Congressional pay is a victim of excessive transparency

It happened again last month. Despite the efforts of dozens of thoughtful reformers, risky political moves by leadership and incisive op-eds, legislators once again proved incapable of voting themselves a needed salary increase.

It is no secret that many legislators are having a hard time making ends meet. In ever increasing numbers, they sleep in their offices and shower in the gym. And who knows how many potential candidates are put off from running for Congress at all.

Worse, staffer pay is legally tied to that of the Members. And staffer pay is stuck so low that the best legislative assistants routinely get plucked up by lobbying firms or head off to greener pastures in business. It is the Capitol Hill version of the ‘brain drain.’

The trouble however isn’t politics as usual. The problem is transparency.

As Representative Katie Hill (D-California) noted this past June, “nobody wants to vote to give themselves a raise.” But Hill’s words need to be understood with caution. She isn’t saying that legislators don’t want a raise – they do. The trouble is they don’t want to be put on record voting for it.

A recent Politico article underlines this unusual twist: “[It is] ‘political suicide’ for freshman Democrats in swing districts to take the vote.”

This problem isn’t new. In 1981, a government-sponsored commission wrote “In simple terms Congress has been unwilling to take the abuse for voting itself a salary increase.”

The commission’s wording is precise and the correlations are strong. Since the early 1970s Congress has self-imposed a horse-tranquilizer sized dose of transparency on its proceedings – despite any academic research to confirm the benefits. And with each increase in transparency, Congress has found it more and more difficult to fund itself.

The ever-increasing sunshine bleaches out staffer salaries, better office supplies, new technology and everything else a modern legislator might need to do their job.

The exceptions prove the rule.

In 1975 Congress raised its salaries only by sleight of hand. It attached a rider to a minor postal service bill. By tying their salaries to those of other federal workers, members were suddenly able to receive cost of living adjustments.

Princeton scholar Douglas Arnold noted this trickery. “Most legislators are reluctant to vote for a bill that would straightforwardly increase their salaries because they fear electoral retribution. So there is an endless search for a mechanism that avoids an identifiable action.”

Kent Weaver of Brookings calls this dilemma a classic case of capture. And once the issue of self-funding is thrown into the sunlight (no matter how obscure the trickery), members have no choice but ‘to vote down pay raises.’

This is precisely what happened in response to the 1975 sleight. A couple of members shined a light on the actions and in short order the pay adjustments stalled. Since 2008 Member pay has decreased in real dollars by over 15 percent.

The problem is one of individual incentives and group rewards. On the individual level, legislators can unleash powerful benefits for acting so ‘thrifty.’ Electioneering is expensive. And a member stands to gain from any free publicity they can accrue, even if the result is a tiny offset in decreased salary.

So the public declarations by upstart (and often struggling) members are commonplace.

“The idea that officials can’t live on incomes already five times greater than that of the average American worker is absurd,” said Rep. Carl Pursell, R-Mich., in 1986. His words echo in the voices of the freshman Democrats of today who have vowed (publicly) to oppose any increase.

Republican. Rep. Tom Reed said the need for a pay raise is a “legitimate question to ask” but Members don’t deserve it yet. And like the other ‘deniers’ Reed was quoted in the press, gaining free publicity on an issue voters care about.

Thus if any member – especially one in a competitive district – finds they can get a boost in their ratings or a splash in the news, they are incentivized to come out strong against a pay raise.

It is also easy journalism. In minutes any junior reporter can fill up a couple columns deifying those legislators who fight increases while snubbing those ‘greedy’ members who are looking to ‘sneak’ themselves extra cash.

But as the aforementioned academics have noted, this lack of inaction is cancerous and feeds off itself, eroding the institutional as a whole.

Before the 1970 sunshine reforms things were far easier. With all the relevant committees functioning in executive (closed-door) session, legislators felt comfortable with passing reasonable increases.

And by working in secret, Congress maintained a sense of grandeur.

Consider: In 1793, the deliberations to fund the Capitol were held in tiny closed-door committees – resulting in the century long construction of a national icon. Also consider: In the 1900s members’ office buildings went up in marble and chrome, with lush lobbies and extravagant details – luxuries most citizens are comfortable with. Also the result of cloistered deliberations.

Yet today, working in the sunshine, Congress would be hard pressed to raise the funds to build a tent. Inaction and public declarations of frugality rule the day.

Understandably, readers may worry about Congress acting behind closed doors. But, happily there is little evidence members would readily fill their pockets with tax dollars if they were free from prying eyes. Indeed, for the better part of US history, this sheltering secrecy has proved nothing but beneficial. Before 1970, Congress was able to keep pace with lobbyists and business. (And a number of scholars argue that transparency is driving the fifty-year rise in campaign finance and lobbying).

Funding Congress – and even the government itself – is a problem fueled by transparency. Smoke filled rooms built the Capitol and funded our government through war and peace.

Permitting our legislators to draw the strings of the federal purse in secret does not shelter them from the voter’s wrath, but it does allow us to attract the best and the brightest away from K-street and back to the Hill.

Filed Under:
Topics: Budget & Appropriations