Members of Congress will get paid $174,000 this year. But at least 100 members of Congress from both parties have proposed to refuse or give away their pay during the government shutdown in solidarity with furloughed federal workers.
Many of these statements are from members who are pledging to donate their salary during this term to charity, which of course no one would complain about. But some members are trying different routes. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., introduced a bill Tuesday that would require members of Congress to have their salary withheld during a shutdown. House Ethics Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, sent a letter to the chief administrative officer asking for his pay to be withheld for the duration of the shutdown.
These high-profile donations and pay requests have created a not-insubstantial amount of positive buzz for members of Congress during a time when almost everything being said about them is negative. But this isn't only a PR stunt. It's also a moment that highlights how removed members of Congress are from the reality of most of America.
Most Americans can't just demand to have their pay docked or withheld, or easily part with an unknown amount of their salary. Because most Americans aren't nearly as wealthy as members of Congress.
The median net worth of members of Congress was $966,001 in 2011, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets.org. That's an estimated average of $856,009 for House members and $2,531,528 for senators. The same analysis found that more than 48 percent of Congress has an estimated net worth of more than $1 million.
Let's look at the flip side: In 2010, a Federal Reserve survey found that the average family net worth was $77,300, down 40 percent from the beginning of the recession in 2007. The average federal employee had a salary of $78,500 as of this year. Overall median household income in 2012 was $51,017.
So, yeah, docking the nearly $7,000 congressional gross pay of a two-week shutdown (if it goes that long) sounds rough for most Americans. But for a large number of members of Congress, that $7,000—which is nearly 14 percent of the annual median household income—means almost nothing. That pay would mean even less if it was just kept in the mighty coffers of the U.S. government.
There's nothing inherently wrong with members of Congress being wealthier than average Americans. But for most members—including people like Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas., with an estimated net worth of up to half-a-billion dollars—donating your shutdown salary to a charity doesn't really mean much skin off your back. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who joins McCaul as one of the top two wealthiest members of Congress, says he already donates his entire congressional salary to charity.
Undoubtedly, generosity is something Americans would like to see from their representatives. But if a standard for working in Congress means that you should be comfortable forgoing an as-yet-unknown period of pay, then there's not much of a hope that Congress could become more economically representative of the rest of the country.
Members of Congress' reliance on outside income can also have adverse effects on politics and policy. It shouldn't be the case that, for real money, members need to look past Congress and through the revolving-door to plush lobbying gigs, as countless former members of Congress have done.
Oh, and one other thing. Changing the way Congress is paid mid-session is unconstitutional.
Here's the 27th Amendment:
No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.
There has not been an "election of Representatives" in the last week. And unless this shutdown goes on for long enough, there won't be. And really, if the shutdown went that long, congressional pay would be the least of anyone's worries.