Congressional Pay: Lower pay means more corruption?

Too much money in politics or too much politics in money?

"Hush money--or money for the sewer," by Frank Beard, Judge V. 5, March 1, 1884, pages 8-9.
“Hush money–or money for the sewer,” by Frank Beard, Judge V. 5, March 1, 1884, pages 8-9.
From Library of Congress
Frank Beard (1842-1905). | Interview (1895)

First, let me point out that congressional salaries already put members of Congress in the top 5%. So it’s not surprising to find that so many are well off financially. In fact, it’s been this way since the beginning of the 20th Century. Matt Glassman wrote a great post about a month ago on the history of congressional pay. In part this is because higher pay insulates members from corruption (at least the really bad kind: Teapot Dome Scandal, etc). A member is less likely to take a bribe if they are making 175k than 50k. Are members paid too much? You can decide that yourself. Just know that with decreased pay comes a higher risk of corruption.

But the more important point is that when averaged in constant dollars congressional pay hasn’t fluctuated all that much. So the notion that today this is somehow a much more relevant factor than usual would have to assume that today’s populist rhetoric plays an important role in Congress’s disapproval. That’s not out of the realm of possibility. However, is it the reason congressional approval is so low? Probably not. There are a multitude of other factors that have a more pressing influence such as gridlock, the success of the 111th Congress, and intra-Congress conflict (e.g. polarization, caustic political attacks, etc) (Durr, Gilmour, and Wolbrecht 1997, gated), the process of making legislation itself (Hibbing 2001, gated), and not to mention the performance of the economy overall. And since congressional approval has been both high and low despite members’ pay, it probably doesn’t have a huge effect.

Congressional Salary = Congressional Disapproval?” by Joshua Huder, Rule 22, December 28, 2011 (links omitted)

Some argue that there’s too much money in politics, I would argue that it’s just the opposite – there’s too much politics in money.

One source of that increasing income inequality . . .” Liberal Order, December 26, 2011

For a table showing congressional pay since 1789, see our “Pay and Perquisites of Members of Congress, Including A History of House and Senate Salaries.”

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