Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Pay Raises

TAPPED and MyDD are mentioning Congressional salary, raises, and why it’s silly that we pay the legislative branch so little. One of the commentators depicts an interesting point.

With this topic, people should just expect a feingold plug... so here it is:

One of the very few such spoilsports is Senator Russell Feingold, a liberal Wisconsin Democrat who for several years has introduced an amendment to stop the pay raise, and each time has seen his amendment tabled -- i.e., killed without being debated and voted on -- by a lopsided Senate majority.

"I object to the process," he said during a phone conversation last week. "This automatic, stealth pay-raise system is absolutely wrong. Especially now, when we're running the biggest deficits in US history, when so many people are out of work -- I find it startling that Congress would feel comfortable voting itself a pay raise."

And what kind of reaction does he get from his colleagues when he offers his amendment?

"It's not my most popular moment," Feingold concedes. "I get the coldest stares." Some senators try to reason with him. "They tell me about their kids' tuition. Or they say, 'Don't you think you're worth more money?' " He tells them that if they think they deserve an increase, they should be willing to vote for one.

Feingold puts his own money where his mouth is, refusing any increase in pay during each six-year senatorial term. Though he is perhaps the least affluent member of the Senate, he has returned more than $50,000 to the Treasury over the past 11 years. Meanwhile, multimillionaire senators like Ted Kennedy, Jon Corzine, and Majority Leader Bill Frist vote to table Feingold's amendment and preserve the annual stealth pay raise.

Which is why pay raises won’t happen. It’s so incredibly easy for any congresscritter to say they are fighting against DC fat cats and vote against pay raises. Given that most of their expenses are handled by independent wealth or campaign related expenses, the money they get from Congress is trivial. A cheesy press release to the folks back home is worth far more than the extra $50,000 in salary (or at least voting for it).

It’s possible that this discourages lower-class representatives or better talent, or more likely encourages corruption. The State of Texas has had a really interesting history of paying its representatives very little and making them dependent on large donors for a decent lifestyle (Read Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography). In Britain, a law that meant MP’s would actually be paid was a big deal to the nascent labor movement.

In this day and age, Senators can become so incredibly wealthy (especially once you consider future expected earnings as a lobbyist) that it’s probably trivial and returning to a $1 would no longer have a noticeable effect. In comparison, the wages of Congressional staff, or the bureaucrats who are all tied to the same pay scale, is probably more relevant and does more to distort the quality of our government. However, the wider you propose to spread this pay raise, then the more expensive it will be. By following the free-market, Congress has simply found a way to staff its offices and agencies fully with as little money as possible – the free market does not care much about the quality or background biases of this staff.

Anyway, as Feingold’s comments demonstrate, this is all wankery since such bills are extremely unlikely to get passed. Liberals should just keep in mind that reducing Congressional salary does not “save the People money” but rather “guarantees Joe Union Six-Pack can’t even consider running for office.” And I find this type of populist demagoguery on the same level as Hillary’s recent anti-flag-burning amendment.


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