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Gov Career

By Phil Piemonte

Blog archive

Slash congressional salaries!

One of the most frequent rants we have seen on this blog — no, definitely the most frequent rant — is that if members of Congress want to cut budgets, they should start by trimming their own pay and benefits before cutting those of federal employees.

Well, if you’ve had your ear to the ground, you’ll know that Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) proposed something earlier this month that aims to address that issue. It’s called the Congressional Accountability Act (H.R. 3136).

Forbes claims that his bill, which he has introduced before, would "break Congress’ addiction to spending by tying the salaries of members of Congress to growth in government spending."

Here’s how it would work: The law would require a decrease in the rate of pay for each member of Congress by a specified percentage if outlays for any fiscal year are greater than outlays for the preceding fiscal year. According to a release from the congressman’s office, "if spending increased by 7 percent, members’ salaries would be cut by 7 percent the following year."

Seeing that the country’s population of service-using citizens grows by millions each year, keeping budgets level would be a trick in of itself. But let’s forget about that for the moment — the point is that it sounds good, right?

The real question in all this is: What would a 7 percent pay cut mean to a typical member of Congress?

If we look at Forbes’ official bio, we see that "Randy began his career in private law practice helping small and medium-sized businesses and ultimately became a partner in the largest law firm in southeastern Virginia."

That’s not atypical. There are scads of lawyers in Congress. According to a 2008 report from the Congressional Research Service, at the beginning of the 110th Congress (we are now in the 112th) 215 members of the House and Senate listed their dominant occupation as "law."

Another 215 listed "public service/politics," and 189 listed "business." Many lawmakers list more than one occupation when queried.

It does not take much reading through congressional lawmakers’ online bios to see that a lot of these current/former lawyers, business people, etc. — not all of them, but certainly a lot of them — appear to be relatively successful folks, monetarily speaking.

And of course, there’s the fact that pretty much anyone who leaves Congress — rich or poor, lawyer, politician, teacher, entertainer or business person — can usually score a big-bucks, shoo-in job either inside or outside the Beltway should they want one. When it comes to corporate boards, consulting firms, counseling positions, etc., having been in Congress can add instant cachet to one’s résumé.

But let’s get back to the example: lawyers.

Wanting to see how much attorneys typically make, we did a quick bit of Googling and turned up some widely cited numbers that appeared in the National Law Journal a while back. According to those numbers, the average hourly rate for attorneys at U.S. law firms in 2009 was $372 per hour. The average rate for partners was $457, and $282 for associates.

Now it’s time for the math.

Rank-and-file members of Congress make $174,000 a year. Leaders make more: The Speaker of the House makes $223,500, for example. So if we use the example above that touts H.R. 3136, and subtracted 7 percent ($12,180) from the lawmaker’s salary, that leaves him or her with a measly $161,820. 

First of all, it is highly unlikely that many people run for Congress for the salary. But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment. Even if half of Congress feels financially pinched by the wage cut — not too likely — that leaves a half that won’t be. You aren’t going to budge the rich ones — even if you take away their entire salary. It’s a power thing, pure and simple.

But suppose $161,820 is just not enough for a member, and he decides to leave public service. The ex-member — a partner in a law firm, remember — decides to take it easy, returning the firm and billing maybe 30 hours a week, with a month’s vacation a year. According to the average law partner’s billing rate, that’s $457 x 30 x 48 = $658,080.

Of course, there is overhead for the law office, and so on, but you see where this is going. Losing $12,180 sounds like big bucks to John Q., but to more than a few lawmakers, it’s more like pocket change.

That’s not to say there aren’t church mice in Congress, too. But cuts to lawmakers’ salaries and benefits? It makes for good news bites, maybe. Will they care? Probably not. At least not enough to make anyone flinch.

We’re not saying you can’t buy a politician. But this is probably not the way to go about it.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Oct 21, 2011 at 4:02 PM