Bureaucrats: Overpaid or Underpaid?
The question of how to deal with our country’s ever-expanding bureaucracy has been a part of the national dialogue for some time. It has been amplified in recent years by the emergence of the Tea Party movement, along with various other organizations. Republicans and conservatives bemoan the largesse of our government and contend that it is largely responsible for the economic and social decline that we have seen in this country in the past three decades. Liberals are stereotyped as lovers of big government, which may sometimes be the case. However, many of the “conservatives” of today, who are in fact more concerned with securing campaign donations and high-paying jobs from their corporate overlords than they are with upholding conservative values, are equally guilty of this.
Much of the legislation pushed by the Bush Administration was not consistent with conservative principles. Conservatives had a duty to uphold their fiscal principles, but sadly, many in Congress simply tossed them out the window in order to please their masters. The Medicare Drug Program was a huge giveaway to Big Pharma, and thus an expense to the taxpayer. The two wars that were unpaid for, the gigantic tax cuts that according to The Washington Post added $1.5 trillion to our national debt (not including interest, of course), and worst of all, the rampant crony-capitalist-socialist giveaways (via spending, subsidies, special tax loopholes, etc.) that maintain ubiquity in the majority of offices in Congress.
This is not only about legislators. This is about Washington, D.C., staffers, elected judges, industry regulators and bureaucrats from all levels of government, federal, state and local. However, for these purposes I will focus on the federal level. What I am about to suggest may sound strange, especially in the current political climate, but please bear with me.
Most of our senators and representatives live like millionaires. According to ABC News 47 percent of them are millionaires. So, how do they achieve this wealth or adapt to life on a meager – relative to their possible pay in the private sector – salary of $174,000? Try raising a family, meanwhile maintaining two residences, incurring the cost travelling back and forth to D.C. every weekend, and still trying to live comfortably on $174,000. For many it simply cannot be done. I am as big a critic of our elected officials as anyone. However, it is not unreasonable for these people to want to live well. They are, by and large, very well educated, intelligent, and often have a wealth of experience to offer as service to their country. So, they do what any rational actor would do in that situation: they find ways to supplement their income. This is where the unseen cost to the taxpayer is incurred.
In order to do this, it is a common practice for these members to sell their influence to corporations and other special interests, in exchange for the campaign contributions that are so vital to their incumbency. Lawmakers today spend very little time actually crafting laws. The fierce competition for their seats relegates them to a life mainly spent fundraising. On April 2, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “I think most Americans would be shocked if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money … and talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money” (Democracy Interactive).
It is common knowledge that the candidate whose campaign has raised more money wins a good portion of the time. So for them, fundraising is invaluable and critical to remaining competitive. These contributions are used not only – and sometimes not even mostly – for financing elections, but also for expensive restaurants, entertainment, lavish retreats, first-class transportation and countless other perks. They are often treated to these perks by lobbyists, who act as liaisons between government and industry.
As I have mentioned in the past, the reason our country faces the catastrophic problems that it does is almost entirely due to the crony-capitalism that has become commonplace in Washington. Legislation is crafted for the needs of ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin, Procter & Gamble, BlueCross BlueShield, Goldman Sachs, along with their competitors and just about every other rational industry. If you were the CEO of a company that produces corn for the manufacture of ethanol, what would you do to ensure that the free-market suppressing corn subsidies that earn you billions stay in place? Most likely, a lot. I am not defending the ethics but I do understand their situation.
Legislators trading votes for corporate cash is obviously wrong, and it is certainly considered a breach of ethics by most reasonable people. However, it is not illegal. Only the most brazen members are ever investigated, and it is their congressional peers who investigate them. This is hardly objective. The discrepancy between the earning potential of a legislator should they have chosen to work honestly in the private sector, versus a job in the public sector, is a major cause of our problems.
One of the most common methods for coping with this is securing a highly lucrative future for themselves as lobbyists, consultants, or advisors, once they leave office. In order to do this they entirely compromise their legislative integrity and in the process of doing so, produce legislation that is wrongheaded almost all of the time.
A common political theme among critics of government is that bureaucrats are overpaid. I would argue that the money we save by paying our legislators, soldiers, educators, regulators, government attorneys and other bureaucrats poorly, is lost a million times over. Let’s face it. The 10s of trillions of dollars we would save by ending the corporate handout culture would easily cover the cost of paying bureaucrats well and having publicly financed elections.
In the case of legislators, and especially high-level government officials, the individuals are usually highly qualified. And more importantly than that, they hold positions whose proper function is integral to the prosperity of society. If you want to attract honest actors you must make them a good proposition.
You will rarely incentivize someone to do good work by paying them less than they deserve. We should pay our legislators well, because then they would answer to us. Because, let’s face it; you listen to the mouth that feeds you. So, instead of paying our legislators well to reward them for excellent representation, our legislators are rewarded by industry for faithfully screwing over the American people, time and time again.
The revolving door between government, private industry, and lobbying has gotten far wider in recent years. This frequent rotation of roles, especially between financial firms and financial regulators, is very dangerous because it further erodes transparency, and is gradually facilitating the merging of industry and government. In order to prevent this we must satisfy the needs of skilled and qualified bureaucrats. We must restore glory to positions once regarded with respect. We must remove the tendency toward graft by removing the reason it exists.
In Singapore, a country tied with New Zealand and Denmark as the least corrupt, their ministers (equivalent of congress people) are paid $1 million a year. Now, of course, simply raising the salaries of American legislators would be ridiculous. We would first need publicly financed elections, bans on corporate spending, bans on unlimited spending, term limits, among other reforms.
I suspect that paying the heads of financial regulatory groups a proper salary would prevent them from selling their influence, and joining Bank of America or Citigroup when they leave office. The same can be said of many government jobs. We must put an end to this crony-capitalist culture. And I am certainly not saying that these men and women do not have the right to work in the private sector. I am simply saying that if a bureaucrat acts on behalf of special interests, rather than his constituents, and then joins those same special interests immediately upon retirement, it is pretty clear. We know what they are; we’re just negotiating over price.
Evan Samson is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.