Don't Sue Gephardt

The Washington insider magazine, The Hill, reports that the American Conservative Union recently filed a lawsuit against Rep Dick Gephardt (D-MO) for not showing up to work. It seems that Rep. Gephardt was so busy campaigning for president that he missed over 90% of all House votes. The ACU cited an old law from the 1850s that states, "The Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Administrative Officer of the House … shall deduct from the monthly payments (or other periodic payment authorized by law) of each Member or Delegate the amount of his salary for each day that he has been absent from the Senate or House, respectively, unless such Member or Delegate assigns as the reason for such absence the sickness of himself or of some member of his family."

Technically, it seems that Rep. Gephardt is in violation of the law, and I would lose little sleep if he had his pay garnished. But it got me thinking, do we really want to discourage our lawmakers from not showing up to work?

David Keene, president of the ACU, argues that Rep. Gephardt is failing to perform his duties for the citizens in his district. While he is taking $157,000 dollars of their tax dollars for his own salary, I would be more concerned about the billions of dollars he allows the government to take when he bothers to show up to work.

Mr. Keene also asks, "Can you name another job in which someone can consistently miss nine out of every 10 days and still receive a full paycheck? Unless Dick Gephardt can produce a note from his doctor, he owes the taxpayers an explanation or back pay."

The problem with this question is that it ignores the difference between the private and public sector. Most people's jobs in the private sector consist of making voluntary exchanges for the betterment of themselves and the nation as a whole. Most employers in the private sector have strong standards and accountability for their employees, because they have to pay workers' salaries out of their own pocket. They also have to worry about being out performed by their competitors if their employees are not productive. Government, by contrast, has a monopoly on the use of force and can simply loot the public or print up money to pay their employees. How can you expect an institution like that to be accountable?

Rather than compare politicians to workers in the private sector, it may be more instructive to compare them to thieves. If a thief is supposed to make 100 robberies a year, but got lazy and only makes 10 heists, no one would complain. In fact, most people would suggest that the thief try to cut out his stealing all together and make an honest living. Similarly, rather than encourage Gephardt to go to work more often so he can impose more taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more wars, we should tell him to stop showing up completely and get a real job.

When Rep. Gephardt makes it to work, you would wish that he just stayed home. In 2002, when he was much less truant, Gephardt voted to approve the use of force in Iraq, to give illegal aliens extended residency, to increase funding for the NEH, for campaign finance reform laws, and for a host of other unconstitutional and wasteful programs. This year he was absent during the votes to appropriate over nine billion of dollars in foreign aid, 470 billion dollars to the Labor, Health and Human Service, and Education departments. In fact, for his few votes he did make (such as voting against George Bush's horrendous prescription drug program), Gephardt got a perfect rating on the John Birch Society's conservative index! Obviously it would be even more preferable if he voted against all the unconstitutional legislation like "Dr. No," Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), but I'll take half a loaf.

At the time of the founding, Congress was only in session a few months out of the year. They didn't have much to vote on because the federal government, for the most part, stuck to its constitutional limitations. Today, there are not enough days in a year for politicians to push all their statist policies through.

Imagine if all of Congress simply decided to stay home all year long. They wouldn't be able to pass all of their wonderful innovative ideas like spending trillions of dollars to go invade half the world (and now even other planets), invite millions of Third Worlders to the country, and create new departments, entitlements, and burdensome regulations.

Instead of chiding Gephardt for not showing up for work, we should encourage all politicians to take an indefinite sick leave.

January 16, 2004