Legislators’ sacrifices would show solidarity with the 99%
Let’s face it, all the world’s economies are downsizing. In Greece, which is bearing the brunt of the worst economic crisis in their history, a parliamentarian has demanded that members of the Greek Legislature give up their perks. We are talking about cars provided by the state, gym memberships, generous retirement benefits, health benefits that would make any American jealous and extra money for just showing up at committee meetings that appear to be a regular part of a not so strenuous job. For this, our hero has been vilified and called names like “show-off” and “traitor.” She hasn’t backed down. She has been ostracized.
That’s what goes on in Greece but here in New York and in the United States we have nothing to worry about, right? Wrong. As the occupiers freeze in Zuccotti Park demanding a fair deal that includes them, our legislative officials are enjoying a very good life. In normal times no one would care. But as all of us face downsizing, furlough days, and increased health care costs, it’s inevitable that we will be examining the perks enjoyed by the state legislature and our members of Congress. They might consider getting out front of what will doubtless be an inevitable demand.
While one could list all these perks, let us just save some time by saying that most people would be envious. As people make serious sacrifices in order to keep their jobs (I refer to the New York State civil service unions), we see no such limitations placed on our legislators. What is even more incredible is that one hears almost no murmurings among those who seek reform. There are lots of ways to define corruption. There is the “legal” way and then there is the “honest” way. A wife or a child gets a job she might not have gotten had she not been related to an important person. Hey, I have no problem with wives and husbands of legislators leading separate lives. On the other hand, you’d have to trust in the tooth fairy not to believe that sometimes the people doing the hiring understand the built in benefits associated with hiring a relatively important spouse.
The new ethics law that Governor Cuomo sees as a major achievement is really just more of the same old-same old. There should be an absolute provision that legislators detail, to the penny, any and every dollar they get from any outside source. This business of obfuscating and confusing “categories” in which a legislator just has to disclose that income in a range is a turn off to anyone trying to follow the money. We all know that members of the legislature get extra money for travelling to Albany and for “leadership” responsibilities. That would be okay if so many legislators were not classified as leaders. We have all seen the recent scandals. Assemblymen, senators and their handmaiden lobbyists funnel money into not-for-profit corporations which they control and use to funnel money into their own pockets and those of their relatives. As long as human nature remains what it is, some of those in power will continue to misbehave. It only takes the venal actions of a few to taint everyone else.
But let’s return to the parliamentarian in Greece and the people freezing in Zuccotti Park. How long before they demand that those who are in power, including the most progressive of them, are asked to make a personal sacrifice? At the public radio network where I work, people were laid off, furloughs were taken and no one has any hope of a raise. When hard times come, we all share the pain. What we need is just one or two legislators who will lead the movement to show solidarity with all those who are suffering out there. Their colleagues may hate them but you had better believe that the people won’t.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 10/31/11