How Do Congressional Reps and Senators Become Rich?

US Senators and Congressional Representatives commonly refer to their positions as “Public Service.” Perhaps the annual salaries of $174,000 for Senators and Representatives may seem to be self-sacrificing to them, but a deeper dig tells a different story.

Congress is a club composed of millionaires. The average net worth of our 535 lawmakers is $1,000,000. To be fair, that is a statistical average. A few Senators and Representatives arrive in Washington as wealthy people who have earned or inherited their fortunes before assuming office. And a few, at the other end of the income spectrum, are still paying college loans. But most stay in Congress for multiple terms and become millionaires.

A more interesting statistic, however, is the average annual growth rate of a lawmaker’s net worth. Regardless of their starting level, how much does his or her net worth grow per year? Does it grow at the same rate as the rest of the country?

The average American citizen saw his or her household net worth decrease from 2004 to 2012 at about one percent a year. Meanwhile, members of Congress experienced an annual net worth increase every year. While the net worth of most Americans shrank the net worth of Congressional members increased by more than 25 percent for the same period.

FullFinal-TVTW071016For the top 20 members of the “Congressional Millionaires Club,” the increases were much sharper. They ranged from a net worth increase of 93 percent a year to 1,707 percent a year. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) had a much higher percentage of net worth growth, at more than 73,000 percent. Congressional statistics exclude her annual net worth increase because it resulted from a multi-year marital settlement. Also excluded are increases in the value of homes and other non-investment real estate.

No matter how we position the statistics, nearly all members of congress significantly increase their net worth during every year that they serve. The increases are usually much more than they could save or have invested for them at an annual salary of $174,000. For example, a congressional member with a net worth of $1,000,000 will have an average increase of nearly $16,000 a year after taxes. So an average senator who serves two terms will increase his or her net worth by $192,000 while serving. Some, however, accumulate an increase of $1,000,000 or more during their multiple terms.

What is the source of that additional wealth? Required public disclosure forms don’t answer the question. Until recently, a legal loophole provided Congressional members immunity from “insider trading” laws. For example, they might be privy to information unknown outside of government circles that would impact the stock markets. Examples might include an impending decision that would crush a company’s stock values or accelerate them based on a huge defense contract funded or canceled.

Sixty Minutes investigated this practice and showed how Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had profited by $100,000 on one stock transaction. This was based on her advanced knowledge of a change in banking laws. Ms. Pelosi and her husband also profited from eight IPOs that year, based on inside information. The Minority Leader is among the richest members of Congress. Her estimated net worth of approximately $58 million makes her the twelfth wealthiest member of the “millionaires club.

Generally speaking, members of Congress use devices like “blind trusts” to eliminate conflicts of interest. However, laws in this area appear to be open to interpretation. The wide range of Congressional member contacts with outsiders—especially lobbyists and their staffs—makes it impossible for potential investigators to follow thousands of communications threads.

Moreover, there are many ways for a Congressional member to help people who are willing to pay handsomely. And there are many ways to pay for favors, without money directly changing hands. For example, the sensitive information mentioned casually to a friend or relative may be repeated to a “blind trust” administrator. If the information isn’t classified by a government agency, those conversations may not break any laws.

Few Americans know or care about these practices. They don’t respect Congress, because of many other things, such as failure to improve economic conditions or broken promises. The “Congressional Millionaires Club” depends on voter apathy to hold onto its seats.

When we vote for a new member of Congress, we seldom if ever elect the mythical, hard-working champion of the people we expect. In fact, Congressional members don’t work full-time. They are usually in session less than four days a week. Moreover, they take numerous long breaks, bringing the average number of days in session per year to 139. Stated another way, Congress is idle for 226 days a year. If we don’t count the usual 104 weekend days, and 11 national holidays, Congressional members still have an additional 111 days off or about 20 weeks of free time. Every sixth year, Senators use some of that time running for re-election. Representatives must run every second year of their term. Most members miss additional weeks of in-session work to attend to this electioneering.

In addition, many junior Senators and Representatives spend more than half of their time, “dialing for dollars.” Administrators from both parties escort these members to non-government locations, from which they must perform telemarketing to lists of potential donors they don’t know. House and Senate leaders support the parties in ensuring that members meet their time, call volume, and donation quotas. If members rebel, they risk the loss of their committee positions and party funding and support for their next campaigns.

Many concerned Americans believe that the answer to improving the performance of Congress is to impose term limits. Perhaps term limits would force some Congressional members to be more productive. Nevertheless, these institutions require a major overhaul. Conscientious media people should expose the process. And frustrated voters should demand reforms.

Advertisements

Do Leaders in Washington Understand Cyberwar Technology?

How important is technical knowledge to leaders running our country? In a world in which future threats will probably include cyber warfare, America’s civilian government must understand the fast-developing weapons of technology. As the President-Elect fills his cabinet and advisory posts, technology depth is mandatory in most areas.

Along with Department of Defense, senior staffs of Homeland Security, State, Treasury, Transportation, FEMA, FBI, and CIA must be people who intimately understand the language and concepts of technology. These are the people who can effectively recommend and execute options available to the President in defending us against a huge array of cyber attack methods.

FullFinal-TVTW071016Most Americans know little about cyber warfare, and the news media seems to understand very little of the imminent dangers it portends. Most news stories conflate loosely related stories of computer hacking by Russia or China with cyber warfare.

Though malicious hacking may result in stolen information, it doesn’t destroy aircraft, kill or disrupt the lives of millions of civilians, or permanently cripple whole economies. Cyber warfare can do such things without warning. That means that our top decision makers must immediately understand the recommendations of technical people to respond to any specific disaster.

It also reveals that many of the most prominent political people in government are unqualified to serve in cabinet-level positions.

In the past 50 years, technology development has changed every aspect of American life. And as America changes, much of the rest of the world changes with us. Moreover, the rate of change continues to accelerate. If anyone hasn’t grown up understanding basic technology terminology, he or she is unlikely to ever catch up without undergoing a year or more of intensive training.

This breathtaking rate of development means that most people who are 45 or older do not have a background that would enable them to understand cyberwar, robotics, or other technology areas that require decisions from the highest government levels that affect our entire population. Of course, older people who have worked in IT and technology companies or have had engineering backgrounds can be effective at any age. But for the 90 percent who haven’t had those backgrounds, it’s very difficult to participate if they weren’t students in 1990 or later.

Democrats and Republicans together had 22 candidates in the 2016 Presidential primaries. The youngest, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are both 46. Both are lawyers with no apparent technical background. All other candidates were at least 50, with most in their 60s or older. The only candidate with a technology background was Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

Looking at the Congress, the average age of House members is 57. The average age of Senators is 61. Of 100 Senators, 51 are lawyers, and 25 are from academia. Of 435 House members, 151 are lawyers and 80 are from academia. Others are primarily doctors, school teachers, business owners, former mayors, and pastors.

Senate and House members with technology backgrounds consist of one physicist, one microbiologist, one chemist, and seven engineers in the House. In the Senate, one member is an engineer.

Obviously, our most visible and vocal candidates for the President-Elect’s cabinet and advisory posts lack the technical background to serve in many of the key positions. A Secretary of Defense, for example, must understand the technical complexities of Cyber Warfare. Remarks made in debates and media interviews indicated that most of our senior lawmakers and governors do not know anything whatsoever about Cyber Warfare. They use a few keywords, but embarrass themselves by using them inappropriately. Though they have probably had access to confidential briefings explaining some of the vast complexities of Cyber Warfare lawmakers and senior government managers typically send staff members to such presentations.

The President-Elect’s nomination of three retired generals—General Flynn, General Mattis, and General Kelly—seems to be appropriate and smart. Many of today’s senior officers are graduates of one of the three military academies, which are engineering schools along with their military curricula. Throughout their careers, senior officers receive assignments to military universities like the US Army Command and General Staff College, the Naval War College, and the US Army War College. These institutions combine technology with group assignments to apply weaponry with strategic planning. Generals from allied countries often attend to provide additional insights.

We will undoubtedly see other military people nominated, along with technically competent business people. Future administrations should not consider the usual candidates—political allies, campaign donors, and lobbyists—unless they have the requisite tech knowledge.

How Real Is Voter Fraud in US Elections?

With Jill Stein’s quixotic recount demands and President-Elect Trump’s unprovable claims of fraud against him in the 2016 Presidential Elections, we once again have a partisan argument that will go nowhere.

Stein’s recount demands in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, are supposedly based on claims by a computer expert that fraud is technically possible. Added to that is media speculation that Russia could have hacked vote counts in key precincts. Since voting machines aren’t connected to the internet and are too widely distributed to be hacked effectively, this imaginary scenario is a non-starter.

Unfortunately, all of these fraud claimants are only addressing vote count issues. The real probability of voter fraud is corruption in voter registration. Though thirty-one states require some form of voter ID, nineteen states and the District of Columbia require none. The states that do not require voter ID include California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania who together earn 159 electoral votes that traditionally go to Democrats.

FullFinal-TVTW071016Democrats point out that there are relatively few reported cases of voter fraud. False registrants, however, are nearly impossible to detect. No one knows the extent of this problem. A voter-by-voter investigation would consume millions of dollars in large states and would represent a waste of money and take years to complete.

Party officials vigorously fight any proposed legislation requiring a voter ID at the polls, on the grounds that they are somehow racist. The political narrative is that poor people may not have a means of acquiring a photo ID if they do not have transportation to the registration site where photos are taken.

These claims are questionable at best. If people have a means of traveling to the polls, couldn’t they travel to have an ID created? Couldn’t the same political parties that drive people to the polls provide a small group of volunteers to drive people to the ID creation site?

The resistance to voter ID laws does not in of itself imply that the officials in these states are suborning voter fraud. It’s more likely that they don’t want to spend the money required to implement a program that cannot help them politically. Nevertheless, their stubbornness on this issue leaves elections open to possible chicanery.

How does registration fraud occur? There are several different scenarios:

– Voters die , but their names remain on the voter registration rolls. Enterprising political operatives can use computer technology to scan databases to identify deceased names that remain and send substitute voters to replace them.

– People register in one area, relocate and mistakenly register again, sometimes with a different name, e.g. a new married name. The previous registration remains open for a fraudulent voter.

– College students at age 18, register while still living with their parents; then register again at a college in a different county or state.

– Political operatives recruit unregistered people, often non-citizens, provide necessary information on election day, and pay them a small amount of money to vote according to instructions.

Regardless of party, the only sane solution is requiring a voter ID with a photo. The US government needs to sponsor legislation and funds enabling all states to implement such a program before the next Presidential election.

Personal disclosure: I have investigated this issue by serving as a poll judge and poll watcher in three different elections in California. Though I am an independent, middle-of-the-road voter with no party affiliations, I am convinced that many voters I observed were not legally registered. The registration process appears to be slipshod at best.

Will Our Next President Be A Woman?

The Presidential Election of 2016 is now history. Behind the scenes, however, political leaders have already begun positioning candidates for the next election, whether in 2020 or 2024.

Regardless of party or ideology, one or both of the next nominees should be women.

Despite rhetoric claiming a glass ceiling and anti-woman bias, the voting public has been ready for a female president for at least 20 years. Ironically, the primary roadblock to potential female presidential candidates has been Hillary Clinton. Other women, potentially more electable candidates, have been on the sidelines since the end of Bill Clinton’s term. The big-money power brokers have done everything possible to insist that the former Secretary of State be the first woman President. All other women have had to wait for their turn.

Mrs. Clinton had two opportunities and therefore blocked chances for other women, since 2001. Her mantra was “Vote for me because I’m a woman.” That makes little sense to most voters. Tens of millions of Americans have voted for women and elected them as governors, senators, and big-city mayors. Many other women have been leaders of some of America’s largest and most successful companies. America has become very comfortable with female leaders in virtually every profession.

We don’t want a political candidate to say “Vote for me because I’m a woman.” We may be inspired, however, if she says, “Vote for me because I have the vision, leadership, policies, attitude, and capability to run the US Government.” Her gender is not an issue, any more than it would be for a man.

Both parties have excellent female candidates, any of whom could be the next president. Following is a list of twelve women, all strong leaders. Any of them could win the presidency with a powerful campaign. They range widely in age, but all are “in the ballpark.” The youngest woman in the group will have more government experience in 2020 than Senator Obama had when he ran in 2008. The eldest has a long resume of leadership positions and is approximately the same age as Hillary Clinton.

In alphabetical order:

Senator Maria Cantwell
Senator Joni Ernst
Former CEO Carly Fiorina
US Representative Tulsi Gabbard
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator Maggie Hassan
Governor Nikki Haley
US Representative Mia Love
Governor Susana Martinez
Former Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg
Senator Elizabeth Warren

FullFinal-TVTW071016This group of twelve includes six Democrats and six Republicans. Ideologically they extend from the Progressive Left to the Conservative Right. This group includes two African Americans, one Pacific Islander, one Latina, and one Indian. As a group, they “look like America.”

America needs to elect women like these to serve as our President. Voters should send a signal to the rest of the world that we don’t marginalize any group because of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. It’s time to assure every American child, male or female, that she or he has an equal opportunity to be heard and to lead.

Has Senator Barbara Boxer Read the US Constitution?

usconstitution

An Open Letter to Senator Barbara Boxer

Dear Senator Boxer:

Along with many of your other constituents, I was surprised to hear that you have introduced a bill that would abolish the Electoral College.

Perhaps you have forgotten Article Two of our Constitution that states:

“Citizens of the United States vote in each state at a general election to choose a slate of “electors” pledged to vote for a party’s candidate. The candidates who receive an absolute majority of electoral votes among the states are elected President and Vice-President of the United States when the Electoral College vote is certified by Congress.”

Apparently, you are proposing to amend the Constitution, to meet your desired political outcomes. As you know amending the Constitution is possible, though a path to ratifying an amendment is deliberately long and difficult. Since 1789 there have been 11,539 proposed amendments, and only 27 have become part of the Constitution.

To propose a Constitutional amendment, the Congress must send it to the State Legislatures for a decision. For the Senate and the House to request a vote by the Legislatures, the proposal must pass by two-thirds (a supermajority) vote of both chambers of Congress. Alternatively, Congress can call for a National Convention, which also requires a two-thirds supermajority and request participation of two-thirds of the State Legislatures.

If Congress achieves the supermajority and requires the States to vote on a proposed amendment, three-fourths of the states (38) would have to pass the amendment to ratify it.

FullFinal-TVTW071016An amendment that scraps the Electoral College would effectively disenfranchise thirty-eight states and effectively leave California and New York voters to choose most future presidents. Few legislatures would vote to effectively relinquish their political power to produce this outcome.

I’m sure that you would not want to take your party onto that multi-year, quixotic path to defeat. Perhaps then, you are part of that fringe group that believes that strict adherence to the Consitution is an out-of-date concept.

Many of us—probably a majority—would respectfully disagree with that notion. Now, more than ever before, America needs a compass to guide our future. Progressives and Conservatives alike need the protection of a single authoritative framework of laws to prevent knee-jerk political machinations that would harm us, set one group against the other, and create chaos. We have already seen how partisan politics can cripple our government. Imagine an America without the Constitution of the United States as its moral guidepost.

Very truly yours,

Steve Vachss
California Voter

Hillary’s Surrogates and Endorsements

nine-thumbs4Since the stunning election surprise of Trump’s victory, we have heard countless experts, pundits, historians, and politicians explaining how Trump won. They point to strategic mistakes, failure to understand the anger of the electorate, polling errors and many other aspects of electoral politics. Nevertheless, they seem to overlook one of the most important differences in the two campaigns: the surrogates and endorsers.

Hillary Clinton had the highest quality and deepest bench of surrogates that we have ever seen. Her campaign could call on the President of the United States, the First Lady, the Vice President, Former President Clinton, Senators Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. She had active “A List” celebrities like JZ, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Barbra Streisand and others who performed on her behalf, and countless others who publically endorsed her.

To better understand what happened, ask yourself: “If I wanted to win the heart of someone, would I send a close friend to romance him or her?” “If I thought that someone didn’t like me, would I bring someone who overshadows me on a date?” “If I was trying to win a new job, would I send someone famous to the interview instead of going myself?” “Would I bring entertainers to a date or interview, hoping that their celebrity would become mine?”

FullFinal-TVTW071016Obviously, the point is that celebrity surrogates or endorsements are ineffective in improving a candidate’s popularity. They may seem attractive, but they just do not work.

Hillary’s “enthusiasm numbers” remained steady and low during the entire campaign. Speeches by the President repeated thousands of times the throughout the country had no effect. While Democrats touted the Clinton “ground game,” voter enthusiasm—much higher for Trump—brought more people to the polls. The rest is history.

Ballot Bombs Can Affect Your Life

Had enough of ridiculous political candidates? Then think of the rest of the ballot, the part that can affect you personally—those sneaky ballot measures.

tempblackframeVisualize this. You wait in line to vote for your chosen nominee after months of repetitive hype. You mark a ballot for your candidate, then select many others for lesser offices, most of whom you don’t recognize. Then you get to those long, wordy choices called ballot measures, initiatives, or propositions.

You read one or two of them and realize you don’t understand the possible impact of “YES” or “NO.” Many voters stop at that point and submit their ballots. Others believe they must enter a vote, and guess at the impact of their choices. A relatively small group—perhaps ten percent—have seen an ad for or against a specific measure and make an impulsive choice.

Finally, ten percent who are ardent believers for or against a measure make an informed choice. They might be environmentalists, education advocates, advocates for homeless people, or any of dozens of other groups who believe their state should add or change a law.

FullFinal-TVTW071016Most voters have no idea of what they have chosen, or how that choice will affect their lives. In many cases, the passage of a ballot measure will have a direct impact on every citizen in the state. Voters are effectively writing laws, many of which will have unexpected consequences.

Twenty-five states, including my state of California, add these additional decisions to our ballots. Our votes on a ballot measure may raise taxes, release criminals from prison, determine education quality for children, or any of hundreds of other areas that affect our lives.

Ballot measures were probably noble ideas when they first became part of the electoral process. Over time, however, politicians and organizations have discovered sneaky ways to use them to end-run the legislative process. They often have measures written by scholarly attorneys who know the legal definition of words that may differ from general use. They also use trickery such as double negatives that confuse the meaning of sentences. Hapless voters often misunderstand the wording and vote for or against measures in error.

An interesting example is the infamous California “Prop 8.”

The official title of Prop 8 was: Proposition 8 – Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry. On November 4, 2008, voters approved the measure and made same-sex marriage illegal in California. A federal judge later ruled that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution.

Personal disclosure: I voted against Prop 8. My vote was against the government regulating personal marriage choices for anyone. It was neither for nor against same-sex marriage, per se, though it effectively supported it.

After a deluge of TV ads for and against Prop 8, many voters became confused. Understanding that the measure dealt with same-sex marriage, many people favoring same-sex marriage voted for the proposition. Many people who were against same-sex marriage, voted against Prop 8. As a result, it was impossible to tell whether voters really supported or rejected the proposition.

California voters will see seventeen different ballot measures on November 8. They all need some study before each voter makes an informed decision. Some of them have had high volume advertising campaigns, for and against them. Advertising in some cases has been so sleazy, that many voters know less now than they knew before the advertising campaigns. Costs for this advertising will reach $450-million, according to the Los Angeles Times

Issues that Californians will vote on include marijuana legalization, gun control, healthcare and drug prices, condoms in porn, plastic bags, repealing or altering the death penalty, tobacco taxes, and several county tax or bond measures.

Voters need to understand how these measures reach the ballot. Measures are often unpalatable to elected lawmakers in state senates and assemblies. Often a large company or advocacy group uses a ballot measure to go around the legislators if it will increase their profits or gain some kind of social impact.

Ballot measures begin with petitions, often hawked by unknowledgeable volunteers or sales people. They approach busy shoppers outside of high-traffic stores with little more than a slogan like, “Please sign to feed hungry, homeless children.” When the army of petition carriers has enough signatures to reach the total required by law, most states require some form of legal review. Once the review declares the measure legal, there is usually a process to validate the petition signatures. However, some states waive the signature validation for a fee. Most measures can pass those hurdles easily. Many people don’t recall signing, and some sign without realizing that they are initiating a law-making process.

Memo to voters in states with ballot measures: Be wary of the impact of your perfunctory “Yes” or “No.” The proposition you validate or invalidate may affect your life for many years.