Commentary

Bob Stannard: It’s called public service for a reason

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bob Stannard, an author, musician and former lobbyist. This piece first appeared in the Bennington Banner.

In 1789 members of Congress received a whopping 50 cents per diem salary. Six years later they doubled for representatives to $1 per diem. Senators got a huge increase to $7 per diem. The following year everyone got $6 per diem. Nineteen years later they changed their pay to $1,500 per year and two years later went back to $6 per day for representatives and $7 per day for senators. Nearly 40 years passed before they went back to an annual salary. Here’s an interesting chart that shows the progression of congressional pay over the years.

In 1942 Congress voted themselves a pension plan. The public rightfully screamed bloody murder. It wasn’t until after World War II that Congress successfully voted to give themselves a pension. That might well have been the beginning of the end of our democracy. No, they don’t get a pension for only serving one term and no their pension is not the amount of their full salary (it’s more like 80 percent), but they do get a handsome paycheck provided they hang around long enough.

Members of Congress also have good health care. No, it’s not free, but unlike you they have a pool of 300 providers from which to choose and the coverage is good. When Obamacare was enacted, it applied to Congress as well, something many members didn’t particularly like. Should Obamacare be repealed, as Republicans hope to do, then Congress would revert back to their old, better system.

I have no qualms about paying anyone a fair wage to do a job. Every employee should be entitled to fair compensation and appropriate benefits, because they are, in theory, giving their life for their job. As their time nears an end they should be compensated for lifelong work they dedicated for the benefit of others. That’s fair and reasonable for anyone and everyone.

When politicians know that they have to serve for one more term to qualify for a pension that they shouldn’t be entitled to, they’ll do whatever it takes to get re-elected and what that takes is money, lots of money.

 

The problem is that being elected to serve is not — and should not ever be — considered a “job.” Yes, it’s hard work and time consuming. It can be extremely frustrating and difficult and on many occasions people may not like what you’re doing. You may get verbally beaten up. You have to go to work and are expected to perform certain tasks, serve on committees and cast votes that may, or may not, be well received by your voters.

I know firsthand that all of this is true, but being elected to serve is not a job. It’s called “public service” for a reason, because it’s public service. You are elected to represent the concerns and ideas of your constituents for as long as they’ll have you. You choose to do so, because you believe in our democracy, our way of life. You run for office knowing full well that you will be sacrificing a career in another field. You run for office because you are passionate about changing people’s lives, hopefully for the better. You run for office to serve those who put you in office.

When holding elected office became a job all that changed. When politicians know that they have to serve for one more term to qualify for a pension that they shouldn’t be entitled to, they’ll do whatever it takes to get re-elected and what that takes is money, lots of money. And when that money comes from any other source other than the people you represent then your interests will be torn between the interests of the donors versus those who elected you. It’s a balancing act, one that shouldn’t exist.

Republicans are trying hard to ditch Obamacare and replace it with something much worse. The public hates their plan. It has little support, but two brothers, Charles and David Koch, don’t feel the bill is conservative enough and have pledged to withhold their support if it’s not to their liking.

When public service becomes a job the elected official feels obligated to represent the one paying him/her and that’s when we lose our democracy.

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  • Jon Corrigan

    A member of Congress will receive a pension at age 62 with a minimum of five years service; since Senators serve six years, they are vested after one term in office.

    • bobstannard

      IMHO getting a pension for an elected, public service position is obscene.

    • bobstannard

      This is why I wrote this column. Receiving a pension for public service is obscene. Holding elective office is not now; nor has it ever been expected to be a job with a pension and benefits. Elected leaders were always paid a stipend, which is fine. Benefits and pensions are not fine. They corrupt the system.

  • Jamie Carter

    Nice article Bob, too bad you had to get in that one jab at the end, really kind of takes away from your message.

    Term Limits would be ideal, but let’s face it… our Congress or Legislature will never vote for it.

  • Jimmy T. Tomczak

    A narrow, naive view that offers no solution other than electing 535 Jimmy Stewarts.

  • Peter Everett

    Pension? What the heck do they do to deserve a pension? How about national, binding, referendums where the voter decides what benefits WE will give them!!!! Referendums on: Salary, Healthcare, Pension (more than 6 years service) or Social Security (not both), size of staff allowed, travel expense, BUT, MOST IMPORTANT….set term limits on them. Time they learn they are not better than us, rather, they represent us. They should learn to live like us. Can anyone picture Leahy or Bernie living like we do?? They couldn’t do it!!!! They’ve been on the public’s dime, enjoying themselves, far too long.

  • Matt Young

    Obama “care” was imploding and wasn’t sustainable. I don’t know all of the details of the new republican plans but let’s not pretend Obamacare was working and could continue.

  • Pete Novick

    The US Constitution requires members of Congress to take an oath of office. Per public law, here’s the oath for the Senate:

    “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

    https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Oath_Office.htm

    Also, commissioned officers in the armed services take the same oath as required by 5 U.S. Code § 3331:

    “I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

    In the closing sentence of the first section of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson chose three nouns, but set apart only one with an adjective:

    “…we pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

    Now, why do you suppose he did that?

  • Adrienne Raymond

    Don’t bother to wonder, in Washington, it’s lost. The fix- get rid of long-term members. We need term limits.

  • Peter Everett

    Bernie took a year plus off from performing his sworn duty, yet, collected his salary. I would have been docked a day’s pay for every day I was out of work that wasn’t for valid sick time. My contention is he never should be allowed to receive pay when he isn’t doing what he is getting paid for. As taxpayer, I pay some of his salary (theoretically), so, aren’t I allowed to complain about double standards that the Elitists enjoy? I’m sure, if you work, your employer wouldn’t be happy if you tried getting paid for days you didn’t work. Frustration is something most of us feel when we here, think and see what our leaders do. Or, lack of doing.
    And, if town meeting/state Legislature decided to end my pension, that I paid into (%’age was greater than VT, I would expect to receive my investment back, with interest. Then, I would have privately invested that money into my retirement plan. Life goes on, yes, there would have been disappointment on my part. Nothing I could do. Problem is we can’t do anything about the double standards that the Elitists enjoy.

  • Paul Richards

    It’s appalling how these “public servants” come into office paupers and leave filthy rich. Look at the Clintons, Obamas, Lahey and Sanders for a start. Obviously they are not made into overnight millionaires on strictly a government “stipend”. If social security is good enough for me it’s good enough for them (that also includes the teachers and all other public employees).