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One Man, One Vote, One Dollar

A modest proposal for fixing congressional salaries.
by Jim Swift
June 13, 2019
One Man, One Vote, One Dollar
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / photo credit: GettyImages)

Now that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has weighed in on Congressional pay, the issue has been given a quick death by acute political radiation poisoning: The freshman socialist supported raising congressional pay until it was discovered that Republican leadership also supported it so, obviously Democrats had to bail on the $4,500 cost of living adjustment.

It’s a quaint reminder of why we can’t have nice things.

So what are we supposed to do with congressional pay? On the one hand, our representatives are paid quite well: $174,000 a year. On the other hand, the real money comes when members leave government and have the chance to cash in on their connections by lobbying and fixing and generally doing the stuff that adds not a ton of value to the macro economy but pays through the roof.

It’s difficult to untangle the incentives. Maybe you want to pay our representatives more, so that the world of post-government lobbying isn’t as attractive. But then you don’t want a House seat to become a sinecure where people are running for office because the pay is good. The moral hazards are everywhere.

So maybe it’s time to think outside the box. Maybe we ought to incentivize our elected representatives the way most of us are incentivized at work: Through performance-based pay.

What if—and you have to work with me here—we paid House members a dollar in salary for every vote they get?

If you think that sounds crazy, just compare it to our current system.

Congressional pay is a fraught topic. If you’re older, you might think that members of Congress get free retirement, or if you’re younger, you might think they get free healthcare. Neither of which is quite true.

But don’t worry. We don’t need to get into the intricacies of the Social Security Amendments of 1983, or the merits of CSRS or FERS. Because your eyes would glaze over. Mine already are, and I actually care about this stuff.

Instead, let’s focus just on salaried compensation for House members. I would argue that we are underpaying Congress (and their staff). This is an unpopular position.

As a philosophical matter, we’re not undercompensating all members of Congress, mind you. Iowa’s Steve King, for example, is still there collecting a paycheck and naming bills after Fox News personalities because he has nothing better to do and no committees on which to serve. That guy is in the congressional version of the rubber room and he’s absolutely robbing taxpayers blind.

But aside from him, most members fall into one of three categories: There are well-meaning, hard-working members who are . . . for lack of a better term, wheel spinners. They just don’t get anything done. Others are true sluggers who achieve more than the public knows. Some are glory hounds. But unless they’re in the leadership, everyone gets paid the same.

And since there’s no way to pay for merit, anytime Congress thinks about raising pay across the board, the American public gets pissed. Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on in this time of polarization, it’s that Congress sucks.

Of course a Congress can’t actually give itself a raise. That’s because of the 27th Amendment, which stipulates that all congressional pay raises must apply to future Congresses. But they can give themselves cost-of-living adjustments that can take place more or less immediately.

So what if we scrapped the entire idea of flat congressional pay and tried to think of it as an elaborate GoFundMe. (I hear that those are popular among the kids these days.)

No, I don’t mean a literal GoFundMe. That would be dumb. But let’s go with the idea of Congressional wages paid for by donations—because that’s basically what your taxes are.

But what if we treated your vote for a representative as a willingness to make a donation of $1 toward their salary?

According to the Census Bureau:

The average size of a congressional district based on the 2010 Census apportionment population will be 710,767. . . Based on the 2010 Census apportionment, the state with the largest average district size will be Montana (994,416), and the state with the smallest average district size will be Rhode Island (527,624).

The member with the highest potential salary would be Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT). You may remember him from the time he assaulted a reporter in 2016. He won reelection in 2018 with 256,661 votes. So for that term, he would be paid $256,661 a year. The member with the lowest earning potential would be Rep. James Langevin (D-RI). In his last reelect he received only 126,476 votes. Which means he would take a pay cut.

But since he’s been in Congress for the better part of 20 years, his voters tend to like him enough to keep sending him back, so maybe we could set a floor at the current salary of $174,000. It’s not exactly fair, but life never really is.

The idea, really, boils down to this: Politicians always talk about wanting to “earn your vote.” Well, let’s actually incentivize them to actually earn every possible vote they can. This means that a representative who actually leads and gets things done and motivates constituents to turn out for him can make more money.

Is this a perfect scheme? Obviously not.

What do you do about uncontested races in “safe” districts? Well, for one thing, there seem to be fewer truly “safe” districts as both parties are challenging each other more and more. And for another thing, maybe having congressional pay based on number of votes cast would incentivize politicians to stop gerrymandering districts, since representatives from gerrymandered districts would probably be paid less on average than reps from competitive districts.

And what would you do about freshmen? They’d probably have to be brought in under some sort of rookie minimum number. It’s not quite fair to have them graded by voters before they’ve had the chance to do the job.

(As for senators, many of whom would be making millions under this plan, they’d be compensated differently. The second phase is repealing the 17th Amendment and returning the selection of senators to state legislators. And then we task the states with figuring out a way to pay them.)

There would be problems and unintended consequences. But it would also be deeply satisfying for voters because it would give them some measure of actual control over their elected representatives.

Look: A dollar isn’t much. It buys you a McDouble. You probably donate more to the guy on the corner in a given week, or round up your tip for good service at a restaurant or coffee shop. But the point is that when you walk into a voting booth, you’d get to decide if you are willing to donate a dollar to the person who says they want your vote. And if you think both options suck? Don’t vote at all or write somebody in. That’s one less dollar that the eventual winner will take home. And you cost them that dollar.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

Giving “We the People” a say in how our elected officials are compensated seems like a crazy idea. But the current system has maximized pandering and minimized the quality of people running for office.

Could it really happen? Almost certainly not.

But one of the upsides of the Trump presidency is that it has redefined our sense of the possible. If I hopped into a time machine, went back to 2004, and asked you which was more likely—Congress adopting merit pay or Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States, which would you have said?

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.