No Congress in four decades has been paid more to do less than this one

August 13

A primary challenger in Nebraska raised an interesting point in a debate over the weekend. Why should Congress make what it makes, state Sen. Brad Ashford argued, when Congress isn't getting things done? His opponent, Rep. Lee Terry (R), pushed back, reminding the audience that Congress hasn't gotten a pay increase in several years.

Which is true. But Ashford's point is a particularly good one. Since 1973, no Congress has earned more money for its work output than the 113th.


Congressional leaders. (EPA/JIM LO SCALZO)

Terry should probably know better than to spend much time defending his salary. Last fall, he got into hot water after saying that he couldn't give up his $174,000 Congressional salary during the shutdown. He was not the first member of Congress to defend a salary that, to most Americans, seems awfully generous; we compiled a list of others last September. But complaints from this Congress in particular seem a little awkward.

Here's how the salary of Congress has evolved over time. (We used data from the Congressional Research Service.) Congress makes more now than it ever has as a number, but once you adjust that figure for the cost of inflation, you see that it actually makes substantially less than Congresses in the late 1970s and early 1990s. (Where salaries differed between the chambers, we used the higher figure.)

But, then again, those Congresses did more, too. We pulled numbers for the number of bills signed into law each year from GovTrack. (As the site's Josh Tauberer likes to note, it takes a passed law to repeal or scale back something, so if you want smaller government, you still want Congress passing legislation.)

Then we compared the adjusted salary each year to the number of bills that were passed, giving us this chart.

Congress actually did more for its pay in 2014 than in three other years: 2011, 1995, and -- the all-time winner -- 2013. Members still earned about $2,000 per bill passed -- compared to $230 per bill in 1990.

When you look at the figure by Congress, you see where the discrepancy arises.

Truly, no Congress in 40 years has been paid more to pass less legislation than the 113th, current Congress. In that regard, Ashford is correct. If Congress were paid by the bill at 1990 levels, each member would take home a cool $21,000 this year -- a savings to the federal budget of nearly $82 million.

Worth considering, at least.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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