MySpace pages. Everything in the SkyMall catalogue. Another season of American Idol. All of these represent things that are marginally more useful than the 112th United States Congress, which is on track to be the least productive congress in memory. Having produced six times less legislation than the infamous “do-nothing Congress” of 1947–48, they are now poised to take off on a month-long summer break — a positively European amount of vacation — without having tackled important bills related to farming or the looming “fiscal cliff.” Congressional dysfunction has been cited as the reason behind everything from the poor state of transportation infrastructure to the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.
Which begs the question: what exactly are we paying for? The average congressman earns $174,000 a year, more than three-and-a-half times the U.S. median household income. For fiscal year 2013, it will cost an estimated $5.9 billion to operate Congress and the rest of the legislative branch. Salaries and benefits alone account for more than $2.5 billion of that sum. The latter is roughly the same amount we spend to staff NASA. Except NASA actually does stuff — like build rockets and launch them.
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