Senators get death benefits; taxpayers get death taxes

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So now comes the latest outrage from Capitol Hill: The U.S. Senate plans to ram through a taxpayer-financed death benefit for the family of recently deceased Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) in a must-pass appropriations bill.  The appropriations provision would award Byrd’s children and grandchildren a “gratuity” of “equal shares” of the late senator’s $193,400 salary that he would have been paid next year if he had lived.

As it turns out, this is a standard form of mutual back-scratching long practiced by the sententious upper body, another manifestation of the pompous cronyism that pervades the U.S. Senate.

Let me see if I’ve got this straight: The families of dead senators receive death benefits at taxpayers’ expense; the families of dead taxpayers pay death taxes to help pay for a bloated government of the politicians, by the politicians and for the politicians.  No wonder grassroots America is up in arms and is prepared to throw the bums out in November.  Little things mean a lot, and a lot of little things are building up back home.

The problem with a death benefit for deceased senators is not that taxpayers are paying members of Congress who aren’t showing up for “work;” it is that they are paying members of Congress who can’t show up for work.  As the late Jack Kemp would have said, “That’s not on the margin.”  In other words, it doesn’t affect incentives or make small changes with large consequences; hence, the cost is a dead-weight loss to taxpayers.  Ah, but if we could figure out a way to pay living members of Congress not to show up for “work,” that would be another matter.  That certainly would be “on the margin” because the relatively small outlay involved would have huge consequences: members of Congress would remain at home, taxpayers could get at them every day of the week, and citizens would remain safe in their person and property with Congress out of session.

The notion of paying living senators and congressmen to stay home in their states and districts and not show up in Washington makes a lot of sense.  Right now, we get the worst of both worlds.  We pay a lot of legislators big full-time salaries for part-time work, which means they can still wreak enormous havoc on the country for pay in their spare time.  However, if we paid them a little more money to stay home all the time, it would be money well spent “on the margin,” since they wouldn’t have even a part-time incentive or opportunity to do damage.

According to a news report from last year, “Members [of Congress] usually arrive for the first vote of the week as the sun sets on Tuesdays, and they’re usually headed back home before it goes down again on Thursdays.”  Nice work if you can get it, huh?  Many people find this maddening since these jokers are being paid a full-time salary about two-and-one-half times the national median income for at best a quarter-time performance.  By that standard, they should take a 75 percent pay cut.

But look at it the other way: it would be well worth an increase in their current salaries to keep them out of Washington the four or five days a week they are currently here doing great harm to the nation by “legislating.”  By my calculations, it would be well worth paying every last one of them a million dollars a year to stay home all the time.

Here’s an idea for the grassroots groups around the country: Invite your member of Congress to a town hall meeting and hold a fundraiser to increase their salary on the condition they stay home all the time and never go back to Washington.

Dr. Hunter is president of The Alliance for Retirement Prosperity.