Keystone Kongress follies
Aug. 29, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

In the years leading up to the first world war, a group of inept law enforcement agents swept across the screens of the silent film era, leaving a wide swath of mayhem in their wake.

These bumbling flatfeet were known as the Keystone Kops.

The Kops started as headliners, but went on to further success as supporting players in the films of such greats as Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle.

I used to think that the Keystone Kops were just another one of Mack Sennett’s brilliant creations, but I am beginning to suspect that he didn’t come up with the idea on his own – he got it from watching congress in action.

The thing that reminded me of the Keystone Kops was a story about the hokeypokey payroll antics of our Minnesota legislators, vis-à-vis the state shutdown.

This shouldn’t have been complicated, but once again, our elected officials proved that they have a limitless capacity for taking something simple and making it look complicated.

First, congress blundered its way through the session like a bloat of nearsighted hippopotami, and failed to get its work done.

Then, during the 20-day state shutdown, about a third of the legislators told the payroll office that they did not want to be paid during that period, perhaps motivated by intense public pressure.

There was, of course, no simple plan to cover everyone. Some legislators collected all of their pay, some collected partial pay, and some took none of it, at least initially.

Last week, an Associated Press story revealed that 18 of the house members who declined their salary during the shutdown received their full pay retroactively after the shutdown was over.

The list of excuses given by the legislators as to why they should or shouldn’t have been paid for the period the state was shut down was truly impressive. If one may risk another classic movie reference, reading these explanations was a lot like listening to Abbott and Costello’s “who’s on first?” routine.

It was a little bit tough to follow, and it didn’t quite make sense.

Some even tried to justify taking the money by saying they donated all or part of it to charity.

It seems to me that Minnesotans should be allowed to make their own charitable contributions. We don’t need a bunch of muddle-headed politicians to do it for us using tax dollars.

This story prompted a couple of observations.

First, one wonders, not for the first time, why we let our elected officials vote on their own salaries and benefits.

One realizes that we elect these people to represent us, but it seems that allowing them carte blanche to determine their own compensation is a huge conflict of interest right from the start.

Not that one would blame our fearless leaders, of course. I suspect the average wage slave, curmudgeons included, would be getting a much sweeter deal if they had a chance to determine their own wages and benefits.

The problem with allowing our legislators to do this is that they are doing it with our tax dollars.

Of course, the law states that “no increase in compensation shall take effect during the period for which the members of the existing house of representatives may have been elected,” but it still seems that one group of legislators takes care of the crop that comes behind.

In Minnesota, the annual salary for representatives and senators is $31,140, which is not bad for part-time work.

In addition to salary, legislators are eligible to receive a per diem payment when engaged in official business. The house rate is $77 per day, and the senate rate is $96 per day.

One is not sure why the rates are different. Perhaps senators eat better than representatives.

The second observation is about the general scope of congressional activity.

If these people can’t even agree on something as simple as whether or not they should receive salaries during a state shutdown, and if they can’t even stick to their decisions once they have made them, how can we rely on these people to solve the big problems facing the state?

It is no wonder we are seeing gridlock and the inability to pass a balanced budget or reach agreements on other issues.

This shouldn’t be surprising, when the ship of state is being piloted by the Keystone Kongress.

We used to laugh at the Keystone Kops. It is a lot more difficult to find anything funny in the escapades of our esteemed legislators.

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