Out here in the hinterlands we might find it surprising that members of Congress are itching for raise in their current pay of $174,000 a year. Nervous Republicans, mindful of an election season, have let the House Democrats request their cost of living increase (2.6 percent, or $4,500). Salaries have been frozen for ten years and many say – privately, of course – that things are getting tight.
The topic provides a view to the stark lines of America’s separate economies, zones of America’s haves and have-mores. Big money in some places hardly means big living. A couple earning $200,000 in northern California can barely make ends meet; the pair who earn a combined $300,000 must commute to New York from New Jersey, where housing (from $600,000 up) is affordable.
It’s much the same in Seattle, Portland, parts of Texas, Arizona and Florida. With a mortgage and insurance and children, day care and costs to commute, the appearance of wealth begins to crack, the family upending the sofa pillows for loose change.
Congressional pay would seem enough to get by in Kansas, or at least most of Kansas. In the Washington, D.C. area, not so much – especially for an earner who keeps two homes. In spite of the Pat Roberts mystery, a member of congress should have an address in the state or district she or he represents. And many legislators now find it necessary to be seen at “home” on weekends.
In earlier times, senators and House members often moved their families to Washington or nearby and settled in. Legislators comingled socially, became friends, found common interests in spite of political differences. The Doles grew to like the McGoverns, and Nancy Kassebaum and Ted Kennedy, 3rd-floor neighbors in the Russell Building, often worked together amiably, sorting their differences to find commonality. Pat Roberts convinced many Democrats, even urban ones, to share an interest in American agriculture.
Our legislators then were at a distance, but rarely distant. They stayed in touch, used the telephone a lot, called people at home to find out what moved them, what was working and what wasn’t, and why. When they did come “home,” they usually saw a lot of people, from small crowds to banquet audiences. There was no need then for scripted pep rallies or town hall meetings, no gimmickry, no craving for reassurance.
In those times, legislators were in tune with their people and in touch with their colleagues. They lived mostly in Washington and worked there to advance their disparate parts of America as one.
Today, not so much. Many legislators, especially our own, seem to think they must come “home” every week to attend church, be seen at a ball game, march in a parade, munch at a picnic, or preside at a town rally to explain the stagnancy on Capitol Hill. They spend a lot of time away from the Capitol.
As noted, base congressional pay is $174,000; majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate are paid $193,400. The House Speaker’s salary is $223,500.
This compares with $400,000 for the president and $233,000 for the vice-president. The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court earns $258,100 and associate justices, $246,800.
In Washington the median home value is $580,000; median monthly rent for a small apartment is $2,700, and the tab for a beer, burger and fries can be $30 before any extra ketchup.
In Kansas, government pay drops a lot. The governor’s salary is $99,636; the lieutenant governor (a part-time job) is paid $54,000. The Chief Justice earns $139,000, associate justices, $136,000.
State legislators’ base is $88.66 per day, plus a $144 per diem (non-taxable) for living expenses. Leadership positions are paid slightly more. The daily pay and per diem (total, $232.66) are paid for a 90-day or extended session, and for other official assignments: interim study committees, travel, and meetings of the Legislative Coordinating Council, a leadership panel that acts for the Legislature when it is not in session.
Not long ago our state legislators reconfigured their pension plan. As of 2011, the pensions would be calculated for an annual salary of nearly $86,000, rather than their 90- day base ($8,000, plus $13,000 per diem).
The inflated base was reached by multiplying legislators’ daily salary by 372, the days they would work if in session every day and if every month were 31 days. Total, $32,982.
Next, add the $144 per diem times 372 ($45,756), and toss in an extra $7,083 for miscellaneous expenses away from the Capitol. Total, $85,821. Depending on length of service, former legislators may draw up to $60,000 or more in annual pensions.
For legislators in Washington, full-time pay for work between two homes. (Imagine the effort for those from Hawaii or Alaska.) For Topeka, part-time pay for part-time legislators, and a full-time pension.