Does Congress deserve a pay cut?


The topic of Congressional pay has been a rare area where the American left and right often agrees. Both the House and the Senate “enjoy” some of the lowest aggregate approval ratings the American government has seen in decades. Even unsuccessful (or perceived to be so) Presidents generally polled over 30% at their worst. Congress has been routinely polling over the last few years in the single digits. No matter one’s party or ideological lean, the consensus among the American electorate is that Congress just sucks.

Frequently, individuals representing both parties bring up the topic of Congressional pay. The argument usually refers to gridlock and the lack of accomplishments by the last few years of Congress. “Why should Congress get paid if they aren’t getting anything done?”

Someone on the left will mention the lack of willingness by Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. “Let’s pay Congress minimum wage. Then they’ll be willing to raise it,” says someone on the left. On the right you might hear, “Why should Congress keep getting raises when they won’t cut taxes?”

Despite the differing starting points, the refrain is identical. Congress isn’t doing what either party wants, so why do they deserve their wage? It is, after all, essentially a part-time job.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Even though they only spend about half the year actually legislating, the nature of the job requires many hours of campaigning and fundraising, especially for Representatives who have to run for re-election every two years, should they wish to keep their jobs. They definitely put in long hours.

The current annual salary for a member of Congress is $174,000. The Senate and House majority and minority leaders get $193,400, and the Speaker of the House makes $223,500. These are all very healthy numbers. In a city such as mine (Kansas City), that would make one quite affluent, maybe even “wealthy.” In Washington DC, $174,000 doesn’t go quite as far. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s less impressive than one might think.

Most Congresspersons actually live half the year in their home district, which usually requires two homes, effectively doubling housing costs. And since rent is so high in DC, depending on the home region of the individual legislator, it may be closer to tripling their housing costs. Many Congresspersons actually share apartments while in Washington.

There’s no doubt, though, that the job attracts people who are already wealthy. The incoming freshman class in January 2013 (from the 2012 elections) was worth an average of $1,066,500. Of the current Congress, 188 had a net worth of over 1 million dollars. That’s 35% of the total of both chambers. By comparison, about 3% of individual Americans and 4% of households are worth that much. The median net worth of a Congressperson in 2014 was $456,522, far above the American household average. To break the top 50 (around the 90th percentile), a Congressman would have to be worth over 7.5 million dollars.

Yep, it’s a rich person’s club.

To be certain, there are plenty of Congresspersons with substantial debt or minimal income, many of whom do live on their Congressional salary. But national politics increasingly have become a game for the wealthy. Massive campaign donations and huge advertising expenditures don’t require personal wealth on the part of the politician. However, rich people are often far more comfortable schmoozing with large businesses and wealthy donors. The elite tend to work with each other more willingly. The elite also tend to have the time and the resources necessary for long campaigns.

For those who decry the pay of Congress, I would argue they’re missing the point. As I mentioned above, many Senators and Representatives don’t get most of their wealth from their Congressional pay. And that might be the problem. More than 150 of the 535 reported earning more money from investments than their Congressional salary. Many were heirs and born into wealth, allowing them the time and funding to run for public office. Yet these are the same people we often mock for being out of touch with the 99%. Mitt Romney lost the last Presidential election in part because he was frequently portrayed as an incredibly rich and comfortable man without an understanding of the struggles of middle and lower-class Americans. His own comments didn’t always help out that perception. Some people were born with a silver foot in their mouth.

So, if $174,000 a year is actually a useful wage for some, but meaningless to others, then that begs a question; what would be the point of cutting or withholding it? Would punishing the poorer legislators necessarily bring about change in Congress? Would it even be punishment to those who are already wealthy? Is there a better solution?

I have a modest suggestion. It’s one that I’m sure would not be popular, and would likely never be passed into law. I nonetheless feel that it would help encourage “common people” to run for office, thereby making Representatives actually somewhat representative of their constituents.

Keep the current wages where they’re at. Make sure to pass regular raises to match the current rate of inflation and keep up with the DC cost-of-living. $174,000 is a nice wage, but compared to many private-sector leadership positions, it’s a pittance. Any private company CEO that has 700,000 employees (approximately the population of most House districts) would be making far more than low 6 digits. The job of making the nation’s laws should be well-paid. A better paid position generally attracts higher-quality applicants.

My suggestion, though, is to ban all other income after one wins an election. Any board memberships should be dropped, any investments must be sold or frozen, any sort of extra income must be banned. In short, Senators and Representatives have to live on their Congressional salary. If Senator Example makes 500 grand in a year from book royalties, 1.5 million from stock sales, and 3 million from profits from his cat herding business, then he must forfeit, hold, or give away all of it. No additional income can go to the Senator while he holds public office. He is being paid a handsome six figure salary by the American people to represent their wishes and build their roads. He doesn’t need to be distracted by his wealth or cat herding.

Ideally, this would discourage the superrich from running. Why would they sacrifice years of potential income for a busy life of underpaid public service? It would be multiple years in which the very nature of their job means that nearly half of the electorate truly despises them. Democracy would be better served by people serving in Congress who actually resemble those they represent.

Of course, this is just a small step. The issue of Congress being out-of-touch and unresponsive to the electorate wouldn’t disappear with just this measure. The modern campaign financing situation is corrupt, and lobbyists have far too much influence over our legislature. Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC still needs to be overturned to make a dent on the influence of money in politics.

However, this proposal would be a step in the right direction. Discouraging millionaires and career businessmen from running for office would be a good start. Paying Congress fairly, and well, is perfectly reasonable. But requiring them to concentrate on lawmaking, and no other job, would also be reasonable.

I am absolutely certain many people would say this is a terrible idea.
“What about the Senators’ freedom?!”
“Why do you hate capitalism?!”
“Why do you hate America?!”
“You must be a Democrat!”

Yes, I am already used to hearing the above insults. And that’s okay. I simply would like to know why we keep voting for entitled, spoiled millionaires to represent the 97% of America that don’t have that much money. Why do we collectively shrug when we hear about how much money is spent on elections, and how much influence businesses and wealthy individuals have on said elections? “Bloated plutocrat wins election funded by rich friends.” would be the honest headline every two years. But most people seem content to hand over their democracy to the wealthy.

I say screw that. We may not clean up national campaigns overnight, or even over the next decade. We likely won’t reduce the influence of lobbyists and big business in our electoral system anytime soon. And obviously, this proposal would never get off the ground. After all, it would be those gazillionaire Congresspersons who would get to vote on it. But I can dream, can’t I? My ideal scenario would be few less rich people representing their fellow Americans, and a few actual “normal” Americans doing it. That would be the real point of representative democracy.

So when you hear someone say that Congress is overpaid, and should take a pay cut, tell them what they make in regular wages is fine. It’s the fact that they’re mostly millionaires making laws as a hobby that’s the problem.

As always, here are some good links with useful information on the topic of Congressional pay:

About hbreck

Writer, debater, contrarian, storyteller, occasional troublemaker. I'm mostly just making things up as I go.
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