Getting by on $174,000 a year

Should members of Congress get more?

By The Mercury

There is grumbling among some members of Congress who don’t think they earn enough money.

Their poster child, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik pointed out, might be Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican. Rep. Gingrey reportedly griped at a party caucus that members of his staff could make $500,000 a year if they jumped to lobbying jobs. Then he added, “Meanwhile, I’m stuck here making $172,000 a year.”

First, he doesn’t make $172,000 a year; the congressional salary is $174,000 a year. Second, and more important, he’s not “stuck.” He can resign at any time and go back to Georgia or compete with his staff for those high-dollar lobbying positions.

As for his pay, it’s several times more than most hard-working Americans earn. Yes, it can be difficult to operate two households on $174,000 a year, as most federal lawmakers do, but it’s not as if he didn’t know that going in. Again, no one forces individuals to run for Congress.

Among the financial commentariat are those who think that raising salaries for senators and representatives would reduce temptations involving corruption. Said one: “If you pay cops terribly, you’ll get cops who take bribes. If you pay members of Congress or regulators way less than first-year law graduates in large New York or D.C. law firms, you’re going to get members and regulators who take bribes.”

Well, maybe. But citizens don’t generally run for Congress for the money (though the power trip and the pension might be big draws.) Our sense is that most run for altruistic reasons; they want to make the country better, right some wrongs, lower taxes, shrink government, help the needy.

What’s more, most of the folks who run for Congress are prosperous, if not downright wealthy, before they ever get to Washington. Almost half of them are millionaires, and like other wealthy people, they keep getting richer. The median net worth of the most recent group elected was $1.1 million; that’s about $1.03 million more than the median net worth of $66,000 in the United States.

Linking congressional raises to the cost of living has its attraction. But Congress would look hypocritical if it were to tie its own pay to the cost of living index unless it did the same with, say, the minimum wage.

Then again, lawmakers who complain about making just $174,000 a year might not give much thought to the minimum wage or the people back in their districts who depend on it.

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