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Ben Pershing


An earlier version of this column incorrectly indicated that freshman Republican Reps. Reid J. Ribble (Wis.) and Scott Rigell (Va.), who endorsed the elimination of congressional pensions in an op-ed they wrote for Politico, declined to specifically endorse the idea when asked about it in a more recent interview. Rigell said in the interview that the Fix Congress Now Caucus, which he and Ribble founded, is not backing the idea, but the lawmakers did not say their personal opinions had changed. This version has been corrected.

Want to ‘fix Congress?’ There’s a caucus for that.

Last week, the Senate stumbled its way into a momentous debate on congressional ethics, as a seemingly narrow bill to ban insider trading on Capitol Hill — the Stock Act — morphed into a sweeping package of reforms.

As that measure comes to the House for consideration and congressional popularity remains historically low, lawmakers looking to burnish their reform credentials might want to join a well-timed new group: the Fix Congress Now Caucus.

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., left, and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., talk outside the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 3, 2012.
  • (Jahi Chikwendiu/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., left, and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., talk outside the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 3, 2012.
  • (Jahi Chikwendiu/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., outside the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 3, 2012.

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., left, and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., talk outside the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 3, 2012.

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Formed last month by freshman Republican Reps. Reid J. Ribble (Wis.) and Scott Rigell (Va.), the caucus’s mission is broad — ranging from budget and committee reform to term limits — and still is a work in progress.

“If all we were going to do was have a list of six things, we could just flip that into legislation and try to find co-sponsors,” Rigell said in a joint interview with Ribble last week. “This is bigger than that.”

Aside from their alliterative names, Ribble and Rigell have much in common.

Both are successful businessmen — they previously co-founded the Job Creators Caucus — and are new to electoral politics. Rigell owns a chain of auto dealerships in the Hampton Roads region, and Ribble ran his family’s roofing business in Appleton, just south of Green Bay, for nearly three decades.

“I’ve never met a successful businessperson who did not have a bias toward action,” Rigell said.

Both men ousted incumbent Democrats in 2010 after donating significant sums to their own campaigns, and both — particularly Rigell — could face tough reelection races this November.

Both are earnest and given to dramatic pronouncements about politics and the state of the union. Rigell says “the level of anger, frustration, disillusionment — I think it’s putting our republic at risk. That’s not an overstatement.” Ribble believes that “Washington changes no one. Washington reveals what’s already in the heart of a man.”

At the moment, it’s just a caucus of two. They expect to have more members — perhaps even some Democrats — within the next month, but not too many.

“We don’t want it to be where someone can duck under the tent and say, ‘I’m reforming too,’ ” Rigell said.

Members of the group won’t necessarily have to pledge allegiance to a long list of positions, but lawmakers will need to subscribe to at least a couple of “broad principles,” Rigell said.

One principle is term limits. Members need not agree on the same finite number, but they should believe in the concept. Rigell has pledged to serve a maximum of 12 years in the House; Ribble has promised to leave after eight years.

The other uniting principle is that benefits for federal employees should be roughly on par with those in the private sector. To that end, Rigell introduced a bill last year — the Lead by Example Act — that would prohibit lawmakers from receiving matching funds from the government for their retirement savings plans if Congress doesn’t pass a budget or keep reducing the deficit.

In an op-ed piece for Politico last month, Rigell and Ribble went further, writing that the defined-benefit pensions enjoyed by members of Congress should be “eliminated.” But, when asked about it last week, Rigell said the caucus is not endorsing that idea.

Both men have made a point of returning some unused funds from their office budgets to the Treasury, and Rigell has been contributing 15 percent of his salary to pay down the national debt. That earned the Virginia congressman an invitation last month to meet with billionaire investor (and President Obama supporter) Warren Buffett, who has called on his fellow wealthy Americans to pay higher taxes.

Ribble, for his part, has voluntarily rolled his congressional salary back to 2008 levels by contributing the difference to charity.

Surrendering some pay and retirement benefits isn’t a huge sacrifice for these two. Rigell is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with a net worth between $8 million and $36 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (members use broad ranges in disclosing their finances). Ribble is worth between $833,000 and $6.9 million.

Some of their ideas are less well formed than others.

“You want to have a major reform in this town? Take away the right of political parties to advertise,” Ribble said. “You would change the demeanor of this place overnight.”

Asked whether he was actually proposing that idea, which would presumably be anathema to his fellow Republicans, Ribble said: “I’m not advocating it right now, but I might be advocating it at some point.”

They are realistic enough to know that they are not likely to get a list of sweeping reforms implemented anytime soon. Success to Rigell and Ribble means bringing attention to the issues they believe need changing.

The Stock Act’s momentum was fueled, in part, by a high-profile “60 Minutes” report on congressional insider trading.

“It shined a bright light on something,” Ribble said of that story. “What Scott and I are saying is, we need to light this up.”

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