The case for congressional pay raises

Greg Nash

Congressional Democrats have withdrawn the proposed pay hike they’d been considering. Even Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who had endorsed the suggested $4,500 cost of living increase was conscious from the start that it would receive backlash: “I don’t think there’s ever a time when people think it’s very good politically to do.”

But Hoyer also maintained that it was leadership’s job to push legislation that was important, even if it wasn’t popular.

But, in the end, the deciding factor was not the Twitterstorm critical of the pay raise, the 21st century’s answer to the long-established aversion, on the part of the public, for compensating legislators well. Rather, the move died — for the time being — when freshmen Democrats maintained that it might make their re-election campaigns more difficult and vowed to oppose it

However, Hoyer plans to bring the pay increase back for a vote later this year.

Proposals to increase pay for public officials rarely play well, and 63 percent of Americans think members of Congress “are overpaid,” more than double the number who believe they’re paid “the right amount.” But Republicans and Democrats alike, from Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) believe this measure is called for. And there are a number of reasons the public should be more open to members of Congress being paid well.

First of all, it’s not a pay raise precisely. It’s a cost-of-living increase that was previously automatic prior to being suspended in 2009. As Hoyer noted, when times were tough during the Great Recession, it was only reasonable to ask members of Congress to make some sacrifices. But with times picking up, it’s worth considering the inherent costs of staying in Washington, D.C., while also maintaining a home state residence. Washington, after all, isn’t exactly cheap, being ranked the fifth most expensive city in the United States. It’s little wonder then The New York Times would find no shortage of members of Congress sleeping in their offices and eating pop-tarts when the paper did its 2011 exposé on members cutting costs.

The discussion of how much to pay legislators — and even if to pay them at all — is hardly a new one, and it goes back to the early days of the Republic.

Just as Steve Scalise (R-La.) was quoted this year saying, “We all want to recognize too that this shouldn’t just be a place [for] the independently wealthy…,” John Adams was saying much the same in 1789. Departing from Washington and Franklin, who both believed that public officials should serve without pay, Adams, who was neither poor nor particularly wealthy, worried that, without adequate pay, “all offices would be monopolized by the rich,” leaving people of more modest means increasingly unable to serve in public office.

State legislatures across the United States tend not to pay well, and the consequences have become increasingly clear, such as the growing number of Georgia legislators unable to afford to continue serving. And, in the case of New Mexico, the only remaining state that doesn’t pay its legislators a salary at all (just a per diem for the days the legislature is in session), John Adams’ fears have been realized, with one Republican New Mexico state legislator arguing how he’s observed this arrangement leaving many talented New Mexicans unable to even consider running for office.

The relatively low level of compensation in most state legislatures results in fewer working class members, and it is often retirees who are able to afford serving. On the other hand, political scientists have found a relationship between well-paid state legislatures, such as in Pennsylvania and New York, and higher degrees of “professionalism,” where greater numbers of bills are passed and constituent services are more robust.

Although critics of the pay increase are correct to observe that members of Congress already earn around three times the average American, the blanket opposition we tend to see towards pay raises is probably a bit unfair. (This was the mindset that caused 17 incumbent Pennsylvania state legislators to lose re-election after voting for a pay increase in 2006.) If we want the best people representing us in Washington, we can’t ignore the financial realities of public service, especially when around a quarter of members of Congress reported a negative net worth last session.

As much as volunteerism or serving out of the goodness of one’s heart might be celebrated as an ideal, ill will towards a well-paid legislature can result in many members often feeling the lure of more lucrative media or consulting gigs — or, even more concerningly, the return of the age-old concern of a government dominated by the independently wealthy.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. He studied political science at Yale.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez congressional pay John Adams Kevin McCarthy Steny Hoyer Steny Hoyer Steve Scalise United States Congress

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