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Waco Tribune-Herald: Waco Rep. Bill Flores takes a stab at congressional reform

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Waco, TX, December 11, 2011 | comments
Bill Flores is taking aim at a popular idea: Cutting Congress' pay and pensions.
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By Bill Whitaker

For those who really hate Congress, its gridlock, its grandstanding and especially its many perks, Congressman Bill Flores’ “Reconnecting Congress with America” legislation must seem like a long-awaited Christmas present. It would tie congressional pay to the size of the federal budget deficit, scuttle automatic cost-of-living increases in favor of actual votes on pay hikes and up the amount lawmakers donate to their federal pension funds.

And for good measure, the Bryan Republican’s plan would prohibit commodities and securities trading based on nonpublic information for both members and employees of Congress. Other bills now percolating in Congress push this very same reform, but Flores added it to his bill to bolster its case and its chances after a CBS “60 Minutes” investigation offered some damning evidence of insider trading run amok on Capitol Hill.

HR 3565 is part of an even larger initiative at congressional reform that includes HJR 20 by U.S. Rep. Todd Platts. This proposes to limit U.S. senators to two consecutive terms and U.S. representatives to six consecutive terms. Flores says such reforms complement opinions he heard on the 2010 campaign trail while seeking to unseat Rep. Chet Edwards, a Waco Democrat in office 20 years before his defeat that year.

Flores says he devoted much of his first year in Congress to other priorities, including trying to improve the federal government’s fiscal situation. However, all that changed when several news organizations recently revealed that, while the average American’s portfolio was losing 20 percent of its value in three years, the net worth of members of Congress grew by 25 percent, with many making millions on personal investments.

“I thought, ‘OK, we got to get this stopped,’ ” Flores said.

None of the numerous reform bills now floating around Capitol Hill would ordinarily stand a snowball’s chance of passage except polls suggest Congress has more to make up for than usual this year, including the spectacular failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction just before Thanksgiving and a near-shutdown of the government earlier this year. A poll from The Hill, an online site that reports on Congress, indicates a majority of Americans want congressional pay cut and lawmakers’ pensions eliminated.

And just before I spoke with Flores on Friday, a Gallup poll appeared showing that 76 percent of Americans don’t believe most in Congress rate re-election. (Of course, the same poll showed 53 percent believe their own representative deserves re-election — something Flores dryly but accurately cites as “an interesting perversion.”)

Flores’ bill would link congressional pay to the annual deficit. If the federal deficit is equal to or greater than 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), then members’ base pay would be cut by 20 percent. If the deficit is less than 3 percent of GDP, pay would be cut by 10 percent. If there is no deficit or even a surplus, members would get 100 percent of their base salary.

Under current circumstances, this plan would cut Flores’ congressional pay from $174,000 to $140,000 and yield $23 million in overall savings (yes, miniscule compared to the overall deficit). Some of this would come from the bill’s demand that lawmakers also start kicking 6.2 percent of their pay into their federal pension funds rather than the 1.3 percent they do now. The congressman says he’d like to see lawmakers scuttle their entire participation in this pension system.

Flores says he believes enough fellow Republican freshmen will rally behind his bill to win over House veterans. “I’ll tell you this,” he said. “I believe (Republican) leadership believes what I believe — and that is Congress is out of touch.”

Of course, placing restraints and conditions on how lawmakers make money could arguably leave them more inclined to bribes, lobbyists and high-powered donors. Adding instability to their pay could leave Congress more the domain of the wealthy (and Flores, formerly of the oil and gas industry, is among the wealthiest). Nonetheless, taxpayers may be so fed up that they’re willing to take a risk on a package of such reforms.

But that’s assuming gremlins and grinches in Congress don’t somehow undermine all this.

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