Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event for people to appreciate what they have. Case in point: the vicious and despicable assassination attempt against Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
There is no excuse for the attack, or for the level of venom directed against Rep. Giffords and others in recent months, but it is also important to note that, while attempts to murder members of Congress have been rare, Congress has always functioned in a political atmosphere of uniquely sharp derision. John Adams dryly noted "In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress." Mark Twain reserved special scorn for Congress, saying that there was "no native criminal class except Congress" and "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." In modern times, public opinion has agreed, ranking Congress near the bottom among American public and private institutions, usually beating out only used car salesmen.
Let's face it: the legislative process by its nature invites ridicule of a sort rarely directed against the other two branches of government, and always has. Yet Congress, for its many flaws, is the people's branch. As historian Garry Wills has argued persuasively, the country's Founders intended legislative pre-eminence, not co-equality of the three branches. As James Madison wrote, "In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates." In modern governance, activist presidents and judges have transformed the once-Congress-centered system; still, as constitutional scholar Louis Fisher notes, Congress remains "the indispensable institution for safeguarding popular, democratic, and constitutional government." It is a mark of her special nobility that Rep. Giffords was meeting openly with constituents when she was shot.
In this spirit, we must separate our ire at the Congress of the moment from the nobility (not to mention importance) of the legislative task performed by the people we choose, and demand that congressional pay be doubled - at least - and for two reasons: to ease the burden of actual living expenses (independent personal wealth should not be a prerequisite for seeking office), and, more importantly, to bring it more closely into line with the objective importance of the job. Current congressional pay is $174,000 (by comparison, the president's annual salary is $400,000, and $213,000 for a Supreme Court associate justice). Members receive additional perks, including generous health and retirement benefits, free travel to home states, and more. Nevertheless, their salary is jarringly inadequate not only for the expenses commensurate with living in the nation's capital, but with the gravity of their position: organizing and governing the world's largest entity.
At a time when Harvard and Yale law school graduates earn average starting salaries of $160,000, where a $200K salary on Wall Street is practically chump change, where senior college faculty at elite universities routinely earn more than this amount, how can anyone seriously argue that current congressional salaries are commensurate with the job?
Congress is different from most other institutions because it sets its own salary, but that also was by Founders' design. The fear of public opprobrium has surely kept the level from rising higher. And while Ben Franklin suggested at the Constitutional Convention that members serve without pay - a call sometimes heard today (ironically, Rep. Giffords called for Congress to cut its own pay two weeks ago) - the idea was rejected by the Founders, and although congressional service was part-time in the nation's first 100 years, it has been a full-time job since.
Every member of Congress has a hand on the tiller of our ship of state. It is as important a job as one can envision, and their pay should not be the whipping boy for our frustrations with the inherent difficulty of their jobs and the intractability of our problems. Finally, we must admit that at least some of the contempt citizens hold for Congress is in truth a reflection of ourselves.
Spitzer is the author of President and Congress
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