Are all American politicians on the take? At times, a glance at the headlines may give that impression. Democrats are suing President Trump for allegedly using his office to win more business from countries like China and the United Arab Emirates. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is facing trial, having been charged with accepting bribes. Republican Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) is being investigated for insider stock trading. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been criticized for being paid $69,000 to teach a political science class at Florida International University.
But new evidence from state financial records suggest that those high-profile accusations are the exception — at least at the state level. Very few state lawmakers get rich while in office. Only the most electorally secure are financially rewarded while serving. Even then, they do not make much money for their efforts.
That’s not what we’ve learned from other recent scholarship, which reports that U.S. senators and governors, India’s state legislators, and Conservative British Members of Parliament emerge from their terms wealthier than those they defeated. But that body of research has been looking mainly at the corporate boards and other plum positions that politicians take after they leave office. Little work has been done on whether lawmakers get richer while they’re still on the job.
I looked at state legislators because these politicians face a potent mix of incentives to use their offices for self-enriching activity. In most states, lawmakers work part time for low pay. When not conducting the people’s business, these men and women live just like everyone else — working, investing and saving for retirement. They don’t face media scrutiny or sustained public attention, particularly in a world of shrinking journalism budgets. At the same time, they wield enormous power over state budgets and set policy on matters including public health and attracting businesses.
And yet for the most part they don’t appear to be profiteering — which suggests that they’re in office for the public service.
How I did my research
Because of Florida’s Sunshine Law, I obtained from the Florida Commission on Ethics 2,905 annual financial disclosure forms of sitting members of the Florida House of Representatives from 1995 to 2014. Each form lists the name and precise dollar value of every asset, debt, income, stock dividend or student loan in the legislator’s name that year. You can find the forms from 2011-present here. Some lawmakers even release their full tax returns. Legislators who run afoul of Florida’s ethics requirements have been removed from office.
To test which sitting lawmakers make money, I aggregated each legislator’s annual net income, adjusted for inflation. Florida legislators’ salaries are $29,000 for 60 days of session, which they supplement with private-sector incomes. I looked at both annual income and annual income growth.
These legislators aren’t profiting from their offices; in fact, quite the contrary. On average, each year, Florida legislators make $403 less than they did the previous year.
I also gathered in-depth information about all these lawmakers, from their committee appointments to their private-sector backgrounds and looked to see whether these facts correlated with profit or loss. Did appointment to a particular committee boost income? Did becoming speaker of the house make one rich? I expected to find that lawmakers used their offices to forge connections in the private sector, finding new jobs or receive raises at existing jobs — as other scholars had found.
Here’s how holding office affects Florida lawmakers’ incomes
But surprisingly, Florida lawmakers did not boost their incomes while in office. Serving as chamber or party leader, or holding a seat on a prestigious committee, did not change income. In fact, being appointed to the Rules Committee — a steppingstone to become a future House leader — reduced income.
Here’s what did boost incomes: how well the lawmaker did in the previous election. As legislators’ became more electorally secure, their incomes rose. But those increases were quite small. Even if lawmakers’ vote shares grew substantially — say, from 60 percent to 100 percent of the vote — at most they would receive a 15 percent bump in income. For the average lawmaker, this amounted to $20,000 more a year. A more modest 10-point increase in their vote boosted income by just over $7,000.
While these sums are large amounts for the average American, it is not large for the average Florida legislator, many of whom are millionaires, like their counterparts in Congress, millionaires. Electorally secure politicians make money in modest quantities; income growth appears to be a result of a less-demanding reelection campaign. When politicians don’t have to cold-call donors four hours a day or spend hours a week cutting ads and glad-handing volunteers, they can focus more on their jobs.
Making money in office is rare
Of course, this is a study of one state. Those with less stringent ethics requirements may have more politicians who abuse their office. Examining additional state legislatures — and Congress — is important, although only 13 state legislatures require legislators to report income amounts in any fashion. States with term limits, or in which the legislature meets every other year, might see more politicians willing to enrich themselves.
Perhaps politicians take great lengths to hide their new incomes. Spouses, children and friends may all provide lawmakers with an avenue to use their office for private gains. Unfortunately, no American legislature requires spouses and children of politicians to disclose their own finances.
That said, we should not expect that most members of legislatures are probably on the take. Making money in office is rare. When politicians do manipulate their plum positions or political connections to get rich, citizens and the news media should not cynically dismiss such behavior as typical but treat it as an offensive aberration.
Kevin Fahey is a visiting assistant professor at Florida State University.