During a town hall meeting last week, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, called in question the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Buoyed by the continuing Tea Party position that the ACA must be defunded regardless of the costs, the congressman announced his and his staff’s intentions to decline the $3,000 subsidy they were offered for participating in ACA.
“I don’t know why we should exempt business and still force individuals to pay for health insurance,” Meadows said. “We are going to pass out of the House something that funds the government” but not the ACA. He added that if the Democrats and President Obama respond by forcing a shutdown of the government, it is because they “won’t listen to the will of the people.”
“The administration has announced that congressional members and their staff could get subsidies,” the congressman continued. “The standard that we have for Main Street should be the same standard for Washington, D.C.”
This sentiment was echoed by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), who announced that she will propose a bill once Congress returns from recess that will ban the federal funding of health-care premiums for members of Congress under the Affordable Care Act — which all members of Congress and all congressional staffers that receive federally funded health care must enroll in.
“Americans continue to lose under President Obama’s health care law,” Capito wrote on her congressional webpage. “At the same time the president is unfairly choosing to give businesses a free pass for a year and leave everyday Americans out in the cold, families across the country are bracing for skyrocketing premiums. As long as ObamaCare remains law, Members of Congress should not receive exchange subsidies that are not provided to other Americans.”
Realities of congressional pay
This shared talking-point about members of Congress receiving no more in benefits than their constituents do is actually an old one. A favorite ploy of legislators seeking to gain the public’s sympathy is to form a comparison to the common man — wagging a finger at the “Washington fat cats” and seeking to draw the ire of the masses against the excesses of other politicians — despite the fact that the speaker making the criticism shares in those excesses.
The fine reality is that a member of Congress draws a salary 3.8 times the average full-time wage in America. At a base salary of $174,000 per year (Congressional leadership receive additional bonuses — the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate make $193,400 per year with the Speaker making $223,500), only Japan pays their legislators more compared with the national average pay.
As stated in a 2011 position paper from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, “Are Taxpayers Getting Their Money’s Worth? An Analysis of Congressional Compensation,” Congress members receive life insurance contributions worth about $6,000 per year, Social Security contributions worth about $9,000 per year, paid time off equivalent to 16.5 percent of their total salaries and contributions to their retirement benefits at approximately 47 percent of their salaries. The paper explains:
“The largest difference between Congressional benefits and those paid to private-sector workers is in the area of retirement benefits. Members of Congress participate in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), a defined contribution pension that offers more generous employer contributions than the typical private-sector 401(k) plan. Participants in the TSP are eligible for an employer contribution of up to 5 percent of pay, versus an employer contribution of around 3 percent of salary into the typical 401(k) plan. In addition, Members of Congress are eligible for a traditional defined benefit pension plan, which is more generous than the pension offered to other federal employees. Unlike state and local government employees, who generally must contribute around 6 percent of their pay to defined benefit pensions, Members of Congress contribute only 1.3 percent of their salaries. Regular federal employees pay 0.8% of pay, though they get a less generous benefit even after netting out the contributions.”
With these additional benefits factored in, the average congressman makes more than 6 times the average full-time worker makes. In addition, each member of Congress is afforded an expense account for personal expenses while performing as a legislator and for maintaining their office and office staff valued between $1,270,129 and $1,564,613 in 2012, with the average being $1,353,205.13. This does not include the unpublished perks, such as exclusive access, private facilities, paid transportation and security.
With this level of income disparity between members of Congress and those whom they serve, one must ask if this system creates a class of career politicians that serve not so much out of civil obligation, but professional advancement.
The citizen legislator
The country musician Charlie Daniels wrote for Newsbusters in 2010:
It is a heartbreaking fact that nowadays politics has become not a calling but a game. Gaining public office is achieved by the most photogenic, the silver-tongued, the most attractive who look good on television and can raise the most money. We tend to pay more attention to the messenger than to the message, the one who can lie with the straightest face. …
Our founders did not design this system for career politicians, but rather citizen politicians who would serve a couple of terms and let someone fresh off the street serve, someone who is acquainted with what’s happening now, not twenty years ago when this bunch of hacks took office. Our political bodies were intended to be made up of common folk, doctors, druggists, farmers, carpenters, and some but not all lawyers.
When the bicameral system was created under the Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise of 1787) it was designed with the thought that the House of Representatives — the direct representation of the people — would be tempered by a wiser, cooler-headed Senate. As constitutional drafter James Madison wrote, the “use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.”
The idea was that the Senate would be populated by the esteemed members of their states — successful businessmen and members of the upper society who have completed their careers, proven their aptitude for leadership and can serve as leaders of the nation as a laurel to their accomplishments. As Madison saw it, serving Congress is not a career; it’s a reward that comes after retiring from a successful career.
During the first half of the nation’s history, the idea that congressional service was not a career was rigidly enforced. Benjamin Franklin, in his proposals to the Constitutional Convention, recommended that members of Congress would be unpaid. This was rejected. Until 1855 — with an exception made between December 1815 and March 1817, when congressional pay was $1,500 per year — members of Congress only received a per diem of $6 while Congress was in session. In 1855, Congress members started to receive a regular salary, starting at $3,000 per year.
Many politicians famously have called for a return of the part-time citizen politician. In 2010, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) told Human Events, “We used to pay farmers not to grow crops. Let’s pay congressmen to stay out of Washington, D.C.” He argued that once elected, lawmakers who once promised to change Washington “become part of the problem” and turn into a “permanent governing political class.”
“Make them part-time, give them term limits. Don’t let them become lobbyists,” Jindal continued. “When they have to live under the same rules and laws they pass for the rest of us, maybe you’d see some more common sense coming out of Washington, D.C.”
The call for citizen politicians and the devolution of political clout in Washington has possibly been inspired in part by past cases of malfeasance. One example is the case of former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), who — prior to being expelled from the House in 2002 and serving a seven-year prison sentence for taking bribes, filing false tax returns, racketeering and improper use of legislative aides — was elected nine times to Congress. Another example is seven-times-elected former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes, and was sentenced to 100 months imprisonment for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, tax evasion and bribery.
While talk of making Congress less attractive has its positive points, many argue that it is the perks that keep many in Congress, despite the political gridlock.
“Look, the people who come here, I’ve gotten to know my colleagues over the years. They come here not to be involved in gridlock, they come here to get things done. That’s why they’re in public service,” said former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). “Why would you spend all the time raising money, run for office and go through the nastiness that’s part of a general modern political campaign to come here and be involved in gridlock? They come here to get something done.”
Ultimately, the system that exists now — in which political factions scheme to hold power and protect incumbents — is unworkable. It is creating gridlock and is strangling new ideas. It is creating a legislative class separate from the people. To move forward, hard decisions must be made regarding what the nation expects from its representatives and what it means to serve in Washington.
“To my disappointment, the leverage you have within the government has substantially diminished,” said former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) upon the announcement of his retirement from the House. “The anger in the country, the currents of opinion are such that the kind of inside work I have felt best at is not going to be as productive in the foreseeable future and not until we make some changes.”
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