Bush Would Dock the Pay of Truant Members of Congress
Policy + Politics

Bush Would Dock the Pay of Truant Members of Congress


Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took careful aim at Congress on Monday, proposing in his major “Reform Washington” speech that lawmakers who miss votes or important floor business should be penalized with the loss of pay.

“Consider a pattern in Congress of members who sometimes seem to regard attendance and voting as optional – something to do as time permits,” he said sarcastically. “A bill to dock the pay of absentee members might not pass the House or Senate, but at least it would get them all there for a vote.”

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D.uring his speech at Florida State University, Bush, one of the top-tier GOP presidential candidates, also proposed a tough, lengthy ban on former Senate and House members from lobbying on Capitol Hill. He said that former lawmakers should be prevented from lobbying their former colleagues for six-years after leaving office as an important step towards limiting the growing influence of the lobbying industry. He vowed to impose similar restrictions on former members of the executive branch who seek to influence the next administration.

“In all of these reforms, it matters what example is set by those in elective office,” Bush said in his speech. “It’s easy for elected officials to lay out standards of performance for others. But what are high standards worth if we don’t apply them to ourselves?”

Congress has long been a popular political punching bag for candidates seeking to run for office as Washington outsiders and it is no different this year. Republican candidates are often just as unstinting in their criticisms of Congress as Democrats, even though the GOP is back in control of the two chanmbers for the first time in more than a decade.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) promised  that Congress would return to “regular order” under GOP leadership, and that meant among other things members working five-day work weeks. But Congress in short order returned to its old ways, with members frequently reporting for work late Monday and leaving late Thursday evenings.

“Jeb Bush is following the classic playbook of running against Washington and going after what most voters can’t stand – which is Congress,” said Ron Bonjean, a former congressional Republican communications adviser and now a government policy strategist in the private sector. “And by calling for an extended ban on lobbying and docking the pay of members, it will get a lot of support around the country.”

“It’s frankly an easy softball to hit because most voters would agree with something like this,” he added. “Whether or not it could really work is a whole other story, but that doesn’t matter when you’re campaiging.”

Other presidents, including President Obama and former President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s brother, sought to discourage the revolving door with legistive or executive action.

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 Obama barred lobbyists from contributing to his campaign and signed an order on his first day in office in 2009 prohibiting them from serving in his administration. However, he has made a number of exceptions to that rule and has hired lobbyists for several important jobs. Then in August 2014, the Obama administration rolled back part of its ban on lobbyists serving in governor or on advisory committees.

Jeb Bush’s proposed change would significantly lengthen the “cooling off periodfor members of Congress who subsequently lobby lawmakers on behalf of paying clients, such as corporations, special interest group or foreign governments. He has spoken out before on the undue influence that special interests play in Washington – although many lobbyists close to Bush have contributed to his campaign.

“It’s the relentless expansion of government that made lobbying Washington’s premier growth industry,” Bush said yesterday. “Spending on lobbying has risen by more than 45 percent over the past decade, translating to $12.5 million per member of Congress. Restrain federal spending and bureaucratic meddling, and we’ll disrupt the culture that thrives on big government.”

Under the current ethics rules, House members have a one-year ban on lobbying and Senate members have a two-year ban. Changing the current system would require congressional action.

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Bush also is seeking other reforms, such as more transparency in dealings between lawmakers and lobbyists. “Every time a lobbyist meets with any member of Congress, that should be reported online — every week, and on the member’s official Web site,” Bush said.

Past efforts to rein in lobbying by former members of Congress and their senior staffers barely out of office have had mixed success at best. Former President  Bush signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) nearly eight years ago –legislation then hailed by Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) as “the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate.”

The legislation was designed is part to thwart the revolving door syndrome in Washington. But a joint analysis by the Sunlight Foundation and Center for Responsive Politics last January found huge loopholes in the law.

For example, the law permits former members to “aid or advise clients” other than foreign governments or political parties concerning how to lobby Congress “as long as they don’t do the lobbying themselves,” according to House ethics guidelines.

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As for docking members’ pay for failing to regularly show up for work, that idea is not a new one. In the run-up to the 2013 government shutdown, Democrats suggested that Republicans who were fomenting the crisis should be denied salaries as long as the government wasn’t fully operating. However, docking members’ pay is not legal.

That’s because the Twenty-seventh Amendment to the Constitution prohibits any law that increases or decreases the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until the start of the next set of terms of office for representatives.