Why you should care

Because if we can get over the aversion to spending, we might get better politics.

Walk into most statehouses and city halls, and you’ll find a room full of old, affluent white dudes. Some causes of political homogeneity are complicated, but at least one of them is dead simple: State and local governments pay like crap. That is, unless you think $7,200 (what a Texas legislator makes) or salaries in the low five figures (what most other state legislators make) is good pay.

Who can afford to live on that? Trust-funders, pensioners and folks who can consult or run a business on the side, for the most part. If we take for granted the notion that more types of people equals more types of ideas, then we need a fix. Here’s an idea: an endowed fellowship that allows people who cannot otherwise run for state office to do so. Seed funding could come from a variety of political interest backers and/or nonpartisan organizations. You might keep the donors anonymized and certainly would segregate them from the policymaking that ensued.

“I love the idea,” says Washington state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat who represents the state’s 37th District. Her state is in the middle of a debate over raising state senators’ salaries by about 11 percent, spaced out over two years. Legislators are feeling their cheeks burning a bit over it — after all, lawmakers rarely have a good reputation on spending. But could a salary closer to $46,000 make a difference in who might run at a $42,000 annual salary?

It’s a nice idea — that politics shouldn’t be a career.

Maybe, says Jayapal: “It limits who can truly represent the population — and affects the quality of people.” Taking on state office at such low compensation takes someone who is “a little bit crazy,” as Jayapal self-identifies. But on top of that, legislators who have to take a second or third job to make ends meet might not be making the best policy. Republican state Sen. Steve Martin of Virginia, who’s been in office for nearly three decades, told me he’s had to make financial sacrifices to stay in office for this long; the former insurance agent manages on the salary of less than $18,000 per year by consulting on the side.

To be sure, not all state legislatures were created equal. Some were designed to be relatively full time, while other “citizen legislatures,” like Martin’s and Jayapal’s, were conceived of as necessarily part time. It’s a nice idea — that politics shouldn’t be a career. “If people believe voting a certain way might negatively impact their re-election” when it’s a full-time gig, we risk getting worse policy, argues Denise Roth Barber, managing director at the National Institute on Money In State Politics. And yes, there’s something appealing about the organic nature of direct democracy or relative self-governance, from Athens to Nepali village councils to community judiciaries in many Native American societies.

Then again, perhaps we condescend to think such systems can translate through time. Americans have a bad habit of fetishizing the past, and this might just be one more aspect of the Union that needs perfecting.

Would higher pay make better legislators?

Comment

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.