Why members of Congress should get a raise, whether they deserve it or not

You’ve surely heard the old line, “The best Congress money can buy.” Typically, it’s said sardonically. In the classic formulation, it’s not your money doing the buying. It’s special interests and lobbyists forking over the dough. In exchange, they get the best Congress they can buy – for them.

But what if it were your money? How much should you, the taxpayers, be willing to pay? If you want a Congress that works for you, can you get it on the cheap?

The debate is not an academic one. House Democrats and Republican leaders have proposed boosting legislators’ pay by providing a cost of living adjustment of $4,500. The current annual salary of $174,000 has not changed since 2009. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to a 16 percent decrease.

The basic case for a congressional pay raise is the same as for a raise at in any business. The more you pay, the more you can retain and attract the most talented people. Certainly, money is only one of many motivating forces. But a higher salary makes any job more appealing and more sustainable.

As many members have learned, $174,000 doesn’t go as far as it first might appear. Serving in Congress means that you need two residences, one in your home state and one in Washington, and the one in D..C doesn’t come cheap: One-bedroom apartments start at $2,000 a month – and that will get you a basement apartment in an edgy neighborhood.

Some members solve their D.C. housing problem with cots in their offices, but that’s a poor solution and can create creepy situations for their aides and the custodians. Other members solve their housing cost problem by being independently wealthy and able to afford two homes, no problem. But this means Congress often becomes a job for a combination of wealthy elites who can afford it and passionate ideologues who believe their cause justifies their expenses.

Compensation is also relative. Most members could earn more working at a lobbying firm, in business or practicing law. They have the experience and connections to do so. And while some turnover is healthy in Congress, it should come from electoral competition, not from decent public-spirited lawmakers growing so dissatisfied that a higher private-sector salary seems too good to turn down. Record numbers of legislators are now going to work for big bucks on K Street.

For many talented individuals out in the country, the personal costs of serving in Congress are extremely high – the strain on family life paramount among them. Many members have given up rewarding and well-paying jobs to come to Capitol Hill. As Stanford political scientist Andrew Hall argues convincingly in a new book, “Who Wants to Run?”, higher congressional wages would attract more qualified and also more moderate candidates, for whom the higher pay would justify the challenges of running. (The passionate ideologues are more likely to run no matter what.)

Certainly, the politics of congressional pay are forbidding. An annual salary of $174,000, after all, is not bupkes. For most normal people, this six-figure compensation looks like an impossibly high and generous reward for a job where the popular stereotype is of rampant do-nothingism from lazy egotists, living large on the taxpayer dime. Realities aside, the perception makes for powerful politics.

Some propose making House members and senators earn their salary by tying it to various performance indicators, such as adopting budgets on time or achieving other legislative goals. But this misses the point. It only makes being a member an even less attractive idea for many decent people, further restricting the pool of talent willing to consider serving.

In the past, all increases have had bipartisan leadership support, thereby blunting the electoral consequences. But it’s now been 10 years since members have given themselves a raise — a stalemate likely driven by the bitter partisan gamesmanship, with any pay boost a campaign issue waiting to happen.

This is, of course, penny wise and pound foolish. In a $4.1 trillion (with a T) federal budget, even a doubling of congressional salaries would be a rounding error on a rounding error. If it attracted and retained more top-notch talent to Congress – people capable of leading tough oversight to root out wasteful spending – that would yield tremendous savings for taxpayers. If it helped Congress solve more problems and improve the lives of citizens, that would be money well spent. Clearly, what we’ve got now isn’t working.

More broadly, the federal budget includes just over $2 billion a year for the House and the Senate combined. That’s one half of 1 percent of total government spending – and considerably less than the $3.4 billion a year spent on lobbying. Lobbyists have power because they pay for expertise and talent. Congress pays little, and suffers from high staff turnover and low staff experience. It’s a recipe for special-interest dominance.

Perhaps if Congress can’t agree on a salary increase, it might agree on other compensation supplements, such as a housing stipend, or even building a congressional dorm, where members could stay rent-free while they’re in town.

There are few bargains in this world. Mostly, you get what you pay for. Congress is no exception. Somebody’s dollars will purchase the best Congress that money can buy. It should be the American taxpayers.

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Topics: Budget & Appropriations