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Letter to the Editor

Practice what you preach

web posted March 30, 2009
By Rep. Gresham Barrett
South Carolinians are justifiably outraged that executives at American International Group, a company that shares a bulk of the burden of responsibility for our current economic condition, would be rewarded bonuses for mismanagement using taxpayer dollars.

Last week, the House Financial Services Committee, a committee on which I serve, held a hearing regarding these bonuses with Edward Liddy, the acting CEO for AIG. As I listened to members of Congress skewer Mr. Liddy, an individual who is working for a dollar a year and who came out of retirement at the government's request to help clean up the mess left behind by AIG's former management, I could not help but think of the hypocrisy of our own House.

At its core, the outrage over AIG is about not rewarding mismanagement with taxpayer money. However, one of the greatest examples of mismanagement is what continues to occur in Congress. It stands to reason then that the same folks who gave us the AIG bonuses, who gave us 9,000 earmarks in the omnibus spending bill, who gave us a record-breaking deficit and an ineffective stimulus bill, should be the last people to receive a taxpayer-funded bonus.

But, that's exactly what they got.

For the past 20 years, members of Congress have received an automatic taxpayer-funded annual bonus. To make matters even worse, members never had to vote on the bonus. That way they would not be criticized for voting themselves a raise. This year, rank-and-file members received a $4,700 pay hike. House leadership received even more.

Just to put things into perspective, Speaker Nancy Pelosi now receives an annual salary of $223,500 -- not to mention access to U.S. Air Force Gulfstream jets. Those kinds of perks and privileges sound pretty similar to me to the ones afforded to the corporate executives that members of Congress are so quick to criticize.

For the record, I do not think we earned the additional money, and so I made the decision to contribute my bonus to Anderson Interfaith Ministries, a local faith-based organization committed to providing assistance to the needy. I will continue to contribute any additional pay increases to local charities until the automatic pay raise provision is put to a stop.

Growing up in Westminster, which is geographically 793 miles from Wall Street and ideologically about as far away as you can get, I learned that you should always practice what you preach. Meaning that if Congress is going to go about trying to set salary caps and revoke bonuses for businesses throughout the country, we should get our own House in order first.

We need to set strict government spending limits and tie government growth to the rate of inflation. We should fix the flaws in the legislative process that allowed for last-second changes to a nearly $1 trillion bill that ultimately resulted in the AIG bonus controversy. We need to reform the broken earmark procedure and we must open wide the doors of the backrooms that block transparency and accountability.

Until we do so, we should not take another dime in taxpayer-funded bonuses.

To that end, I introduced legislation last year to stop the automatic congressional pay raise. But House Democrats blocked my proposal. I reintroduced an updated version of the bill earlier this year, and while the Senate unanimously passed a similar piece of legislation on March 17, House Democrats have refused to bring my bill to the floor for a vote.

Furthermore, I think it only makes sense that in a year when there is no projection for a balanced budget and when Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are all projected to go broke, that members of Congress should automatically be paid one dollar. These massive government programs are unsustainable yet Congress has failed to act and failed to offer a real solution, leaving behind what everyone agrees is a disaster for others to clean up.

The people of South Carolina have my word that I will continue to fight for accountability in Congress. I will defend at every turn what I believe are the taxpayer's best interests, and I will work tirelessly to promote common sense legislation that holds members of Congress to the highest ethical standards.


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