The Pay is Too Damn Low


Our Dylan Scott sat down with out-going Rep. Jim Moran (D) to discuss his only-after-you-retire argument that Congress needs its salaries to be a lot higher. He’ll come in for a lot of derision – not that he cares at this point. But there’s one sentence in the interview I want to highlight.

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.

There’s something very real going on in that last sentence that goes to the heart of much of the political economy of contemporary America, wealth inequality, and the formal and informal corruption of Congress. As far as it goes, what Moran says in this last sentence is totally true.

Congress operates in the reality of the new America where most people are treading water economically and people at the very top are becoming fabulously wealthy. It’s not even really the one percent that’s exploding in wealth, it’s a relatively small part of the one percent.

There is one point to note – most have to maintain households in two separate locations, one of which is among the most expensive in the country. That does factor into the equation. But, to be clear here, my point here isn’t to say we all need to be upset at the hard lives of members of Congress. They’re among the highest paid people in the country and many have spouses who add to that income. But they do write our laws and govern the country. So understanding their perceptions of the world is a pretty key thing. And the folks in Congress have a front row seat on the winner-take-all society circus.

Members of Congress regularly rub shoulders with the super rich. Say, people who clear more than ten million dollars a year. But they also pervasively deal with people who make 3 or 4 times their salaries. Basically, the lobbyist class – and that’s not just formal lobbyists, but informal ones, people in the ad and paid advocacy agencies, high paid political operatives, even the folks that head the big think tanks make big time salaries. These people can commonly make half a million a year and often much more. What puts a finer point on it, those folks are often their former staffers – often people who are younger than them and used to report to them.

So it’s not terribly surprising that members of Congress end up with a skewed perspective on average incomes and how many ordinary people live their lives or how it’s easy to start thinking and feeling, “Hey, where’s third vacation house?” “Where’s my private plane?”

So yeah, don’t expect an avalanche of sympathy for members of Congress who make what would constitute a massive raise for the overwhelming majority of Americans. But in terms of what makes Congress tick, how it sees the country and how it governs the country, that differential is actually a pretty big deal.