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TPM Interview: Rep. Jim Moran Explains Why America's 'Elite' Congress Should Be Paid More

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AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

TPM: Let's start with your bill. Why did you think a housing stipend makes sense, given the issues that you had raised?

Moran: Because, although it seems counterintuitive, Congress is actually underpaid compared to their responsibilities. Congressional pay has been frozen now for five years. This will be the sixth year.

I can see what's going to happen in the future. Neither party is going to have the political courage to change this, so it's going to become a permanent provision of the legislative branch appropriations bill. This is the first time we've put it into the legislative branch appropriations bill and, based on prior experience once you put it in, it's very difficult to get it out.

So it's entirely possible if we don't have some other way of compensating members that every year, their compensation is going to drop by the level of inflation. And, of course, the housing prices in the D.C. area go up at a much higher rate than inflation.

I simply want to do what I can to have the best Congress possible representing the American people. We don't have that now, but I think we're far less likely to have it in the future if it's difficult for young people, particularly with families to support and student loans to pay off, to be able to maintain two residences.

It seemed like the insinuation in your statement introducing the bill was that only wealthy people would be able to run for Congress down the road unless something changes.

Well, there will be some who say, 'Well, I'm going to serve in Congress one or two terms and then I'm going to cash it out.' That'll happen, but I don't think that's particularly healthy to the institution.

So, retention sounds like one of the issues here. What do you think some of the other risks are?

The trend for more and more independently wealthy people to be in Congress is going to increase. Because for them, it's not going to be an issue. So if you have inherited wealth or you've already achieved a substantial level of wealth before running for Congress, then you can afford to serve.

But that's not particularly representative of the mainstream of America that Congress was meant to represent.

Are there any specific examples or members who brought this issue to the forefront of your mind? (Note: Moran ranked 501 out of 532 members in net worth in 2012, according to this Open Secrets analysis.)

Oh, no, I'm not going to mention specific members.

What about in general, without naming names? I'm trying to get a sense of whether this is a theoretical problem or something you've seen firsthand.

We know statistically that a majority of Congress are now millionaires. But we also know that, on the other hand, there are about 50 members who have to live in their offices. Not all of them have to live there, certainly a number of them find it very difficult to afford housing in the D.C.

I did want to go back to your general comment that Congress is "underpaid." I'll ask flat-out: Do you really believe that? Underpaid by what metric exactly?

We're the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world. Comparatively speaking, the members of Congress earn less than the average banker, less than the average doctor. Considerably less than the average CEO, who now makes $9.6 million. We deal with people on a regular basis who come to see us who make more in a week than we make in a year.

So, given the magnitude of your work, you think you're underpaid?

Generally speaking, over time, you get what you pay for.

In a hypothetical universe, what do you think fair compensation for a member of Congress would be?

I think that if we had simply increased the pay based upon cost-of-living, now it would be $215,000 if we had just provided ourselves a cost-of-living adjustment from 1992 on.

I looked it up and, based on your salary, it puts you in the top 6 percent when it comes to income in the U.S. How would you respond to somebody who would bring that up and say that you come off as an out-of-touch congressman?

Maybe so. But if we don't respect the institution that we're a part of, if we don't respect ourselves, we can't expect anybody else to respect us.

You now have to spend $1 to $2 million to be elected. You have to get the support of 170,000 constituents. There aren't a whole lot of people in this country who could do that. It's not a run-of-the-mill type of job. It's not even an entry-level job.

You need to, generally speaking, have a career in elected office. I think it's an elite profession, frankly. There aren't a whole lot of people out of 300 million who could elected to the Congress. I don't know why we have to sell ourselves short at every opportunity.

Some members think that the best thing they can do is debased and demean themselves in front of their constituents. I don't think that's appropriate. I think they should be proud to be members of Congress.

And the pay should reflect that.

Yeah.

What about the current make-up of Congress? Do you think there are already too many wealthy members? Is the phenomenon you're describing already taking hold

It's beginning to, and with the new Supreme Court decision, it may all the more. The Congress itself is becoming too transactional given the competitive cost of getting elected. There's going to be more and more money put into the process and I don't think that's a healthy thing.

I think it's difficult for members of Congress to be as independent as they need to be in their voting.

The interview was edited for clarity and length.