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Congress: Let's Practice What We Preach

Congress: Let's Practice What We Preach

by Bill Galston

The purpose of law is to create a framework of order that applies equally to all citizens. Yet America’s lawmakers are not always subject to the provisions that apply to the rest of us. A number of laws actually include clauses that exempt members of Congress.

Prior to 1984 neither federal service workers nor members of Congress paid into Social Security. Instead, members of Congress pulled in significant retirement pensions, paid for by citizens. Today, although Congress now pays into Social Security, elected officials who began their term after 1984 are still given a variety of choices for retirement, including Social Security benefits as well as coverage under the Civil Service Retirement System or Federal Employees Retirement System.

These programs have more generous benefits than those offered by Social Security. In Congress’s retirement plan, lawmakers can retire as early as 50 with a full pension. With Social Security, American citizens must wait until 66 or later.

This disconnect is evident in other areas. In business, private citizens with privileged information can not act on that information in the open market; it’s insider trading and it’s illegal. But Members of Congress are exempt from laws regulating insider trading. Despite having nonpublic securities information, politicians are free to use it on the open market, profiting from the very industries they are supposed to oversee. A study that appeared in Business and Politics in late May showed that House members’ investment portfolios outperformed the market by about six points per year. And senators had some of the highest returns on investment ever recorded, outperforming even hedge fund managers.

For years, Congress has exempted itself from the burdens of laws it placed on the shoulders of ordinary citizens. The Americans with Disabilities Act? Inapplicable. The Fair Labor Standards Act? Not for Congress. It has even come under fire for not applying the Civil Rights Act to lawmakers.

Unfair? Hypocritical? We think so. That’s why No Labels is proposing that all of the laws passed by Congress should also apply to Congress. These laws must apply to everyone equally. Being a member of Congress should not afford anyone special advantages or privileges. If it’s good enough for the American people, it should be good enough for Congress.

William A. Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. The author of numerous books and articles on political philosophy, public policy, and American politics, Galston also served as Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy, 1993-1995.

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