Nobody (or almost nobody) likes the idea of special treatment for members of Congress. They ought to live like us, be like us, share in our struggles and inconveniences, not like some cosseted elite off in their capitol on a hill.

Nevertheless, the time has come to give them a raise. And the American public, particularly those who make the least, deserve one too. So why can't we do them together?

Let's start with the regular people. It has now been 10 years since we raised the federal minimum wage in the United States; we're about to surpass the longest period without an increase since the minimum wage was first enacted in 1938. Working full time at $7.25 an hour, you'd be making only around $15,000 a year, well below the poverty threshold for even a two-person family.

The reason the minimum wage hasn't been increased in so long comes down to one word: Republicans. Pretty much every Democrat supports raising it, but an increase can't pass, because Republicans are opposed. In addition, nearly every state that hasn't raised its own wage beyond the federal government's is run by Republicans.

The standard Republican answer to calls for increasing the minimum wage - and I wish I were joking about this, but I'm not - is that we shouldn't do it because what they want is for people to make even more than that. It's like saying to a hungry person, "We could give you a sandwich, but what I really want is for you to someday enjoy a steak and lobster dinner. So no sandwich."

What has happened in the past is that the minimum wage has been increased, then some time passes, Democrats start advocating another increase, Republicans resist it, and eventually the pressure gets great enough that Republicans relent. But perhaps because their party has become more conservative in recent years and more committed to its vision of tax cuts for the wealthy and a compliant, low-wage workforce with no ability to bargain collectively, the GOP isn't budging.

Partly in response to that intransigence and more importantly as a response to effective grassroots organizing, today a $15 minimum wage is pretty much the consensus in the Democratic Party. Most Democrats also believe that once we raise it we should index it to inflation. The minimum would go up automatically to keep pace with the cost of living, and we would no longer have to rely on the generosity of Republicans for people at the bottom of the income ladder to get a raise.

An increase combined with indexing to inflation would solve the immediate economic problem and the long-term political problem. Which is why that's what Congress tried to do with its own salaries.

Like anybody else, members of Congress would like a raise from time to time, but they also don't like the idea that their next opponent will run ads saying, "While you were working hard, Congressman Forehead was voting to raise his own pay!" Which is why every time the issue comes up, everyone is skittish about it.

This was a problem we thought had been solved three decades ago when a system of automatic cost of living increases was put in place, relieving members of the necessity of voting themselves pay increases. The only trouble is that it didn't keep them from voting to stop themselves from getting an increase, which is what they've done every year since the Great Recession hit. Once that becomes the norm, not doing it can become fodder for an attack.

Which it has once again, now that this issue has returned. Democrats and Republicans thought they had an agreement to include a pay increase in a budget bill and not attack each other over it, but then the National Republican Campaign Committee started calling Democrats "socialist elitists" for wanting a pay increase, and freshman Democrats who want to maintain their reformist bona fides said they didn't want to vote for a pay increase, and the whole thing broke down.

There are some excellent reasons to raise congressional pay, which has been frozen for as long as the minimum wage. The current $174,000 salary may seem like a lot, but if you have to maintain two homes (one in Washington and one in your district), it really isn't.

Furthermore, the lower the pay for members of Congress is, the more incentive they have to leave government service and cash in as lobbyists, a case made by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who set a minimum salary of $52,000 for her own staff, much higher than what you see in most Capitol Hill offices. The last thing we want is for pay to be so low that only independently wealthy people will want to run for Congress.

So the solution here is obvious: Join the minimum wage and congressional salaries together. Give low-wage workers and members of Congress a raise together, and simultaneously index the minimum wage to inflation. Then we can argue about something else.

(13) comments

Blueline

Tie Congressional salaries to the annual deficit, like a profit sharing plan. Give them a base of $50K, and then they can earn performance points for additional compensation. If the debt increases they don't get anything. The argument that they are underpaid is a canard. Most are millionaires, and many became so while in Gov't service.

francesca_easa

Great idea Blueline.

Comment deleted.
DickD

Even if Congress was to punch in and out, how would you know how much or little they worked.? And why should anyone tip for good service, if the waitressesor waiters are making $15 per hour. Still that might not be a bad idea because the tip would no longer be compensation that the restaurant owner is not giving.

DickD

While I don't care if Congress gets a raise the workers for low paid industry do need a raise and raising the minimum to $15 per is reasonable.

gabrielshorn2013

For all workers Dick? NYC as well as rural Idaho? Is the cost of living the same in both locations?

francesca_easa

Sorry Gabe. Everyone who works, no matter where, should get minimum wage of $15/hour. And even then, you could not live in that ANYWHERE in the U.S.

gabrielshorn2013

Anywhere in the US? That is $31,200 for a single person. Two married people, or two single roommates on minimum wage is $62,400. There are many places in the US where that is a livable wage. https://www.thebalancesmb.com/states-with-lowest-cost-of-living-4137935

DickD

NYC and Idaho, two opposites. Even with two people, each working 40 hours, you couldn't live on it in NYC. In Idaho, you would be on top of the world. But what makes you think all work 40 hours and what makes you think two would live together and share?

jsklinelga

DickD Methinks you sidestepped Gabriel's point. A restaurant in Idaho operates on an entirely different financial budget than one in NY, LA or SF. $15.00 an hour may break an Idahoan's budget. A worker with no work would not be on top of the world. That is the problem with Federal requirements. Far too often we see the folks in the heavily populated areas try to dictate to the rural areas.

Comment deleted.
MD1756

Let's not forget all the farm workers (particularly seasonal ones) who aren't paid minimum wage and many are exposed to chemicals used by the farmers (corporate farmers and the smaller farmers).

MD1756

Many members of Congress only work three day work weeks. The rest of the time they spend asking for money for their campaigns. Consider our congressional representatives and senators as better than interns. They get a great pay for a 3 day work week and law firms, lobbyists, major corporations line up to pay well into 6 or even 7 digits when the politicians leave office. They are not hurting for money. If you think those in congress deserve annual raises, what about all federal workers. I think the last ten years I worked for the EPA, 4 or 5 years my wages were frozen, and the rest were significant'y below the rate of inflation for a full time work schedule. Maybe you can give members of congress a higher salary when they actually do their jobs. As just one example, when was the last time Congress passed funding bills on time (in April prior to the next fiscal year)? When they don't, it forces agencies and departments to be inefficient with their funds which wastes tax payer dollars. Why does Congress waste money and time on issues that aren't critical? Why does Congress expand programs when they don't fund current critical infrastructure at appropriate levels? Until they do, they should not get any raises (or maybe not even get paid).

gabrielshorn2013

Agreed MD1756. There is a serious lack of prioritization in politics. Whatever the latest popular political issue is will get the funding in order to pander to potential voters. When roads and bridges are built, their maintenance should automatically be funded in every budget. We should not have to wait until one falls down before maintenance is thought of. Creating a Pareto chart of all projects, funding the most important first until the available funds run out, then stopping funding of the less important ones would stop the deficit spending, unless there is a national emergency.

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