It Helps No One for Members of Congress Not to Get Paid During a Shutdown

It’s a stunt. And it says a lot about our current Congress.

John Zangas, a furloughed worker, protests the government shutdown on Capitol Hill on October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Oct. 3, 2013, 2 a.m.

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 Open­ 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.

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