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Lawmakers forgoing pay an empty gesture

There’s a lot of grandstanding going on during the government shutdown, but perhaps none worse than the hypocritical display by members of Congress offering to forgo their paychecks.

Most members make $174,000 a year, so a loss of one two-week pay period, assuming it lasts that long, and not counting various deductions, amounts to $6,692. While losing that would get most people’s attention – and that size loss in a year, let alone a few weeks, might hurt – consider two things: First, the average net worth in Congress is $11.9 million for senators and $6.5 million for House members. Their salaries are a pittance to them. Second, members of Congress are paid on the last day of each month, meaning not until Oct. 31. It’s almost certain the shutdown will be over by then.

So the gesture makes headlines, but it is essentially meaningless.

Some of the same members who have shut down the federal government, initially to make a rhetorical point about preventing access to health insurance for the lower and middle class, were willing to throw 800,000 hardworking people out of work, including people who deal with infectious disease control (before a salmonella outbreak) and emergency management personnel (ahead of Tropical Storm Karen).

Some of these same millionaires have voted recently to cut billions from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – while long-term unemployment persists. But the exclusive congressional gyms remain open.

What does it say about Congress’ concern for the little guy that members are orders of magnitude better off than even their well-off constituents, living like potentates? Is it any wonder that polls show levels of confidence for Congress bordering on contempt when it comes to its ability to look out for the interests of the common man and woman?

What does it say about voters that this wealth gap might not be an issue come Election Day after such demonstrations of insensitivity? This Congress answers to the wealthy and the corporate elite. Who doesn’t get that? “Americans know the system is rigged against them,” recently elected Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a former professor specializing in bankruptcy, acknowledged.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing about who is responsible for the shutdown, with some serious political scientists blaming insular voters for banding together more tightly than ever in gerrymandered blue and red districts. There’s something to that. But one thing almost all of our elected representatives have in common is that they seldom live as commoners. They’re immune to the harms they inflict. Meanwhile, their investment portfolios can make up their forsaken salaries in no time.

As of Friday, roughly 250 of the 535 Representatives and Senators have said they’d forgo their salaries, including one waiting until Day 10 of the shutdown. We’ve seen through their phony sacrifice. So let them keep their paychecks. Empty gestures don’t buy respect.