Legislators deserve to get paid, if they earn it

Tuesday, February 26, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:50 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

Having been assigned to Washington D.C.’s Capitol Hill for five years, I am not one whose blood pressure erupts with each annual pay raise for members of Congress. Nor am I impressed by the sanctimonious few who vote against accepting the money. The increase is governed by an annual cost of living adjustment, which is automatic unless voted down by the Congress — which is about as likely as suspension of the law of gravity.

The current salary for members of the House and Senate (the leadership of both is paid at a slightly higher rate) is $169,300 per year, a compensation hardly out of line when compared with that of corporate executives, athletes, entertainment personalities, et al. Adding the requirement that they must maintain two residences, one in Washington and one in their home district/state, along with the responsibility of representing you and me in the Legislature, they are actually a bargain at that price.

Our elected representatives are, for the most part, individuals who have records of success in their respective fields, in medicine, military, law, education, business and agriculture. Some are successful enough in their own right that they refuse their salary while many earn far less than they could in their professions. Is it unreasonable that the public servants we hire (elect) to represent our interests be compensated with a decent wage?

Conversely, the public should expect the duly elected official to do the job he or she was sent to perform. The congressional plate certainly does not suffer for want of substantive issues demanding attention; immigration reform, overhauling Social Security, foreign communications surveillance, national security and funding the war on terror are but a few of the most pressing.

More often than not, however, the legislative branch invests its best efforts in such trifling avenues as regulating the amount of water used in the flushing of toilets, phasing out the venerable incandescent light bulb in favor of the compact florescent light, and holding unproductive partisan hearings on the firing of seven federal prosecutors.

These selections are but a random sample of congressional probing and meddling in areas better left to the marketplace or to adult leadership. The downsizing of the toilet tank capacity from 3.5 to 1.8 gallons as an initiative to conserve water failed as it now takes up to three flushes to accomplish what formerly required one. The new light bulbs cost six-times as much as the old ones, hardly a bargain when balanced against the uncertain benefit. And, while touted as an investigation into criminal abuse of federal prosecutor selection and retention, that those officials serve at the pleasure of the president marked the Senate and House hearings as mere political witch hunts aimed solely at embarrassing the administration.

When it comes to political grandstanding though, nothing whets appetites for activating the congressional three “P’s” — preening, posturing and pontificating — as do televised hearings relating to professional sports. These “dog and pony shows” enable members to pose as guardians of truth, justice and the American way, uninhibited by meddlesome obligatory facts, due process, courtesy to witnesses or even responsibility for their actions.

The recent House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearings on the Mitchell Report of illegal use of steroids in baseball was no exception. The Waxman panel alternately badgered and praised witnesses called before it, most of them probably guilty; however, the evidence was based largely on uncorroborated hearsay and “he said, he said” accusations.

At day’s end, Waxman, Davis and others had basked in the televised sun, the witnesses remained objects of unrequited suspicion, and the evidence so sullied as to be useless in a court of law. Once more, Congress’s interference in matters better suited to the private sector and the courts achieved the predictable results: none. We also relearned that a very dangerous place indeed is between a member of Congress and a TV camera.

As a republic, we elect those who represent us and should not quibble over compensating them in a manner that attracts qualified applicants. But, when they fail to rectify or even consider the aforementioned Social Security or immigration reforms and adjourn with communications surveillance in a state of limbo, should we not, as the electorate, question their priorities — and continue until answers are forthcoming?

J. Karl Miller of Columbia is a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be reached via e-mail at

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