John Baer: Month of good ideas draws to a close

Posted: January 29, 2013

AS JANUARY WINDS down, so does that political period I call "the month of good ideas."

This, annually, is the too-limited time during which our elected officials offer grand proposals to make democracy better.

They push sensible plans, which is great. But, like many New Year's resolutions, there's more promise than progress.

Take the "no budget, no pay" bill passed last week by the U.S. House.

Not paying members if they can't do a budget is appealing, right?

Yeah, and unconstitutional.

The 27th Amendment says, "No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election shall have intervened."

So the no-pay part can't apply until after the 2014 elections.

The most that can happen now (assuming the Senate agrees) is that members' $174,000 salaries go into escrow until there's a budget - or, if there isn't one, until they all get paid at the end of session.

Still not a bad idea - it just ought to be called "no budget, no pay till later."

(And, because nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires - as opposed to 1 percent of the U.S. population - "no pay till later" is no killer.)

But Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has a good idea: term limits, "because Congress should not be a body of career politicians."

He's co-sponsoring capping tenure at three terms in the House, two in the Senate. Think of the savings on pensions alone!

Problem is this requires a constitutional amendment and approval by the very folks who would be limiting their own terms and pensions.

Think that'll work out?

When I ask Toomey how much hope he has, he says, "This session? I don't have much hope." But: "There are an awful lot of things that take many, many years to accomplish in Congress."

(Yeah, like fat pensions.)

Oh, and first-term Toomey, who limited himself to three House terms, isn't "yet" pledging to limit himself to two Senate terms if re-elected in 2016.

But don't abandon hope. Harrisburg has good ideas, too.

West Chester GOP state Rep. Dan Truitt wants to make lawmakers provide receipts for their expenses.

Last session, lawmakers collected $3.9 million in tax-free tax dollars for "per diem" expenses that do not require receipts.

Under Truitt's bill, which last year never got out of committee, lawmakers would have to account for your money - if they vote to do so.

Think that'll go over well?

When I ask what hope Truitt holds, he says, "That depends on your definition of hope." He concedes that his hope is "low" but contends that as more first- and second-term lawmakers join the Legislature, chances for success improve.

Then there's Philly Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams' bill replacing election of statewide judges with a "merit-selection" system.

Great idea. Right for lots of reasons. Been tried for decades.

"I'm not saying I have more confidence now," Williams tells me, but he contends that as the judiciary gets increased attention, the issue gets a boost.

Judicial conduct has statewide attention thanks to the fun at Philadelphia Traffic Court, the sleaze of Luzerne County's kids-for-cash scandal and the Pittsburgh corruption trial of suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

No question that democracy and government would improve if lawmakers forfeited pay for failure, if there were reasonable term limits, if legislators were accountable and if judges got to the bench through means other than campaigns funded by the lawyers and law firms that practice before them.

And it's hard to fault the Toomeys, Truitts, Williamses of the world for showboating or pandering (although I'm tempted) - at least they put ideas out there.

It'd just be nice if such ideas moved a little quicker than, well, molasses in January.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: philly.com/BaerGrowls

Columns: philly.com/JohnBaer

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