What makes a politician’s smile so charming, handshake so firm, posture so proud, and wave so friendly? Maybe love for our country and pride to serve it, or maybe the big, fat paycheck in their wallet. If student leaders on campus could ball like they had a senator salary, you can bet you wouldn’t be the only one running to be the one to buy pizzas to bribe people to come to your meetings. The Senate has reasons for how much senators make, but with the richest senator, John Kerry, at a net worth of $238,812,296, you might want an explanation.
How much does a senator make?
A Senator salary is $174,000 annually. During the Constitutional Convention, the founding fathers considered the idea of not paying members of the government for their service. However, they scrapped this idea because being in session took them away from their other jobs. The congressman salary was $6 per day in session. But the congress salary changed permanently to yearly salaries in 1855.
How much a senator makes does not include allowances, though. Allowances for senators include money to pay their staff, job-related expenses (stationery, domestic travel and lodging, etc.), franking privilege (not having to pay for stamps if mailing to a US citizen), and foreign travel (air craft provided by the military). These allowances are awarded based on the size and population of the state the senator represents. Senators from bigger states get bigger allowances while senators from smaller states get smaller allowances.
So while you munch on ramen and hit your parents up for spending money, the men and women who decide how much you’ll pay for your college education, among other things, can drive around in luxury cars. What’s up with that?
Why is a US senator salary so much?
1. To protect against fraud
Senators won’t dress up in black and white stripes and a black mask a la the Hamburglar to rob us of our tax dollars. They’ll fix their white collars and do it under the table. Fortunately, the large senator salary help alleviate at least one side of the fraud triangle. The fraud triangle assumes three reasons for workplace fraud: individual pressure, opportunity to commit the crime and rationalization for the crime. We have checks and balances, laws and probably video cameras in place to eliminate the opportunity, and we hope we’ve elected morally sound officials to eliminate their ability to rationalize the crime. Senators’ government salary eliminates the individual financial pressure aspect from the triangle. When senators make enough to fully line their pockets, they won’t reach into anyone else’s.
2. To attract people to the job
The demands of a senator go beyond cutting ribbons and kissing babies. Senators’ position opens up their entire life and their family’s lives to public scrutiny and threat. Plus, senators give up their pre-government livelihood to a job in Washington. Something needs to attract worthy candidates to the position. The money alone won’t attract anyone who doesn’t have interest in our country, and the political process eliminates anyone who isn’t qualified. Your money doesn’t go to just anyone. It attracts those qualified, successful people away from their current interests to serve our country.
3. To limit preference for private interests
Large senator salaries also exist to limit interests in protecting certain industries that their livelihood may come from. If senators make enough to keep them comfortable, maybe they won’t favor any of their previous business interests unfairly. Of course, a government salary won’t deter senators from this practice 100 percent of the time, but “You don’t bite the hand that signs your $174,000 check” would come to mind.
4. Is a senator salary really that high?
Physicians make around $180,000. Lawyers make around $144,500. CEOs make around $170,000. Compared to other highly esteemed professions, senators make similar amounts. The average family income in the United States at around $51,000, however, does not compare to their hefty senator salary.
5. Not all of their money comes from the government
Aside from their paychecks, senators remain some of the wealthiest people in the country. Considering the cost of running a campaign (over $10 million from donors and from senators’ own pockets) it makes sense that wealthy, privileged people who run in wealthy, privileged circles would end up in office. According to current laws, senators cannot earn anymore that 15 percent of the basic rate of pay for level II of the Executive Schedule for federal employees. This means that their private businesses cannot earn more than 15 percent of what the level II employees, like cabinet members, make. However, this law does not apply to non-salary income that senators make, like investments and corporate dividends.
If you’d like to learn more about how the government works, keep an eye out on College Magazine for more Political Science 101.
Learn how to make congress 50 percent women by 2050
The Unfair Work Conditions in The Congress
by Jasper Wittig
The highest officials in the country make up the government positions. These people represent the nation through grueling workloads, long days and unfathomable responsibilities. In Congress, senators and representatives hold some of the highest paid jobs in the U.S. However, today, the wealthiest person who works in Congress owns a net worth of $460 million. Meanwhile, other congressional staffers face the pressure of working multiple jobs just to pay their rent.
Year after year in schools, we learned that the House of Representatives and the Senate compose Congress with 100 and 435 congresspeople respectively. However, these lessons fail to mention the thousands of congressional staffers who work behind the scenes to develop policies and pass laws. The high-pressure environment of Capitol Hill means that many employees regularly work 12-hour days with only a few breaks. Yet, despite these realities, it remains one of the lowest paid positions in Congress.
Senators and representatives can earn an average of over $150 thousand each year, while those in leadership roles receive even more. Sen. Mitt Romney, the wealthiest senator in the U.S., maintains an estimated net worth of $300 million as of September 2022. Similarly, the value of all assets for Rep. Darrell Issa reaches around $460 million. Congressional staffers, on the other hand, don’t get treated so well, with a starting salary of around $21,000 and an average annual income of $41,226 in the House.
In 2020, 1 in 8 congressional staffers made less than a living wage, estimated at $42,610.
Congressional pay adjustments continually brush over those without senior level status. It seems that limiting private interests to avoid business favoritism only applies to senators and representatives, leaving the rest of Congress incapable of paying bills without a second source of income.
People in Congress speak up about these inequities. Dear White Staffers, an Instagram account run by an anonymous congressional staffer, serves as an example of community activism. He calls out his workplace for its unfair working conditions: underpaying, overworking and abusing employees. The bio reads “Congressional BIPOC s***posters on Capitol Hill,” followed by the hammer and sickle emblem. The account started in January 2020 as a meme page, but it quickly evolved into a platform for political changes by raising awareness around pay gaps and calling out the racist and sexist systems in the government.
Dear White Staffers receives countless anonymous stories that demonstrate just how the pursuit of government change can make a difference in congressional staffers’ lives. The man who owns the account takes time to crop out names and post DMs from employees who open up about their experiences in the workplace. He also reshares Tweets, spreads political information and, of course, posts memes.
His account points out harmful structures that sit right in front of your eyes when you look at those in charge. You don’t need a report to tell you that white men dominate the very government positions that intend to represent a diverse U.S. population. According to research, almost 75% of representatives in the House hired no top staff of color. When compared to the population, Congress drastically underrepresents non-white people.
The Congressional Black Associates and the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus released a statement asking for change: a stronger college-to-Congress pipeline, more career opportunities and investments, livable wages for all congressional staffers and America represented integrally, with each action listing ways to accomplish it.
On Sept. 26, they achieved a milestone: the formation of the first congressional office union.
The union represents all congressional employees. This allows a direct line of communication between staffers and employers to negotiate a contract for wages, hours and conditions of employment. Plans for the union date back eight months, kickstarted by Dear White Staffers on Instagram. Previously, employees individually defended themselves in conversations with supervisors who make three times as much as they do each year. So, don’t fool yourself when you talk about the wealth held in Congress because this money goes only to the white elite.