Why don't we pay congressional salary based on results?

Why don't we pay congressional salary based on results?
© The Hill Illustration

Generally, the legislative branch funding bill is a chip shot. It’s the inside-baseball operational budget that no one gets quizzed about at hometown Rotary clubs. 

Not this year. Despite 10 of the 12 appropriations bills passing, the "leg" branch bill is hung up by a possible cost of living adjustment (COLA) for members of Congress.

So, in keeping with sports jargon, let’s talk football — more specifically, Louisiana Monroe University.

ADVERTISEMENT

ULM Warhawks coach Matt Viator has a hard job. He has to keep his players trained and healthy. He has to report to the university president and athletic director so that they are informed and updated. He has to stay within his budget yet pay his staff competitive salaries. He has to show up at sport banquets to placate the alumni and booster club. 

If the Sun Belt Conference proposes new rules and regulations, he has to comply immediately. His hours are long. The criticism is constant, and his entire job boils down to getting more points than the other team in 12 one-hour games each fall. If he fails to win most of these, he’s fired. That’s why he makes a handsome $390,000 a year.

Indeed there are a lot of challenges to his job that make it important and difficult. But there are many things he doesn’t have to do. For example, he doesn’t have to allocate more than $4.5 trillion in annual federal expenditures. He doesn’t have to concern himself about debt ceilings and dwindling Social Security reserves. He doesn’t need to worry about trade, immigration, reducing health care premiums or reforming our enormous tax code. If North Korea, Syria or Iraq explode, the subsequent decisions will not involve him.

These matters, of course, are the jurisdiction of 535 people in Washington. Yet, for some reason, they make less than half of the money that Coach Viator does — and he’s on the low end of pay for college football coaches. Of the 130 NCAAF coaches, 122 make more than Viator; 82 make more than $1 million, but not one of them can decide to send your kid into war.

Talking about congressional salaries makes everyone uneasy, especially when suggesting it’s below market. After all, in a country where the average salary is $61,372, their $174,000 annual pay places Congress in the top 5 percent of wage-earners. Yet, unlike college coaches and most of America, they have to maintain at least two homes, one located in America’s fifth most expensive city. In addition, most jobs have had an upwards salary adjustment in the past 10 years. The last COLA that Congress received was in 2009. Traveling hasn’t gotten any cheaper, either, so transporting spouses and children back and forth is a major expense. Perhaps this is why an estimated hundred members sleep in their offices.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the world of tweets and 30-second sound bites, accepting — or even just voting — on a COLA is politically terrifying. It’s ironic that the COLA approach adopted in 1988 was a solution to the political problem of Congress having to vote for a salary increase. If it had been done every year, the salary would be $252,000. Not quite what a football coach makes but enough to get you off the office floor at night.

Yet the biggest difference between congressional service and coaching football isn’t the pay or the job description — it’s the expectation. Coach Viator and colleagues are limited to one or two lousy seasons before they are fired. They can’t blame losses on injuries, tough schedules and other coaches. The expectation is that they win games — no excuses.

There are a number of unique aspects about serving in Congress but possibly the oddest one is that you’re paid for trying, not for results. The body is universally cursed for its failures but the individual is spared. 

However, if re-election was contingent on collective performance — say, the budget getting balanced, a resolution on immigration and lower health-care cost —then what a different country America would be. This isn’t to dismiss the systemic gridlock built into a representative democracy. We all agree compromise on these matters is profoundly difficult. But if we can admit that the current state of affairs isn’t acceptable, then why not pay Congress based on results? 

Would a "success bonus" facilitate more cooperation?  Would it incentivize goal-oriented decision-making rather than the incumbent-protection political model that we see today? My bet is that most members would accept the challenge. Liberals and conservatives are frustrated with the status quo.

It may be time to try another approach. Tying pay to results could be one of them.

Jack Kingston represented Georgia’s 1st Congressional District from 1993 to 2015 and was vice chairman of the House Republican Conference from 2002 to 2006. He has chaired the Georgia Republican Party Foundation, a fundraising organization, since 2015 and was a senior adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE’s 2016 campaign. He is now a public policy principal at the Washington law firm of Squire Patton Boggs.