He’s sounding politically tone deaf, of course, but on the merits Rep. James P. Moran has a solid case to make about congressional compensation.
Social media lit up with ridicule for the suburban Virginia Democrat last week, after he boldly told my colleague Hannah Hess, “The American people should know the members of Congress are underpaid.”
It’s a call to arms that someone running for re-election, even in the safest district, would be a fool to make at a time when the institution’s approval rating stands at a near-record-low 15 percent and the median household income in the United States is less than one-third of a member’s annual salary of $174,000.
Which is why, amid all the howling about how Moran should have his head examined (right after he’s impeached), there’s been precious little interest in understanding the justifiable reasons for such a provocative complaint, let alone what the congressman would do to improve the situation. “The fact is that this is the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world,” Moran declared about Congress, which he is leaving voluntarily at the end of this year after a 24-year run. And it’s tough to argue with that much: House members and senators are the ultimate deciders of the federal budget, which at $3.9 trillion for the coming year will account for 23 percent of the gross domestic product. No entire industry, let alone any single corporation, comes as close to having that sort of economic sway.
(See another take over at Newsroom Confidential: Hey, Congress: This Might be Why They Hate You )
But the members get paid less than half what the president makes ($400,000 has been the chief executive's fixed salary since 2001). They’re also compensated below the average salaries for physicians and surgeons ($192,000), business executives ($178,000) and bankers ($175,000), according to Labor Department data current as of 11 months ago. (Since these are averages, that means about half the people in these jobs make more than those amounts, and a 2011 study concluded that $9.6 million was the average compensation for the head of a publicly traded company.)
Labor doesn’t track “lobbyists” or “trade association executives” as distinct job categories, but it’s a safe bet that many of the people who spend their lives advocating on Capitol Hill get paid a whole lot more than the people they are importuning.
If you believe compensation should track comparative power, then one way to guard against government corruption is to make sure the people charged with making decisions can have a standard of living that’s comparable to the people trying to influence those decisions.
Beyond that, consider that a defining characteristic of solid citizens is that they don’t lambaste their elected officials for doing things they do themselves. Millions of Americans make the case every year — thorough the collective bargaining agreements they negotiate or the annual reviews they endure — that they deserve a raise. Shouldn’t those workers be supportive when the people running their government make the case that their work is worth more than they’re getting?
Finally, how representative will our democracy genuinely be if Congress becomes the almost-exclusive purview of white-collar professionals, members of the investor class who can afford to say goodbye to some earned income while working in Washington. “Law” and “business” are already the occupations listed on three-quarters of the members’ biographies, and their median net worth of more than $440,000 is six times more than the average American's.
That income gap will only increase unless more people from the middle class get to Congress. And that will only happen if more of them conclude they can afford the job.
The expense of being a congressman has soared as the Washington economy has surged and the gentrification of Capitol Hill has blossomed. Members can still freeload most of their food and drink while they’re in town, but the cost of housing is tough to avoid. And even though few members can afford to buy in the capital — what with mortgages to pay, families to raise and campaigns to run back home — they still face serious rental sticker shock. The area’s housing is the fifth-most expensive in the country, the Census Bureau says. And the cheapest one-bedroom apartment listed Monday by Yarmouth Management, a big broker on the Hill, was $1,225 a month. That's 50 percent more than the firm’s lowest comparable listing on the same date 10 years ago.
The alternative, which perhaps 10 percent of House members have adopted, is to sleep on the couches in their offices and shower in the members’ gym. But that practice not only further diminishes the dignity of an institution in reputational peril; it also may run afoul of the law (free housing is generally a taxable benefit) and House rules (members are barred from using their suites for personal business).
None of those arguments has even been politically saleable, even back in the days when the congressional approval rating was several multiples of what it is now. Which is why more than two decades ago Congress came up with the current system, which is that members receive an automatic increase in their salary based on a Bureau of Labor Statistics formula for gauging raises in the private sector — unless Congress votes to deny itself the extra money.
Lawmakers have blocked their pay raise in 11 subsequent years, including continuously since the recession took hold in 2009. As a result, their compensation has declined sharply in relative terms. Adjusted for inflation, the $125,100 they agreed to pay themselves in 1991 would be worth $215,600 today. Had the cost of living adjustments been permitted over the past five years, current pay would be 9 percent more than what it is, or $190,400.
Moran is not calling for a change in the base salary for 529 members. (The six top leaders are paid a bit more.) Instead, he’s advocating that members qualify for a per diem on the days their chamber is in session — similar to what federal workers get when they travel and what some state lawmakers receive. (The General Services Administration per diem for travelers to D.C. changes monthly, but has recently averaged $270 for both lodging and food. Members could presumably get by with less.)
Moran says he’ll seek to amend the fiscal 2015 legislative branch spending bill, which comes before House Appropriations on Wednesday. As a retiring member who would never benefit from the change, he’s the best available vehicle for the cause. He's also a lawmaker who experiences the local cost of living even when Congress is in recess and someone whose career has been pockmarked by questionable financial practices in hopes of lifting himself out of the ranks of Congress’ poorest members.
Of course, he doesn’t stand a chance.
Related stories: Hey, Congress: This Might be Why They Hate You Moran: Members Can’t Afford to Live Decently in D.C. (Audio) ‘Underpaid’ Jim Moran One of the Poorest Members of Congress Jim Moran, John Boehner Sought Congressional Pay Raise Reform as Freshmen