Pay Congress more -- seriously! The case for making them rich

We all hate Congress, sure, but if we hate the influence of the rich we need to make lawmakers richer

Published April 7, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner                                       (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Jim Moran recently took up the sort of cause that only a retiring member of Congress would ever take up: He believes that members of Congress aren't paid well enough. Members of Congress make $174,000 a year. That's well above the median American income. It's more than the average constituent of Jim Moran makes. But Jim Moran is also kind of right.

Obviously no one wants to give members of Congress a lot of money, because they barely do anything and many of them are terrible, but a Congress that is made up of rich-but-not-super-rich people is going to be more corruptible than a Congress of really rich people. Members of Congress are rich, but their salaries don't make them rich-rich. Some members of Congress are independently rich-rich, but few are mega-rich. The American 1 percent is not doing well compared to the .01 percent, and their proximity to super-wealth only makes them more anxious.

So here's the case for giving members of Congress million-dollar salaries: Fewer members would quit to get rich in the private sector as bankers or lobbyists. And in a world where campaign finance regulations are constantly getting gutted by the courts, paying members a fortune and letting them fund their own campaigns is basically halfway to public financing of elections. Everyone loves it when a billionaire candidate like Michael Bloomberg promises to be "above politics" because he can fund his own election, so why not let members of Congress do the same?

Not many ideas are going to be less popular in this political environment than "pay Congress more," on account of everyone hating Congress and Congress being full of terrible lazy morons. But the ideal of the citizen-legislator, paid a pittance, has always strongly benefited the independently wealthy. Our politicians already spend an inordinate amount of time begging for money from zillionaires, and they already advance the interests of their funders far more often than they advance the interests of regular folk, so paying them more ought to only lessen the desperate lifestyle envy that leads to things like Robert McDonnell's pathetic gift scandal. Our options are either full public financing of elections combined with much more equitable tax redistribution, or making Congress just rich enough to stop relying so heavily on the largess of the super-rich, and one of those seems like a much more reasonable goal.

This is my case: The downside to making Congress richer is that they will be more out of touch with the needs of non-rich constituents. But they are already completely out of touch with the needs of non-rich constituents. It can't really get worse, as the last few years have showed. So unless we're prepared to begin the violent class war (and I'm good with that, just let me know), we ought to try to free our lawmakers from reliance on wealthier benefactors.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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