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April 07, 2005

Money Money Money Mooooney...Money!

Looking at the latest DeLay scandals in the continuing excavation of DeLay's immorality, Hilzoy writes:

Why can't these people just live on their salaries? Tom DeLay has an answer: “I challenge anyone to live on my salary.” Reportedly, when he said that, his salary was $158,000 a year.

Despite the obvious fantasy world DeLay lives in, we might want to take his point more seriously. $158,000 is a lot of money, bit it's not that much money. Particularly not when you live in DC and your home district, when you fly back and forth constantly, and when all your friends are lobbyists and lawyers who live like kings. To put it another way, it's a Passat salary in a Beamer world.

Now don't get me wrong, $160,000 is plenty of cash, but considering the rarified realm of sycophants and rich kids inhabited by our congressmen, it's not all that surprising that they let themselves be bought dinners, be flown places, be done favors. Most of these guys are lawyers, doctors, businessmen -- folks with much higher earning power than $150,000 a year. In their minds, accepting a few gifts is probably a perfectly rational trade for operating much beneath their earning potential in order to advance the public good -- you know, allowing usury and launching wars and thinking Iraq's still got weapons and stuff -- a few gifts and junkets are the least the American voters can give them.

I'm not sure what, if anything, you do about that. Many of them would probably remain corrupt at $250,000 a year. But I have no problem with the idea that we should pay our government leaders handsomely. To some degree, that'd probably attract more and better talent to the positions. Right now, if you've got a moderately padded bank account, running for office is a massive cut in your lifestyle, and thus the lifestyle of your family. If you're massively wealthy, you can live off your savings, but if you were just making a lot, rather than a ton, you don't have that option. Hiking congressional pay would soften that tradeoff, and hopefully spur better people to run for office. As it is now, I think the idealists don't often survive their climb up the latter, so you're mostly left with the very rich and the very power-hungry. Maybe a few more bucks could shake that calculus a bit.

Update: Matt S. has a little challenge for Tom Delay...

April 7, 2005 | Permalink


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Sorry dude, but I think you are wrong. Apply the logic to judges and see where you come out. Some folks enter politics as idealists, but most don't. Politics, if anything, is a way to make more money, not less. Check out the revolving door of legistlators-cum-lobbyists, etc.

In any event, the underlying idea that being a house rep or senator is a big hit on your lifestyle and/or prestige is just silly. Again, check out judges, who may make a lot more as lawyers, but choose to be judges...and have lifetime appointments and don't often cash in with big jobs at big firms after serving as judges (because they had those jobs BEFORE they became judges). Finally, please don't think that all doctors or lawyers make $150,000 or more...most make a heck of a lot less than that (but admittedly more than a lot of other professions).

Posted by: abjectfunk | Apr 7, 2005 12:57:53 PM

I say a nice solution would be to get the government to build some VERY nice homes in Washington, provide full security, then mandate Senators and Reps live there when in Washington on business.

You could use them to house foreign guests and such as well, since you're already paying for excellent security.

Tap on a "free trip to and from your district" policy, and you've leveled some of the playing field -- plus supplanted their salary by providing their two biggest Washington expenses -- no paying for two homes, no paying to travel back and forth from home and work.

Posted by: Morat | Apr 7, 2005 1:08:03 PM

Morat: That's a damn good idea.

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 7, 2005 1:09:59 PM

I think a bigger problem comes during the campaign. Not very many people can take off 3 months to run a primary campaign, and then another 3 months for a general election campaign. Even if you can afford to lose 6 months of income, very few employers will just let you disappear for 6 months while you try to get another job. This is partly why you get a lot of lawyers, professors, and doctors among Congressmen and State Reps - they own their own practice, or have colleagues who can cover for them, or can take sabbaticals.

Posted by: matthewfivenine | Apr 7, 2005 1:17:30 PM

It's not that much money if you're just living in DC and you've got dependents. But, I assume his friends in Texas are taking care of his housing. This is a common thing in DC.

As far as people entering the government to make money, there are 8 million easier ways to make $160K than to be in Congress.

Posted by: ROXANNE | Apr 7, 2005 1:38:41 PM

Roxanne, how is it that LA's and paralegals making $25,000 or less can get by in DC, and have a standard of living that is at least enjoyable if not particularly high, while we are supposed to sympathize with a Congresscritter who can't figure out how to stretch SEVEN times that amount? God. I get hives just reading that, and I haven't lived in DC for 2 years.

Maybe, MAYBE, if Delay had to pay his own travel expenses, I would concede that I don't know if he's not right. But his trips home are covered. And so I will accept Delay's challenge, rent a $1200 1-bedroom apartment in Tenleytown, and still have 6 digits of disposable income!

Posted by: diddy | Apr 7, 2005 2:09:37 PM

I'm not asking you to feel sorry for Delay, but he's a grown man with a family and he's not likely to share a bedroom with one of his homies in the Conn Ave StaffAss ghetto. And, I'm not sure you can still get a $1200 in Tenley. My husband and I have been looking to buy a one bedroom condo in the district and can't find one for less $500K.

Posted by: ROXANNE | Apr 7, 2005 2:19:22 PM

The problem is that appetites are like goldfish- they grow until they fit the bowl. And DC is a big bowl... a big, porcelain bowl... (I hope where I'm going with that is clear)

Posted by: TJ | Apr 7, 2005 2:28:47 PM

Yes, housing and transportation costs are a bitch for congresspersons.

Paying them more however really bothers me. They already earn 3X the average income, and why make it worse.

Here's a winner of an idea: Housing and Transportation vouchers!

(This is like Section 8 housing, except just for congress)

Each congress critter gets adequate vouchers, paid for by the US treasury, for a house in his district and a house in DC, and X transportation vouchers good only for transit from DC to the nearest airport to their home district/state.

They also get 'food stamps' for meals consumed during working hours or while traveling. Stamps are not usable except in DC or on travel - not in home district or elsewhere.

Each Congress will establish the level of payment for Sect 8C vouchers and mileage-related transportation vouchers. Food stamps follow the cost-of-living index.

Unused vouchers/stamps cannot be transferred, or carried over to another term.

With this plan, the playing field is levelled somewhat between rich and not-rich, and all congress critters get to see how great it is to live on the public dole.

Welfare Queens! (In Cadillacs)

That's All!


Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 7, 2005 2:48:26 PM

Sorry, I can't muster a bit of sympathy for the BugMan. Sure, DC is expensive but at $158K and the weight of Congress behind you, stuff can be done. And legal stuff at that.

I live on $300 a week. I got cable (internet and tv), cell phone, bottle water delivered and still have a few ducats left to spend a few hours at the Starbucks proving to wingnut fools that GOP stands for Greed-Opulence-Privilege. I live a few miles from downtown Seattle (no cheap place in any book) in a house surrounded by 6 dozen cedar and spruce trees.

But then, I'm just a godless liberal tree-huggin' hippie bastard. What do I know about the needs of the Holy Ministers of Bush II?

Posted by: David Aquarius | Apr 7, 2005 2:55:42 PM

Mr. Klein, I don't suppose the title is a reference to the Money Song, from the Money Programme, where they talked about money?

Anyway, as a former graduate student who's been in similar financial straits, I actually have a great deal of sympathy for congressmen. They get less money, fewer travel perks, and fewer entertainment resources than the President. Then there's the issue of the price of condos in DC: most of the midsized, nothing-fancy ones are becoming priced way out of reach. And all those congressmen who rent apartments are being squeezed, too. So given their travel expenses and cost of maintaining two households, at least one of which is quite spartan, it's perfectly understandable that they would have to turn to graft.

Or, and this is purely hypothetical, some of them could sell their multimillion-dollar houses in Georgetown. I mean, boo-effing-hoo. We should be understanding of Tom DeLay, because compared to some of his peers in, er, exterminating, he has champagne tastes but a beer budget?

Posted by: mds | Apr 7, 2005 3:18:27 PM

I have often felt that it is time we change the method in which our Senators and Congresspersons are compensated. Specifically, they should be paid directly by their constituency - e.g. Senators get a check from their state, and congresspersons get a check from their district. Their pay, benefits and retirements should be a matter of discussion and voted on by these same constituents. It is time to end their ability to vote for their own paychecks and overly generous benefits and retirements. It matters not that one state may pay their representatives more or less than the others states. I believe this is one small way to remind them each month for whom they work. I also agree with abjectfunk's idea of providing them housing in Washington D.C.. I assumed they were already given free trips back and forth to their districts - but if not, sure, but not unlimited free travel.

Posted by: Steve Heuring | Apr 7, 2005 5:22:05 PM

Correction: I mistakenly attributed the idea of federal housing for Senators/Congresspersons to Abjectfunk instead of Morat.

Posted by: Steve Heuring | Apr 7, 2005 5:40:35 PM

Some people would say that running the country was plenty of compensation for a cut in salary. Most British MPs survive on a salary of £55k, plus expenses. London costs a hell of a lot more to live in than DC. Yet we think they're overpaid, not underpaid.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Apr 7, 2005 6:53:38 PM

Ginger Yellow? Can MPs supplement their income by accepting gratuities in order to ask the PM unpleasant questions? Just kidding... 55kilopounds? In London?!

Posted by: TJ | Apr 7, 2005 7:14:21 PM

Here's a link: http://tinyurl.com/4va4u. It's actually £57,485.They do get huge expenses though - it's not uncommon for them to claim £120k. They have to pay for secretaries and researchers out of that, of course.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Apr 7, 2005 7:43:30 PM

I'm pretty sure that congresspeople get travel expenditures paid for as it is.

Posted by: Chris Meyer | Apr 8, 2005 12:37:17 AM

Actually, once you factor in repairs and dealer incompetence/overcharges, 158k may not even be a 'Passat salary.'

Posted by: Farferfukdnen | Apr 8, 2005 1:29:42 AM

Just to clear up a misconception, I am pretty sure that House members pay for travel back and forth to their district out of their office budgets, not out of their personal fund (i.e., they get $1 million, or whatever, to pay for hiring staff, renting office space in the district, official travel, etc.).

I think they get some special tax break or something to offset the cost of having 2 residences, but I don't believe it is actually very significant.

Also, keep in mind that while some members travel very frequently and keep two houses, others travel much less frequently and only maintain a DC residence (and claim a state residence where a relative lives, or (say) in a house they are renting out to another family).

It is true that in a world where a lobbyist can make $1 million, $150,000 may not seem like a lot, but on the other hand, what is the median family income in the US? $45,000? There should be no reason why he can't live on it, and if he's only in it for the money, who needs him?

Posted by: Doh | Apr 8, 2005 11:30:24 AM

Shorter comment- a passat is a very nice car, STFU.

Posted by: Doh | Apr 8, 2005 11:32:14 AM

I think what happens to Congress is they hold themselves in high esteem. Their goal seems not to represent the people. I can guarantee I could live on DeLay's salary. I can also guarantee I could do an honest job. There are millions just like me out there who could do the job and do it better than DeLay or others. Do you think these people really think about the laws they pass? Evidently they think about their lifestyle. When we the people start coming to our senses and stop revoting them in year after year after year after year, it will change things in D.C.

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