Last Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) declared cutting pay for Members of Congress doesn’t “respect” what Congress does, nor does it give “dignity” to the job they do:
“I don’t think we should do it; I think we should respect the work we do,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. “I think it’s necessary for us to have the dignity of the job that we have rewarded.”
The comments were made in the context of the looming sequester, which would force across-the-board cuts affecting most federal offices, including Congress. With lawmakers nowhere near a deal to avert those cuts, federal agencies are bracing for ways to absorb them with minimum damage to programs and personnel.
According to Leader Pelosi, cutting Member pay isn’t a good idea because of the financial statuses of her colleagues:
Pelosi, whose husband is a wealthy real-estate developer, was quick to note that a cut in her own pay would be far less significant than that for both staffers and less wealthy members of Congress.
“It’s a hard question to ask me because most of my colleagues are the breadwinners in their families,” she said. “A pay cut to me doesn’t mean as much.”
What Pelosi doesn’t understand is that the dignity of Congress left years ago, when special interests and backroom deals for those special interests became the norm. It left when Congress decided to bail out the banks, the auto industry, and other interests. It left when Members supported two wars overseas for political reasons, not for any reasons of national security, essentially sending service members overseas to be injured and killed for the careers of politicians.
Furthermore, it is utter malarkey that a pay cut would be significant for most Members of Congress. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, in 2009, 261 out of 535 Members were millionaires, and their wealth increased from 2008 to 2009. In 2010, the number of millionaires dipped to 249, but the median wealth of Senators increased, and the median wealth of House Members wasn’t exactly on the poverty level – it was around $600,000 in 2010.
Of course, not every Member is super-wealthy. Some had negative asset values in 2010, though this is mitigated somewhat by the lack of a requirement to disclose the values of personal homes. The Center for Responsive Politics (AKA OpenSecrets.org) provides an annual analysis of the wealth of Congress which, shows how broad the estimates are given disclosure requirements. In 2011, for example, the poorest Member of Congress is anywhere from over $30 million in debt to over $1.5 million in debt, and the wealthiest Member is worth from $306 million to $695 million.
In and among the asinine statements made by Rep. Pelosi, there are two kernels of good points made. First, congressional staffers are underpaid, and reductions in their pay would be harmful. Speaking as a former Hill staffer for Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-TX), who pays his staff fairly well (the last eight months of my salary on Capitol Hill can be seen here), the average starting salary for the lowest-end staffer is $30,000, give or take. Given the cost-of-living in D.C., this is not exorbitant.
Second, while being a Member of Congress carries a very visible number of perks, it is not a job that is as relaxed as many might think. To Rep. Pelosi’s point about how hard Members work, the hours in D.C. are long – between voting, fundraising events, meeting with constituents and lobbyists, committee hearings, etc. – they travel on planes at least 80 times per year to and from districts, and even when Members are home they are doing events, connecting with constituents, holding town halls, etc. Vacation time is very valuable to a Member.
In the end, Rep. Pelosi’s statement is more about defending the status quo than defending any good work Congress does. Public service should be just that – service. While the $174,000 paycheck a non-leadership Member of Congress earns is not an exorbitant salary, it is more than enough to live comfortably. This is especially true if Congress ever gets back to only doing what is in the Constitution, not expanding the bureaucratic power of Washington – and thus ending the special interest lobbying that takes up so much of Congress’ time and our tax dollars.