Hey, Congress, Rick Perry Is Gunning for Your Livelihoods

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Seeking to reclaim his image as an anti-Washington crusader, the Texas governor proposes to radically transform every branch of government.

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How much does Rick Perry hate Washington? So much that he wants to kick out members of Congress and make them get real jobs.

Perry's plan to overhaul the federal government, announced Tuesday at a town hall in Iowa, demonstrates his beef with every one of its branches. He would end lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices and slash numerous departments from the federal bureaucracy -- and yes, he remembered their names this time.

But it's Perry's proposals to demote and reduce Congress that represent his most resonant attempt to claim the mantle of the mad-as-hell, anti-government candidate. He would cut members' salaries in half, cut their staff budgets, and decrease the amount of time they spend in session, encouraging them to get jobs back home instead.

"We send members of Congress to look out for America, not enrich themselves," Perry said in his Bettendorf, Iowa, speech Tuesday morning. "But too often, they are taken captive by the Washington culture. That's why we need a part-time Congress. I say send them home to live under the laws they pass among the people they represent."

The idea of the humble "citizen legislature" composed of working men and women whose lives are just like their constituents' is a fantasy.

With its single-digit approval ratings and manifest failure to accomplish simple tasks like raising the debt limit, Congress is an easy target. Perry has been running against Washington for a long time: In 2010, running for a third term as the incumbent chief executive of one of America's largest states, he managed to convince voters he was the anti-establishment choice, largely by painting his main primary opponent, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, as an out-of-touch denizen of the Capitol.

"The Washington insiders won't address Beltway decay, they won't try a totally new way, because they like things as they are," Perry said. "The lobbyists make their living on protecting corporate loopholes and securing earmarks for the special interests they represent."

As with Sarah Palin's screed against "crony capitalism," Perry is tapping a vibrant -- and bipartisan -- sense that D.C. is riding high on the hog while the rest of America suffers. (Palin, however, pointed to Perry as part of the problem, and the culture of cronyism he's fostered in Texas is notorious.) It's a sentiment shared by the angry Americans of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The Barack Obama of 2008, too, wanted to kick out all the lobbyists and fix a broken Washington.

But the idea of the humble "citizen legislature" composed of working men and women whose lives are just like their constituents' is a fantasy. Most states have legislatures that are by some definition "part-time," but it's a system that creates its own problems.

For one thing, part-time legislatures are hotbeds of conflicts of interest. A lawmaker who's also a farmer seems like the ideal chair for the Agriculture Committee until it transpires that he's pushing legislation that deregulates his own industry or provides it with government subsidies. Teachers, firefighters, and other public workers seem like great candidates, until you realize they're the ones overseeing the budgets that determine their own salaries, benefits and perks. Already, nearly a third of Congress is made up of lawyers -- what happens when they can join firms that double as lobbying shops?

Perry's plan includes a plank aimed at curbing congressional conflicts -- he would make it a crime for lawmakers to engage in insider trading. But in a part-time Congress, that would only be the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, it's not actually that easy to find a real job that lets you work only half the time and spend the other half citizen-legislatin'. Campaigning and working on policy tend to eat up the time when the legislature's not in session, making it even harder to hold down steady employment. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, even though Texas lawmakers spend only 140 days every two years in session, they report spending more than two-thirds of their time on their legislative jobs.

As a result, many state legislators end up being retirees or independently wealthy -- not that there's anything wrong with that, but it hardly makes lawmakers more representative of the population as a whole. Those who do have jobs frequently end up with sinecures that put them in the pockets of interest groups.

Even if all these difficulties could be resolved, how on Earth would a President Perry get Congress to approve his plan? Pretty obviously, he couldn't -- but that's not the point.

Like Herman Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan, Perry's "Uproot and Overhaul Washington" proposal isn't intended to be "realistic." Cain's response to those who say his plan couldn't pass is that politicians propose things they think can pass, while businesspeople look to solve the problem. It's the very "realism" of mainstream politics that must be attacked -- the timid incrementalism that maintains the corrupt status quo.

"There are some who want to tinker with the status quo," Perry said on Tuesday. "They want to work within the current system to achieve marginal change. Then there are those who believe, as I do, that Washington is too broken to be fixed by tinkering on the margins. I do not believe Washington needs a new coat of paint. It needs a complete overhaul. We need to uproot, tear down and rebuild Washington, D.C."

Let the Beltway pundits recoil in horror! Let Ben Bernanke and Karl Rove wring their hands in anguish! This is the Rick Perry who wrote a book called Fed Up!, in which he argued that just about everything, including Social Security, is unconstitutional. This is the Rick Perry who got in trouble for hinting that if the feds got much more uppity, he might support Texas seceding from the union.

But that Rick Perry has largely been absent from the presidential campaign trail. Instead, he's been somnolent, forgetful and phony -- the very embodiment of coasting complacency, from the looks of it.

Perry's plan is the right kind of symbolic gesture for the electorate he's trying to reach. But at this point, most voters don't seem to be listening to him anymore.

Image credit: Reuters/Mary Chastain

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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