Congressional Pay and Democracy

It can be hard to know how seriously one should take primary campaign discourse. For example, is it a waste of time to engage in detailed policy analysis of fake candidate Herman Cain’s fake 9-9-9 tax plan, since both will be forgotten in the very near future, or does the situation, however removed from political reality (or actual reality), afford us the opportunity to discuss the relative merits of various ways to structure the tax code? It is hard to say, and in general I try not to get too immersed in coverage of the current Republican primary campaign out of fear that the relative wackiness of this group serves to provide low hanging fruit for both the news and entertainment industries that distracts from potentially more important issues. There is certainly elements in these campaigns worth analyzing, to be sure, but there are also a lot of distractions, and it can be hard to tell which is which. Incidentally, this is also the central feature of all contemporary media.

In this context, I initially greeted the news of Rick Perry’s plan for a part-time Congress with a “whatever…dude just wants attention” response, but I think there are some issues worth addressing here.

In short, Perry calls for Congress to work half the time they do now, while getting half of the pay. The idea is that this will create a “Citizen’s Congress” composed of members that do something else for a living and conduct the will of the people on the side.

Now, it is impossible to know if Perry is sincere about this. I am not a superstitious person, but I will admit I hesitate to make fun of him out loud, since we all know what happens when we don’t take these kind of things seriously. (Although I think the above picture of Perry is simply beyond awesome. It is transcendent.) Sincerity notwithstanding, Perry is obviously playing to the widespread public disapproval of Congress. This dissatisfaction was displayed rather unambiguously this week when polling data indicating less approval of Congress now than other current and historical issues such s Nixon during Watergate, BP during the 2010 oil spill, and the US becoming Communist.  I am not sure why Rasmussen is polling about the US turning Communist in 2011 (do they know something I don’t?), but there you have it. I hope some pollsters out there are able to collect data on how people would rank all of those things transitively, because I think that would be enlightening.

However, I don’t think Congress is that unpopular because they are too professional or doing too much. As the way public opinion responded to the ridiculous debt ceiling debacle over the summer indicate, people do not like Congress largely because they don’t think legislators are addressing issues that affect them, either because of inaction or capture by narrow interests. None of these problems indicates the solution if for Congress to have less opportunity to legislate.

The practical results of implementing such a plan are intuitive, as others have already pointed out. In lieu of direction from the legislature, more decisions would end up being made by executive agencies, an issue that would be compounded by the increasingly vague laws written by an uninformed and largely absent legislature. Now, the issue of whether the country should be governed by a more unitary executive branch whose agencies have wide latitude to govern in an efficient and technocratic manner extends back to Alexander Hamilton writing in the Federalist Papers, but that is not the debate Perry is raising. As a Perry staffer notes regarding the plan, a part time Congress is a good idea because “[w]hen they’re not here it is necessarily limited government.” But you do not get less government if Congress isn’t around as much, you just get less democracy, since, as stated, other, unelected parts of the government would have to step in and run the show. And the plan would do nothing to curb the power of lobbyists and other interests that would certainly try to influence the bureaucracy now tasked with making decisions Congress is not around to make (though this is already a problem even when Congress is around). Of course, lobbyist and outside influence would because a requirement to provide the part-time legislators with necessary information that they would no longer have the time or staff to obtain. And this would do nothing to alleviate, and would likely exasperate, the problem of needing to raise money for elections.

So, it is a bad idea. It is also not a real idea, since no Congress is going to pass a law that would take away their power and reduce their pay. On this second point, I absolutely love that in the New York Times story on this, they go to Paul Horwitz, professor of constitutional law at the University of Alabama to establish that the legislation for this “would have to be passed by the very people on the receiving end of the pay and budget cuts.” I think it is absolutely great that the Times consults academic experts on these matters, though I have to suspect that Professor Horwitz had something more insightful to say that simply confirm that Congress is the body of government that passes legislation. Anyway.

But more than being a bad idea because of the effects it would have if carried out, what troubles me is the rhetoric behind this, which I think taps into the same problematic argument about government workers being overpaid. It is one thing to suggest members of Congress are doing their jobs poorly. They are doing their jobs poorly. I ride my bike by the capital all the time and regularly think/say out loud that the people inside are making terrible decisions at this very moment. But this is not the same thing as suggesting that the government or democratic institutions are bad in general. One of the things that was so infuriating about the debt ceiling debate this summer and the potential government shutdown debate from earlier in the year was the nihilistic approach of the tea party-backed conservative republicans towards potential default/government shutdown that suggested that such calamities would helpfully serve to teach the evil government a lesson. Guys, we are going to have a government. Debating what the government should or should not do is not the same as sabotaging the government and preventing it from doing anything.

And Perry is offering a similar line of reasoning here. He is playing off of widespread disapproval with Congress and anti-government sentiment more generally to propose something that would make government somehow less able to do its job well. Yes, Congress is a total disappointment right now. Bummer. But we should be trying to remove constraints from doing good things and/or incentives to do bad things rather than turning the whole thing into a bunch of amateurs (literally!). Perry presents the plan with language about bringing fundamental reform to Washington, noting that he is “a true believer that we need to uproot, tear down and rebuild Washington, D.C., and our federal institutions.”

He goes on to discuss how our elected representatives “get paid more than three times the average American family, and they have doubled their own budgets in the last decade.”  This is another issue that pops up quite a bit in the discourse and in public opinion that I find problematic no matter how frustrated I am with Congress, this idea that legislators are overpaid. It is fine that they get paid more than the average family; they have an important job! Where is all the corporate executive-apologist rhetoric about high wages to attract top talent when you need it? They also have to maintain a residence in their district as well as Washington DC, which is not a cheap place to live. And this idea that they have “doubled their budgets” is unhelpful since, again, it is not a bad idea for them to have resources to do their jobs, but also the there is no context to understand what this “doubling” actually means. It sounds like a lot of increased spending, but is of course nothing in the context of the federal budget.

I want the government, both elected officials and the bureaucracy, to be composed of well-paid professionals. Not extravagantly paid, but paid in line with the importance of their job. There are basic, practical reasons for this. Decent pay could (maybe, hopefully) reduce the incentive for corruption or for people in government to pursue more lucrative work as lobbyists or something similar. But the broader issue is one of status. We should hold the work of governing in high regard and have high expectations of our democratically elected leaders. If they do not meet expectation, we should elect different people. If there are systemic problems that make electing the right people, we should try to address that with measures such as campaign finance laws. As it is, the system highly favors the election of the rich to elected office. But deprofessionalizing and reducing the pay of the legislature would certainly be a constraint on electing representatives to serve our interests. During its long transition from monarchy to representative democracy, advocates for representative government in Great Britain had to fight for members of parliament to be paid. Paying MPs was rightly considered important for democracy, since otherwise one had to be independently wealthy in order to run for and serve in government while still supporting their family. Paying elected representatives allowed more than the elite to run for office. Perry’s plan to deprofessionalize Congress, and the antipathy towards effective government it stems from would constitute a regression of democracy.

2 thoughts on “Congressional Pay and Democracy

  1. Maybe if they worked half the time they do now, their productivity would increase, and they would actually do SOMETHING with their time, rather than the nothing they do now. Rep. Giffords proposed cutting Congressional pay by at least 5% – that’s another good idea.

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