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Dear Congress, Forgoing Pay Doesn't Exonerate You


As the shutdown drags on—and almost one million furloughed federal workers sit at home without pay—public outrage has burned hot at the congressional lawmakers who will continue receiving their $174,000 annual salary no matter how long this lasts. As of Thursday afternoon, 176,000 people had signed a petition at calling for Congress to go without pay until they get the government up and running again. And, in a pretty naked bid for our forgiveness, they’re doing just that: As of Thursday night, The Washington Post counted at least 123 of them who had vowed to refuse compensation or donate it to charity for the duration of the shutdown. So it seems counterintuitive, at first glance, that The New York Times has written an editorial castigating Congressmen and women for their “phony self-denial.”

I propose a short thought experiment. Does the knowledge that Congress is forgoing pay make us feel better about the shutdown? For me, the answer is no. So why not? It’s easy to argue, as the Times does, that the lawmakers are just “making a show”; that the gesture is equal parts facetious and empty. Partly, this is because Congress is inflicting suffering on its poorest constituents that its members would be hard-pressed to feel themselves. As the Times editors write:

The lawmakers’ discomfort at still being paid also shows the yawning economic gap between them and their constituents. Almost half of the 535 members of Congress are millionaires; the median net worth of the lawmakers is $966,000 (plus that generous government health care plan) versus $66,740 for a typical American family, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Lawmakers enjoyed a jump of 15 percent in median net worth from 2004 to 2010, while, over all, Americans suffered an 8 percent drop in that period, according to an analysis by The Times. The wealth in Congress is bipartisan if that’s any comfort to the millions of Americans already suffering the loss of government-paid nutrition and Head Start programs. 

But it’s not just knowing members are living in comfort that keeps us from feeling that justice has been served. The payoff of being elected to Congress is not, obviously, about money. To quote the consummate congressman, the fictional Frank Underwood from House of Cards: “Choosing money over power is a mistake almost everyone makes. Money is the big mansion in Saratoga that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is that old stone building that stands for centuries.” I’m not sure any of Underwood’s flesh-and-blood counterparts would, in all seriousness, frame their worldview this way, but it’s true that most if not all of those millionaires and nearly millionaries could be making more doing something else. They chose power and influence over money; presumably, their senses of self-worth are invested in a currency that they haven’t been donating to charity this week.

Not only is Congress’s display of asceticism unconvincing (and, for the angry constituent, unsatisfying), it’s also clearly too low a price to hurry them into resolving the shutdown. It’s an instructive irony that the men and women of Congress are choosing whether or not to take home their pay—not so for the rank-and-file of the government, or the country.