(This Analog editorial first appeared in May 1979. It has been updated slightly to make it timely in 2004, but that required little more than changing one number.)
Could I interest you in a job?
Naturally you'd need to know something about the job before deciding, so let me tell you a few of its features. It offers a good salary$150K minimum, probably more by the time you read thisand an excellent package of fringe benefits. It has a good deal of security. Not, to be sure, as much as a king or a college professor, who can be tenured for life, but the holder of this job will be hired for either two or six years, with the possibility of renewal at the end of that period. Of course, there is the possibility that you won't be renewed, but at least until renewal time comes you can be quite confident that your salary will not decreaseregardless of how well you're doing or not doing your job. It may even increaseeither in automatic response to a rise in the cost of living, or because you and your fellow jobholders decide you would like more and therefore help yourselves to it. This last may sound a bit shady, but rest easy: it's all perfectly legal.
One slight possible drawback is that you will occasionally have to put up with being called a "servant"but you wouldn't go into this just for status, anyway, would you? Actually, under the right circumstances, the word servant can acquire a certain noble glow, and you may in time even come to refer to yourself that wayand not without a certain note of pride.
The job, in case you haven't guessed yet, is that of a member of the U.S. Congress. Senators and Congressmen are often referred to as "public servants," but they are elected for terms of six and two years, respectively, and they do get, in addition to many fringe benefits, salaries which are currently at or above $150,000 but are subject to cost-of-living adjustments (voted by Congress itself) and other increases (also voted by Congress). As one of the employers of these servants who has personally never received either a salary that large or the privilege of giving myself raises, I find a number of features of this arrangement at least mildly interesting. I might even respectfully venture to suggest one or two possible modifications of the system.
Consider, to begin, the salary itself. $150,000 per year. Is it remotely conceivable that that's a bit higher than really necessary? Perhaps not. I've been told, for instance, that it needs to be that high to attract the best men and women into the jobs.
Hm-m-m. Do you really believe it's doing that?
I've also read, in interviews with Congressmen and Senators, that their salaries have to be that highand increased as often and as much as they have beenbecause the legislators need that much to live in Washington. I can easily understand that they'd need that much to live in the style to which they like to be accustomedbut to live at all, or even in moderate comfort? Need I point out that many, many people in Washington must and do live on far less? It just might be character-building for our legislators to have some firsthand knowledge of how it feels to do so. In any case, I respectfully submit that a lawmaker who admits he just can't manage on less than $150,000 a year should be judged a priori incompetent to be allowed to meddle in the country's finances.
I propose for consideration that the wages of Congress (and other legislators) should be made high enough that a competent, conscientious, careful person can live fairly well, but not lavishly, on themand low enough that he has to be competent, conscientious, and careful. They should be too small to be a major attraction of the jobwhich implies that the job must provide other attractions that will appeal to competent and conscientious candidates. (At this point you might say, "Many members of Congress are already rich enough that the pay isn't a major consideration anyway ." True enoughbut if you're going to use that argument, what happens to the one about making the salary big enough to attract the best people and let them live in Washington? Be consistent!) It may be asking a lot to want somebody to go into a moderately paid job for largely altruistic motivesbut some people (e.g., some teachers) do just that. Sure, it takes rare peoplebut that's the kind we want, isn't it?
Even if I could sell the idea that legislative salaries should be reduced, there's a big practical obstacle to getting it implemented: the fact that Congress determines its own salary, and very few people, given that power, would voluntarily reduce their own income. It's a rare privilege; I can think of few if any other professions which share it. Other legislators do, of course; the Ohio and Illinois, legislatures, to give two examples from an abundant supply, gave themselves pay raises of 29 and 40 percent, respectively. But that's not a different profession; it's just another example of this one, and much of what I say about Congress applies just as well to state and local legislatures. How many people in other occupations can, singly or collectively, give themselves raises? Top-echelon corporate executives can, at least in some corporationsbut those raises must come from the proceeds of an operation which is frankly intended to make money, and management's raises are at least roughly limited by the extent to which it does. Congress, supposedly, is not in business to make money. A self-employed plumber, basketmaker, or lawyer can raise his feesbut that only constitutes a raise to the extent that his customers are willing to go along with the increased charges. They may not always have much choiceif they really need or badly want a particular service or product, and nobody else is offering it cheaper, they'll pay what they must. In principle, though, the customer in most fields has the option of refusing to pay excessive prices, or to pay for shoddy work, and either doing the job himself or taking his business elsewhere.
Legislators' customers have no such options; Congress has "captive customers." True, a dissatisfied citizen can leave the country ( if he can afford to), but that hardly seems an acceptable recourse. It's unduly drastic, and it's based on hopelessly misordered priorities. The citizens, not Congress, are what the country and its government are here for; Congress needs to accommodate itself to the needs of the people, not the other way around. Congress is a public servant, remember?
A tenured servantand one which can dip into its employer's pockets pretty much at will and take what it claims to need. As a member of that employerthe publicI find it a wee bit odd that my servants can help themselves to raises bigger than my salary (which has literally happened).
There is, you may point out, one more realistic recourse a dissatisfied customer can have: throw the bums out. That is, at the end of the two- or six-year term, an unsatisfactory Representative or Senator can be voted out of office. This option does provide the possibility of replacing individual non-productive or counterproductive employees, but the employers have learned to be a bit cynical about the prospects for finding truly satisfactory replacements. About the only thing they can be sure of is that they're not going to get anybody who will do the same job, or a better one, for less money.
(Which raises an interesting question for some writer out there to consider. Could a government be made to work with its members chosen on a competitive-bidding basis? For example, suppose candidates run for office, as they do nowbut instead of running for a job at a fixed salary paid from federal funds, each candidate states the salary he will accept as part of his platform. The figure he "bid" is what the winner is paidnot by the federal government, but by his own constituents in the state or district that elected him. Sure, there are problemsbut don't dismiss it out of hand. Try to figure out how it could work, and see what flaws remain you've done your best. The present system isn't free of them, either, you know.
And this proposal, I gently suggest, should encourage the voters to pay a little closer attention to what they're paying for representation and whether they're getting their money's worth. It just might even encourage the congressmen themselves to give a little more thought to how to provide maximum service for minimum cost. )
Assuming that a way could be found to wrest some control of legislative pay away from the legislators and give it to those they serve, I have one final suggestion about how that pay should be determined. While any wages need to be adjusted periodically in response to changing times, an automatic cost-of-living increase would seem to be exactly the wrong way to go about it in the special case of Congress. In days of galloping inflation, such increases seem almost necessary for many people. (Maybe . . . though I don't really understand economics well enough to be sure how much they cure and how much they contribute to the problem. I'm not sure anybody else does, either, including the economists who claim to.)
But for Congress and other legislators, pay raises even roughly proportional to the inflation rate seem most inappropriate. Government is supposed to establish policies to help keep the economy healthy; everybody seems to agree that inflation is unhealthy and is in fact one of the main economic diseases that government should treat. A cost-of-living increase for legislators actually rewards people who should be helping to control inflation for failure to do so. The reward is in direct proportion to the extent of the failure, yet: the farther they fall short of solving the problem, the more extra pay they get!
The irony in this is quaint, but only briefly amusing. I propose this: an inflation-controlled, negative cost-of-living adjustment for legislators and other such officials. For example, if the inflation rate this year is 9%, next year's legislative salaries are reduced 9%. That mightat least for those legislators for whom salary is significantprovide a real incentive to find something that works on inflation.
Of course, not being really as nasty a man as I may seem at this point, let me add in closing that I believe in carrots as well as sticks. If the cost of living goes down, legislators' salaries would go up by the same percentage.
In that case, there'd be at least circumstantial evidence that they'd earned it.