By Harley Austin | United States
For decades, America has had a growing problem with political corruption and the growing number of “career politicians.” A career politician is a person who has been a politician for most of their career, usually 15-35 years, and has served numerous terms. Career politicians are seen as corrupt aristocrats who care solely for re-elections and special interests rather than the people.
Such politicians are very prevalent in American politics, especially the Senate, and a desire to remove them has grown exponentially in recent years. This is mostly due to the rise of populism, anti-establishmentarianism, and a favoring of those with non-political experience (case in point: the 2016 election).
The Flaws of Term Limits
So far, the only major solution to this problem has been term limits, which are restrictions on how many terms an elected official can serve. While this sounds nice in theory, the actual application of term limits won’t solve the problem. Instead of our current system of corrupt politicians serving a career-long succession of terms, there would simply be corrupt politicians serving a few terms. The longevity of corrupt politicians would be reduced, but the actual corruption would not be affected. This is because politicians will still be bought out endlessly, bureaucrats will still continue their damagingly corrupt practices, and the governmental power structure that incentivizes corruption will remain.
Similar to presidential term limits, congressional term limits would only result in a wide array of power-hungry demagogues and aristocrats being cycled out every few election cycles. Each corrupt politician would only be replaced by another and the problems that create corruption would not be solved. This also ignores the fact that these people become career politicians by gaining majority vote, therefore a large portion of the blame rests on the American voters. At the end of a politician’s term limit, the voters would simply move on to the next power-hungry demagogue willing to offer free stuff and the cycle would continue, just in shorter intervals.
The Solution: Congressional Pay Reform
If term limits are not the answer, what is? The answer is a method that has gained some traction in modern politics but has remained relatively obscure: congressional pay reform. Simply put, a substantial cause of career politics is the very high salary given to congressmen. Therefore, the issue could be corrected better by removing the incentive to stay in office.
To put things in perspective, the minimum annual salary for a congressman is around 174,000 USD. This salary is higher for those in higher positions such as majority leaders and speakers of the house, ranging from 190,000 to 220,000 USD. While this may sound like a fair amount, the median household income in America is about 59,000 USD.
This means that our elected officials earn at least 3 times more than half the households in America. The large salaries are also why many congressmen, especially Senators, live in large mansions, have multiple houses, and have multi-million dollar net worths. The corrupt aristocracy exists because we pay them six-figure incomes from our tax dollars. The easiest way to create disconnect between public “servants” and the people is to make them numerous socioeconomic classes above their district (some even living outside of them). This why politicians serve special interests instead of the people: because when salaries are more important than the job itself, special interest money becomes irresistible.
The solution to this issue, instead of setting fixed term limits, is setting a lower and less fixed income for congressmen. Clearly, six figures are too high and whatever legislation creates the reform can’t contain a fixed number due to inflation. Therefore, congressional annual pay should be set to the median annual household income mentioned earlier.
This solves numerous issues. First, as public “servants,” congressman would earn the same as the average person they “represent.” Second, there would be no wage incentive for becoming a politician, so those who run for office would do so solely to be in office. Finally, when the politicians pass laws that destroy the economy, they end up literally paying the price when their wages decrease. This would discourage the corrupt corporatist practices of special favors and buying out politicians that is very common in American politics.
Instead of focusing on minor quick fixes that will only fail in the long term, we should fix the cause of career politicians. The answer is not limiting the number of terms, it’s limiting what makes more terms desirable.
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