Congress’s embarrassing 26 percent approval rating in March was actually unusually good by 21st-century standards.
For the past generation, most people have consistently felt that Congress does not reflect public opinion or represent the public interest. Americans say they want a better-functioning legislature, one that helps make their lives better. But instead, they see Congress as unresponsive to popular will, and while 78 percent of the public says it’s very important for Democrats and Republicans to work together, only 19 percent feel they do this either “very” or “somewhat” well.
But most ideas for political reform don’t fundamentally resolve these problems. They generally frame Congress as corrupt, and therefore offer an all-sticks approach focused on trying to tighten up ethics rules and nibble around the edges of corruption. But while it’s good that lobbyists can’t take members on junkets or buy them fancy steak dinners anymore, in the aggregate, these reforms haven’t really changed much. The revolving door— whereby members leave office to help business interests get their way in Congress — has only grown as a reality of life on Capitol Hill. There are more shutdowns than ever, and members of Congress and their staff remain painfully dependent on lobbyists to do the work of actually crafting legislation and analyzing policy.
Yet a new body of research suggests a different approach. If we want a better, more functional Congress, the American people should do what any other employer would do: make the job more desirable so that a larger pool of people run for office.
Congressional salaries have fallen and Congress is getting worse
Congressional pay has been declining in inflation-adjusted terms since the mid-1960s, even while incomes for other professional occupations have risen. Today, a House member earns $174,000 a year — a bit less than the average dentist and quite a bit less than the average doctor — which is certainly not a poverty wage but also not exactly an elite salary. Newly elected members are typically 50-something with professional backgrounds in law and business who are earning less than what they were previously making in the private sector and less than they could make by quitting and going to work on K Street.
Evidence from state legislatures indicates that better pay would attract a larger, more ideologically diverse candidate pool and potentially generate a Congress that actually does things.
But the quality-of-life problems members of Congress face do not stop at salary: They also include the high cost of housing in the Washington, DC, area, and inadequate office staff.
Most House members have unusually high costs of living since they need to maintain two households — one back home in their district and another one in Washington. Dozens of less affluent members sleep in their offices during the workweek.
Meanwhile, members are constantly getting in trouble for things like having staffers do personal errands for them or engaging in corrupt-looking insider trading.
So in addition to reversing the decline in pay for members of Congress, America should make some provision for the housing problem, and offer an adequate level of staffing across the institution so members can get help with their policy development and their dry cleaning.
Then we should hold members of Congress to a higher standard of conduct, with curbs on outside income and stock trading. We should offer staff a real HR department. There are a million things wrong with the American political system and no silver bullet for any of them. But a good place to start is that if you want a great Congress, you need great people, and that means you need to make it a job they’d actually want to do.
Member of Congress isn’t a great job
In his new book Who Wants to Run, Stanford political scientist Andrew Hall highlights a curious fact. Everyone knows that polarization in Congress has increased substantially over the past generation. But taking a broad look at thousands of congressional races between 1980 and 2014, he finds that this mostly isn’t because voters chose polarization. More moderate candidates do better on average. But even if the more moderate candidate had won every single race over the past 30 years, 80 percent of the increase in polarization would have happened anyway. Why? Because during this period, fewer and fewer moderates were running.
Moderate politicians like Sens. Joe Manchin and Susan Collins consistently do better than their respective parties’ presidential nominees in their respective states, and taking broadly popular — rather than party-determined — positions on the issues continues to be a good strategy for winning elections.
But voters have to choose from among the candidates on offer, and fewer moderates running for office means more polarized outcomes even as the electorate continues to prefer moderation, all else being equal. There is obviously more to this than money, but looking at state legislatures, Hall does find that higher-paying positions attract a more moderate pool of candidates.
When pay is low, he tells me, “you’re encouraging wealthy ideologues to run for office.”
This whole way of thinking is so alien to the current American discourse around polarization that it can take a moment to assimilate. But precisely because there’s no particularly direct link between legislative salaries and moderation, the implications are quite broad and serious. It seems like legislating is basically the same as any other job, and if you offer a higher salary, you get a larger and broader applicant pool from which to pick.
The converse is also true: If being a member of Congress is not so rewarding, then people will voluntarily depart Capitol Hill in search of greener pastures.
Members of Congress often “retire” early
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) announced his retirement from Congress early in the 2018 cycle, part of a broad trend of many Republican members stepping down amid what was certain to be a tough election cycle. But political currents aside, he’s also over 70 years old, so stepping down to do normal retired person stuff wouldn’t be particularly unusual.
Except Smith didn’t actually retire. He just retired from Congress in order to join the Washington office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) also voluntarily stepped down from Congress to join the same firm. Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) quit Congress midway through the last Congress to take a job with the Ohio Business Roundtable, a corporate pressure group in his home state.
And this is not a brand new trend or one limited to Republicans. Lee Drutman found in 2016 that about half of retired senators and a third of retired House members end up as registered lobbyists, a huge increase from the 5 percent or so who did it in the 1970s.
Henry Waxman stepped down in 2014 after a legendary multi-decade run as a progressive champion to launch his own lobbying and communications firm. Barney Frank, another progressive of roughly Waxman’s vintage, retired a couple of years early only to later reemerge, simultaneously commenting in public on banking policy while serving on the board of Signature Bank.
The unseemliness of the “revolving door” is frequently criticized, and the solutions frequently involve various bans or moratoria on taking jobs as a lobbyist. The problem is that while many former members of Congress are, in fact, registered lobbyists who work for lobbying firms, there is so much more to the influence game than lobbying. Tiberi works for a trade association. Frank is on a corporate board. And virtually all lobbying can be rebranded as “communications,” “strategic consulting,” or working for a law firm’s “public policy” practice.
What’s odd, when you think about it, is that these gigs aren’t just picked up by members who’ve been forced from office by electoral defeat or ugly redistricting. Veteran members voluntarily quit their jobs to go work on K Street, and they do it so commonly that we don’t even puzzle over why.
A company whose top talent was regularly quitting not to enjoy some extra time with the grandkids but simply to go work somewhere else would see that it has a problem on its hands. Members of Congress play a critical role in the American political system, and normal citizens are displeased at how routinely they tap out to go peddle influence. But as with the paucity of moderates running for office, the solution almost certainly involves exactly what you’d do in any other personnel retention crisis — raising pay.
Congressional pay has been falling
The past generation or so has been famously unkind to the typical American worker, with median annual compensation rising just 12 percent since 1973 even as economy-wide productivity has grown nearly 80 percent.
During this same period, however, inflation-adjusted congressional salaries have actually dropped considerably.
A big part of the wage stagnation story, meanwhile, is that inequality of labor income has risen drastically in an era of rising CEO pay and windfalls for “superstars” in law, finance, and entertainment. So not only has congressional pay fallen in real terms, it’s fallen faster compared to the average worker and even faster compared to other elite occupations.
Josh McCrain, a political scientist at Emory University, shows that congressional staff salaries — particularly at the senior level — have also been in decline during this period.
Declining staff salaries are a problem in their own terms. But on a basic level, they also make Congress members’ lives harder. Any manager would prefer to have a higher salary pool to work with to make it easier to attract and, critically, retain competent and loyal staffers.
Disinvesting in both members and their staff (and their office space, which is often surprisingly cramped and dingy) is a way of expressing the idea that we are indifferent to the quality of the people who seek jobs in Congress and to how aggressively they will seek to remain in the public’s good graces once in office. But very few of us are pleased with the quality of the people who serve there. In fact, many of us would like to raise the standards of conduct to which they are obliged to conform. Yet if we want to raise the bar, we’re going to have to accept that normal human motivations apply to politicians, too, and pay what it costs.
There are lots of good proposals for reform
America is not lacking for plausible ideas about how we could ask more from our members of Congress in terms of personal and professional integrity.
House Democrats, for example, passed a sweeping anti-corruption bill that included provisions to bar members of Congress from using taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment lawsuits. Congress also recently passed a bill that aims to reform how these harassment claims can be pursued. But advocates regard this as a first step at best. Congress does not have anything like an HR department that can police misconduct.
Indeed, staff abuse questions range well beyond conduct that’s sexual in nature. Every couple of years, there’s a scandal about some member or other engaging in the technically against-the-rules practice of having staffers do personal errands. Yet this practice is also so normalized that when allegations came out that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sometimes has staffers do the dishes for her at home, that wasn’t the part of the story that generated controversy.
Every once in a while, a member of Congress gets caught up in an insider trading scandal. Up until the 2012 STOCK Act, it, remarkably, wasn’t even totally clear that this was illegal. But the idea from Sens. Jeff Merkley and Sherrod Brown to simply bar members of Congress from trading stocks makes a lot of sense as a proposal.
Earlier this year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus floated the idea of banning members from sleeping in their offices — something dozens of them do to save money — in order to protect staff from the inevitable awkward and borderline inappropriate encounters that occur when the boss is sleeping in your workplace.
These are all reasonable ideas. But the tighter you turn the screws, the less desirable the jobs become. To make Congress be excellent, you need high standards for conduct but also a good quality of life for the people who live up to those standards.
Congress needs more buildings
The office-sleeping piece of this admits of an obvious solution: The government should construct a large building to serve as a kind of cross between apartments, a dorm, and a hotel.
Members could get, for free, a decent place to sleep and relax that’s near the Capitol. And it could be equipped with basic amenities like a dining room, housekeeping services, and laundry and dry cleaning service. That way, a member who’s not rich and doesn’t have money to maintain a second household complete with domestic help could nevertheless comport herself in a decent manner around town without abusing professional congressional staffers. Most normal people can’t just afford to have a second house in an expensive city, and everyone who travels for work routinely and isn’t a member of Congress gets their employer to pay for their lodgings.
For a better Congress, pay better
The problem, of course, is that voters look at the current crop of Congress members and decide there’s no way in hell they want to pay these bastards any more money, or help them in other material ways.
The fix is that instead of a single giant windfall pay increase, Congress should pass a law that phases in a series of pay hikes over five to 15 years, aiming to eventually restore the ratio of congressional salary to median pay that we had in the late 1960s. Staff budgets should be increased commensurately, too, again phased in over time. Constructing new buildings will, similarly, take several years. At the same time, it would be smart to impose new ethics rules and curbs on outside income.
Many of today’s members of Congress will, of course, be around in five to 15 years. But by making Congress a richer prize, members will also be incentivizing more and better challengers to run against them. Hall’s research indicates that more moderates would be inclined to run for office if pay were higher, which would end up endangering a wider range of seats that are now currently considered safe. But incumbent members might also face more primary challenges from ambitious state senators, mayors, and county executives if the job were more desirable. Some of those challenges might be ideological in nature, but others would focus on ethics or hustle or constituent services or any of the million other things that matter to voters.
It would, of course, cost money. But we’re talking, realistically, about spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars extra per member in a group of fewer than 700 people. A group of people who are entrusted with vast authority over Americans’ daily lives and a federal budget that stretches into the trillions. It’s an important job, and people who do important jobs should be well-paid and well-staffed. If we don’t like the Congress we’ve got, we’re going to have to pay for a better one.