In a campaign that very much centers on representational style and trust, the issue of congressional pay—not surprisingly—has emerged in the Tester-Rehberg Battle Royale. Highlighting congressional pay, perks, and benefits as an issue is an easy way for a campaign opponent to cast aspersions on the motives of an incumbent, to demonstrate that they are out of touch with their constituents, and infer that they abuse their public office for the purpose of self-gain. Both sides are using the issue to score political points and to demonstrate their closeness to Montanans. Unfortunately, congressional pay is an issue that should not be used as a political football because of the potentially serious consequences for Congress institutionally.
Congressional pay has long been a touchy political issue for representatives and senators. First, members of Congress are loath to increase their pay because of the negative repercussions they may face from constituents. Political scientists Bianco, Spence, and Wilkerson wrote an article on the Compensation Act of 1816, which noted that electorally vulnerable members were less likely to vote for the act, and that supporters of the provision were less likely to run for reelection because of the act’s unpopularity (1996). The act raised the pay of members by thirty percent, but it was the first pay increase since Congress set its own pay in 1789.
The current law governing congressional pay, the Government Pay and Ethics Act of 1989, increased member pay by forty percent over three years (see Hall and Van Houweling 1995). Arguments were made at the time, notably by Ornstein (1989), that increasing member pay was necessary to attract talented and experienced individuals to the job. In addition, several reforms were put in place in the act to create barriers to special interest influence on members. Members would no longer be allowed to accept honoraria from individuals and groups (some members made more than $25,000 annually by giving speeches to trade organizations and the like). Members whose service began before 1980 would also no longer be allowed to convert campaign cash to personal use upon retirement after 1992. Finally, a waiting period was instituted after retirement before members could lobby government. The main point of the act was to raise barriers to special interest influence while paying members more to remove the temptation to look for income in addition to official congressional pay.
As far as I can determine, congressional pay was first raised as a possible campaign issue a year ago by Congressman Rehberg. During the budget debate, Rehberg introduced legislation entitled “No Pay Raise for Congress Until the Budget is Balanced Act”. A press release announcing the bill notes that “Rehberg has a long history of supporting legislation to prevent pay raises or to stop the practice of automatic pay raises in Congress.” The Democratic Party of Montana chided Rehberg, noting that he has voted to increase his own pay “five times” since he was elected to Congress. You can read the party’s press release here.
Just last week, Citizens for Strength and Security launched an ad attacking the Congressman on the issue of congressional pay. It charges that Rehberg is hypocritical for accepting pay increases when he pledged to not accept any pay increases when running for the Senate against Max Baucus in 1996. Read my previous blog and view the ad here. It is important to note that Congress automatically receives an annual pay increase in the form of a cost of living adjustment UNLESS Congress acts to refuse that increase. The votes used against Rehberg are votes he made against proposals that would either end this procedure or to reject the annual increase. Senator Tester introduced legislation in 2011 entitled The Congressional Pay Prevention Act that would repeal these annual increases altogether. Today, Congressman Rehberg’s campaign pushed back saying that Senator Tester voted against a Senate amendment yesterday that would have frozen congressional pay. The vote was on a Senate amendment proposed by Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas. The vote cited can be accessed here. Furthermore, the Rehberg campaign notes that the Congressman has co-sponsored legislation in the 108th, 109th, 111th, and 112th Congresses eliminating the automatic annual pay adjustments. Both sides have called each other hypocritical and attempted to claim the moral high ground on the issue.
There are very good reasons other than electoral considerations for Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg to oppose increasing congressional pay. Senator Tester’s stance on the issue is based largely on equity and fairness concerns. Most Americans do not get automatic pay increases annually. Folks making minimum wage do not get a cost of living adjustment. Farmers, business owners, ranchers, and many others in the private sector not only haven’t received pay increases, but have either lost their jobs or have had to take serious pay cuts. All of this creates a sound argument for why Congress should forgo those automatic increases. Congressman Rehberg’s stance on the issue seems to be based on performance. Pay raises are given in the private sector for tangible improvements in performance and meeting particular targets, like sales goals. Rehberg’s legislation suggests that Congress is not doing its job (and many Americans would certainly agree), so just like workers in the private sector, they should not get any pay increase. Future pay increases should be tied to particular performance metrics—like achieving a balanced budget.
I do not take issue, fundamentally, with the position of either Senator Tester or Congressman Rehberg. Nor do I seek to impugn their motives for their stance on congressional pay. I do, however, think that it is worth considering the broader institutional consequences of attacking the pay of members of Congress. Cutting pay may score points with justifiably frustrated constituents and fit preexisting notions of what is fair and equitable, but the outcome has the real potential to undercut the functioning of Congress as an institution in the long-term. By removing the automatic pay increases, member pay will increasingly become less competitive with other possible career avenues for members currently serving and folks thinking of running for office. Public service will become less attractive and possibly more open to creative income generating opportunities that could compromise the ethical positions of members. Add to the mix the difficulty of passing another pay increase in the future to fix a pay system that has gotten dramatically out of whack--remember what happened in 1816? What makes the situation even more difficult is the fact that most of the public already believe that members are grossly overpaid while simultaneously underestimating the actual value of congressional salaries and perks. If we want to prevent corruption, undermine special interest influence on the legislative process, and attract the best minds to Congress, the last thing we want to do is to cut their pay, send them home, and make them part time (this is something that has become popular among some in the Tea Party and was floated most prominently by Texas Governor Rick Perry during his brief presidential campaign). My position is unpopular and likely to draw some comment, but this an example where perhaps doing what the people want isn’t in the best interest of the people’s house.