Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina is resigning his seat in order to become head of the Heritage Foundation. Though he didn’t say so, one of the key reasons is that his new salary will be over one million dollars. This is more than five times his salary as a senator. With a net worth of $40,000 (which to his credit, may indicate that he hasn’t been “on the take”), his decision seems reasonable, particularly with a family to support.
Members of Congress are frequently criticized for voting to raise their salaries. However, is their behavior much different from CEOs and board members of corporations who vote to raise their salaries on an ongoing basis? For that matter, is it fundamentally different from workers (unionized and non-unionized) advocating increases in their wages?
You might think that senators and representatives make large salaries; certainly more than the $250,000 per family that would be the level of family income that would have their taxes raised if the Democrats prevail in a restructured tax system. The truth is that members of Congress make well below $250,000. Both senators and members of the House make $174,000 per year. By way of comparison, the minimum salary for a Major League baseball player is $480,000. In other words, a man or woman in Congress who is responsible for drafting legislation for the federal government that has a budget of approximately $3.4 trillion per year makes about one third of what a utility infielder in baseball who may get 100 at bats over the course of the season and gets $4,800 per at bat, even if he strikes out.
Worse yet is the pay of Congressional staffers. The median pay for staffers is between $30,000 and $35,000. This is in a city in which the median rent for an apartment is $1,790 and the total cost of living is 43% higher than the national average.
It is no wonder that more and more members of Congress are resigning or not running for reelection. It is not surprising that many take jobs as lobbyists where they can make far more money that they do in Congress. It is no surprise that some members of Congress are considered “the best legislators that money can buy.”
It would be naive to say that if Congressional salaries were doubled to $348,000 that they would not want more money. They would still be susceptible to bribes or other forms of influence peddling. Even baseball players who make $20 million per year will negotiate for (and frequently get) salary raises. However, the responsibilities of members of Congress are so important that they are entitled to salaries that are more than 10% of many of the CEOs in their districts or states. It is true that many Congresspersons are obstinate, lazy, and insensitive to the needs of the constituents, particularly those who are in the middle class or who live in poverty, but they still deserve a salary more commensurate to the theoretical, and often practical, responsibilities of their jobs.
If a challenger running for Congress criticizes his or her incumbent opponent for voting ‘x’ number of times to raise his or her salary, let’s consider that to be a specious argument. A member of Congress often has to maintain two homes, one in Washington and one in his or her home district. The cost of entertainment in Washington, essentially an obligation for members of Congress, is far more than that of the average citizen. Many other expenses are particularly high for members of Congress, although in fairness they do receive some sweet benefits such as the best of health care at absolutely no cost to them.
Let’s give members of Congress a break on the salary issue. Perhaps more importantly, let’s encourage them to budget far more money for their staffers. We would likely have better government if staff members could make a career on the Hill and develop the expertise to provide more sage advice. As is the case with many federal expenses such as the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, cutting miniscule portions of the budget will be of no significance in reducing our annual deficit. There are many ways to significantly raise needed revenue and to cut wasteful spending. Let’s focus on those rather than the salaries of those in Capitol Hill.
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.