Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Deficits, Spending, Size and Decision Makers

People in the United States are concerned about the federal deficit and deficit spending.  You can check in at brillig.com to find the national debt is about 14.5 trillion dollars as of this writing.  In a 1994 report entitled Understanding the Federal Debt and Deficit, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York printed, The first great surge in the national debt was caused by U.S. participation in World War I.  By the time the war ended in 1918, the debt had increased from a little over $1 billion to about $15 billion.

The second surge took place during the Great Depression.  There was high unemployment and, therefore, less taxable income. New social programs meant that the government had to borrow in order to finance increased spending.  As a result, the debt climbed to almost $50 billion by the start of World War II.  Does this sound familiar?  By the way, that $50 billion is about $721 billion in today’s dollars.

Steve Soft’s zfacts shows that much of today’s national debt is owed to federal spending during the Regan, Bush and Bush administrations.  Wikipedia’s National debt by U.S. presidential terms confirms this.  The page notes that there is a correlation between U.S. national debt and party affiliation of the president in office.  Makes you wonder what the supposed conservatives are conserving...apparently not our tax dollars.

Households and businesses point out that when they don’t have the money, they have to cut back on spending.  If a friend was spending of $3 trillion plus dollars per year and still going broke, you’d think that there would be some obvious places to tighten the belt.  The problem is budgeting is like dieting...no one likes to cut back.  The same is true of the federal budget.  Anytime someone wants to cut something, a bazillion (using the hyperbolic accounting system) people start jumping up and down.  Everyone wants their piece of the pie.

Since people don’t want to lose something they value, we just have to figure out what they don’t value and cut that.  What don’t people value?  Well, it seems they don’t value Congress.  Gallup reports that the average congressional approval rating since 1974 is 36%.  This would be fine if Congress was batting in the World Series, but if your boss only considered you 36% effective, how long would you last?

Every two years, we hear calls to “Throw the bums out!”  So every election year, the two chambers have a chance to move slightly from one side of the political fence to the other.  But if new blood is the answer, why is “Change” a recurring theme in campaigns?  Why is being a Washington outsider an asset in nearly every election?  The new people don’t appear to do any better than the ones before.

What if new blood isn’t the answer?  Here’s a thought.  Why don’t we try addressing the deficit and the low Congressional approval ratings simultaneously?  What if we cut the number of congressional representatives?

Let’s see what this would do.  The current salary for House and Senate members is $174,000 per year.  There are 100 Senators and 435 members of the House.  A little multiplication and we find this is $93,090,000 per year.  That doesn’t take into account the fact that congressional officers (the speaker, majority and minority leads) make more.  It also doesn’t account for the allowance congress people get for staff, office expenses and mail.  In 2003, this ranged from $700,000 to $1,600,000 for House members and from $2,200,000 to $3,800,000 for Senators.  If we take the low end of these numbers and add it to the figures above, we find that the United States people spend more than $618,000,000 a year for a service that only rates a 36% approval rating on average.  True that’s only four thousandth a percent of the national debt and two-tenths of a percent of the annual federal budget, but you have to start somewhere.  And you have to wonder if things would run better if there were fewer congress people sitting around.

We’re a democratic republic, so we can’t eliminate representation all together.  What is the right number of congress people?  Let’s start with senators.  When the constitution was written conditions were very different.  Healthcare was even worse than it is now; people, who got sick, didn’t have many options besides letting their bodies heal themselves.  Transportation was iffy and time consuming; it took a long time to get to the capital; roads were poor or non-existent and weather played a major role.  Congressmen were not full time; they had business duties that might keep them away.

These conditions indicated the need for backup representation that doesn’t exist today.  Congress has one of the best healthcare packages in the nation; even people who are moderately and seriously ill are able to continue their participation.  While we may all agree that air travel is annoying, it still possible to travel to Washington from even the most distant state in a day.  Additionally, senators are now full-time servants of the republic; they don’t generally have other businesses to keep going.

So, maybe we don’t need 100 senators, two from each state.  Maybe 50 will do.  With that single amendment, we would’ve saved ourselves more than $118,700,000.  Not bad, but we can do better.  Anyone who’s been in the business world knows that 50 people are too many for a meeting.  Look at what happened to the planet Pluto when over 2,400 people got together to decide it if was a planet or not. 
People tend to prefer meetings with eight attendees or less if they want to get something accomplished.  Thomas Jefferson was leery of this, because such a small number would have the ability to consolidate power and take control out of the hands of the people.  James Madison also said, “Sixty or seventy men may be more properly trusted with a degree of power than six or seven...”  When there were 13 states, there would’ve been 26 senators.  This is still too big for a reasonable meeting, but Misters Jefferson and Madison were right about a lot of things, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and settle on 25 senators – one from every two states instead of two from every one state.  Moving from 100 to 25 senators would save taxpayers more than $178,050,000 a year.  And 25 is a nice odd number, perfect for preventing tie votes.

What about the House of Representatives?  In 1789, one person represented the opinions of 30,000 United States citizens.  Today one person may represent the opinions of over 650,000 people!  Imagine if you won $6,500 in the lottery, but the lottery guy was a penny short and paid out only $6,499.99.  Would you miss the penny?  That’s the same weight your opinion has with your representative, unless you’re able to stir up a lot of friends with the same opinion who are willing to make calls and write letters.  But if you’re willing to do that, why not just represent yourself?

So I recommend we do away with the House of Representatives all together.  We have the technology and security today to make purchases over the internet.  We should use that same capability to directly influence the direction our country is taking.  Let the smaller senate maintain continuity; let the people weigh in directly on the issues.  This would make us more of a DEMOCRATIC Republic than a Democratic REPUBLIC.  It would empower people to take up their civic duties and make a difference where they feel disenfranchised today.  It would make getting a good education all the more important.  And on top of all that, it would save over $380,190,000 per year.  Add that to our savings from the down-sized senate, and we’ve racked up $558,240,000 per year in savings without clipping a single coupon.

People are rightly reluctant to tinker with the content of the documents on which the government is founded.  The Declaration of Independence states this truth bluntly:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
I don’t believe the causes that appear to be weighing down the people of this country are light.  Thirty years of poor performance ratings take them out of the transient category.  And I don’t believe the people we elect are entirely to blame.  Their good intentions are lost in a broken system.

I think we’d all agree we’re no longer the country we were in 1789 when the constitution took effect.  A lot has changed.  Many people assert that the United States is the best country in the world.  That may be true, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be even better.