The bad news, as always, is that another presidential election cycle is upon us. The good news is that means we are finally getting some new ideas injected into the civic debate.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, recently joined by former President Donald Trump, has proposed term limits for members of Congress. (There are, of course, already term limits for the president.) While most people are indifferent to the specifics of term limits, almost no one thinks hanging around Congress for 30 years is healthy, either for the lawmaker in question or for the republic.
At the same time, we ask a lot of those who serve in Congress. They disrupt their lives, many of them in the middle of their careers, to spend a few mostly unpleasant years in Washington. It is no accident that, in many cases, we wind up with lawmakers who are retirees, those beginning their careers or those who can’t think of anything better to do. Worse, we wind up with either the rich or those for whom being a member of Congress is the best job they will ever have.
That all seems suboptimal. Let me offer a modest proposal to accompany and improve the idea of term limits.
We should dramatically increase the pay of members of Congress.
Right now, they are paid $174,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation, that is 30% less than they were paid in 1992. With that $174,000, we expect them to be able to maintain two residences (one in their home district and one in Washington), raise a family and set something aside for a rainy day.
It is not impossible, but neither is it particularly appealing to talented people who can — and, in many instances, do before they run for office — make more money and better provide for their families.
Lawmakers should be paid $400,000 a year. In addition, we should make them eligible for better retirement pay after they have served four years. Currently, they vest after five years.
Increasing pay, in tandem with establishing term limits, would encourage more talented mid-career professionals to consider becoming members of Congress. If there is the possibility of career (and financial) continuity after Congress, as well as some meaningful participation in the actual legislative process, more middle- and upper-middle-class people would consider spending a few of their prime years in Washington.
Term limits are intended to discourage those who can’t think of anything better to do from loitering around Congress for generations. Everyone who is sentient should be in favor of that. Increasing pay will incentivize those who probably have something better to do but who are willing to suspend their lives to serve the republic.
One of the hard truths about the world is that you get what you pay for. If we keep paying members of Congress middling wages, we are going to keep getting middling Congresses.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, co-hosts “The Unregulated Podcast.” He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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