Removing temptation from Congress


The task of cleaning up Congress probably would be easier if lawmakers were paid what the job is supposed to be worth, eliminating at least some of the temptation that makes them so vulnerable to influence peddling.

With both the House and Senate having passed versions of ethics reforms and with differences to be worked out by a conference committee, the intention to curtail in some small degree the activity of lobbyists seems genuine. The stimulus, of course, was the scandal precipitated by the so-called K Street crowd led by the notorious Jack Abramoff, the latest corrupter of congressional morals. In truth Abramoff was more a facilitator than a debaucher, merely offering his wide circle of acquaintances an opportunity several found too enticing to resist.

The truth is that while congressional service left the world of part-time employment many decades ago, the rate paid lawmakers for full time did not. Because of the political stigma of raising one’s own pay, the annual salaries have been kept at a level reserved in private industry for those several notches below the top of the stingiest company. The result has had a negative impact throughout government where employees’ incomes are capped at what lawmakers earn.

The current pay of $168,500, up from $165,200 last year, may sound like a lot but considering the responsibilities and the costs of maintaining the job, that amount is woefully short of assuring us the best quality of representation. Furthermore, the impact on the other two branches whose pay requires congressional action is enormous. Many of the nation’s best legal minds have opted out of consideration for a court appointment simply because they couldn’t afford the honor. Service is fine but it simply doesn’t pay the bills when there are families to feed and educate.

The late Justice Abraham Fortas once explained that he didn’t pay much attention to his income taxes because he no longer earned enough money to worry about it. His concern over what he considered a paltry sum led him to accept outside gratuities and ultimately forced his resignation from the Supreme Court. The late chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, long argued that low salaries had a debilitating effect on the quality of the federal bench from top to bottom. He lobbied for higher pay.

A veteran Congress watcher observed recently that the salaries attracted two kinds of individuals to the job, the already quite rich and the crazies with causes. That may be a bit extreme, but there certainly is evidence that many desirable candidates forgo the experience because of both the high cost of campaigning and the relatively low pay, particularly those who are earning far more outside of public office. The hardship is probably more prevalent in the House where two-year terms mean almost perpetual campaigning. Those “lucky” enough to be elected must face any number of financial demands.

Lawmakers, again especially in the House, frequently maintain two households, one in Washington and the other in the district where spouses raise their families under more normal circumstances. This often forces the lawmakers to double or triple up in their Washington accommodations to save money. In one case, three lawmakers live in a house owned by a House member with a senator sleeping on a mattress in the front room.

So is it any wonder that the lawmakers are vulnerable to those who would wine and dine them and provide them with entertainment packages they couldn’t afford otherwise? The wonder is that more of them don’t succumb to the temptations.

Obviously, raising pay to the level of the enormous responsibility demanded by the job wouldn’t be an absolute deterrent to congressional corruption. But, along with other meaningful reforms, and stricter campaign funding laws, it certainly would make it easier for members to avoid the financial pitfalls that dot this town from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to Capitol Hill. In fact, when one considers that the president of the largest corporation in the world — the United States — earns a paltry sum each year, the system provokes constant ethical challenges before and even after service when many ex-lawmakers try to make up for lost time by lobbying.

Salaries of $300,000 annually for congressmen and judges would be a start and the president of the United States should be paid at least $l million for equity’s sake alone. Relieving the pressures and attracting better hands just might make a difference in good government.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)


  1. Excellent article. Very good points.

    Unfortunately, many of the responding comments seem immature.

    If you want a “tinhorn” business, pay your key people appropriately.

    When you pay your employees “on the cheap”, you get what you deserve.

  2. Sue

    Perhaps someone should help these poor underpaid lawmakers learn how to alter their values and expectations so that they can learn to live on their paltry salaries. If they have money to send their children to college they have more than most citizens.

  3. Ray

    What do these people do besides spend our confiscated dollars? Why is it always a bill to vote on, and always is about who gets the money. Is there nothing that only involves fairness and the operation of government?
    Wasn’t it originally to be a “public service” stint? All it is anymore is distribution of confiscated and borrowed money. Spending Bill,appropriations bill, committe costs, study costs, bla bla bla.

    How about figuring a plan to stop global warming, feed the hungry, save the friggin planet and improve the quality of life for all? Is that not what the job description was meant to be? Service, not piggin at the trough for corporate bribes.

    There is one man on the hill that deserves to be the next president. Ron Paul retains those principals and has the record to back it up. He takes his position seriously and honorably.
    But when have honorable men been able to get the chance to be heard?

    He is not on any weapons contractors board or chemical board, etc. He is just an honest sincere man who takes the constitution and the bill of rights to heart. Not a lying pig like all the rest of bunch.

  4. Scrngr

    Perhaps the problem isn’t that Congressional salaries are too low, it’s that private salaries for doing basically the same things are just stupidly high. Is any man’s work worth more than $100 / hour?


  5. Gerald Sutliff

    You couldn’t be more correct but it’s my perception that congress persons take the money so they can get themselves re-elected. A congress person who will not take gratuities makes an enemy of those whose offers s/he spurns, and the money goes someone else who can be trusted to do the bidding asked for.

  6. Unicorn

    A rise in salaries? If one considers all the things they now receive without having to pay for such as complete medical, dental, and ocular care, and after they leave office, pay for an office staff and their ‘last’ salary for life, to someone like myself for instance, who receives less than $200 per month from my Social Security (that is, after $183 is taken out for Medicare), and free Medical Care for life . . .does the word “opportunist” ring any bells? How about “poor manager”? A good example of a ‘one timer’ was Senator Fitzgerald from Illinois who was NOT re-elected in disgrace and we’ll be paying him a 6 figure salary as long as he lives.

  7. Route66

    Build dormitories members of Congress have to live in while in session and make them each have a roommate of a different party affiliation. Maybe “strange bedfellows would make better politics?” Staff the dorms with RAs on the ethics committee staffs and capitol police. No outside visitors (lobbyists). No booze or sex in the dorms. Maybe even have worknight curfews. Sign in and sign out.

    If Congress wants real reform, pass a term limits amendment to the Constitution (e.g., 8 years for representatives and 12 for senators, then you have to get out for at least 2 years). The founders never expected full-time career politicians, rather citizen servants who did a stint and then went home. The argument about losing experienced members doesn’t seem to hold water when you look at the mess these “experienced” legislators have made. Honesty, integrity, wisdom, and good judgment are more important. The GOP called for term limits for years when they were in the minority; then they got power and dropped it. Two sides of the same coin these days, and the coin is what matters to most of them.

  8. ron kay

    More pay won’t solve the problem.

    The problem is ego, greed, avarice and the lust for power.

    The politician’s blather about “service to my country” is nothing more than a euphemism for “screw you ignorant unwashed little people. We wanna life the good life and suck everything we can out of the public trough, til you morons finally wise up.”

    Tough job, ain’t it. Sell your soul, tell your lies, live the good life at taxpayers expense…..all the while laughing at the “voters” behind their backs.

    Applies to just about all nations.

    America the Pitiful. (and we can’t figure out why there are civil wars.)

  9. Fritz

    I think that this plan could be made to happen by heavily taxing Dan K. Thomasson and others who think this is a good idea.
    This would relieve the taxpayer of undue burden and satisfy the unfairness that we have come to expect of our lawmakers.