Writings and observations

Carlson: Losing touch

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

On Election Day, in November of 1994, a Seattle reporter for the Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer came by my office in downtown Spokane early in the day wanting to know what I thought we’d know at the end of day, after the polls closed and the ballots were counted.

Solveig Torvik, of obvious Norwegian heritage, was raised in Blackfoot. By reputation she was a solid, well-informed reporter who did her homework. When I opined that the end of the day would see Tom Foley become the first sitting Speaker of the House to lose both his seat in Congress and the Speaker’s gavel since something like 1846, Ms. Torvik was shocked.

Surely the people of Washington’s 5th Congressional District had enough sense not to turn their back on their own self-interest in having the most powerful member of the House, the person second in line for the presidency, as their congressman?

The answer came quickly within 90 minutes after the polls closed: Yes, the voters of the 5th District were, in their view, willing to place the needs of America ahead of their own self-interest and retire the Speaker who had served them so well for 30 years. The 5th district, along with Idaho’s 1st district, bought into Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” hook, line and sinker.

My answer to the why was even simpler: Speaker Foley had lost touch with the voters.

The evidence was easy to see. Voters had awakened to the fact Congress exempts itself from almost all the rules and regulations it imposes on the rest of us when it comes to things like OSHA, Clean Water and Clean Air, Labor practices, etc. Speaker Foley’s normally keen ear had turned to tin after 30 years.

In debates with the charming, pleasant George Nethercutt, the Speaker chose to defend the congressional perks. It was not well-received. In addition, part of the Contract with America was a pledge to serve only three terms and then retire.

Speaker Foley spoke against term-limits while both Nethercutt in Washington’s 5th District, and Helen Chenoweth, in Idaho’s 1st, signed the pledge. Only Chenoweth, it turned out, kept her word, retiring after three terms.

It was no coincidence the Contract referenced a three term limit. Like most pension plans, the Congressional plan vests after five years. Unlike most pension plans, however, Congress awards itself a Cadillac plan if there ever was one, with health benefits attached that exceed the best plans anyone can obtain anywhere else.

Members of Congress do take care of themselves and their colleagues, both current and former. Therein lies one of the biggest disconnects between the governed and their governors, and why some pundits today see parallels to 1994.

Occasionally, one will see some member of congress try to make a p.r. splash by turning back part of their salary (now at a nice $166,000 per year), or part of their office allowance. Never though does one see a member rejecting the pension and retirement health benefits plan.

Because it also takes enormous sums of money to run for office, those able to fully or partially self-finance have a leg up on those that can’t. Is it any wonder then that the current Congress is comprised of more millionaires than ever before?

Is it any surprise that these predominantly rich individuals take care of their rich brethren and their rich donors by continuing to protect loopholes and tax dodges?

Is it any surprise also that means-testing of things like Medicare and Social Security, which seems so logical, never gets taken up?

Is it really a surprise to see Congress held in its lowest regard ever?

Clearly, our representatives really aren’t representative. Just look at their financial disclosure reports. There’s no way a multi-millionaire like Senator Jim Risch (estimated worth is between $15 million and $50 million) can feel the uncertainty, the pain and the fear of a 55-year-old hard-working, God-fearing, decent family raising man who is looking for a job in this economy to keep body and soul together. Senator Risch never has to worry. He’s insulated from a dire future. The vast majority of the rest of us are not.

Nothing personal, but how can he empathize? He can’t. So how can he get what’s going on in the state and nation? Almost all members of Congress are losing touch. They’ve created a system of security for themselves and simply cannot relate to the insecurity so pervasive in society.

It has to disturb everyone, regardless of party or ideology, that so many middle class, hard working Idahoans and Americans are up against the wall and losing hope.

Admit it. We all know hard-working, tax-paying folks turning their homes or condos back to banks, inviting foreclosure, despite what it does to their credit rating.

There’s a bitterness brewing in the hinterland towards all members of Congress that should tell them to quit dwelling in “Beulah land,” and start to get it. We’re in trouble. And many members of Congress are in trouble, whether they yet know it or not.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris Carlson served as press secretary to former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus for ten years. He is the founding partner of the Gallatin Group, is now retired and he and his wife, Marcia, reside at Medimont.

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