Wednesday, December 21

Pay for play

Congress is grumbling at being kept in Washington during Christmas week to vote on several end-of-session bills. Poor diddums.

I'd be quite pleased if they cut Congressmen's and Senator's pay by 50% so that they could work a second job during the year and spend much, much less time cluttering up my adopted city. Such was, and still to some extent is, the British parliamentary model. It is not uncommon there for even high-ranking members of parliament to hold a day job in addition to their seat in the House of Commons. Oliver Letwin, one of the brightest minds in the City, maintained his directorship at Rothschilds until quite recently while holding several shadow secretaryships in the Conservative party. And, of course, Boris Johnson balances his spare time between editing the Spectator magazine, writing an erudite and always entertaining column for the Daily Telegraph, and penning novels, all while serving as shadow Minister for Higher Education. (When he found time to fit in his adulterous assignations, I'll never know.) By contrast, the Senate is doing all it can to prevent Senator Coburn from continuing to practice as an OB-GYN in his spare time. For two interesting discussions of the Coburn debate, see the WSJ and the Washington Post.

While slashing U.S. politicians' pay and workloads sounds just fine to me in the abstract, one likely result would be that only the very rich would be able to afford to stand. It was to avoid this exclusion that the Founding Fathers first proposed a congressional salary--an innovation at the time* (Madison recorded the debate in his Records of the Federal Convention; but the best analysis of the matter is, as usual, provided by Justice Story in his Commentaries, Vol. 2, §§ 849-853). On the other hand, Congress isn't exactly teeming with the working poor under the current system, so the impact would hardly be drastic. As with all such radical changes, however, my conservative procedural instincts counsel caution, so I will add this to my list of opinions I hold but would hesitate to implement.

* Article I, §6 provides that “The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.” The Articles of Confederation had required each State to pay for its own delegates (Art. V) (“Each State shall maintain its own delegates in a meeting of the States, and while they act as members of the committee of the States.”)

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