If Elected, I'll Live in Barracks and Be Paid $7.25 an Hour
By MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS
TUCSON, Ariz.—Andy Goss knows exactly what he'll do if he wins his long-shot race for Congress. First, he'll cut lawmakers' pay 40% to $104,400. Then the former Army interrogator will use the savings to build a Capitol Hill barracks where all 535 senators and representatives will be required to live.
"If our military has to live in such a fashion, I think we congressmen should also," says Mr. Goss, one of four men seeking the Republican nomination in southeastern Arizona.
This year is shaping up to be an excellent time to run for Congress by running against Congress.
The legislative branch is one of the least popular institutions in the U.S. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in May finds that 72% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. An earlier poll revealed that, if such an option existed, half of those surveyed would gladly check a box on a ballot replacing every member of Congress at once. GOP Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah and Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia—both Capitol Hill veterans—have already lost their primary races, and more incumbents could fall next week.
This spasm of anti-incumbent sentiment provides an opening for novice politicians who see a rare chance to storm the halls of power. They're not just angry about what Congress does, but also about how Congress does it. So Tea Partiers, Republicans, Socialists, independents and other congressional hopefuls are taking to the stump to propose radical measures to constrain the very institution they're angling to join.
The 40-year-old Mr. Goss, who left the Army a sergeant, says his proposed congressional pay cut isn't the product of "exact science." Mr. Goss came up with the figure one day while fuming about Congress with some buddies in Iraq. Barracks life, he believes, would give lawmakers a lesson in humility and service.
In Omaha, Neb., computer consultant and independent House candidate Jerry Odom wants lawmakers to guarantee that each bill they sign falls within the constitutional powers granted to Congress. If a court later finds the law unconstitutional, any legislator who voted for it would be jailed.
If lower-court judges uphold the law, but are later reversed by the Supreme Court, then the lower-court judges would go to the slammer, too.
A sentence of "anywhere from a year to two years" would be appropriate, reasons the 41-year-old Mr. Odom. "I wouldn't get too crazy with it because right now you can go out and kill a child and get two years."
He would also require congressmen to account for their time by punching in and out of work, factory-style.
With Democrats in charge of both chambers, most candidates attacking Congress are doing so from the conservative flank. But the Left is taking shots, as well. Nicholas Nix, a Socialist running as an independent in Texas, argues that lawmakers should be paid no more than the $7.25 federal minimum hourly wage, or about $15,080 a year, assuming a 40-hour work week.
"If it is good for us, then why not them," Mr. Nix, a 31-year-old marketer for a small Dallas appliance company, writes on his campaign Web site.
The gigantic health-care law has prompted many conservatives to seek constraints on Congress's room for maneuver. Air Force Reserve pilot Brian Miller, a Republican primary candidate in Arizona, wants to require that each bill be read aloud in full on the House floor. Only congressmen who sit through the entire reading would be allowed to vote.
He's organizing like-minded wannabe lawmakers into a national group called the Freshmen 50.
"There won't be any more 2,500-page bills," predicts the 34-year-old Maj. Miller.
Jaynee Germond, a former nurse's aide turned Republican congressional primary candidate in Oregon, says federal bills should deal with only one topic. That's to ensure there are no more student-loan plans tucked into health-insurance bills, as was the case in the legislation enacted earlier this year. And to make sure bills remain narrow, she'd limit them to no more than two pages.
"I'm sorry—I don't trust my government," says Ms. Germond, a 52-year-old from Roseburg, Ore. "I don't trust the legislators or the president or the courts to do what they say they're going to do."
Dean Moore, a 42-year-old auto-parts store manager and independent congressional candidate from Nixa, Mo., argues that the 17th Amendment should be repealed, allowing state legislatures to select U.S. senators for the first time since 1913. The idea, Mr. Moore says, is to allow local lawmakers to keep a closer eye on federal lawmakers.
Tony Gentile, a Louisiana oil-company manager running for Senate as a Libertarian, would go a step further. As a member of the Bring Home the Politicians coalition, he argues lawmakers should spend at least 75% of their time in their state capitals, voting by secure Internet connection. They'd be safer from terror attacks, the theory goes, yet more vulnerable to the fury of their constituents.
"If you're doing something wrong in Washington, you can't hide," says Mr. Gentile, who is 49. "You have to come home and get your butt kicked."
The Internet-based Get Out of Our House, or GOOOH, party wants to build a nationwide coalition of outsider candidates who will oust the entire House of Representatives at a go. ReformCongress.org, an anonymous Web site, advocates stripping lawmakers of their pensions and free parking spots. The Alliance for Bonded Term Limits, formed by North Carolina Tea Party activists, has signed up eight House candidates and one aspiring senator who pledge to forfeit as much as $500,000 of their own money if they stay in office beyond their promised limits.
Socialist Marc Luzietti worries slashing lawmaker pay would make Congress even less representative of the American people than he feels it is already. Mr. Luzietti's plan: Replace winner-take-all elections with a proportional-representation voting system common in Europe, which in Florida would give the Socialists one or two seats, Mr. Luzietti reckons.
Mr. Luzietti, 43, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Web designer running for the House, is pessimistic any of these proposals would do much good—even in the unlikely event they were to become law. "Socialists," he says, "do not see the government, including the Congress, as fixable."
Write to Michael M. Phillips at [email protected]