Give Congress a pay raise!

Oh. Have I got your attention now?

(Apologies to Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.)

This may be a case of the worst timing ever, but the question of whether Congress is underpaid actually is on the table right now.

You can thank tin-eared representatives like Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), who complained at a party caucus that while his staffers can hop to a lobbying job and make $500,000: "Meanwhile I’m stuck here making $172,000 a year." (Actually, $174,000.)

Or Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who was quoted as saying he wouldn't give up his paycheck even while government workers were going without theirs in the shutdown because "I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it."

Still, it's not unreasonable to ponder even now whether congressional salaries are so low they interfere with good, uncorrupt governing. That's the view of the financial commentator Yves Smith, who argues: "If you pay cops terribly, you’ll get cops who take bribes. If you pay members of Congress or regulators way less than first-year law school graduates in large New York or D.C. law firms, you’re going to get members and regulators who take bribes."

That's true in principle. But the question is whether $174,000 a year -- and much more for committee chairmen and legislative leaders -- is at the bribe-mongering level. That's a hard argument to make, since it's more than three times the median pay in the U.S. 

Another argument is that a higher salary would draw better people into Congress. Also doubtful. It's not likely that people run for the Senate or the House because they see congressional pay as a pot of gold. The Tea Partiers who arrived in 2010 seemed generally to be motivated not by the $174,000 pay of a Washington lawmaker, but by ideology. Would there have been more or fewer Tea Party Republicans in the House if the salary were $100,000? Or $200,000?

One real problem with Congress is that too many members seem utterly unfamiliar with the daily struggles of constituents who earn the median income of $50,000, not to mention those who live at the poverty line.

It's natural to come to believe that one's own situation is the norm. And sure, there are members who struggle to make do at $174,000; congressional service comes with some unreimbursed expenses, including the necessity, for some, of maintaining two homes. Members get an allowance averaging about $1.4 million a year for office expenses, including travel, rent and staff (up to 18 permanent employees). In all fairness, it can be a chore to stretch that to cover all necessities.

But struggling with a six-figure income is a lot different from making ends meet on $30,000 or $50,000 or even $99,000.

Let's not forget that Congress is already a plutocrats' club. Some 47% of its members are millionaires, and with last year's election it got richer: the median net worth of the incoming class was $1.1 million. The median net worth in America is $66,000.

The sheer insensitivity of some members of Congress to their fellow Americans is stunning; how can one explain the position of a congressman who thinks it's no big deal to hack away at food stamps while collecting millions of dollars in farm supports -- I'm looking at you, Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) -- or one who proposes cutting cost-of-living increases for retirees on Social Security while pulling down $174,000?

Can there be any doubt that this lack of empathy would only get worse if lawmakers got a big bump up in pay? Would collecting $250,000 or $300,000 a year really make a congressman more sympathetic to the working person earning $20 or $30 an hour? It's doubtful, but I'd bet he'd be more sensitive to the plight of a banker grousing about only getting a $200,000 bonus this year.

The common argument that lawmakers on Capitol Hill need a higher salary to reduce the temptation to leave office for big-money lobbying jobs sounds an awful lot like special pleading. A senator or member of the House can get $700,000 to $1 million to make the switch. Unless the taxpayers are going to match those salaries, it's hard to see how a raise would keep them in place. And if the lawmakers started earning $700,000, say, in their public jobs, you can bet that lobbying firms would jack up their offers commensurately. Should the taxpayers really encourage the inevitable arms race?

One proposal that's reasonable on the surface is to tie congressional salaries to inflation. As observed, if salaries were raised to the equivalent of what Congress earned in 1992, that would produce a $42,000 raise, bringing today's pay to $214,000. Of course, Congress has been hostile to inflation increases for the federal minimum wage, which hasn't been raised since 2009, and keeps talking about slicing the cost-of-living adjustment for seniors on Social Security. Why should Congress be exempt from the ravages of inflation if it subjects less privileged people to it?

The place where salaries may actually be unreasonably low is at the staff level, where salaries range from about $30,000 to $120,000 for long hours of often thankless work. Staffers can easily better that in the private sector, which contributes to rapid turnover. Because staffs are typically young and callow, more legislation gets written by lobbyists. You want to know why Congress seems to be owned by business? That's why. 

So what's the answer? It's easy. Congress gets paid plenty today, and that's plenty enough.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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