Give Congress a raise and reform campaigns, in one swoop

People don’t like Congress, I get it. While you may disagree with the laws they pass or don’t pass, declining pay for the people responsible for writing laws is making for bad public policy. Daniel Schuman has an excellent piece in Slate this morning on the issue:

Adjusting for inflation, pay for congressional staff has been flat for the last 25 years. Only the chief of staff and the legislative director—the top two policy slots in a congressional office—earn more than their 1980s counterparts. As surveys by the Congressional Management Foundation have revealed, many congressional staff are inexperienced newcomers. All too frequently, they don’t have the expertise or experience to understand the nuances of the agencies they’re overseeing, especially when compared with better-paid executive branch bureaucrats who’ve been around for decades.

These young staffers are also up against the older, wiser versions of themselves who now work for special interests. There are just about as many registered lobbyists as congressional political staff on the Hill—about 13,000. With the huge reduction in congressional staff, lobbyists and think tanks often set the congressional agenda and are a major source of expertise about how government works.

Congressional staff depart through the revolving door with alarming speed, as a recentWashington Times story shows. Like senators and representatives, staffers are paid well to leave, and as a London School of Economics study found, they receive an additional pay bump so long as their former boss remains in office.

This is dangerous for our democracy. And not surprisingly, many very competent people no longer want the job. The last two elections brought the largest class of freshman representatives in 60 years. During the same time, the House’s budget has been cut by more than 10 percent, and funding for committees in 2013 will be slashed by an additional 11 percent.

If we want our representatives to work for us, we must pay them well enough to stay focused on the people’s business. We should make sure they have enough competent, experienced assistants to do their own research and draw their own conclusions. Right now we aren’t paying for quality work, and it shows.

As strange as it might sound, raising Congressional pay to attract the best and brightest while addressing campaign finance reform can be done together.

Without much fanfare, Paul Begala and James Carville published a piece in the Washington Monthly back in March of 2006 entitled “Not One Dime.”  They address the most serious problem facing public policy; fundraising. Their plan would raise congressional pay, forbid gifts of any kind, and free them from ever having to raise money again. Members of Congress would be free to legislate because they would be given campaign funds, by taxpayers, equal to 80% of what their campaign opponent raises. They would also be banned from raising campaign funds of any kind, for themselves, PAC’s, whatever. If you want to run for office any citizen, corporation or interest group can write you a check for as much as they like, but that money would have to be disclosed online within 24 hours. Exxon wants to write you a check for $1,000,000? That’s fine, but the incumbent will then get $800,000.

This plan would create publicly financed campaigns that also abide the Supreme Court’s rulings that money is free speech. I couldn’t agree more with Begala and Carville’s summary:

We know our plan is not perfect. Some will argue over whether the plan favors incumbents or challengers. Some will argue whether it favors Democrats or Republicans. Some will argue whether salary increases for politicians are justified.

We have our doubts as well, but if more money from the taxpayers makes it easier for politicians to agree to no money from special interests, it’s a good deal.

At its core, this plan does something no one will argue with: It forever divorces the corrosive–and sometimes corrupting–effect of campaign cash from members of Congress and presidents. When American citizens look at their Congress and White House, they will say what Alexander Hamilton said to a visitor to the newly-constructed U.S. Capitol: “Here, Sir, the people govern.”

The only thing Begala and Carville neglect is staff pay. There I would suggest raising Congressional staff budgets and mandating that a percentage be used to pay staff. With this new plan in place we may also have to address Congressional franking privileges, but that isn’t a huge hurdle.

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