Every four years, the influence of money in politics becomes painfully evident to even the least politically minded Americans, as the airwaves flood with aggressive and incessant political advertisements funded by corporate-backed Super PACs. Yet the influence of money in everyday policymaking, equally aggressive and incessant outside election season, rarely reveals itself to the casual observer.
In October of this year, the political blogosphere saw a flurry of online petitions calling on members of Senate and Congress to refuse to accept their pay until they had reopened the federal government from its fortnight-long shutdown, restoring its authority to spend money. Almost half of these lawmakers obliged, including several who had already donated their $174,000 salaries to charity. Others, however, denounced the move as a publicity stunt, purely symbolic and otherwise meaningless. Their critique is ill-founded and in poor taste, yet it says a great deal about our elected representatives.
To the average American, no part of a six-figure salary is meaningless. This is true, too, for the average federal worker furloughed during the shutdown, earning closer to $80,000 per year. And it’s also true for some politicians. Freshman Congressman Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ), a Newark city employee turned councilman, explained to NorthJersey.com that forfeiting his pay would leave a substantial impact on his family: “I have a family to raise. I have triplets in school, and unlike some of the members on the other side of the aisle, I’m not a millionaire.”
There are, in fact, millionaires on both sides of the aisle — and more than a few. While the median American household has a net worth of $66,740, as of 2010, the figure for members of Congress was more than $1 million higher, with relatively little variation between parties. The 50 wealthiest members of Congress, according to the latest report by Congressional Quarterly, all have over $6.5 million, and Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA) — at the top of this year’s list — has over $430 million in assets. Speaking in these terms, it is easier to understand why some lawmakers, such as Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), say that conversations about what members of Congress chose to do with the mere $7,600 they earned during the shutdown “really don’t matter.”
There is nothing wrong with being rich, but there is a great deal left unsaid when a substantial portion of our lawmakers are over 100 times richer than their constituents. And the disparity begs the question: Why do multimillionaires run for Congress when they could easily find better salaries elsewhere?
Ideally, the answer to this question would be simple: Our lawmakers run for office out of a commitment to serving their fellow citizens, those with less power than themselves. Yet at a time when less than 10 percent of Americans feel that Congress is performing well in representing the people in the federal government, it is reasonable to presume that this is not universally the case.
The more realistic answer is that there is more money to be won in Washington than the simple six-figure congressional salary, and much of it comes from the same corporations that donate so heavily to political ad campaigns. On Capitol Hill, the money takes the form of lobbying, where companies seek to influence legislation in ways that serve their own interests. And for lobbying firms seeking to swell their ranks with law-trained professionals talented in political persuasion tactics, Congress is the natural feeding ground.
Of members of Congress not elected to another term after 2010, roughly half of those who have found new employment have taken up jobs in lobbying. Rarely, though, do they independently seek these positions after losing an election or leaving office. Instead, members of lobbying firms approach them over the course of their congressional term and offer the lawmakers the promise of lobbying positions at the end of their tenure, with starting salaries as much as 1,452 percent greater on average than the Congressional salary. In exchange for the position, lawmakers agree for the rest of their term to push for legislation — often deregulation of a wide range of industries — that is favorable to the lobbying firm’s clients.
The whole process takes place in negotiations and contracts that lawmakers are not required to disclose. And the process is all too often a cycle: law-trained lobbying clients working for large corporations, in turn, then run for the seats vacated by legislators-turned-lobbyists. The corporations, naturally, help fund their campaigns.
In the end, the issue is not the dominance of wealthy individuals in our federal government: It is the fact that these individuals continue to prove that they are committed not to their constituents but to their own career ambitions. As a result, these lawmakers are fundamentally unfit to serve us, the American public, in government. We, at the polls, must direct their job search elsewhere.