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:

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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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