Over the past couple weeks, while President Barack Obama has taken to podiums everywhere to rally support for raising the minimum wage, members of Congress have been rushing to support him.
"I think the American people should know that the members of Congress are underpaid," said retiring Congressman Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who has served in the House of Representatives for nearly a quarter-century. Wait ... whaaat? "I understand that it's widely felt that [we] underperform [sic], but the fact is that this is the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world," he continued. This isn't the Onion.
The reality is if our congressmen were paid based on real accomplishments, they would make less than minimum wage. After all, what kind of person would claim that working 36 hours a week for only a few months out of the year and being among the least productive legislatures in history should be rewarded with a salary that puts them in the 98th percentile?
Image Credit: Washington Post
What makes Moran's assertion such a gem (aside from the fact that House members make $174,000 a year) is that it actually rebuts itself. It is indeed true that Congress is "the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world." In the private market, any group entrusted with such a serious responsibility would be expected to produce meaningful results before receiving a pay raise (or, for that matter, avoid getting fired). Yet even as Moran insists that "members of Congress are underpaid," he concedes that "it's widely felt that they underperform."
It's a marvel: The argument in his second sentence quite literally destroys the credibility of the first sentence.
Of course, whether it's Moran grousing in 2014 about his six-figure salary or Rep. John Fleming (R-Fla.) infamously remarking in 2011 that progressive tax rates allowed him to net "only" $400,000, legislators complaining about their low pay is as hoary an American political tradition as they come, right up there with pork-stuffed bills. It can also be easily debunked with a little perspective.
Moran has a half-valid point when he says that Congress shouldn't be underpaid simply because "it's widely felt" that they underperform. After all, many of America's most unpopular Congresses are widely regarded as heroic for weathering hostile public opinion to pass landmark legislation:
- The 75th Congress under President Franklin Roosevelt created the National Cancer Institute, prohibited child labor, introduced a maximum 44-hour seven-day workweek, established a national minimum wage, and authorized the FDA to oversee the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics.
- The 89th Congress under President Lyndon Johnson created Medicare and Medicaid, pushed through the Voting Rights Act to guarantee the franchise to racial minorities, laid the policy foundations for all subsequent federally funded student loan and scholarship programs for low-income students, repealed the racial quotas used by our immigration system and passed the first major laws regulating pollution and protecting people with disabilities.
- Even the 111th Congress under Obama passed the Affordable Care Act (which has helped millions), the stimulus bill (which prevented a second Great Depression after the 2008 economic collapse), Wall Street and credit card company regulations (the Credit CARD Act and the Dodd-Frank Act), protections for women facing sexual workplace discrimination (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) and repealed the military's homophobic "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
By contrast, the unpopular 112th Congress and 113th Congress (the current one) have been notoriously unproductive. The 112th Congress was the most unproductive since the 1940s, with partisan bickering hamstringing the legislative process as only 219 (mostly minor) bills managed to get passed. The 113th Congress was even worse, passing only 55 laws and making it the least productive Congress of all time. More embarrassingly, its members clocked an average of only 36 hours per week in session, with legislators from both parties spending proportionately more time rallying their respective bases than engaging in serious attempts to fix America's problems.
If Moran was arguing that, its unpopularity notwithstanding, Congress has been successfully meeting the needs of the American people and therefore deserved due recognition, his position would have some merit. Of course, at a time when growing income inequality is imposing economic hardships unseen in generations, he would still be hard-pressed to prove that money should be taken from the pockets of ordinary Americans to feed six-figure salaries. Even so, he would at least have something resembling a case.
We do want the best people in Congress and paying higher salaries might help make that happen. But before we show them the money, we want something in return.