Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bob Stannard, an author, musician and former lobbyist. This piece first appeared in the Bennington Banner.
In 1789 members of Congress received a whopping 50 cents per diem salary. Six years later they doubled for representatives to $1 per diem. Senators got a huge increase to $7 per diem. The following year everyone got $6 per diem. Nineteen years later they changed their pay to $1,500 per year and two years later went back to $6 per day for representatives and $7 per day for senators. Nearly 40 years passed before they went back to an annual salary. Here’s an interesting chart that shows the progression of congressional pay over the years.
In 1942 Congress voted themselves a pension plan. The public rightfully screamed bloody murder. It wasn’t until after World War II that Congress successfully voted to give themselves a pension. That might well have been the beginning of the end of our democracy. No, they don’t get a pension for only serving one term and no their pension is not the amount of their full salary (it’s more like 80 percent), but they do get a handsome paycheck provided they hang around long enough.
Members of Congress also have good health care. No, it’s not free, but unlike you they have a pool of 300 providers from which to choose and the coverage is good. When Obamacare was enacted, it applied to Congress as well, something many members didn’t particularly like. Should Obamacare be repealed, as Republicans hope to do, then Congress would revert back to their old, better system.
I have no qualms about paying anyone a fair wage to do a job. Every employee should be entitled to fair compensation and appropriate benefits, because they are, in theory, giving their life for their job. As their time nears an end they should be compensated for lifelong work they dedicated for the benefit of others. That’s fair and reasonable for anyone and everyone.
When politicians know that they have to serve for one more term to qualify for a pension that they shouldn’t be entitled to, they’ll do whatever it takes to get re-elected and what that takes is money, lots of money.
The problem is that being elected to serve is not — and should not ever be — considered a “job.” Yes, it’s hard work and time consuming. It can be extremely frustrating and difficult and on many occasions people may not like what you’re doing. You may get verbally beaten up. You have to go to work and are expected to perform certain tasks, serve on committees and cast votes that may, or may not, be well received by your voters.
I know firsthand that all of this is true, but being elected to serve is not a job. It’s called “public service” for a reason, because it’s public service. You are elected to represent the concerns and ideas of your constituents for as long as they’ll have you. You choose to do so, because you believe in our democracy, our way of life. You run for office knowing full well that you will be sacrificing a career in another field. You run for office because you are passionate about changing people’s lives, hopefully for the better. You run for office to serve those who put you in office.
When holding elected office became a job all that changed. When politicians know that they have to serve for one more term to qualify for a pension that they shouldn’t be entitled to, they’ll do whatever it takes to get re-elected and what that takes is money, lots of money. And when that money comes from any other source other than the people you represent then your interests will be torn between the interests of the donors versus those who elected you. It’s a balancing act, one that shouldn’t exist.
Republicans are trying hard to ditch Obamacare and replace it with something much worse. The public hates their plan. It has little support, but two brothers, Charles and David Koch, don’t feel the bill is conservative enough and have pledged to withhold their support if it’s not to their liking.
When public service becomes a job the elected official feels obligated to represent the one paying him/her and that’s when we lose our democracy.