Congress could raise salaries to close revolving door to lobbying

Following the midterm elections, many observers have suggested that members of Congress and their staff are overdue for a raise in one form or another. Since Congress is not one of the most beloved institutions, the issue remains fraught. Ironically, one reason why it is a suggestion worth considering is because the working class, women, and minorities remain underrepresented in Congress, often due to economic barriers to serving in government. Raising salaries would help broaden representation. Doing this would also ameliorate some of the ethics concerns that lead many Americans to hold the body in such low esteem these days. But in order to get a raise, Congress must also strengthen its ethics and transparency rules to promote the efficacy of and public faith in the legislative branch.

By the time the 116th Congress convenes, it will have gone a decade without a raise. In fact, the standard compensation for representatives, senators, and delegates of $174,000 is substantially less than the annual salary in 1992 after adjusting for inflation. Let us dispense with the obvious that $174,000 is a lot of money. Anyone who tells you otherwise has either lost perspective or never had it. Still, there are unique financial challenges for elected officials who do not come from means. In addition to maintaining two residences, some members have extra child care and living expenses among other costs exacerbated by their government service. If you have not inherited or made millions in the private sector before seeking office, these financial realities can be a bar to public service and lead many to abandon government for the private sector.

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These financial realities continue to affect Congress, with high salaries that await members and staff on the other side of the revolving door posing an ongoing threat to ethics and efficiency in the legislative branch. Currently, representatives are only required to wait one year before lobbying Congress, while former senators have a two year ban. The restrictions are more limited for staff. As you might imagine, this brief window allows monied interests to entice members and senior staff with lucrative salaries both during and shortly after their tenure in government. Raising salaries in Congress would provide a solid financial incentive for members and staff to stay in public service and eschew these interests. If that raise was tied to extending the lobbying ban beyond the existing limits, it would further limit the influence of outside money on legislation.

Closing the revolving door is only one of the demands the public should make in exchange for giving Congress a raise. Some of these reforms are basic and equally long overdue. For example, members are only required to receive ethics training once whether they serve a single term or have a decades long career. Requiring members to get ethics training more often would improve compliance with the standards of conduct. The House should make its independent ethics office permanent so its authority and funding are not in constant jeopardy, and the Senate should create a similar office that accepts and reviews ethics complaints from the public.

Congress can further build the case for a raise by providing greater transparency into the legislative process. Not every constituent can see how hard most members and staff work on their behalf, but Congress shares some blame in that fact. When the Freedom of Information Act was passed to allow public access to government operations, Congress had exempted itself from the law. Many states already have sunshine laws that enable the public to receive internal records created by their legislatures. This transparency is unprecedented at the federal level but would help both to expose and to chill the influence of monied interests in politics.

Improving transparency might also illuminate how Congress could pay for higher salaries. Although we vote for a new Congress every two years, the body has largely obscured its financial decisions from public scrutiny. While the House has an inspector general, its authority and efficacy remains mostly unknown. The Senate does not appear to have a similar watchdog office. Still, many members brag about returning money to the Treasury when those resources might be better used on more staff and higher salaries for constituent services. By creating or expanding the authority for an inspector general to audit waste, Congress can ensure that taxpayer funds are not abused and identify savings to offset salary increases. Other cost saving measures might include addressing staff salaries before members or docking pay during government shutdowns.

Given public concerns about dysfunction and partisanship in Congress, on first glance it hardly seems appropriate to discuss raises, but the status quo is untenable. Without raising salaries, Congress will continue to suffer from the kind of homogeneity that fosters groupthink and unethical conduct. Pay increases for members and staff should not only shrink the revolving door to private interests but also prompt negotiations for broader reforms. Congress has been long overdue for a raise. Stronger ethics and transparency regimes can ensure Americans get their worth.

Donald Sherman is deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. He served as counsel on the House Ethics Committee and the Senate Homeland Security Committee and was chief of staff to the general counsel at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.