Members of Congress are better off than their constituents, and the New York Times is on it!
Unfortunately, in a spectacular case of missing the forest for a piece of tin foil in the opposite direction of the forest, the Times’ front-page (!) thousand-word exposé “Perks Ease Way in Health Plans for Lawmakers” blows the lid off of (wait for it…) “a special toll-free telephone number — a ‘dedicated congressional health insurance plan assistance line.’”
I know. I’m sorry. I should have warned you to sit down first. Take a minute, try to pull yourself together. Maybe have some water. Better? Good.
So, anyway, New York Times reporter Robert Pear -- if you aren’t familiar with him, he’s the kind of reporter who calls Paul Ryan a “respected voice on fiscal issues” and quadruples the cost of health insurance reform -- purports to tell a pretty simple story: Members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents’ needs, in part because of the laws they pass that benefit them more than their constituents. That basic story is true -- but the version Pear tells is absolute nonsense.
Let’s back up a bit.
Members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents because they are far, far wealthier than their constituents. The average member of the House of Representatives has a net worth of nearly $7 million. The average Senator? Nearly $12 million. And the typical household they represent? $57,000. That’s why members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents, not some 1-800 number they can call to find out how much their deductible is.
Keep in mind: Members of Congress routinely advocate policies that benefit wealthy people like themselves at the expense of the vast majority of their constituents. They favor a tax code that privileges investment income over wages; they prefer raising the retirement age to subjecting more of their own income to Social Security taxes, they … well, the list of things members of Congress do that benefit rich people like members of Congress rather than people like their constituents is nearly endless. And the New York Times … let’s just say you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the Times to run a snarky front-page story about the fact that members of Congress pay a lower percentage of their salary into the Social Security system than their constituents.
So: yes, Members of Congress have better health insurance than many of their constituents. They get paid more, too, and have better parking spaces and more flexible working hours and never have to worry that the guy two cubicles over will drive them crazy by playing Coldplay all day. That’s because members of Congress have better jobs than most of their constituents, and all those things were true before the Affordable Care Act. You wouldn’t know it to read the New York Times, but the ACA didn’t increase the gap between the health insurance enjoyed by members of Congress and the people they represent, it narrowed that gap by bringing health insurance to millions of people who didn’t have it before. The ACA certainly isn’t perfect, but the insurance members of Congress get isn’t among the top 500 problems with it, and it isn’t among the top 500 ways members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents.
Instead, the ACA is a too-rare example of Congress doing something that will help millions of Americans far more than it will help rich people like Members of Congress. That’s how Congress should behave. And when it does, the New York Times -- the official newspaper of the wealthy ruling class -- responds predictably, sneering about “perks” for members of Congress like a “special toll-free telephone number.” It dresses up an attack on a law that helps middle class and poor Americans get health insurance as populist truth-telling about Congressional fat cats. The Times regularly looks the other way as wealthy members of Congress act on behalf of wealthy people like Members of Congress (and, not coincidentally New York Times advertisers, owners, and star reporters) -- but let Congress pass a law helping people get health care, and the Times goes into high dudgeon about an 800 number.
If the New York Times and other news organizations want to dedicate themselves to identifying connections between the privileged economic situation of members of Congress and the policies they support, I’m all for it. But this obsessive finger-wagging at congressional health insurance plans is the opposite of that. It misleads the public about the effect of the ACA on congressional health care (Congress got singled out for negative, not positive, consequences, for no reason other than political grandstanding) and obscures the actual ways Congress acts in its own interests (and, again, those of media companies like the New York Times, their advertisers, and their well-paid decision-making employees) and against those of their constituents. It’s cheap and ugly demagoguery on behalf of wealthy elites with a thin veneer of phony populism slathered on top.