You Want a Publicist? Pay For Him Yourself, Senator

I recently received my Winter 2012 newsletter from my pseudo-representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia. I say "pseudo" because Norton is merely a disenfranchised liaison between D.C. residents and the House of Representatives. (The Senate doesn't even bother with such a charade.)

In fact, District residents are the only group of American citizens who pay federal taxes (and contribute national guard troops to Afghanistan) who are denied any say-so in how our government operates. All we can do is watch C-SPAN in disgust, thanks to all of the ninnies the rest of you have elected (well done).

But I digress. I've already written about the lack of democratic voting rights for D.C. residents. Today I want to talk about a Congressional perk known as the press office.

Norton's entire four-page newsletter is nothing more than an advertisement promoting her self-proclaimed accomplishments. Assembled, printed and mailed at taxpayer expense.

"Norton fights to Protect D.C. and Gets Results From Congress and the President."

"Norton Keeps Jobs-Producing Projects Coming to D.C."

"Norton Bill that Creates New D.C. Revenue Sparking Interest."

She gets, produces, proposes, reports, breaks ground, fights for, ensures, defeats, prevents. You go girl! Maybe we should put her in charge of sorting out college football's Bowl Championship Series.

Of course, Norton isn't the only member of Congress mailing out promotional newsletters. But is this really what our tax dollars should be used for? To allow members of Congress to engage in such shameless self-promotion?

In the interest of full disclosure, once upon a time I was the press secretary for Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT). Like all of the other press secretaries on Capitol Hill, when you get right down to it, my job was to make sure Lieberman made headlines (preferably for good reasons). But I am now convinced that using taxpayer dollars for personal public relations is indefensible and unethical.

How much money are we talking about? Well, generally speaking, every member of Congress has a press secretary and a deputy. Many of them also have communication directors. Assuming (conservatively) an average salary of $55,000 for each ($35,000 for the deputy, $55,000 for the press secretary and $75,000 for the communications guru), or $165,000 per office, multiplied by 535 members of Congress = $88 million a year for personal Congressional publicists.

But, wait. We're not done.

There are an additional 41 Congressional committees, such as Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Judiciary. Each committee has two press folks: a Democrat and a Republican. So that's another 82 publicists, who generally earn more than their colleagues on members' personal staffs. Let's say (again conservatively), $65,000 x 82 = $5 million. Plus the $88 million in salaries from personal staffs and you're looking at more than $93 million in free flack services for members of Congress -- 47 percent of whom are millionaires -- courtesy of shop clerks, bus drivers, teachers and secretaries.

In the grand scheme of things, $93 million is a drop in the federal budget bucket. But surely there are better ways to spend this kind of money than peddling Senator Dimwit to Meet the Press. Like, say, school lunches, clean water and counseling services for our veterans.

If these press jobs were intended solely for public information purposes -- in other words, to get the word out to constituents about important government business -- that would be one thing. But that's not what these people are really paid to do. Their goal is to generate as much favorable press coverage as possible. Because we all know that favorable press coverage leads to popularity, which leads to influence, which leads to better and more important committee assignments, which leads to more campaign contributions from special interests, which leads to re-election, a possible Cabinet position and maybe even a run at the White House (fingers crossed!). Even if a member is not lucky enough to become leader of the free world, if he played his popularity cards right, when he retires from Congress he can look forward to a book deal and/or a lucrative gig lobbying his old pals for tax breaks, subsidies and waivers for his fat cat clients. What a country!

What a disgrace.

Until these jobs are retooled into constituent-driven public information positions, they should be paid for with private funds. Like campaign donations. You want a publicist, pay for him yourself, Congressman. There is no argument to be made that these jobs (or the newsletters, press releases, interviews and speeches they produce) serve or inform the citizenry.

Members of Congress (and the national media) would protest, of course. Too bad.

Even if residents of D.C. don't vote in Congress, we still help pay the bills. And this is one we should send back with a note saying, "Unauthorized Transaction."