Early Returns

Better Pay Can Get Us Better Politicians

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

He's on to something.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jason Chaffetz, the Republican from Utah who is about to resign from Congress, did a useful service on his way out the door: He's calling for a housing stipend for his about-to-be-former colleagues.

As Chaffetz says, "You shouldn’t have to be among the wealthiest of Americans to serve properly in Congress."

The truth is that congressional salaries have stagnated and fallen, while the cost of keeping two homes -- one in Washington and one back home -- has only increased. Members were paid $44,600 in 1975, which would be the equivalent of $209,500 today, but their salaries have been stuck at $174,000 since 2009, and no future pay raise is in sight.

No, they're not going to starve on that level of compensation, and yes, it's very easy to demagogue this issue in an era in which pay has stagnated for those with much more modest incomes.

The truth is, however, that democracy needs talented, ambitious politicians in order to work correctly, and the U.S. version of democracy needs a lot of talented, ambitious politicians. That means setting up an incentive structure to encourage talented, ambitious people to make it a career and keep it as a career -- and, yes, part of that incentive structure needs to be financial. 

One of the potential strengths of the U.S. system is that individual members of Congress can really be serious legislators and political actors. That allows representation to work well; individual districts send people to Congress who do far more than just register a partisan vote on legislation. But nothing requires them to be real political actors. And to the extent that fewer and fewer members of Congress even try to do more than vote their party, Congress loses its power, and the political system as a whole -- and the nation -- loses power. 

To put it another way: The reason to support a well-paid Congress isn't because members of Congress deserve more money; it's because voters deserve better members of Congress. 

1. At the Monkey Cage, Andrew Rudalevige on an opportunity to learn about the Constitution.

2. Rick Hasen has an early report card on Neil Gorsuch.

3. Here at Bloomberg View, Ashley C. Bradford and W. David Bradford on what the attorney general misunderstands about marijuana.

4. Hunter Walker has the numbers on how Donald Trump is ducking the news media. Up through the first 100 days, I think Trump was really just avoiding full solo news conferences but giving a normal number of interviews (and an above-average number of joint news conferences). Since then, however, he's been unusually inaccessible. I'm glad people are tracking this. 

5. Alyssa Rosenberg is smart on Harry Potter and politics

6. And Philip Bump on National Various Things Months proclaimed by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump. 

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    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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