How to Make Everything Perfect Forever, Part One.

I was watching Jack Cafferty on CNN today, and the topic was Congressional salaries and pensions. The commentators were complaining about the fact that Congress has a cushy retirement system and guaranteed salaries for itself while in the private sector—where the bottom line matters—salaries and pensions are not nearly as secure, and people worry about their retirement.

Furthermore, Congressmen are compensated no matter how big the annual deficit is, or how big the national debt gets. I think that’s what irks most people about congressional compensation. If the feds lose money in a given year, no Senator or Representative will get fired over it.

Now, I don’t care that much about the debt or the deficit (where “that much” = how much I care about the percentage of GDP controlled by the feds, currently around 20%). But as long as most other people are going to whine about the debt and the deficit, then I humbly put forth the following proposal–which is probably not original, but I wouldn’t know who to credit:

Currently, regular Senators and Representatives earn $165,200 a year, and after five years of “service,” they qualify for a pension (about $3,900 per month, if I remember correctly). I don’t know if that’s too much, not enough, or just right, but I do know that those numbers are in no way attached to whether the federal budget is in surplus or deficit. So if we want to put real pressure on these guys to run a surplus every year and reduce the debt, we need to connect their salaries to their fiscal performance—as in the private sector.

We should exclude Congressional salaries and pensions from the budgeted expenses, and pay Congressmen a fixed percentage of the surplus. In other words, salaries and pensions would be paid only after every other expense of the federal government had been paid—if they run a deficit, no salary. No pension.

Let’s pretend that Congressmen would have to evenly split one percent of the surplus. It may not seem like much; we can tinker with the percentage later. If they want to earn the same salaries they’re earning now, they’d have to run a surplus of almost $9 billion per year. If they want salaries of $1 million per year, which is fine by me, they’d have to run a surplus of $53.5 billion per year. The bigger the surplus, the bigger the paycheck. That multi-trillion dollar national debt would shrink pretty darned fast.

A constitutional amendment along these lines would be nice, but perhaps not necessary: Congress sets its own compensation by law. What would keep them from creating a surplus by raising taxes too high? Elections. Recalls. Vetoes. Humiliation. Public thrashings with canes, if necessary. What about unexpected expenses, like a $40 billion military appropriation after a terrorist attack? Well, budget carefully. Have contingency funds ready. There would be dozens of other details to iron out, such as making sure that even “off-budget” expenses and revenues are included in the equation.

This proposal should be taken with a grain of salt; I really don’t think that the size of the surplus, deficit or debt matter as much as the levels of federal spending or taxation. But the principle remains: if we really want to eliminate or reduce the debt, then financial compensation needs to be tied to financial performance.

This entry was posted on Sunday, January 22nd, 2006 at 7:45 PM.