Congressional Pay for Performance

January 27, 2023       


As Ballotpedia explains, the congressional approval rating indicates public satisfaction in the job performance of the members of the United States Congress. It is the percentage of people polled who responded favorably toward the work of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

On January 27, 2023, Ballotpedia reported a congressional approval rating of 27%.1 I think it is safe to say that those going to Washington for the first time bubble over with enthusiasm but feel hamstrung in a couple of years. They, then, bubble over with apathy. They want to throw up their hands - or just plain throw up - and return home. They do not, however, give up that easy because the prestige, pay, retirement and other benefits are too good to lose.

Too, they likely entertain thoughts of lobbying after leaving office with a strong record of achievement for even more money and security.

According to Lawrence Lessig in his February 8, 2010 article.  How to Get Our Democracy Back, reported by CBS NEWS:

Part of the economy of influence that corrupts our government today is that Capitol Hill has become, as Representative Jim Cooper put it, a "farm league for K Street."
(K Steet was once where many lobbying firms were located. Not so much now but K street is a metonym still used when referring to the Washington lobby community.)

The CBS NEWS report is no longer available on the internet. However, Mr. Cooper's assertion is, I believe, true today, thirteen years later.

Admittedly, I paint all congressional men and women with a broad brush when not all are the same. Some, perhaps many, love the work and believe they are serving us well. How many? Likely, nobody except those close to them have the faintest idea.

Well,  there is an effective solution and it isn't necessarily electing different people. Even if we replace all of them when they are up for reelection, what will we gain? We will gain nothing, just more of the same.

The Solution
Pay our members of congress what they are worth, with worth measured in terms of their collective approval rating.

It seems to me our Washington politicians might be less inclined to allow gridlock and, therefore, get more work done for the people if we hit them in their pocketbooks. Pay-for-performance works well in the private sector and could improve the work at the United States Capitol as well.

Not surprisingly, some on Capitol Hill think pay for performance is a bad idea. If I were one of 'em, I wouldn't want it either. Why would I want to work when I can coast for the same pay?

However, voter pressure combined with the possibility of less money could be as effective as that of private sector management’s mindset: squeeze more work from the workers with the promise of more money. It’s the notion of paying less money to underachievers and more money to star performers.

The Formula
I suggest reducing the monthly salary of each of the 535 members, regardless of their individual ratings, by 1% for each 1% drop below a 50% congressional approval rating pertaining to the previous month. A really poor performance of 0% would cut each member’s current month’s pay in half.

With an overall approval rating of 10%, each representative and senator would receive a monthly pay of $8,700 instead of the full $14,500 they now receive. With a 25% approval rating their monthly pay would be $10,875, a reduction of $3,625.

For fairness to both the people and members of congress, we should adjust monthly payments based on the average of ratings reported by a to-be-determined number of credible polling firms.

Since members of congress set their own pay, I realize many readers will view this pay-for-performance idea as a pipe dream. However, people can exert pressure and force the seemingly impossible. We should do precisely that - exert pressure and force - because when we keep returning incumbents to Washington only as a matter of course, we risk them becoming too comfortable and lackadaisical.

I have observed private sector employees who became too comfortable on the job. They often produce less and less while enjoying full pay with annual raises as well. Without ever working in the world of politics other than private sector politics - believe me, it is there - I feel very safe saying too many of our representatives and senators are no different.

Look at it this way: Low congressional approval ratings indicate our inability to send team-playing achievers to Washington. I’ll go as far to say a dismal congressional approval rating of 10% means we the people have a dismal 10% success rate of sending effective politicians to Washington, something that doesn’t say much for us.

People who believe this is too steep of a cut because it will diminish congressional motivation have a point but I believe the opposite. I think those who want to keep their jobs will be motivated to achieve more whether from internal motivation or from vigorous pressure by the gentlemen and gentleladies on both sides of the aisle. I think most have more self-respect than the respect they receive from the people.

Yes, the people might “band together” and dish out lowball ratings for whatever reason but probably not enough to make a significant difference when considering multiple polling firms will have input.


 1 Ballotpedia's congressional approval polling average: 27% (January 27, 2023)