January 3, 2013 5:37 pm

A serious Congress needs serious cash

Jacking up salaries could attract a better calibre of politician

Here’s one for the strange but true file. Amid all the fussing and feuding in Washington the past few days, President Barack Obama gave members of Congress a pay increase.

Under an executive order last week, federal workers – including members of the Senate and House of Representatives – will receive a 0.5 per cent raise after March 27. That will add $900 a year to the current salary of $174,000 for members of Congress who are not part of the leadership. A top gun, such as the speaker of the House, will see a rise in salary to $224,600 from $223,500.

Although it is not much, it is still hard to stomach. There may be no group of people less deserving of a raise than the Keystone Kops who are passing themselves off as US legislators. The failure of the House to finish work on the superstorm Sandy relief bill before adjourning on Tuesday is another case in point.

Yet there is a part of me – the part, I would acknowledge, that often directs my tongue to the vicinity of my cheek – that wonders whether the salary increase was big enough. You get what you pay for in this life and the fact of the matter is that we have been trying to survive with a cut-rate Congress. If we want serious people to handle our affairs on Capitol Hill, shouldn’t we pay them serious money?

In raising this question, I realise that economic motivations are often of secondary importance for people who run for Congress. They want to save the whales, arm the schoolteachers, meet Mika Brzezinski and stuff like that. I also understand that congressional salaries are well above the national mean and come with perks ranging from private gyms to free parking at Washington area airports.

But congressional salaries pale in comparison with those earned by other top-tier professionals; partners at leading US law firms, for example, make roughly four times as much, according to ALM Legal Intelligence. Moreover, members of Congress often have to cover the cost of housing in the expensive Washington area and in their home states, which can strain personal budgets.

Current levels of compensation undoubtedly raise the odds that certain kinds of people will seek seats in the Senate and the House. I would suggest that they fall into three categories: people so rich that they don’t need the money; people so larcenous that they are happy just to be on Capitol Hill; and people so ill-equipped for life that they wouldn’t be able to bring home this kind of bacon anywhere else.

It is hardly an optimal mix. But while the rich – and the crooks – will always be among us in politics, I think it is fair to say that the recently concluded congressional session left many Americans – of various political persuasions – shaking their heads at the sheer number of nitwits who wield influence over the federal purse strings.

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the critique of Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey. Blaming his own party for the failure to pass the Sandy relief bill by Tuesday, he described House Republicans who objected to the size of the $60bn package as “know-nothings” who spend too much time reading “political talking points put together by their staffs”, according to The Washington Post.

Rewarding such legislators with higher pay would clearly be unfair. But on the other hand, jacking up salaries for House and Senate members in the future could be a step in the right direction if it served to attract a better calibre of prospective Congress person, capable of completing assignments on time, understanding the views of other people and demonstrating grace under pressure.

Remember: we once had a good number of such people. During the darkest days of Watergate, the congressional investigations into the scandal made folk heroes out of legislators such as an old “country lawyer” named Sam Ervin – and helped young Americans, present company included, to regain their faith in their country. It could be said the Senate debate on whether to fight the first Iraq war had a similar galvanising effect for people on both sides of the question.

My modest proposal it that we look for ways to bring professionalism back to Capitol Hill, even if it costs us a few bucks. We do not send ragtag militias out to fight our wars any more, so I do not see why we entrust them to prepare our budgets.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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