Alcee Hastings is right: Members of Congress have too much money, but Congress is underpaid

Speaking at a hearing regarding the 2016 Legislative Branch appropriations bill yesterday, Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings made, as Roll Call lovingly described in their lede, a “politically-tone deaf case” for raising Congressional pay.

Hastings reminded members at the hearing that Congressional pay used to be tied to pay for federal judges. That connection has since been severed, and Congress has not seen a raise since 2010.

As Hastings argued, stagnating Congressional pay — both for members and their staffers — is turning Congress into an institution for the financial elite. Representatives’ current $174,000/year salary — in the 87th percentile of American incomes — gets stretched thin when one takes into account cost of living in our nation’s capital and traveling back and forth between DC and most congressional districts, let alone maintaining a second residence (as constituents often expect of their representatives).

Here’s the video of Hastings’s remarks, via RollCall:

[iframe src=”http://launch.newsinc.com/?type=VideoPlayer/Single&widgetId=1&trackingGroup=69016&siteSection=rollcall&videoId=29098494″]

It’s easy to write Hastings off as “tone deaf” when it’s standard operating procedure to hate everyone and everything in Congress, but he has a point. If we expect Congress to be remotely representative of the public, we have to remove barriers to entry that prevent it from being representative. One of those barriers, among many, is the fact that working in Congress is expensive. Hastings estimated in an interview after the hearing that between 50 and 75 members of Congress are currently living in their offices to avoid paying DC rent. That’s probably an overestimate, but not by much.

“Low” pay isn’t a problem for most members, who are already independently wealthy, and that’s part of the problem. The median Representative or Senator has a net worth of over $1 million, with the average Representative being worth over $7 million and the average Senator worth nearly $11 million. The averages are skewed upward by a few mega-wealthy members — Congressman Darrell Issa (R – CA) could be worth up to $604 million all by himself; Senator Mark Warner (D – VA) could be worth as much as $413 million — but the point still stands: Most members of Congress aren’t in it for the money, and they aren’t relying on their salary to pad their estate. If you’re wondering why our representatives aren’t serious about tackling economic inequality, there’s one of your more obvious answers: The majority of them are One Percenters.

But while a pay raise wouldn’t mean much for Issa or Warner, it would mean a lot to Hastings, who is currently the  second-poorest member of Congress. If pay remains at current levels into the future, we’re going to come to a point at which the only people who can afford to represent us are people who are already independently wealthy, making America even more of an oligarchy than it already is.

Alcee Hastings (screengrab from Roll Call video)

Alcee Hastings (screenshot from Roll Call video)

But it’s not just the members. As Hastings went on to argue, tight budgets for the Legislative Branch across the board are causing some of Congress’s best talent — including three members of his own staff — to leave. With wages that aren’t even close to competitive with the private sector — and bosses who are more than willing to sacrifice their staffers health insurance to score a few political points — Congress is becoming an increasingly awful place to work. The average staff assistant on the Hill makes roughly $35,000/year. In Washington, D.C., that’s close to the poverty line. That makes it more and more difficult to hire and retain the kind of talent we want staffing the halls of Congress.

Tight budgets in Congressional offices also contributes to the Legislative Branch having to rely to an alarming degree on unpaid internships. Not just for college students, mind you, but for recent graduates who know that one of the only ways to land a job on the Hill is to put in a few months as an unpaid intern. That fact alone privileges the institution, as it effectively sets the entry level salary for a Congressional staffer at $0. Unless you have independent support, which almost always comes from parents who can afford it, that’s a job you aren’t going to apply for, let alone keep, regardless of your desire or ability to do the work required.

So, as seemingly contradictory as it is to say this, it’s absolutely fair to say that members of Congress have too much money, but it isn’t at all fair to say — as between 70 and 80 percent of Americans consistently do when polled — that Congress is overpaid. Representatives and their staffers can and do make far more money in the private sector, and as the cost of living in Washington outpaces Congressional pay, many are making the switch. While we aren’t always sad to see them go — Jim DeMint’s decision to leave the Senate for a far more lucrative position at the Heritage Foundation was likely in part a financial one — the people who are left are increasingly likely to represent the very concentration of wealth that we’re so worried about nationwide.

This being the case, there are a number of ways in which the Legislative Appropriations bill can be tweaked so as to shift the theme from “Congress is overpaid,” which it is false, to “members of Congress have too much money,” which is true.

Supplement Congress’ income

It doesn’t have to be much. While Hastings didn’t commit himself to a number — although he did note that federal judges, whose pay used to track that of members of Congress, currently earn $220,000/year — former Congressman Jim Moran previously proposed a modest stipend for living expenses: $25 per day for each day Congress is in session. That would amount to $2,800 per year per member, or about $1.5 million total — pennies as far as the budget is concerned.

This wouldn’t remove the barriers to entry that make Congress unrepresentative of the American public all by itself, but it would be a small step in that direction. It would, at the very least, make it possible for someone who doesn’t have a massive supplemental investment income to do the job of being in Congress well.

Speaking of which…

Ban Congress from trading stocks

In the long run, almost no one really beats the stock market. That is, unless you’re in Congress. Be it through having advance knowledge of regulations that will affect the market, or via pushing legislation that benefits stocks they already own, members of Congress see their stocks significantly outperform market averages by as much as six percent.

Prior research has shown that Senators outperform members of the House, suggesting that being one of 100 provides a greater advantage than being one of 435.

Not only is this a grossly unfair market inefficiency, it’s a far greater contributor to DC decadence than the baseline salaries that, as noted above, the majority of Congress doesn’t need in the first place. If you want to hit members where it hurts, it’s in their portfolios, not their paychecks.

Allocate more money for Congressional offices, and by extension staff

Congressional staffers need a raise even more than their bosses do. Again, staff assistants in DC are living on poverty-level wages (and expected to dress like they work on Wall Street). Until we do something about the way members of Congress are forced to allocate their time — spending between four and six hours a day raising money instead of reading bills — we’re going to have to keep relying on a horde of Congressional staffers to pick up their slack. In a perfect world, we’d reform campaign finance regulations, free up members’ time and need fewer staffers in each Congressional office, thereby spending less money on Congressional salaries altogether even if they had higher wages. But that doesn’t change the fact that their wages, as they stand now, are too low.

That said, simply setting a higher baseline wage for staff assistants won’t solve the problem entirely. A better solution would be to allocate more money to Congressional offices more generally and ban them from exploiting free labor. If those offices had extra money to spend, they’d be able to pay their interns — at least the ones who don’t really count as interns in the first place.

The Department of Labor defines an intern as a worker who both receives training “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment” and “does not displace regular employees.” There is no reasonable standard under which a college graduate who works for free for six months while they wait for a staff assistant position to open up qualifies as an intern. They should be paid for their labor, and Congress could use the Legislative Appropriations bill to provide both the carrot, more money, and the stick, a ban on exploitative labor practices, in order to make that happen.

All this is to say that we get the government we pay for. If the public doesn’t fund it, the privately wealthy will co-opt it. If we’re serious when we say that we want a more representative sample of the population to run for and staff Congress, we have to offer jobs worth applying for.

 


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • nichole.davi

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  • MRjonz

    They can’t live on $174,000 per year? Seriously? Hell, I’d do for half that.

  • kantil

    Glad
    you asked. According to Webster, “Obaba”
    (oh-bah-bah) is a Kenyan word meaning ungrateful, generally useless POS which
    miraculously ascends to a position of eminence and influence not by merit, but
    by virtue of its complexion combined with the toxic stupidity of its electors. Some authorities dispute the appellation, “useless”,
    holding that obabas can be used to effectively damage or destroy advanced civilizations
    through their stimulation of negative currents such as racial animosity, greed,
    sloth, indulgence, senseless rage and irrational victimhood.

  • cambridgemac

    Outstanding article. Worth rerunning every 4 months.

  • Max_1

    Help me because my corporate backers won’t?

  • It would be more correct to observe that most members of Congress aren’t in it for the money derived directly from their salaries and rather generous benefits packages. However, very few of them seem to be above the practice of milking their position for all the financial gains possible within the ridiculously lax laws.

    Basically, they’re exempt from insider trading laws — which means they’re free to invest money in the very same industries and companies their own legislation will affect. Campaign funding laws nowadays (and the lack thereof) allow for quite a lot of what I call “lifestyle enhancement” — which is why it should come as no surprise to keep seeing these candidates who literally have no chance at all of winning a primary, much less a general election, constantly launching ‘exploratory committees’ and Super PACs. Then there’s the revolving door between Congress and lobbying firms (some of which are disguised as ‘think tanks’). Speaking fees, book advances, consulting fees, corporate board seats: There are endless ways members of Congress can and do enrich themselves both in and out of office.

    I would agree that the current salary of $174k is a little low for someone who has to maintain a residence in or near DC in addition to their home state, especially if they have a family. But we’re not talking magnitudes of being too low. A quarter mil ought to be plenty, and index that to inflation.

    But something like this really, really would need to be paired with additional reform measures to reduce the ability of members of Congress to enrich themselves through legalized bribery before, during, and after their terms of office.

    BTW, this here is interesting reading:
    http://ballotpedia.org/Changes_in_Net_Worth_of_U.S._Senators_and_Representatives_%28Personal_Gain_Index%29

  • GeorgeMokray

    Starving Congressional staffs and eliminating or emasculating institutions like the Office of Technology Assessment (thanks, Newt!) and the Congressional Budget Office are part of the game plan for the servants of oligarchic kleptocracy. Yet we should remember that Founding Father John Jay wrote that the owners of the country should be the ones to run it so serving the interests of only the wealthy is “the American Way.”

  • 2karmanot

    Obiwan’s love child…everyone knows that.

  • 2karmanot

    “Most members of Congress aren’t in it for the money,” ROTFL!

  • Bill_Perdue

    It’s not possible to reform Congress of any other part of the government – they’ve been owned by the rich for the last two centuries and the whole government is organized to protect them and their wealth.

    Pretending that there are solutions to the plutocratic form of government we live under are simply ahistorical and, given the reality of the plutocracy, not based in reality.

  • Skye Winspur

    How fascinating (and appalling) that both the richest man in Congress, Darrell Issa, and the poorest (David Valadao) are both Republicans from California. Speaks, probably, to the power of ideology in forging political alliances.

  • nicho

    But how would the lobbyists slip them those envelopes bulging with large unmarked bills?

  • nicho

    Obaba is a seafood company in San Jose.

  • White&Blue

    Excellent article Jon, very thought-provoking. It’s an interesting situation when compared to my country’s own. Err… I don’t want sound picky, but a heads up about the auto-playing video would be appreciated. A nasty surprise if one has the volume set higher.

  • nicho

    Dormitories. Build dormitories that they can live in the few days they are actually in DC working, if they can’t afford to live anywhere else. And set their salary at five times the minimum wage. That seems fair.

  • emjayay

    What is an Obaba? Some kind of pastry from a Jewish bakery?

  • Indigo

    That could very well be. I’m under the impression, reenforced by Obama’s cozy corporate stance, that graft covers those expenses. Changing that part of the equation could easily prove to be at least as difficult as restoring cannabis to public access. There too, the under-the-table payoffs are just too profitable to encourage lawmakers and -enforcers to embrace sensible policy by sweeping away all the anti-marijuana legislation.

  • Indigo

    But then they wouldn’t get to go to all the parties.

  • KristineRWeber

    ♛★☆ I AM MAKING 99USD PER [email protected]//

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  • kantil

    Member of Congress Alcee Hastings, former federal judge impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate of bribery in a drug case, thinks he and other MCs need a raise. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcee_Hastings#Judicial_career_.281979-1989.29) Poor baby was rated by the Center for Responsive Politics named Hastings the “Poorest Member of Congress,” with a 2010 average net worth of −$4,732,002. I guess “Responsive” refers to his being responsive to bribe offers. Hell yes, give him more money! We throw it away on the Obabas, don’t we?

  • Michael Demmons

    Members of Congress should also be working at home full time. It’s the 21st century. Push a button and vote. There’s little to no excuse for all of them to waste money to live in DC at our expense. That would solve a large part of their financial difficulties, which are very real. Plus, it would throw lobbyists into a tizzy because they would no longer have their captive audience all in one place.

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