Political Advantage

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Do you think Congress seems aloof to the needs of average Americans? Perhaps it has something to do with all their political advantages:

  • The average member of Congress makes $174,000 per year. The average American is lucky to reach $50,000.1
  • Members get an automatic cost of living increase.2 I’ll bet you had to ask for your raise.
  • Members get a taxpayer-paid per diem, or more likely, they get wined and dined by a lobbyist. You probably paid for your own sandwich.
  • Most members get a guaranteed pension in addition to Social Security. You probably don’t have a pension (if you’re lucky, you have a 401K), and you may even have been fooled into thinking Social Security should be privatized.
  • Members who lose their job (by being voted out---they are never "downsized") typically have an even more lucrative lobbying job waiting in the wings. You'll have to search the want ads.

So unlike the average American, Congress's major concern is tax cuts. What more pressing problem could there be?

Of course, Congress can do the right thing when their own interests are at stake. After the financial accounting scandals of Enron, WorldCom, and the like, Congress moved quickly and unanimously (522-13 in favor) to implement financial regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley.3 And why? Because Members own stock portfolios, and they wanted to make sure they could trust the financial information they were getting. In other words, they were covering their own asse(t)s.

With this bit of recent history in mind, it seems to me that the way to make Congress care about the little guy is to make them a little guy, too. Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Members’ salary cannot exceed the national average. I’ll bet that raises the minimum wage.
  • Members cannot have better health care than the average American. Boom: universal, single payer.

When Members stop being millionaires, they may start to govern for the rest of us.


1. Congressional data for 2011-2012. Here is a source of info on Congressional salaries and benefits. Average personal income is highly variable, depending on how you slice the data: education, race, and age make big differences in the final number. And really, economists say you should look at the median (the number that falls in the middle) rather than the average income. For 2010, that amount was about $27,000.

2. In the past, Congress had to vote for the pay increase, but they realized that doing so year after year really made them look bad. So they changed the law to make it automatic. Now they have to vote NOT to get a pay increase, which surprisingly hasn't happened.

3. Yes, the law could have been much stricter, but still: how often do you see Republicans vote in favor of regulation?