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Congress: Worth Their Salt?

October 17, 2006

On a Friday night a couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were driving home, cruising east on Independence Ave. (the House side of Capitol Hill). Traffic was stopped, and there were Capitol police everywhere. The light in the dome of the Capitol was still on.

The significance of the light in the Capitol dome is something I learned recently from FCNL’s lobbyist on nuclear disarmament issues, David Culp: “The Capitol Dome is topped by twelve columns encircling a lantern. The lantern is lit when one or both houses of Congress meet in night session. Although there is not a legal requirement for the night lighting or a record of when the lighting began, it is believed that the practice started in about 1864, when members lived in boardinghouses and hotels near the Capitol.” The light had been on recently, as the session headed towards a close, and it’s really a nice sight driving south on North Capitol St. (towards the Capitol) at night. You can see it from quite far away.

Both chambers were supposed to finish up roughly that Friday, September 29th (the House was scheduled to meet for a short time that Saturday afternoon as well), and the members were then heading home, most to hit the campaign trail. They’ll be back in November, after the election, for a lame duck session in which they will attempt to finish what they failed to finish in the regular session.

But it was 12:15 am and traffic was stopped on Independence Ave. as we approached the Capitol. Folks in suits were walking across the street from the House buildings towards the Capitol, and cars with their four-way flashers on were cruising up the street in the wrong direction, presumably on their way to pick up Senator Snappypants or Representative Redundant. After midnight on a Friday, and these folks were still at work, wrangling over language and working out the specifics on the kinds of legislation that are their hallmark – things like the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and the Electronic Surveillance Act.

It was pretty impressive, all those people at work at midnight on a Friday night, even if it was the last day to really get anything done, and everyone’s a procrastinator. Give the guys and gals a break; making laws is a tough business!

But wait, it might be useful to know that this year is a record for the shortest number of days per year Congress has devoted to legislative work in twenty years. “Since 1985 Congress has allocated an average of 152 days per session (including Mondays and Fridays) to legislative work.” This year it was a whopping 125 days. Voting doesn’t generally don’t take place on Mondays or Fridays, so that part of the work was crammed into 72 days, or barely 2.5 months.

The general salary for this minute work year? Circa $163,000 (this discounts other value such as an incredibly comprehensive healthcare plan, lifetime pension benefits, and considerable support staff, and excludes leadership positions which make closer to $200,000 annually).

Let’s do the math, shall we? That’s $1304.00 per day.

Even if they worked all 24 hours of each day of legislative work, that’s $54.33 per hour. That’s more than TEN TIMES the minimum wage. To be closer to reality you could say Congress works 12 hour days, which puts your Senator and Representatives pulling in twenty times the minimum wage.

Partly I want to raise these numbers because I don’t think that many people think about them. While I knew Congress spent significantly fewer days than most of us at work, I didn’t know these numbers. I had never bothered to check salaries or days in session before I sat down to write this.

Partly I want to highlight, for myself and others, what this kind of massive imbalance does. I find a fundamental problem in the authors of a budget that spends the money of all Americans receiving more than twenty times the hourly compensation for doing that job than many Americans receive for doing theirs. And it’s not just the budget; how do you fairly and adequately address things like setting the minimum wage, administration of social welfare programs, and regulation of corporations that employ large numbers of Americans when you have absolutely no concept of what it’s like to be in a situation where those decisions directly affect your quality of life?

In most cases, to even get your foot in the door of the Senate chamber (I must concede that this is a little different than the House of Representatives), you’ve got to have a trail of connections going back to preschool. With a few notable exceptions, you have to have been privileged from the day you were born to end up in a position to do this decision-making. Coming from such a background, you’re unlikely to have ever known anyone who’s ever worked for minimum wage, never mind tried to live off it. This is not a blanket criticism of rich people, and it’s not a judgment of them, but when you’re a Congressional representative, being in such a financially privileged position directly inhibits your ability to do the job set out for you in the Constitution. This sets up a paradox: anyone who could be hired to do the job (with the institutions set up the way they are now), is almost undoubtedly unfit to do the job.

To be fair, we need someone to make these decisions, and some members of Congress do make a concerted effort to adequately represent their constituents and make the best decisions they know how. Maybe that’s all we can demand of them. I guess the long and the short of it is that when I lay out on paper what we give to Congress and what we get back from them it makes me wonder, are they worth it?

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