A Modest Proposal: Pay for Performance in Congress

As a general rule, I loathe ‘pay for performance’ schemes, primarily because they’re often designed to penalise workers and allow the bosses to get away with underpaying their staff and reallocating funds to administrators. They’re also often based on flawed metrics, like using student testing to assess the ‘performance’ of teachers and insisting that the results of these examinations, originally designed to help individual teachers identify specific student needs, are somehow a measure of how well the teacher is doing. The combination can be brutal, especially when applied to professions that are historically undervalued despite their critical importance.

But there’s one case where I think pay for performance could actually be immensely useful, and that’s in Congress. It should be noted, of course, that most Congresspeople are independently wealthy, and do not rely in any way, shape, or form on their salaries. Congressional salaries are primarily symbolic, although the symbolism is pretty large: for the last four years, members of Congress have made $174,000 a year. Many of us would argue that we could pretty comfortably live on that without external sources of income like books, speaking engagements, investments, and family money, all of which are readily available to most members of Congress. Not all, of course, but most.

Most of us would also argue that Congress of late has been dogged by a distinct, shall we say, lack of performance. The obstructionism that’s dominated Congress recently has made it extremely difficult to pass legislation, and the Republicans have effectively created a situation where they can blackmail the Democrats for whatever they like, and the Democrats will roll over and take it quite happily, evidently. This is not a fair or reasonable approach to governance, and it completely defeats the purpose of electing representatives to the House and Senate.

If they aren’t going to represent their constituents, and instead are going to focus on playing partisan games while delaying critical legislation and introducing nonsense resolutions, something clearly needs to change. My proposal: pay for performance. Instead of paying representatives a flat yearly salary regardless as to their job performance, their pay should be based instead on what they actually do in Congress and for their constituents, using a carefully-devised metric designed to be as fair and equitable as possible. Like their salaries themselves, this would be largely symbolic, but it would still be an important symbol.

The number of days people actually show up to work should be tallied, as should the number of votes members of Congress bother to appear for; and ¬†actually vote on, rather than abstaining or voting ‘present.’ When Congresspeople aren’t at work in Congress itself, it’s time to determine if they’re in their home districts working with constituents, or if they’re on holiday or fundraising and press junkets. There’s a significant difference between missing a week of sessions because you’re visiting disaster-struck areas in your home region and meeting with community leaders to determine what they need, and missing a week because you’re on a sandy beach somewhere or you’re meeting with lobbyists and corporate representatives to talk about the strategy for your next campaign.

Obstructionist tactics should be noted and considered when determining how much people should be paid; those who get their way by blackmail and arm twisting shouldn’t be rewarded for it. Members of Congress who are genuinely interested in working on bipartisan solutions that represent the best interests of their constituents, on the other hand, should be paid more, because they’re showing a clear willingness to work and to focus on the larger picture of what’s best for the nation rather than for their own parties. Those who display a willingness to work with all members of Congress, rather than members of their own delegation, should be singled out as worthy of attention.

Measures from constituents should also be considered. Do people in someone’s home district indicate that they feel well-represented and happy with their Senator or Representative? Can they demonstratively point to benefits their communities have received as a result of intervention and assistance from the person they elected, whether these benefits be disaster assistance, help with a community programme, or, yes, earmarks that directly get money into communities (rather than into the hands of corporations)? Do people speak well of their congressional representative, or do they regard the person who won the election with spite and bitterness?

Think of it like teacher evaluations from students, where the goal would be to solicit information that would help Senators and Representatives do their jobs better, with the added incentive of knowing that good evaluations will be considered when it comes time to decide how much to pay you for the year. As will poor ones; if someone doesn’t show up for votes, constantly engages in obstructionist tactics, and doesn’t help constituents, that person won’t be earning as much as someone who’s committed to being an active participant in the political process. Why should two people who perform their jobs very differently be making the same amount of money?

Of course, you’d also need a truly nonpartisan committee to evaluate all of this information and fairly determine salaries. Ideally it would be done blind, with identifying information about individuals stripped so that people could make their decisions on the basis of pure data; number of votes attended, ratings and comments from constituents, scores from other members of Congress, and so forth. An unbiased collective could determine the most appropriate pay for a given year, and in the pay packet, it could add some brief notes about how the individual Senator or Representative could earn more in the following year. These could include a discussion of areas where it’s felt that the representative could and should do better, and naturally improvement from year to year would be considered in salary evaluations as well.

And, of course, at the end of it, all this information would be made available to the public for full accountability.