by Dan Gelernter
In the 1960s, Moscow inaugurated special “ZiL Lanes” or “Chaika Lanes.” Named after the Soviet limousines reserved for high government officials (the ZiL was a copy of the ’63 Lincoln, the Chaika a copy of the ’56 Packard) these were roads that, like the limousines, were reserved for high government officials. ZiL Lanes allowed the Nomenklatura to whiz from the Kremlin to their country dachas in comfort, while their inferior comrades were stuck in jams on the Kutuzovsky Prospect. The Soviets built several ZiL Lanes, and the one along the Kutuzovsky Prospect is still in use today serving Putin’s pals.
Earlier Americans took a different approach. A possibly apocryphal story of George Washington’s inaugural ball has it that someone had brought him a stool or podium to speak from, but the general feeling in the room was that the president—even Washington—was just a man like the rest of them and so the stool was taken away. Today, of course, even the mayor of New York gets to stop traffic for his convoy, and they are building a permanent fence around the people’s house in Washington, D.C. to keep the people from getting too close. Bill De Blasio also built a wall around the mayor’s mansion on the Upper East Side.
It’s beginning to sound more like Marxism than a new birth of freedom. Marxism, remember, is nothing but an aristocracy of the bureaucrats.
But how can you expect congressmen to remember that they are servants of the public when they earn more than three times the U.S. median income? When the Office of the Attending Physician will provide them with special emergency medical care for an annual fee of just $626.89? When their job comes with an average annual expense account of $1.4 million for representatives and $3.7 million for Senators? When their license plates allow them to park illegally, anywhere? When the last time they held a normal job was 40 years ago—or never?
Teddy Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905; he accepted the medal but turned down the money, not wishing to cash in on his office. Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for becoming president and you better believe he took the cash. But that’s nothing compared to Obama’s $400,000 per event speaking fee (at least as of 2017).
It’s hard to find a single high-ranking public official, with the exception of Donald Trump, who has become effectively poorer during his time in office. Some have become much, much richer. Nancy “Marie Antoinette” Pelosi expresses her concern for struggling Americans while maintaining her own winery, two commercial properties, and two personal homes with a special freezer in one of them just for ice cream. The speaker’s salary is $223,500 a year (a $30,000 raise since 2018) but, of course, the bulk of her $100 million fortune comes from clever insider stock trades her husband executes in advance of favorable legislation. (A new set of these astonishing trades was executed just two weeks ago, Yahoo Finance reports.)
Perhaps it’s time we take our public servants down a notch or two, so we can look them in the eye. If our public services are so good, and our elected officials are so eager to lavish money on those public services, why are the same elected officials so eager to avoid using them? How many congressmen take the bus to work or send their kids to public schools?
In general, the goal of a responsible government should be to reduce expenditure, but in practice there are no responsible governments. The people in charge are insulated from normal life. But public service should not be an unending stream of importance, indulgence, and comfort. The price for being elected to the top roles in government should be a mandate to live like the most normal of normal Americans:
To start, peg the salary of congressmen and senators to the median full-time income, which was $52,000 in 2019. If they claim to be unable to live on such a measly salary, they might ask themselves how the average American gets by.
Get rid of all expense accounts for meals and travel. They can pay for their own dinners and buy commercial plane tickets just like us. Prohibit private jets and mooching military flights. And no priority travel. No skipping TSA checkpoints. They may complain that they’re much too busy to spend so much time in lines at airports. Aren’t we all.
Get rid of the expense accounts for office staff and postage. We don’t need politicians mailing what are essentially self-advertisements at our own expense. The private sector could start three or four new companies each year with the amount each congressman and senator spends getting his letters written.
Require legislators to get medical care from the VA, without any preferential treatment. Maybe they could get the VA to stop killing its patients with long wait times.
Require legislators to use public transit. Limousines are for those who pay with their own money (and for dictators). When I worked in New York City, my 90-block commute took me 50 minutes twice a day on the worst subway line in America. Millions of Americans waste their lives on decrepit busses and dangerous subways because they have no better alternative. If public servants had to use them, maybe these busses and subways would become the better alternative.
Get rid of motorcade convoys and chauffeured cars. Congressmen and senators can wait in traffic like the rest of us, and build more and better public roads if they don’t like it.
Prohibit legislators from hiring private bodyguards. Ordinary Americans can’t afford them: We have to rely on an efficient police force and the Second Amendment. Defunding the police might suddenly seem like a worse idea, and owning an assault rifle like a better one.
Require legislators to send their children to the worst public school in their home district—the one with the lowest literacy rates and the poorest test performance. That might make them value education over teachers’ unions. Or it might make them see the promise of charter schools.
And, finally, limit all congressmen and senators to two terms in total. (That is, two terms as a representative would bar you from running again for either the House or Senate.) No one should spend his life at the pinnacle of public power. George Washington made that clear to all his colleagues by his words and by his own actions: He refused a crown as a symbol of office, he refused the title of “His Highness” or “His Mightiness” (both proposed by John Adams, who saw these things less clearly). And, in the greatest, most important, and most self-effacing act in political history, he refused to be made king and equally refused to be president indefinitely.
When I was in college, I joined a political debate society that used to say there was no higher honor in its organization than basic membership. No one, in other words, was supposed to make becoming chairman his preoccupation. But, even on such a small scale and with so little power at stake, it was a tough standard. Some did make the chairmanship their preoccupation, and the group as a whole suffered from the political quarrels that arose. Eventually our group split into two, each with its own chairman. I lost half my friends in the process. Our case is sadly typical, which is how the political union at my school grew from an original two parties to its current seven. Each split is an archeological marker of an instance in which vanity overcame respect.
But even if we failed to live up to that ideal, as perhaps you’d expect from a bunch of proto-adult college kids, we were right at least to choose that ideal, and to venerate it. And we might rightly apply it to the United States as a whole.
America can bestow no higher honor than citizenship. Once you are an American, there is no way to become any better than anyone else. That, at least, is the promise of this nation. Public duties should be seen as George Washington saw them—a tremendous personal inconvenience to be undertaken with reluctance. Special privileges should be abhorred.
Most of our congressmen and senators are very well off and always will be. Slashing their salaries would have a nominal though pleasing effect. But forcing them to use the public institutions they foist on the rest of us would be dramatic: It’s all fun and games for your elected representative—until he gets stuck on the subway with the people he is supposed to represent. To quote the Metropolitan Transportation Authority: We apologize for the inconvenience.
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Dan Gelernter is a writer and entrepreneur living in Connecticut.