Jim Hightower

Congress Does it Again

Do you have one of those really good jobs in which your pay is automatically raised every year by nearly $4,000—and the only way your pay hike can be withheld is if you choose not to accept it? You don’t find these jobs in the “help wanted” ads. You find them in Congress. Once again our Congress critters have generously bestowed a raise on themselves, increasing their annual take to $168,500 apiece. These are the same people who have refused to raise America’s poverty-level minimum wage for 10 years, and who show no concern for the majority of working families, whose wages have not even kept up with the cost of living.

This month, House members voted for the eighth year in a row to up their own pay. In a game of political dodge ball, congressional leaders of both parties run an insider scam that makes their pay raise automatic—unless they magnanimously vote to block it. Guess what? They don’t. For eight straight years, these statesmen have grabbed the money and run. Speaking of running, both parties have cut a secret, save-the-incumbents pact, agreeing their candidates will not use the raise as an issue in the fall elections. And you thought there was no bipartisanship left on Capitol Hill. Members try to dismiss the pay hikes as a trivial sum, merely keeping them ahead of inflation. Over the eight years of steady raises, however, these cost-of-living “adjustments,” as Congress calls them, have added a total of $32,000 to their paychecks. That’s more than the annual income of millions of Americans—and it further isolates our Congress critters from the harsh economic reality being faced today by the people they supposedly represent. Shouldn’t at least one party be campaigning to bring Congress down to Earth—starting with ending their soft cushion of automatic pay raises?

AXING OUR NATIONAL PARKS

America’s network of national parks is a natural resource so beloved by the public that even George W. has posed in parks for photo-ops in his two presidential campaigns, promising to bolster funding for these treasures. Once the campaigning is done, our park-lover-in-chief goes after them with a double-bladed budget ax. This hypocrisy is so blatant that in the 2004 election year, Bush’s spinmeisters instructed park guides not to use the phrase “budget cutbacks,” but substitute the euphemism, “service level adjustments.” Now Bush is back with his ax, quietly directing each park superintendent to prepare a five-year budget that will slash appropriations by up to a third. This when the park repairs backlog tops $6.8 billion, up $1.9 billion in George’s five years. Once again, Bush political operatives have distributed “talking points,” telling park employees how to spin the cuts to visitors, who will, of course, notice the reduced hours, discontinued services, deteriorating facilities, and increased fees. When visitors ask why they’re paying more for less, the memo tells employees to respond: “The National Park Service, like most agencies, is tightening its belt as our nation rebuilds from Katrina, continues the war on terrorism and strives to reduce the deficit.”

Holy Ansel Adams! The administration that totally botched the response to Katrina, that mired us in a bloody, $300 billion war of lies, and that has been the worst deficit bloater in U.S. history now wants to use these debacles as its excuse for gutting our public parks! To fight both the cuts and the rank dishonesty of the Bushites, call the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: 202-265-7337.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

Why do corporate CEOs keep getting such astronomically high pay packages? The official answer is that they’re merely paid the going market rate for managerial superstars. But wait—they get tens of millions of dollars a year even when their corporations do poorly. The real answer is that CEO pay is the product of a corrupt system of cronyism within corporate boards of directors. These boards, which are supposedly watchdogs over top executives, usually consist of a closed circle of fellow corporate officials and close friends of the CEO. In other words, it’s a brother-in-law deal. Look at Home Depot Inc., which has dumped $245 million in pay on CEO Bob Nardelli over the past five years—even though the company’s stock value has fallen by 12 percent on Bob’s watch. What’s the deal? Let’s connect the dots. Nardelli came to Home Depot from General Electric Co., recruited by Home Depot lead board member, Kenneth Langone. Langone happens to sit on the board of GE, where he became close to Nardelli. Langone also brought another friend, Bonnie Hill, to Home Depot to serve as a board member and to chair the committee that oversees Nardelli’s pay. Hill, who runs a corporate consulting firm, was a member of GE’s board. She’s also on the compensation committee of the supermarket chain Albertson’s LLC, where she helps set the pay of CEO Larry Johnson. Before joining Albertson’s, he worked at GE with Nardelli. He, too, has been added to Home Depot’s board and also sits on the committee that sets Nardelli’s pay. And here’s a cute connection—CEO Johnson and CEO Nardelli both use the same lawyer to negotiate their pay packages. So, when Johnson negotiates to set Nardelli’s pay, he’s negotiating with his own lawyer! And that’s why CEOs get such astronomical pay.

Jim Hightower is a speaker and author. To order his books or schedule him for a speech, visit www.jimhightower.com. To subscribe to his newsletter, the Hightower Lowdown, call toll-free 1-866-271-4900.

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