You Get What You Pay For

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Click to view chart

Congress had an eventful holiday season. We slid over the fiscal cliff one night, but, evidently, grabbed the ledge on the way over, allowing us to climb back out the next day. Mostly. The mini-bargain includes increased revenues, some minor spending cuts, and some pretty slick accounting tricks. It fails to account for the debt ceiling, true spending decreases, or raise enough revenue to pay the bills, delaying that decision until around Valentines Day. Business as usual. (Get ready for a slew of editorial cartoons feature Cupid.)

Seemingly under the radar as Congress pulls itself back to the precipice is the frozen pay for our Congressmen and Congresswomen. On the one hand, such a freeze makes sense and we should applaud Congress and the President for the symbolic gesture. In the real world, any group of men and women this dysfunctional would be fired. In the ideal world, we would have mass honorable resignations as members realized they were part of the problem and not part of the solution. In the rarefied air of Congress, though, they simply deny themselves a $900 raise, pat themselves on the back for finally agreeing on something, and fly home.

Our Congressional folks earn (and I use that term loosely based on their performance this year) $174,000 a year. That’s a pretty solid salary, although, according to Washington DC discussions about taxes, that places our political leaders squarely in the middle class. Additionally, Congressional members can earn supplemental pay (but only up to %15) and they get reimbursed for a variety of expenses. They also get a great pension.

But, in my humble opinion, this gesture rings pretty hollow and, more importantly, will simply perpetuate the disconnect between Congress and the rest of us. Congressional salaries might seem, to some, excessive. Certainly, in San Angelo, TX, I could live pretty high on the hog with $174,000 (or, at least, I could live closer to the hog’s middle section and a little further away from the bottom). I wouldn’t be rich, though. Last time I checked, and those of you who make that kind of money can correct me if I’m wrong, at $174,000 you aren’t out there buying yachts and you still go to work every day.

Note: I’m not trying to drum up sympathy for those making that high salary and I realize 98% of us will never see that kind of money, but even at $174,000 you are only one cancer diagnosis/fire/car wreck away from economic disaster. It might take a little longer and your initial fall might be a little softer, but the ground is not that far away. Mitt Romney you are not.

In essence, I’m not sure I could live high on the hog (or anywhere on the hog)  if I had to live in Washington DC and maintain a house in San Angelo. Add in direct and indirect costs associated with two residences (maintenance, vehicles, plumbing, travel, etc), and $174,000 isn’t really that much money.  If we further note that being in Congress is a full-time job and necessitates a year or more of campaigning and fund-raising prior to an election, is it any wonder that increasingly our congressional leaders are millionaires? Who else can afford the cost? Who can take the time off to win the job?

While I recognize that we must all tighten our belts in times of financial crisis, the problem is not that congressional salaries are too high. The problem is that congressional salaries are too low. Coupled with gerrymandered voting districts, we have effectively widened the gap between Congress and the people they represent to a dangerous degree. In essence, we have created a system whereby only the wealthy can run for and win a national political election. We have turned political public service into a rich person’s game.

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Click to view video of Jimmy Stewart

Perhaps this has always been the case and I’m being idealistic. If we look at Congressional salaries over the course of time, we can see they have always hoovered above the median American salary. We can, though, also see a precipitous leap in salary in the post-1960 era, a leap I would bet correlates to a higher percentage of millionaires running for Congress. We might tie this increase to changing elections. The rise of media clearly impacts the public perception of what a Congress person looks like and how politicians speak. Appearance is expensive. (As my wife notes: we could all look like movie stars if we had three hours a day to work out.) Or, we might tie increased salaries to already rich Congressman increasing the amount they get paid each year. The rich do tend to get richer.

But, we should also note that none of us in the masses would turn down a $900 raise. That extra $75 a month would pay for a lot of hamburger meat, a tank of gas, braces, the electric bill–simply put: that’s real money. The ability to reject the raise is, in fact, part of the problem. Too many of our “representatives” no longer understand how to represent us. While they are busy with what my dad might call their pissing contest over taxes, the accounting department where I work is staying late trying to reconfigure our system to adjust for tax laws that will change twice in a 48 hour period. Parents ready to complete financial aid documents have to wait, those of us living on a budget aren’t quite ready to make major purchases, and all those people who tried to pay off their credit card bills are loading them up again. And no one has a clue how much it will cost to go see a doctor this month. These are direct costs, coupled with indirect costs of working late, delaying medical care, applying for colleges late, etc.

We have, quite frankly, created a political system that is filled with people increasingly unable to represent anyone outside the top 1% of wage earners and captured in a vacuum of wealth and privilege. I hate to sound naive, mostly because it seems so counter to my normal cynicism, but perhaps it’s time to raise the pay for those in Congress and create opportunities for those of us in the 98% to inhabit the halls of Congress. Most of us can’t afford to supplement a political campaign with personal funds or take time off to run for Congress. We have mouths to feed and bills to pay. If we don’t do something, though, I suspect we will keep getting what we pay for.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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