Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry unveiled a dangerously unsound plan to de-professionalize Congress by turning it into a part-time legislature with lower pay. You see legislatures of this sort at the state level quite frequently, so it’s obvious that the basic concept has a lot of appeal to voters. Unfortunately, it’s also a terrible idea. The basic problem is that under modern conditions, de-professionalizing a legislature tends to make it more corrupt and less responsive to either the views or objective interests of the public.
You can see this along a number of dimensions. One is that if members of Congress need to work second jobs, their business relationships will involve conflicts of interest. A second is that to the extent that earning extra income takes up more of members of Congress’ time, they’ll become more dependent on lobbyists and special interest groups for information and assistance with their projects. A third is that lower pay tends to induce legislators to retire sooner, and less-senior legislators are more dependent on lobbyists and special interest groups for information and assistance with their projects. A fourth is that to the extent you cut legislators’ pay, a larger share of the real compensation for doing legislative work is the opportunity to “cash in” after you leave office. A fifth and related consideration is that to the extent you cut legislators’ pay, a larger share of the real compensation for doing legislative work is the ability to raise PAC and campaign funds that you spend on yourself. Last, but by no means least, to the extent that you reduce the desirability of winning re-election, you encourage members of the legislature to ignore their constituents in favor of pleasing others.
It’s also worth observing that Perry’s notion that congressional pay is scandalously high is mistaken. Matt Glassman observes that real wages for members of Congress have been nearly stagnant over a 100 year time frame:
The decline in congressional compensation over the past 20 years, in particular, has likely tended to have a corrupting influence on the legislative process.