There comes a point in every employee’s life when he is sitting across from his boss for a quick review of the past year, a discussion of future expectations and, of course, the annual raise. It is the annual review and it is as much of a tradition as the Christmas party and the special and most coveted Employee-of-the-Month parking spot. That is what we in the private sector get. What do our congressional representatives (you know, OUR employees) get? They get elections. They also get to give themselves raises.
When the Employees Call the Shots
Imagine your employees having a meeting and then informing you that they will be taking a raise. You might get a little dog-and-pony show to justify it, but the bottom line would be that they want more money. More than that, they have put in place a mechanism to automatically give them more whether you think they deserve it or not. You company makes money, they get raises. Your company loses money, they get the same raises.
What would your response to this news be? There would be laughter at first, an incredulous expression, a question or two and then, after placing a number of discreet ads looking for new workers, a mass firing. That would only make sense. It is, after all, your company. You decide who gets a raise and who does not and you decide why.
Yet this is the very situation that we have with the US Congress. They have things set up to give themselves an automatic raise, regardless of their overall performance, the personal performances of each member, their approval ratings or the nation’s economy. One would think that we pay our lawmakers badly for them to need this mechanism, but that is hardly the case. Currently the average lawmaker makes $169,300 a year, with leadership making slightly more. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) makes $217,400, while the minority and majority leaders in the House and Senate make $188,100. The current pay increase adds $4,700 to these.
Opt-in vs. Opt-out Pay Increases
It doesn’t seem like much, but the amount is not the point. The point is that they have it set up to happen automatically unless legislation is introduced to freeze their pay, an idea that is constantly floated but rarely, if ever invoked. Older congressional hands pay lip service to the idea—it is a great talking point to the folks back home—and incoming freshmen talk about it and introduce bills, but they almost never make it out of committee. The message is clear: We picked the method that would give us the best chance of getting a pay raise. Opting-out of the pay raise is tough, like opting out of a spam marketing list.
An opt-in system, where legislators have to actually vote for the pay increase, is just as difficult. Our lawmakers would have to agree on a figure and garner the votes for it. There would be debate and all that would be public and recorded. What’s more, they would be accountable to their constituents and would be forced to answer uncomfortable questions come election time, the same sort of questions one might hear during an annual review.
What do you imagine would be the result of our legislature having to justify its pay raises? Would there be an effect on the way our Congress does business? Of course there would. The Congress would be less inclined to its usual arrogance if each member knew that the people were expecting a proper return on their investment in that particular lawmaker. In this way, Tip O’Neill would be proven right, all politics would be local.
The Bottom Line
I have a vision of a congress that has to submit to a review of its members by the Executive branch, just as your employees have to submit to your review of them. This review would then go to the courts for review and approval and then on to the members states and districts for the edification of the taxpayers, who should have the final word on pay raises. They would have a chance to educate themselves—just as you review the file information on your employees—and, on Election Day, vote for a pay raise or against it. This would probably mean taking congressional salaries off of the Federal budget and adding it to the budgets of the states, but that would be alright since it would remind them who they serve.
This could also be done with the President and the Executive Branch, with slightly variations such as a nationwide vote instead of going state-by-state. When the people decide how much their leadership earns, it will remind them that the White House and Congress are really the people’s houses, not theirs, and that they work at the pleasure of their employers, something that your employees understand but our elected employees have forgotten.