If you felt the ground moving over the past few days, it was likely our Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves after Congressman Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) suggested that members of Congress were — wait for it — underpaid.
What happened to public service? Somehow, over the years, the definition of “public service” has morphed from fulfilling a temporary civic duty — a way to give back to enhance the greater good of the country — into a lifelong career path for senators and representatives to enrich themselves on the dime of those who elected them. A Congressional career pays a minimum of $174,000 per year, with various allowances and a variety of perks. Should you stick around for five years, as an elected member of Congress you become eligible for a pension, paid for by the taxpayers. Not to mention that when you leave office, should you ever decide to or not get re-elected, your high profile status sets you up for a career of public speaking, appearances and consulting gigs, and access to high paying private sector jobs in industries either heavily regulated by the government (e.g., finance/banking) and/or dependent upon the government for revenue (aerospace/defense).
While I believe that appropriate pay and incentives are required to attract top tier talent, I believe that the current salary and benefits are quite attractive. But I also believe — and it seems that most Americans do as well — that we still aren’t attracting the best and the brightest. In fact, Congress has an approval rating that recently hit the single digits. Literally, Congress’s approval rating from the American people has been chronically less than 15 percent and Rep. Moran seems to believe that showing up means he deserves more compensation. It’s not hard to see how the culture of entitlement that is being cultivated in the U.S. starts directly at the top of our “leadership” (and I put that word in quotes intentionally).
Moran likens Congress to a board of directors, saying “but the fact is that this [Congress] is the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world.”
I truly wish that our government was run more like a business and that our officials were treated like board members. A board of directors has a key duty to their stakeholders — a fiduciary duty — that means that the board of directors can be held liable and accountable should they act in a manner that is not in the best interests of the people that they represent. Neither our congressional representation nor our president has any true accountability to their stakeholders. The main recourse the people have is to not vote for them again. Sadly, bad behavior doesn’t prevent them from being re-elected, as Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) showed after going AWOL during his tenure as governor to spend time with his mistress abroad and reimbursing funds used during those trips, yet still being able to run for Congress.
The last thing that we should be doing is rewarding Congress any further for its subpar performance. Rather, we need to restore representation to truly being a public service. To do so, we need to enact term limits to do away with lifetime representation and their ongoing pensions. We need to institute some form of accountability and responsibility for those who have the privilege to represent the people of the United States. We need to ensure that members of Congress attest, under penalty of law, that they have read and understand any bill that they vote for. We need them to abide by the laws of the country or be prohibited from being in office ever again. We need to require them to be held to the same laws and rules that they pass for their constituents and to a reasonable standard of integrity.