Congressman Jim Cooper

Representing the 5th District of Tennessee
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Jan 5, 2012
Press Release


Klein: Joining me now is Congressman Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, who's had actually a few ideas about how to fix Congress's record on popularity. Congressman, welcome to the show.

Cooper: Thank you. Always good to be with you.

Klein: So let me ask you about the big picture first. Are the American people right to be this frustrated with Congress? Or are they just missing all the good work you guys are actually doing?

Cooper: (laughs) The public is right. This is one of the worst Congresses in all of American history. And that says a lot, because we've had some really bad ones. But this does set a new record low in terms of popularity, but also in terms of incompetence, which is even worse.

Klein: One thing that's striking about this is that we in the media, most of us, and frankly a lot of folks out in the country, spend most of our time talking about the president and not about Congress. We talk about, you know, is Barack Obama doing enough or isn't he on the economy, or on healthcare, or on jobs, but the Constitution actually gives you folks a lot more power on these issues. Congress can decide tomorrow to pass a 2 trillion dollar stimulus, and it can override Obama's choice to veto them. Obama can't decide to do that tomorrow. So when you guys don't act, nothing big can get done, right?

Cooper: You're exactly right. We are not only the coequal branch of government, in many ways we're superior because all laws, all legislation really has to come from Congress. Now, the president has a bully pulpit, but Congress has a lot more power than we can acknowledge, and we are not using that power in a responsible fashion.

Klein: You just came out with a proposal, working with the No Labels group to stop paying Congress if they don't get the budget done on time. Why don't you tell me a little but about that and why you offered it.

Cooper: Well, this summer when we saw that our credit rating as a nation was threatened, largely by Congressional misbehavior. I thought it was time to consider new and bolder measures to make Congress act better. This idea - if you stop paying Congress if they don't meet certain fiscal deadlines like for budgets and appropriations - is the only thing I can think of to get Congress to shape up. Because, congressmen want to be paid. If they are threatened with no pay, they are much more likely to get the job done on time. I wish we didn't have to come to this, because there are many good people in Congress, but the institution as a whole is really behaving irresponsibly, and we've got to fix that. We're the greatest nation on earth, but we're not acting that way. And it takes a good solid Congress to make America live up to its potential.

Klein: And you've also broached the idea of taking that and going wider, of paying congressmen not just a straight salary, but trying to pay them actually based on productivity. Can you tell me a little bit about how you've thought about that and how it might work?

Cooper: Well the idea of pay for performance has gotten into many areas of our lives. You know, schoolteachers are increasingly paid that way, sports figures, doctors, lawyers, lots of folks. Why not pay Congress on the same basis? When you think about it you discover, that really, special interests have been paying Congress that way for many years. The special interests have been getting good results for that, because they can increase their campaign contributions. Sometime with retired or defeated congressmen, they give them good jobs after they've served in Congress. The tax payer turns out to be the only person who's not allowed to pay Congress on a pay for performance basis. I think there's got to be a way to change that.

Just think about this as a thought experiment: If you paid us to repeal bad laws, the suddenly Congress would do a spring cleaning of the statute books and clean things up. What if you paid us to reduce the deficit? That would incent Congress to focus on those issues that traditionally, Congress has not paid attention to. There are many areas, and probably the most egregious one is, what if a Congressman does a terribly bad thing and goes to prison? Why is he still able to draw a pension? Things like that. There are different ways you can use the pocket book to make Congress behave better.

Klein: Those are interesting ideas. Well, Congressman Jim Cooper, thank you for joining us and a very happy new year. May next year be a more popular one for your institution.

Cooper: (laughs) It couldn't be worse! It's got to be better. Thank you, Ezra.