We Need More Politicians

George Washington - Federal HallOn Tuesday, Daniel Schuman wrote, Congress Deserves a Big Fat Raise. This is something I’ve long supported. I hate the argument that we should pay our elected officials less. These arguments are, at base, nothing but bitterness. What’s more, even if we paid them nothing it would save us a negligible amount of money in the grand scheme of local, state, and (especially) federal budgets.

Schuman focuses exclusively on the Congress and primarily on the fact that current office holders make less than they used to. For example, Representatives made 20% more in 1992 than they do now. What’s more, their staffs have seen no pay increases for longer than that. And the total size of their staffs have decreased between 30% and 40%. What’s more, all of these people could make more in the private sector and this is why most of them will go on to do just that.

The article points out one very important aspect of all of this. Inexperienced staff members go to work in Congress and then end up dealing with lobbyists who not only have more experience, but who used to do those very same jobs. Unfortunately, Schuman doesn’t spend much time at all discussing how this warps the way legislation gets done. One of the most important ways that this happens is by under-staffed (and under-experienced) Congress members ending up relying on lobbyists and other private interests for information about legislation. In fact, these lobbyists often write the legislation. This isn’t technically corruption, but in practice, it is far more harmful than corruption.

Matt Yglesias followed up on this article with one of his own. But he offered a most ridiculous suggestion: pay legislators more by having fewer of them. I think we already have too few legislators. When the United States was founded, there were 68 Representatives for a population of 3,929,214 people. That’s 57,783 people per Representative. Currently, there are 435 Representatives for a population of 313,914,040 people. That’s 721,641 people per Representative. That’s a factor of 12.5 greater. What has happened in the United States that makes it an order of magnitude easier to reflect the opinions of the people? The answer, of course, is: nothing. In fact, it is likely that we ought to have a smaller ratio.

This is an important issue to me and I bring it up a lot in conversation. The reaction of people, almost without exception, is: that would cost a fortune! That just isn’t true. I haven’t been able to find an authoritative estimate of the actual cost of running the House of Representatives. Let’s suppose it is $5 million per Representative per year. (Note: this is about twice the cost estimates that I’ve seen, so my calculation is almost certainly grossly high.) With this assumption, the cost of the House is about $2 billion per year. This is substantially less than 0.1% of the federal budget. Increasing the size of the House by a factor of ten would raise this up to somewhat less than 1% of the federal budget. That isn’t that much to spend to greatly improve democratic access and accountability.

The financial issue could be more important on the state and local levels. But the “people to representative ratio” is not as bad at these levels. The California State Assembly, for example, has the worst people to representative ratio in the nation and it is still only half the corresponding number for the House of Representatives. But Yglesias’ idea of having a single chamber in the states is just ridiculous. The cost of the legislature is not the source of our budget problems. We can increase pay and improve staffs without cutting down on the number of representatives.

Schuman sums up the issue well:

If we want our representatives to work for us, we must pay them well enough to stay focused on the people’s business. We should make sure they have enough competent, experienced assistants to do their own research and draw their own conclusions. Right now we aren’t paying for quality work, and it shows.

We need more legislators and we need to pay them in accordance with the importance of the job they do. We treat teachers the same way: we act like they are scum and pay them as though they are worth about as much. We need to change the way we think. The problem is not them; it is us.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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