Economist Thomas Sowell believes we don’t pay our elected representatives enough:
What do we do when we want a better car, a better home or a better bottle of wine? We pay more for it. We definitely need a lot better crop of public officials. Yet we insist on paying flea market prices for people who will be spending trillions of tax dollars, not to mention making foreign policy that can either safeguard or jeopardize the lives of millions of Americans.
Any successful engineer, surgeon, or financier would have to take a big pay cut to serve in Congress. A top student from a top law school can get a starting salary that is more than we pay a Supreme Court justice.
No doubt many, if not most, government officials are already paid more than they are worth. But the whole point of higher pay is to get better people to replace them.
We may say that we want people in Congress, the courts or the White House who have some serious knowledge and experience in the real world, not just glib tricksters who know how to pander for votes. But we don’t put our money where our mouth is. …
There are always going to be warm bodies available to fill the jobs in government. We have lots of warm bodies there now. There will also always be some people who are willing to sacrifice their family’s economic security and standard of living, in order to get their hands on the levers of power.
These are precisely the kinds of people whom it is dangerous to have holding the levers of power.
The problem is that those who make careers out of elective office don’t do it for financial reasons. They do it to get and keep power over others, or because they have a different view of how the world should work from what their eyes show them. The only time you hear of politicians getting out of office to make more money in the private sector is because they have some need to make seven-figure salaries.
One truism of economics is that if you pay more for something, you get more of it. To say that, as Sowell does, if you pay more for something you get better-quality something is not always true; whether more means better is always in the eye of the beholder. If we paid politicians more, as night follows day we’d have even more government spending and regulations, and therefore taxes, than we have today. Perhaps the single worst feature of Wisconsin state government is the fact that since 1973, we’ve had a full-time Legislature. That has not only foisted upon us people who shouldn’t be representing anyone, but has expanded Democrats’ and Republicans’ opinions as to what state government should be doing. (The same is the case in Milwaukee, where the city council, school board and county board are all full-time positions.)
As Kevin Binversie put it earlier this year:
The Founders believed the point of public service was for Americans to serve as “citizen-legislators,” who held their offices for a short time and then returned to their regular lives and their regular jobs. By having a “full-time Legislature,” Wisconsin isn’t creating a class of “citizen-legislators,” it’s creating a professional political class more often concerned about playing political games, seeking out even higher office for itself, and finding ways to make life miserable for the rest of us.
Proof of Binversie’s penultimate point is that U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D–Madison) is running to replace retiring Sen. Herb Kohl (D–Wisconsin), and state Rep. Mark Pocan (D–Madison) is running to replace Baldwin, despite the fact that Baldwin is a full-time member of Congress and Pocan is (supposedly) a full-time legislator. And the same can be said, of course, of legislators, Democrat or Republican, running for reelection. The term “full-time” seems to mean something different when appended to “legislator” than those of us working 40-hour weeks, or those of us whose work time is limited only by the number of hours in a week.
Businesses pay people based essentially on their replacement costs — what it would cost them to replace you with someone who does your level of work, in quantity and quality. In the roaring ’90s, “minimum-wage” jobs paid more than minimum wage because the demand for labor exceeded the supply of labor at that pay and skill level. In the sputtering 2010s, the reverse is the case.
The notion that we don’t pay elected officials enough is belied by the nastiness of political campaigns. They are nasty because the stakes are too high, not only between parties, but among those running. Politicians at every level have too much power, and the perks of being in office are clearly too good, even with their supposedly lower-than-private-sector salaries.
I added the word “supposedly” to that last sentence for this reason: Members of the House of Representatives and Senate are paid $174,000 per year. The median net worth of members of Congress, however, is $891,506, and 57 members of Congress are in the top 1 percent of U.S. households in wealth. (By the way, 29 of Congress’ richest 50 and seven of Congress’ richest 10 are Democrats.)
Some members of Congress were wealthy before they got to Washington. Kohl was part of the Kohl retail family. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R–Wisconsin) got his wealth from business success. Clearly, though, you have to have majestically bad personal finance skills to not become wealthy in Washington.
Members of the state Legislature make $49,943 per year. According to the U.S. Census, the average income for a Wisconsinite in the last half of the past decade was almost $27,000, and the median family income in Wisconsin, was almost $52,000. (Wisconsin’s median family income is less than the nation’s, by the way. Thank you, James Doyle.) When you can make half the state’s median family income by yourself, in addition to state employee benefits that are an order of magnitude better than private-sector benefits, you’re doing pretty well.
One of the numerous differences between the private sector and politics is the lack of accountability of the latter group. Well over 90 percent of incumbents get reelected, which proves that some voters vote based on rote, as well as proving the overwhelming advantages incumbents have over non-incumbents. Other voters vote for whoever has their preferred party label. In the private sector, screw up badly enough, and you get fired — immediately (or as soon as Human Resources permits it), not two or four years later.
The solution for all this supposedly is term limits. We have term limits at the presidential level. Do you think presidential performance has improved since Dwight Eisenhower and his successors were limited to two terms each?
Term limits are fundamentally undemocratic because they take a choice away from voters. Term limits are also fundamentally unrepublican because they give other voters veto power over someone they cannot vote for. (Democrats who say that U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R–Fond du Lac) has been in office too long would have the same power as Republicans who say that state Sen. Fred Risser (D–Madison) has been in office too long, when, if you’re not in Petri’s Congressional district or Risser’s state Senate district, you can’t vote for them.) Given the sophistication of the legislative redistricting process, all that term limits would do is replace a politician with a younger version from, much more often than not, the same party.
If Ronald Reagan was seen as having done well by the majority of voters by 1988, or Bill Clinton was seen as having done a good job by the majority of voters by 2000, why should they have been required to leave office? Absent misconduct in public office, the vote remains the only way to remove bad elected officials from office. What politician is accountable to voters — particularly those who are not members of his or her party — in his or last term-limited term? (We may find that out in a few months.)
There is also no evidence that the 15 states with legislative term limits are any better off, however you define that, than states that don’t. California has term limits for its governors and legislature. How’s that worked out?
Paying elected officials more will not make anything better (except their wallets, that is) for two reasons: (1) they’re already better off than most of their constituents at current pay levels, at least in Wisconsin and at the Congressional level; and (2) they’re not in it for the money; they’re in it for the power. An argument could be made that elected officials — at least members of Congress and Wisconsin’s legislators — should be paid substantially less, not more, than they are.