Members of Congress seem more adept at doing nothing and pointing fingers of blame than legislating, which makes discussion of giving them a pay raise an easy target from critics on both sides.
It would not be surprising, though, that the idea of boosting lawmakers’ salaries from a base of $174,000 a year has bipartisan support. The justification some members give for backing the suggestion actually is what makes it worth considering.
Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., understands the political unpopularity of Congress paying itself more, but is willing to take that hit if it means lawmakers couldn’t immediately go from the U.S. Capitol to high-powered lobbying firms. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, agrees with her, setting up perhaps the most unusual union since Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie.
Before people immediately scoff at lawmakers’ inability to get by on $174,000 a year — before taxes, of course — consider the exorbitant cost of living around Washington, D.C. Someone who makes that much in the Beltway only has to make about $108,000 for the same standard of living in the Houston area.
That high cost often leads people like herself, who not long ago was a low-paid worker in the service industry, from seeking government service. That skews the representation as the average member of Congress makes 12 times the average American and almost half of our elected legislators are millionaires.
Those who are not, Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz seem to agree, leave the institution to sell their access to the highest bidder. That provides the former lawmaker a big paycheck and lobbyists access average Americans could never hope to achieve.
So, anyone who wonders how people of modest means who go to Washington leave millionaires, that’s one of the reasons. But even before they leave, they can collect big paydays from those same lobbying organizations for speaking engagements.
About 60 percent of former lawmakers take jobs with lobbying firms once they leave Congress, according to a report from Public Citizen last month. A 2016 paper by Georgia State University political science professor Jeffrey Lazarus and researchers found 25 percent of 1,275 U.S. House members and 29 percent of 254 U.S. Senators who left Congress between 1976 and 2012 registered as lobbyists, with the percentage steadily increasing over time, Public Citizen reported. House members who were party leaders, committee chairs or members of important committees were likely to become lobbyists, the Georgia State researchers found.
Ocasio-Cortez, backed by Republicans in both chambers, believes a larger salary in exchange for a ban on lobbying activities once someone leaves can help stop that revolving door.
“If you are a member of Congress + leave, you shouldn’t be allowed to turn right around & leverage your service for a lobbyist check,” she tweeted in response to Public Citizen’s report. “I don’t think it should be legal at ALL to become a corporate lobbyist if you’ve served in Congress.”
Cruz tweeted back that he agrees and has called for a lifetime ban on lobbying. Freshman Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said he’d be willing to co-sponsor legislation with the New York Democrat.
Proposing and voting in favor of giving themselves a raise “may not be politically popular to say, but honestly, this is why there’s so much pressure to turn to lobbying firms and to cash in on member service after people leave because precisely of this issue,” Ocasio-Cortez told Chad Pergram of Fox News.
If it takes reasonable pay raises for representatives and their staff members to help drain the swamp in Washington, it would be worth the price if more responsible, less money-influenced politics are the result.