Congressional Salaries: Truth & Myth

Reprinted from

LegisStorm has just announced the first successful electronic publication of all Congressional staff salaries for the past 10 years.

Go ahead. Click on the link above (Congressional staff salaries) and type in a few names of people you have known who worked on Capitol Hill since 2000. LegisStorm seems to think they have uncovered the Holy Grail lost since antiquity.

Big deal. Congressional staff salaries and office expenses have been public knowledge ever since the first Congress sat in 1789.

Did you know that 2/3’s of the 14th Congress were voted out of office in 1816?  ‘Why?’ you might ask.

Because the 14th Congress voted themselves a hefty pay raise to the lofty sum of $1500 per year. Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, got the gargantuan (for then) salary of $3000.

Mr. Clay almost was defeated himself in 1816 in which case, the nation may never have come to know just how brilliant he was as a legislator and the ‘Uncompromising Compromiser’ as the authors of the great book, ‘Henry Clay: The Essential American’, Daniel and Jeanne Heidler, chose to characterize him. Read it over these holidays and learn more about how our government matured into the form it is today under his leadership in the early days of the Republic.

Here’s the problem with the reporting of congressional salaries nowadays:  There is never any context in any reporting about them to provide the public any idea of what our elected representatives, senators and staff do on a regular day in Congress.

I have always challenged people who harrumph ‘congressional pay was too high!’ or staffers ‘get paid too much’ to either run for office or apply for a job on Capitol Hill and see what they think then.

Not one person has ever taken me up on my challenge.  Not a single solitary person.

Why is that? Let’s go to the video tape.

Let’s set the record clear from the get-go. Every Member of Congress and US Senator is paid the same base salary. This year it is $174,000. Majority Leaders and Speakers get paid additional amounts to account for their leadership responsibilities.

Which is more than a little ‘weird’ since a US Senator covers an entire state and a US Congressman ‘only’ represents the 690,000 or so constituents in one congressional district in the same state. Maybe Senators should be paid at least double for their work or maybe 10 times as much in a large state such as California or Texas. After all, when a state such as California has 37 million people living there as opposed to 563,000 people living in Wyoming, the 2 California Senators have about 74 times as much work to do representing them, correct?

There is no ‘magic’ pension plan or medical benefit package available ‘only’ to Members of Congress and US Senators as one particularly idiotic email about the ’29th Amendment That Should Be Passed!’ which seems to have circled the globe in cyberspace at least 100 times by now asserting that ‘they do!’

They don’t. And here’s the place for you to go to find out more: The Congressional Institute’s great website called ‘Mythbusters’.

Prepare to have all your preconceived notions about Congressional benefits popped like a balloon.

But getting back to Congressional and Senate salaries, everyone of them have to use those funds to:

  1. pay for their expenses to maintain their home in their home district;
  2. pay for a place to live in the very expensive Washington market;
  3. put their kids through school and college like other people in our country;
  4. raise their families during the time they leave their other line of work in the ‘real world’ to enter politics and help try to save this republic of ours.

So it is more like they get paid $87,000 per year to maintain a home and support a family in their home district or state and $87,000 per year to pay for a home in Washington, DC.

Those are big numbers for millions of people struggling in this extended recession that just will not go away.  But if you think you have the experience, background and training to go to Washington and solve the complex immense problems of the budget, financial reform and foreign affairs, try working out a household budget sometime based on the numbers above.

Bet you come to the conclusion you won’t do it in about 15 seconds.

I took a job as chief of staff to a congressman from North Carolina in 1985 (which I was thrilled and honored to do); took a 40% pay cut from the job I had in North Carolina to move to Washington, DC in less than 2 weeks time and eventually bought a townhouse in Arlington, Virginia that had less than half the space of the home I had in Durham,North Carolina…and which cost 3 times as much to boot.

There is a cost associated with working as a public servant, especially a young person working on Capitol Hill.

Which brings us to the congressional salaries LegisStorm has now announced the electronic publication thereof.

We would have ZERO need to pay ANY staffer if all of the following were not asked of them to do:
(By the way, most of the congressional staffers are fresh out of college. The average age of congressional staff people is around 23 today and perhaps 25 in the Senate. So how does that make you feel today when you are concerned about having experienced people on Capitol Hill help balance the budget?)

  1. Get a lost Social Security check for your grandma
  2. Get a visa and passport overnight for you since you ‘forgot’ to get one for your next trip to China or the Maldives
  3. Write legislation on any issue of concern to you
  4. Answer ANY of the 10,000 pieces of mail that come into a US Senate office each week or the 5,000 emails that come in each night or the 3000 automated faxes or answer any of the 1000 phone calls per day, multiplied times 10 when an issue is on the floor for a vote
  5. Help you get tours set up for your family when you visit Washington
  6. Take you on a personal tour of the US Capitol during said-same trip
  7. Help get information from the Pentagon on a relative who might be wounded in Iraq
  8. Balance the budget
  9. Push for the passage of the Greyhound Racing Act that you are so concerned about
  10. Argue with you about whether or not a bazooka or a Stinger missile should be re-categorized as a ‘firearm’ so you can own 1 or 2 of them in your local hometown under the freedoms guaranteed you in the Second Amendment. (Don’t laugh. It happened. On more than one occasion)

So, any takers yet to go up on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer? If I was still a chief of staff, I might could offer you today a starting salary of perhaps $25,000 right out of graduating from Duke University or Harvard, maybe $30,000.

If you had any relevant extensive experience in the field of interest my boss had interest in, such as banking since he was on the banking committee, I might be able to offer you $45,000 to start as his banking legislative assistant so you could spend hundreds of hours going to committee briefings and hearings to hear more testimony about Dodd-Frank, Glass-Steagall and God-Knows-What-Else.

Any takers? Send me your resume through the comment section below and I will forward it to anyone I know in Congress. I promise.

Congressional member and staff pay is one of the easiest things to focus on and ‘hate’ about our wonderful democratic republican form of government. Sure, there are some excesses in the legislative branch that could and should be culled back just like in every other part of the US budget today.

But it is not the boogeyman many try to make it out to be. 95% of the people on Capitol Hill, members and staffers alike, are well-meaning, serious, principled, motivated people trying to do what they think is right for the nation.

Just because Congress has failed to balance the budget, for example, is not reason to get mad at them and hurl insults their way over their pay.  Just vote their bosses out of office in 2012 and then see if you can help find better people to take their places and try it your way.

If anyone still wants to do any of those jobs for those salaries we have just now highlighted and given you some insight into the work you will be doing for the public interest, that is.

Let me know if you apply to take a job in Washington after learning these facts.  It is either that or stop complaining about how much they are being paid.  They are doing us all a big favor by offering to work as a public servant even for a short while.

Editor’s Note: Frank Hill is the Director of the Institute for the Public Trust in Charlotte, NC. He is former chief of staff to Congressman Alex McMillan of NC and also served on the staffs of former U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole and the House Budget Committee.