Congressional Salary = Congressional Disapproval?

Aaron Blake (aka The Fix) at Washington Post recently wrote about congressional disapproval with respect to member salaries. It’s an interesting take but I have a couple points to make about it. First, let me point out that congressional salaries already put members of Congress in the top 5%. So it's not surprising to find that so many are well off financially. In fact, it’s been this way since the beginning of the 20th Century. Matt Glassman wrote a great post about a month ago on the history of congressional pay. In part this is because higher pay insulates members from corruption (at least the really bad kind: Teapot Dome Scandal, etc). A member is less likely to take a bribe if they are making 175k than 50k. Are members paid too much? You can decide that yourself. Just know that with decreased pay comes a higher risk of corruption.

But the more important point is that when averaged in constant dollars congressional pay hasn’t fluctuated all that much. So the notion that today this is somehow a much more relevant factor than usual would have to assume that today’s populist rhetoric plays an important role in Congress’s disapproval. That’s not out of the realm of possibility. However, is it the reason congressional approval is so low? Probably not. There are a multitude of other factors that have a more pressing influence such as gridlock, the success of the 111th Congress, and intra-Congress conflict (e.g. polarization, caustic political attacks, etc) (Durr, Gilmour, and Wolbrecht 1997, gated), the process of making legislation itself (Hibbing 2001, gated), and not to mention the performance of the economy overall. And since congressional approval has been both high and low despite members' pay, it probably doesn't have a huge effect.

The bigger point is the research suggests that congressional approval is not an “out of touch” problem. Rather, it’s an “in touch” problem. It’s easy to point out all the ways that members of Congress are different than the average citizen. However, those differences don’t make Congress unrepresentative. There is a host of research illustrating that voters kick out members that fail to represent their interests. Rather, the problem is that as a collection of 535 different and diverse interests Congress is representing all of those interests so well that there is little to no consensus. In other words, it cannot draft legislation that a majority of members can agree on. This is normally the case when the two chambers are controlled by different parties. However, the rules in each chamber make parties so powerful that it exacerbates this problem. So again, it’s not that Congress is out of touch. Rather, it’s more likely too in-touch with their party and constituents to effectively see past differences to find common ground and legislate; which too his credit, Blake includes in his article. Put simply, people blame Congress for doing its job. Congressional salaries may be icing on the cake, but in large part I doubt it significantly moves the needle if at all.