SYNDICATED COLUMN: Zero Salary for Congress

Why Not Link Pols’ Pay Level to Ours?

Most Americans don’t like Moammar Kadafi or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. But that might change if they knew their paychecks. The leaders of Libya and Iran get $9,516 and $3,000 a year annually, respectively.

Obama collects $5,505,509—a whopping $22,022 per day.

Who’s the real out-of-touch dictator?

As the U.S. enters its third year of economic collapse, real unemployment has surged past levels that triggered revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet neither the President nor members of Congress seem worried. They’re not even discussing the possibility of a bailout for the one-third of the workforce that is in effect structurally unemployed. Do you wonder why?

Maybe they don’t know what’s going on. As the saying goes, it’s a recession when you’ve gotten laid off. For members of Congress, who are raking it in, these are boom times.

Congressmen and Senators are insulated by huge salaries—$174,000 and up—that put them out of touch with and unaware of the problems of the 97 percent of Americans who earn less. Out of 535 members of Congress, 261 are millionaires.

It can’t be easy for Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, to feel our pain. According to campaign disclosure documents filed in 2010, her net worth is somewhere between $46 million and $108.1 million—and she’s only the 10th richest member of Congress. The top honor goes to Representative Darrell Issa, also from the Golden State but a Republican. Estimates of Issa’s net worth range between $156.1 million and $451.1 million.

Years ago the SEC floated the idea of a maximum wage for the CEOs of publicly traded corporations. If their pay was capped at, say, 20 times that of the lowest-paid employee, it wouldn’t be long before the whole pay scale went up.

The SEC pay cap didn’t go anywhere. But there’s the germ of a smart—and fair—idea there, one that could help Congressmen feel what it’s like to be an ordinary American during a time of poverty and mass layoffs.

Our elected representatives set the minimum wage, work standards, healthcare benefits, union organizing rules and thousands of regulations that determine the salaries and working conditions for tens of millions of American workers. As things stand now, the president and members of Congress have no personal incentive to improve those things for us. After all, they’re all set. They’re rich.

Paul Abrams writes: “Many Republicans ran for office declaring they would run the government ‘like a business’…

If they are serious, however, there is one way [Congress] can operate like a business. Cut their base pay and provide large incentive bonuses should the economy hit certain goals.” A nice thought, but why not follow this line of thinking to its logical conclusion?

It is high time to set a Maximum Wage for Congress, the president and other high-ranking elected representatives. The Maximum Wage for Congress should be set at the lowest pay received by an American citizen.

As long as one American citizen is homeless and unemployed, the Maximum Wage would be zero.

Similarly public officials ought to receive a Maximum Benefit set at the lowest/worst level received by an American citizen. If one U.S. citizen receives no healthcare benefits, so it would go for members of Congress. If one U.S. citizen does not have free access to a gym, members of Congress would lose theirs.

I have a hunch that our lives would get better in the blink of an eye.

Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps it’s really true that America somehow can’t afford socialized healthcare (even though there’s always plenty of cash for wars). If that’s the case, personal incentives won’t convince Congress.

Still, that’s OK. It’s only fair that our leaders be forced to tough it out as much as we do.

We’re all familiar with the arguments for paying six-figure salaries to politicians:

They have to maintain two homes, one in D.C. and one in their home district. It reduces the temptations of corruption. They should focus on their jobs, not how to pay their kids’ college tuition. People who are not wealthy ought to be able to afford to serve. The best and brightest won’t want the job if the pay is terrible.

To which I say:

Live modestly. Couchsurf. If you take a bribe, you’ll be jailed—so don’t. Everyone worries about bills; shouldn’t Congressmen? The current salary structure has resulted in a Congress full of millionaires. As for attracting the best and brightest—look at the fools we’ve got now.

Besides, there is no reason why the president and his congressional cronies shouldn’t be able to keep their current wonderful salaries and perks under a Maximum Wage. All they’d have to do is create an economy that shared those bounteous treats with everyone else.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is

11 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Zero Salary for Congress

  1. Zero pay for Congress is a tempting thought, but the end result would be that only the Darryl Issas of the world would be able to be in Congress.

  2. I have a different take. If politicians are already millionaires, an extra $174,000 a year is somewhat a joke. In fact some congresspeople turn down their salary and they use this as a symbolic gesture to prove they are somehow not elitist. If they are wealthy and out of touch when they arrive to congress, I don’t see how a zero dollar salary would make a difference. If anything, a salary of zero dollars would punish the least wealthiest in congress, who are probably mostly Democrats.

  3. I am sympathetic to the ideas here, but I worry that it is already too hard for a middle- or lower-class person to get elected to federal office. Perhaps the federal salary should go away, dollar for dollar, for those who have other income, but those with little outside income would continue to receive most of their federal salaries.

  4. Zero-pay to congresspeople is a horrible idea. Why? Because a $170k pay cut doesn’t mean anything to multi-millionaires; therefore, congress would have even MORE rich out-of-touch people. If we don’t pay legislators, then the chance of having a “legislator of the people” is effectively 0%, which is the opposite of what your goal is.

    Also your point that Libyan dictators make ~$10k is ignorant, to put it politely; how can you argue that when it’s so clear he’s buoying the lives of himself, his family, and his friends on ever-flowing oil wealth?! I don’t know much about Iran, but I imagine it is similar. At least we know where Obama’s millions come from — salary and book sales, mostly — as he’s made his tax returns publicly available.

  5. Hey Ted: Good editorial as usual. I look forward to these each week and have so far purchased three of your books about your travels in central asia. I realize you are a reporter and editorial cartoonist and not a philosopher and as such you probably are not writing your pieces to answer these questions. I am not wealthy by top level American standards but I very wealthy by world standards. That said, I still want to work harder, innovate and become much wealthier. The primary goal to me is to remove anxiety associated with ever not having enough resources and to insure no debt. I do not live in a place where it is likely that I will suffer from lawlessness or war and famine and disease are not a probability either. My question to anyone on this blog is philosophical and it is, “Is it morally and ethically right to work toward comfort and wealth if there is poverty elsewhere?” I am motivated as a scientist and employee to want to create wealth and comfort for me and for my family but when I do that I tend to stop worrying about the broader social implications of wages, fairness and living modestly. I would be much less motivated to bring products to market if there was no opportunity to cash in on that work.


    (The actual headline is: U.S. Government To Save Billions By Cutting Wasteful Senator Program”

    Sure, it’s the Onion, and it’s a “joke”, but I actually agree with it whole-heartedly. We don’t need the Senate. It’s more wasteful (and brings in fewer tourist dollars) than Britain’s royal family.

    As for the rest, I agree that pay and perks for members of Congress could use some SERIOUS cuts…

    “They have to maintain two homes, one in D.C. and one in their home district.”

    –Congressmen don’t HAVE to maintain a home in DC. A suitable, fiscally-reasonable housing complex can be maintained for them by the government, just like we do for their oft-publicly-admired fellow government servants in the Armed Forces. Let our Department of Defense provide security for the complex, and our Department of Homeland Security screen and log all incoming and outgoing visitors like they do at our airports. We’d save money and have a more accountable Congress.

    “It reduces the temptations of corruption.”

    –See above. Also, individual Congressional Districts should pay their members of Congress out of an allocation of funds from the Federal government set aside for the purpose of their pay and work expenses. If We, the People, control the purse strings, we might actually get / compel some face time in with our reps, and thus get better representation in Congress.

    “They should focus on their jobs, not how to pay their kids’ college tuition.”

    –Their kids should be ineligible to attend private universities, period. The same way McDonald’s employees are ineligible to win their goofy million dollar Monopoly game that seems to come out every year. We might see some education reform this way.

    “People who are not wealthy ought to be able to afford to serve.”

    –The system I’ve described makes this possible. It may not be as glamorous a job as it is now, but it is SERVICE.

    “The best and brightest won’t want the job if the pay is terrible.”

    –“Best” and “brightest” according to what standard? I’ll settle for “willing, able, imaginative, & responsible”. Let the “best” and “brightest” vie for tenureships in Ivory Towers or board directorships at CONGLOM, Inc. Our brand-new Congress will keep them in check. 😉

  7. As long as one American citizen is homeless and unemployed, the Maximum Wage would be zero.
    I can go with that idea, since it would pretty much guarantee that pols would never make another dime off the public trough, officiallly, that is. Hint: there will always be homeless, vagrant people, even if not so forced by poverty.

  8. To jperiodic — as far as I am concerned, if you can earn money while producing something of value and without exploiting others, then you are welcome to the wealth. However, if you are successful, it would be the right thing to do to give significant amounts of money (and/or time) to people and organizations who are trying to make the world better.

  9. I REALLY like this:
    “Years ago the SEC floated the idea of a maximum wage for the CEOs of publicly traded corporations. If their pay was capped at, say, 20 times that of the lowest-paid employee, it wouldn’t be long before the whole pay scale went up.”

  10. periodic, I would try to answer your question with another one: is your work to blame for poverty existing elsewhere? I know mine isn’t. If, as it seems, you don’t work for the US government or one of its partners in crime (Xe, Haliburton, Raytheon et caterva), I don’t think it’s your case either.

  11. O)h boy, here we go with more Obama bashing again, from clueless lefties and righties who don’t want a democratically elected leader, but a supreme dictator instead! Looks like I will have to print up a certain reminder for said clueless people to read again and again until they get it:

    There is a rising chorus of impatient progressive bloggers, some on these pages, calling Obama a failure and a do-nothing president only nine months into his first of four years as president. SNL’s “do-nothing skit” on Obama may well have empowered some on our side to start playing on the fringes of the Limbaugh sandbox. While the charges and name-calling are not as vicious as the Limbaugh Lemmings, it has started nonetheless.

    So what has our newly-minted asshole president been doing for nine months?

    Let’s start with what he has not done. He has not found a cure for cancer, reversed climate change, ended poverty, brought peace to the Middle East, ended all wars, created enough new jobs, or created a single-payer healthcare system. These are big ticket items that no president will ever accomplish, so it is a little disingenuous to suggest a standard for Obama that does not apply to all past presidents or to future presidents. As Princeton economics professor Alan Blinder says in assessing what Obama has accomplished so far, “If he seems to have achieved little, it’s partly because he set out to do too much.” To which I would add, and we created an unrealistic agenda for what we wanted him to accomplish.

    Let’s continue with what he has done. First and foremost, none other than the Wall Street Journal, in an assessment titled, “Democrats Quiet Changes Pile Up”, says he has accomplished more in nine months than George Bush did in his first nine months.

    Let’s be specific:

    1. Significantly, he buried the Imperial Presidency of George Bush and restored the Constitutional balance of government by respecting the equal standing of the legislative branch of government. As a former constitutional law professor, this is a major matter of change of tone and style that he promised during the campaign, and he has delivered. (Not pretty or necessarily effective given the Reid-less leadership in the Senate, but we are a constitutional democracy.)

    2. Passed and signed the stimulus package, the biggest piece of legislation–ever–in blinding speed, thus being able to start to stabilize the economy, with GDP now projected to grow at the rate of 3 percent by the end of the year. Check the comeback of your 401K since Obama has taken over.

    3. Stabilized the top 20 banks without federalizing them.

    4. Reduced the rate of foreclosures inherited from the Bush administration.

    5. Signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that makes it easier to sue for wage discrimination, a dramatic reversal of the bill’s fortunes under Bush.

    6. Granted regulatory power to the FDA to control tobacco products, another dramatic reversal of the Bush years that industry has lobbied hard to prevent.

    7. Signed the Matthew Shepard Hate Act that expanded federal hate crime protection to categories of sexual orientation and gender, to the major consternation of the Religious Right.

    8. Killed the F-22 fighter jet program, a popular program with Congress, saving billions of dollars.

    9. With a stroke of a pen, enacted, by executive order, (see correction below in comments, it was a bill signing) the largest conservation measure in 15 years, spanning the Bush and Clinton records.

    10. Implement an electronic medical record system before any healthcare legislation was introduced. This new technology will be singularly responsible for saving lives and reducing the high administrative costs of healthcare, a key element of reform.

    11. Extended a $2500 tax credit to 5 million families to help with college tuition.

    12. Cooperated with Japan in bringing a $5 billion stabilization package for Pakistan.

    13. Engaged the Muslim world in a dialogue, beginning with his unprecedented speech in Cairo, followed by an interview with Al Arabiya, and face-to-face discussions with Iran, a total reversal of the Bush years of Muslim baiting and hate.

    14. Dramatically reversed the reputation of the United States around the world, with now most nations looking favorably on the US, and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize as one consequence.

    15. Agreed to plan for bringing the troops home from Iraq, at a slower pace than what he promised, but based on knowledge that commanders-in-chief, not candidates, have.

    16. Brought the White House online, doing for the White House what he had done for political campaigning. There are now online Q&A’s with the administration, and a White House blog.

    17. Released the names of all visitors to the White House, a total reversal of the secret Bush years.

    18. Told Mexico that the US is responsible for some of their drug problems, a no small, but truthful admission.

    19. Restored the rights of states to regulate the medical use of marijuana without fear of federal law enforcement intrusion.

    20. Banned the use of torture, and he has begun a complete review of the torture policies under Bush.

    21. Appointed the first Latina to the Supremes: Imagine what would have happened to the Supreme Court under four more years of radical Republicans. Obama has thus averted a long-term dramatic swing to the extreme right on the court, and appointed a progressive to keep matters in check.

    In summary, and to those on these pages and elsewhere who see things differently, I say this feels a little like Waiting for Godot. Let’s recall one thing that Samuel Beckett said in the mischievous play:

    “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at all. It is true the population has increased.”

    What The “Do Nothing” Obama Has Accomplished That We Choose To Ignore Or Fail To Acknowledge

    It’s time for the bitching about Obama and the Obama administration to stop, and for people to realize the truth about the man instead of bullcrap.