Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 1, 2014

Hey, Congress: This Might Be Why They Hate You

Protest 19 093013 600x399 Hey, Congress: This Might Be Why They Hate You

A protester during the partial government shutdown in fall 2013. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The median American household income was $51,371 in 2012. That’s $122,000 and change less than a rank-and-file member of Congress.

A lot of ink already has been spilled criticizing Rep. James P. Moran’s insensitive comments to CQ Roll Call’s Hannah Hess last week about members of Congress being “underpaid.” To be fair, Washington, D.C., is not a cheap place to live, and salaries are higher here than the national average. Moran’s district in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia had a 2012 median income of $88,233.

But I’ll remind the Virginia Democrat, who fretted pay has “been frozen for three years,” that regular raises and adjustments for cost-of-living are few and far between for the American people. Things are more expensive and wages are flat.

Is Moran an easy target? Absolutely. And he’s not alone.

Outside of the words he spoke, it would be difficult to paint Moran as an elitist snob. He’s among the poorest members. He was raised in a working-class Massachusetts family, commutes to work in a car, not an airplane, and he’s seen his share of hard times. As one of Congress’ more liberal members, Moran has advocated for policies that would boost the poor, increase the minimum wage and invest in programs that would aid low-income communities.

But when you earn six figures, plus more than the national median income above that, you are not underpaid. Period. This is one reason the American people view you as completely out of touch.

A voter might wonder when hearing something like that — from Moran, or from Republican Reps. Michael McCaul or Renee Ellmers — how members of Congress could possibly understand the average American’s life and daily struggle to make ends meet.

By just about any measure, a member’s job is not difficult. Getting there in a hard-fought campaign might have been a challenge, but the work isn’t.

There is no physical labor involved. You can rely on a professional corps of staffers. Your retirement fund is not only secure, it’s guaranteed for life. You work in a beautiful, air-conditioned building in nice offices in a city where there are people sleeping on the streets.

I’ve given some speeches lately about politics in Washington, and I usually include a punchline that Congress’ record-low approval ratings have helped people working as similarly unpopular journalists and stock brokers breathe a sigh of relief.

I appreciate the material, but c’mon.

(See another take over at Hawkings Here: A Case for Moran: ‘Underpaid’ Is Accurate)

While I’m on the subject of how America basically hates you, quit it with the secret votes.

It was bad enough when Senate leaders agreed to keep the debt limit roll call vote off the microphones in a major departure from tradition that had journalists crying foul. In that case, at least the citizens — your bosses, if you will — could go check it out later and know which way you voted. (And who switched. Yeah, our reporters noticed that one.)

But the spectacle late last month on the House floor to pass a “doc fix” measure that didn’t have enough votes should infuriate the American people. It sure pissed off some of your rank-and-file members. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., on the floor to witness the shenanigans, told CQ Roll Call’s Daniel Newhauser, “It made me feel sick.”

Massie was one of a handful of lawmakers present as Arkansas Republican Rep. Steve Womack called for a voice vote — in the span of just more than 40 seconds. As Massie put it, he couldn’t believe “more than 400 members would be misled into thinking there’s no vote and then for the vote to occur.” (Just go watch the video.)

This is not how the people’s House should work.

We all remember when the dead-of-night Medicare prescription drug program vote was held open for three hours as Republicans scrambled to pull together a coalition. People who live and work outside of this town learn about things like that and shake their heads.

And I remember when, in July 2004, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer told reporters the GOP was wrong to stretch votes out beyond 10 or 15 minutes. “I would call a corrupt act leaving the ballot open for so long that obviously the only thing that is happening is the subversion of the will of the members and forcing them in effect to vote the way you want,” the Maryland Democrat said then.

So consider this astonishing description from Dan’s “doc fix” story:

Republican aides said at the time that the bill would most likely be pulled from consideration because it did not have the votes. Yet emerging from the room, [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor told reporters, “We’re still working on it.”

Cantor left the room briefly to meet with Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. That’s when the two leaders, with the backing of their respective leadership and committee chairmen, struck an agreement to call for a voice vote on the House floor without objection, members and aides said. Earlier in the day Hoyer said he would have voted against the bill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked if she went along with the voice vote plan, simply said, “Yes.”

You’re better than this. All of you.

About nine years ago, just as I was starting to cover Congress for the first time, someone asked me if anyone serving in the House or Senate was in it for altruistic reasons. This was around the time of Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham and Mark Foley, with Jim Traficant not far in the rear-view mirror, and to this outsider visiting the city for the first time, they all seemed like jerks.

I didn’t hesitate to defend Congress. Oh, definitely. Plenty of people are in it for the right reasons, I said. I believed it then, and I believe it now.

Whatever you’ve become, you came to Washington for a common purpose: to help others. Power makes it possible.

When I travel around the country, the most frequent question I’m asked is whether things will get better in Washington. I always say that, in the short term, more gridlock is around the corner, because no one genuinely wants to accomplish anything in an election year, and because wedge issues are called wedge issues for a reason. But then I say the media can do a better job not only to hold lawmakers accountable to the voters, but also in being more responsible, less sensational. You can hardly blame politicians for playing to television cameras and Internet traffic because we allow them to do it. Inflammatory rhetoric is rewarded with attention.

So I tell people we can both step up, and that they can demand a better government and a better media.

And in this particular case, Congress deserves all the negative attention it gets. It’s getting harder to stick up for you.

If you want to show the American people you’re not out of touch, that you get it, you’re going to have to try harder to earn that big paycheck.

 

Related: 

The 50 Richest and ‘10 Poorest’ Members of Congress

Jim Moran, John Boehner Sought Congressional Pay Raise Reform as Freshmen

  • Jack Everett

    Moran is probably a Koch plant or Bohener bar buddy.

    • Layla

      Stick to topics you know something about, Jack.

  • mikem42

    I have liked Moran for the most part and his stance on things, but he is out of touch on this. If he isn’t earning enough money to live the lifestyle he wants, resignation is available. The job could go to someone who believes in being a public servant who will work for the well being of their constituents, and not worry about enriching themselves. His health care and percs alone top the value of many low paid Americans wages. Shame on him.

  • Layla

    Wow, an honest article and well written, Christina. After spending nearly 20 years of my life working for Members of Congress, I share your feelings on this. I don’t know who these people are anymore. They openly take on their own constituency, indicating if nothing else, a lack of common sense and remembering who it is that you work for. Your bosses are the American people and if you keep up the current pace, the American people are going to fire you, justifiably.

  • JosefJohann

    Bollocks.

    Your thesis is just irritating. The fact is, by and large members of congress put in long hours, and could almost all be making a lot more money elsewhere.

    Just because collecting trash is more physically demanding than any desk job has absolutely no correlation to how much pay is appropriate for a garbage collector and how much is appropriate for the wide variety of desk jobs. If you want to know if you, as a garbage collector, are underpaid, you compare yourself to other garbage collectors, not other professions who burn a similar number of calories in discharging their daily duties.

    The market sets wages for most positions, but not for members. The salary the average member commanded working in the private sector is probably the best proxy for setting the overpaid/underpaid line, and I’d guess that they’d be averaging a load more money in the private sector.

    The power wielded by a member of congress is plenty of payment to elicit candidates to fill every position, but do you really want to have only candidates who can afford to take in zero income because they just want the power? As it is, I don’t think that everyone who takes a pay cut to run does so out of a spirit of service…

    • Layla

      Members of Congress put in long hours? You have GOT to be somebody’s Chief of Staff. I scheduled for Members of Congress for over 20 years. They work part time and anybody on the hill knows it. These people are public servants and should not be living a standard higher than those who trusted them enough to send them to Washington.

      • JosefJohann

        Feel bad for whichever district you scheduled for… sounds like they weren’t getting their money’s worth… I’d suggest voting said official out of office.

        Not saying they spend all their time writing bills, but if you want to maximize the benefit to your state/district then you sure as heck need to play some politics, and if you want to keep your job you’d better spend quite a bit of time raising money and pressing the flesh (more time raising money if you do it with small donors). All that stuff takes up quite a bit of time, even if it means you are hitting two dinners a night and that doesn’t seem like work to some folks.

    • Phil Perspective

      Your thesis is just irritating. The fact is, by and large members of congress put in long hours, ..

      Do you know how many more scheduled days they have to work this year? Less than 70! For the rest of the year!

      • JosefJohann

        Yeah… that just isn’t very representative of how much work the Congress and congresspeople are doing… I’m not going to applaud them for showing up and holding a bunch of votes with no intention of passing legislation.

        I’d rather have them hashing things out in offices, or back in their districts meeting with constituents, not spending their day making sure they make it to each of the five votes to repeal Obamacare because if they don’t their primary challenger is going to hammer them for not hating it diligently enough.

        I’m plenty fed up with Washington and the way things have been headed for the last decade and a half or so; it’s just irksome when people seize on all this stuff that doesn’t matter, at the expense of time spent talking about the stuff that does. I’m not even arguing that reps should be paid more, just that this article was intellectually lazier than Snorlax.

    • Little_Tin_God

      The only “long hours” Congress puts in is campaigning for $s. With the recent SCOTUS decision in favor to eliminating limits on how much money people can donate in total in one election season Congress will spend even less time on the electorates business and more time raising more money to get re-elected.

      That vibration from the ground you feel is from the Founding Father’s spinning a supersonic speed.

      • JosefJohann

        Nah, the latest SCOTUS decision increases the eligibility of less than a thousand donors. Won’t really effect how much time they spend raising money unless it is by non-establishment people having to work even harder to compete with those benefiting from serial donors.

        I dislike citizens united, but if you look at the logic behind decisions on contribution limits to individual campaigns, this ruling made a ton of sense. I’m pretty ambivalent on this one since I don’t think it’ll change much, but from a legal standpoint I thought it was at least consistent, which is more than I can say for some of the Roberts court’s decisions.

  • bozolives

    We hate them because they stopped working for us and went full in on doing the bidding of their financial backers.

    Congress forgot that WE the people are their customers.

    • JosefJohann

      Seems to me as though they are in fact playing to voters’ most prurient interests; you really think Ted Cruz (who I think best embodies total dysfunction) is fronting for big business?

      He certainly has backers with money, but Fox News earns loads more money than other cable news networks for a reason. It makes a product that sells. We want politicians to behave differently? We need to start voting with our eyes, ears, column space, and in the ballot box… Hopefully we reverse some gerrymandering next census, but until then, our best hope for a functional DC is if we the people stop actively incentivizing exactly what we are getting out of the congress.

  • DerekJR321

    I would seriously question if a single member of congress actually represents the “people” of this nation. I honestly believe every single one of them should be removed. Either that, or put stringent term limits on them. I am disgusted that “party” nonsense gets in the way of just about everything that comes up. If something needs addressing for a corporation, they bend over backwards. But just as the current Unemployment Insurance extension is showing us, they don’t give a damn about the common American.

  • Hans Olo

    Much of what unfree countries have today is the result of technologies, ideas, and customs that have been stolen from free nations.

  • Yonatan YONATAN

    Those people who think that the unemployed are “lazy”, and prefer collecting unemployment benefits, have no clue of the reality facing these families. Most of these people had long term employment, and had families to support. The majority of them are “older” Americans, who had worked for many years, paying into the system, should they become unemployed, and needed financial assistance. These workers through no fault of their own, found themselves victims of corporate downsizing, and were laid off from their jobs. Given the current economic recession, they have had a particularly difficult time finding employment. Also, many companies are not motivated to hire “older” workers, due in part of the higher cost of health care insurance for older workers. Older workers, just on the basis of their age, would be placed in a “higher risk” group, which would affect the potential employer’s bottom line cost. As we all know, it’s all about profit and “the bottom line”. Since last December, more than 2.6 million workers have been without unemployment benefits. The republican senate has held the extension bill “HOSTAGE”, in the hopes of getting the XL Oil Pipeline passed by the president. This has NEVER been about these unfortunate families, but only about pleasing the lobbyist for whom they truly serve. While the republicans continue playing “party politics”, and using these families for political leverage, and as bargaining chips, these families have had to face evictions, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcy, and homelessness. Most of them have watched their credit being destroyed, because of lack of money to pay their bills on time, or at all. How many more families have to become homeless and destitute before the senate finally PASSES the extension bill? This truly is a national crime against the American family. While the politicians live their affluent and privileged lifestyles, with all the perks of office, these families continue to suffer and struggle to eat and to live.

  • YONATAN C

    THE REPUBLICAN PARTY HAS DECLARED WAR ON THE POOR AND UNEMPLOYED IN OUR COUNTRY. THEY HAVE BECOME SO DISCONECTED FROM THE PEOPLE THAT THEY HAVE NO CLUES AS TO WHAT IS HAPPENING OUT IN THE “REAL WORLD”. MILLIONS OF UNEMPLOYED FAMILIES HAVE SUFFERED BECAUSE OF THEIR LACK OF COMPASSION AND HUMAN DECENCY. SINCE LATE LAST DECEMBER, MORE THAN 2.6 MILLION AMERICANS HAVE BEEN WITHOUT UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS, BECAUSE OF THE REPUBLICANS “PARTY POLITICS”, AND POLITICAL AGENDA, THE REPUBLICANS HAVE HELD THE MUCH NEEDED EXTENSION BILL “HOSTAGE” FOR POLITICAL LEVERAGE, AND PARTY AGENDAS. THEY HAVE LACKED COMAPSSION AND COMMON DECENCY, BY USING THESE UNEMPLOYED FAMILIES AS BARGAINING CHIPS, TO GET THEIR BILLS PASSED IN RETURN IN THE SENATE. THEY HAVE DRAGGED THEIR FEET FOR THE PAST FIVE MONTHS, CAUSING DELAY AFTER DELAY, IN THE HOPES OF MAKING IT IMPOSSIBE TO EVER HAVE THE EXTENSION BILL PASSED. NOW, IT’S THE END OF MAY, AND THEY ARE NOW SAYING THAT IT’S NOW TOO LATE TO PASS THE BILL. THEY KNEW THIS FROM THE START, AND THEY DELIBERATELY MADE SURE IT WOULD BE TOO LATE. MILLIONS OF THESE FAMILIES HAVE FACED EVICTIONS, HOME FORECLOSURES, BANKRUPTCY, AND HOMELESSNESS, AND THEY COULDN’T HAVE CARED LESS. THE REPUBLICANS HAVE BEEN A HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT TO THEIR “FORMER” REPUBLICAN CONSTITUENTS. THEY HAVE SHOWN THE WORLD FOR WHOM THEY REPRESENT AND WORK FOR, AND IT’S NOT YOU OR ME. THEY REPRESENT PEOPLE LIKE THE KOCH BROTHERS, AND BIG CORPORATIONS. YOU KNOW, THE ONE PERCENT AT THE TOP. I HOPE THAT ALL THESE MILLIONS OF HURTING PEOPLE WILL MAKE SURE NOT TO VOTE REPUBLICAN IN THE COMING ELECTION. THEY’RE NOT WORTHY OF OUR VOTE.

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