamics of the institution that they find themselves working for. Which means they are frequently competing for a bigger slice of the budget, more perks and pay, and only secondarily responding to the genuine interests and needs of the American people.

Note how the Pentagon has repeatedly been sending the signal that war with Iran and/or Syria would be a huge mistake, but behind the scenes the Air Force has been delivering a somewhat different message to the White House. Sending waves of bombers to hammer Iran would validate the existence of the Air Force, which would do the trick from 20,000 feet. Why do the boys in blue want to bomb Iran? Because they didn’t have enough involvement and therefore budget growth from what went on in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s all about money and the bureaucratic connections that make parts of the government appear relevant and grow. Do we even need an Air Force with its bomber fleets that have no actual defensive mission and are only good for attacking other countries? Good question. What are the actual threats and who exactly are they protecting us against?

I recall back in 1992 how, when the Cold War ended, organizations like CIA and the FBI were desperate to maintain their relevancy. There was talk of more involvement in issues like counter-narcotics and even international patent and copyright infringement before everyone discovered combating global terrorism, which quickly became the principal focus of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Has the terrorism threat been hyped by many in the government to create fear and to generate more resources and manpower? Of course it has and some even suspect that the threat has been largely invented. It is sometimes noted that more Americans are killed annually by falling furniture than by terrorist attacks yet the White House spends hundreds of billions of dollars to counter a threat that would be considered minor but for the government itself pushing to find a solution to a problem that it almost certainly helped create.

So I would encourage everyone to support the Buffett proposal for fixing congress, but I would also suggest that the problem is much larger. Are we Americans better off because we constantly invest in more carrier battle groups and squadrons of new fighter planes that make us militarily superior to the rest of the world? Does the chaotic Department of Homeland Security actually do anything that makes America safer? And at what cost? Why is Washington negotiating to stay in Afghanistan? What is the national interest that applies, and why should we be bombing Syria and Iran? Just because there are vested interests that want to maintain huge bureaucracies that will perpetuate all these policies does not transform them into a vital national interest for most Americans. It is an ultimate irony that institutions like the Post Office that actually provide a necessary service for most Americans are starved for funds while National Security Agency seems to have plenty of cash to build and operate its vast new spy center in Utah. A spy center that will collect information on the American people. Clearly the priorities of government are skewed and it is not just in congress.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.