` Your Senator is underpaid — imaginary family values

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A while ago, James Carville and Paul Begala proposed a campaign-finance reform that combined a Congressional pay raise with draconian limits on fund-raising. bellatrys strenuously objected to the first part of this plan, arguing that if you aren’t willing to serve in Congress for the current rate of $160K plus benefits, you don’t belong in Washington. I disagree.

If you’re looking to fill a job opening in the private sector, you decide on a pay scale and job requirements; if you can’t find someone who meets your requirements to work for the scale you offer, then you have to decide whether to raise the pay, lower the standards, or let the position remain open for a while longer. For Congress, we don’t have that option; any citizen who meets the age and residency requirements, and who gets one vote more than the other guy, gets to sit in the legislature. So how do we know that the country would benefit if members of Congress got a raise? Here are some clues based on what people get paid for similar work when they don’t face the embarassment of voting for their own paychecks:

  • Ex-Congresscritters, or even former high-ranking Congressional staffers, can pull in beaucoup bucks as consultants, lobbyists, or law partners. Granted, a big proportion of their salaries depend on the assumption that their contacts can help grease the wheels of legislation. But if someone can be so valuable to General Dynamics or the Carlyle Group after being a member of Congress, shouldn’t they be as valuable to the country while a member of Congress? (This is especially true for those folks whose political outlooks are, shall we say, unfriendly to General Dynamics.)
  • According to the National Association for Law Placement, an associate with six years’ experience at a law firm makes about $165,000 a year, i.e., roughly the same as one of the 535 people responsible for writing the law. Of course, a partner at one of these firms can make far more. An attorney defending a corporation accused of securities fraud can make far more than the SEC lawyers responsible for prosecuting the fraud case (whose salaries are generally capped by the Congressional salary). This seems kind of whacked.
  • Look at major-league baseball: there are only 30 teams with 25 players each, competition for a spot on a major league is intense, and thanks to baseball’s antitrust exemption, the number of baseball teams competing for players remains relatively stable. MLB player salaries start at $300,000.

“But,” you say, “it wouldn’t be fair to pay members of Congress so much money. Heck, it isn’t fair that a lawyer with six years’ experience makes $165,000 while a teacher with the same experience would be lucky to make a third of that.”

No, it’s not fair. But that’s because capitalism is systematically unfair. Pointing fingers at a few particular beneficiaries of that system and shaming them into accepting a lower wage is not going to reform the system; if anything, it distracts people from reforming the system. (Look at how readily conservatives sneer at wealthy liberals. Or recall the grumbling, during the recent New York City transit workers’ strike, about how much NYC bus drivers were already being paid.)

So by all means, let’s work to reform our economy so it is not so systematically unfair (e.g., by making the income tax more progressive). At the same time, though, when we hire someone to do a job for us, we need to recognize the price that the market has set for that work, and budget accordingly.

“But,” you say, “a person should be running for Congress out of a sincere desire to serve the public, not because the money is good. If we raise the salary, then there will be more unscrupulous people running for office—as if we needed any more.”

When people have the luxury of choosing which job to apply for, they usually have a mixture of financial and non-financial motives. A brilliant teacher may pass up more lucrative work for the sake of continuing to work with children, but that doesn’t mean you can reduce teachers’ salaries to zero and expect the brilliant ones to stay on. It’s reasonable to assume that the same is true, in reverse, for public officials: some people out there might run for office if the pay were higher, out of a mixture of wanting the money (or at least, wanting enough money to make up for the suffering they expect on the campaign trail) and a desire for public service.

Sure, some unscrupulous people will run for office. But if honest people run against the unscrupulous ones, the voters at least have a fighting chance of comparing the records of the candidates and deciding which one is less likely to be scamming them.

How do we get more honest people to run? First, we need more meaningful campaign finance reform (and I’m not terribly impressed by the Carville/Begala proposal), so that candidates don’t have to choose between following their principles and affording to run for re-election. Second, we need…well…more people to run. If potential Congresscritters are not entirely immune from the law of supply and demand, then hiking Congressional pay can help with that.

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