Let’s start this column off with a bold assertion. Paying lawmakers good salaries is one of our country’s most important progressive reforms because it means that they don’t have to be wealthy to serve. High congressional pay is a safeguard against corruption, not a sign of it.
Bear this assertion in mind as you consider this proposal.
This morning I co-sponsored a bill to end congressional pensions with @SenatorBraun.
Americans shouldn't have to foot the bill for generous salaries and pensions for members of Congress, and I’m proud to be working on common sense solutions to make DC work for all families. https://t.co/MIejXxcT7W
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) February 12, 2019
Scott’s net worth was $232.6 million at the end of 2017 — not bad for a man who led a company that paid $1.7 billion in fines for widespread Medicare and Medicaid fraud. His co-sponsor, Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), is worth between $35 million and $96 million, according to his campaign disclosure forms. So Scott and Braun can afford to forego their pensions — or their entire salary, if they choose.
Yet, if elected officials do not receive what Scott dismisses as “generous salaries and pensions,” that will discourage people who do not have Scott or Braun’s vast wealth from running for office. As future President John Adams once warned, if “you make it law that no man should hold an office who had not a private income sufficient for the subsistence and prospects of himself and family,” then “all offices would be monopolized by the rich, the poor and the middling ranks would be excluded, and an aristocratic despotism would immediately follow.”
The question of whether to pay lawmakers was hotly contested by the framers — as historian Gordon Wood writes, the ultimate decision to do so “was radical for the age.” Many prominent early Americans subscribed to what Wood labels the “classical republican” view, which saw public service as a burden that should be carried without remuneration.
“In a virtuous government,” Thomas Jefferson claimed, “public offices are, what they should be, burthens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labor, and great private loss.”
Jefferson, of course, was a wealthy slave owner.
Ultimately, however, Adams’ view prevailed over Jeffersons’ — which is why the Constitution provides that “the Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.” Currently, most members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000 per year, plus benefits.
That’s enough money for lawmakers to enjoy an upper middle class lifestyle, but there are also good reasons why we should want lawmakers to be paid fairly generously. Members of Congress who struggle to make ends meet are more likely to be tempted by bribes. They’re also more likely to quit public service in favor of more lucrative corporate lobbying jobs.
It’s also worth noting that the congressional pensions that Scott and Braun wish to eliminate are fairly modest.
Congress uses an elaborate formula to determine the amount of each retired member’s pension. To qualify, a former member must either be 62-years-old with five years of service, or be at least 50-years-old with 20 years of service.
Qualified former members receive a small percentage of their congressional salary for each year that they served in Congress. Again, the formula is fairly complicated, but under this formula a retired congresswoman with 25 years of service will receive an annual pension of about $67,000. A single-term senator will receive an annual pension of less than $18,000 when they reach retirement age.
That’s enough money to allow a retired lawmaker to live a solidly middle class life when they combine their pension with Social Security benefits and any savings they amassed over the course of their life. But it’s hardly a massive windfall.
It is, however, an enticement that will encourage people who do not share Scott or Braun’s massive wealth to consider public service.