Citizens panel should set Congress’ pay

At least one group of Americans has been profiting despite the faltering economy: members of the U.S. House of Representatives. They’re supposed to be the part of the government that’s “closest to the people.” But as the saying has it, they came to do good and stayed to do well. In their cases, mostly very well.

“Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, excluding home equity,” the Washington Post reported Monday. By contrast, the typical American saw his “comparable median figure sliding from $20,600 to $20,500.” The data came from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics at the University of Michigan.

That means the average representative’s net worth is 35 times that of the average American’s. This helps explain why Congress is so out of touch with the ordinary Americans they claim to represent and who in too many cases are suffering unemployment, foreclosures, even evictions. And it looks like the Occupy Wall Street movement needs to march about 228 miles south, from Manhattan to Capitol Hill.

America was founded by “citizen legislators” who took off a few weeks a year from their businesses or farms to ride on horseback or carriage to Congress, where their business was to preserve their country’s liberty.

The new report comes six weeks after a “60 Minutes” report detailing how members of Congress are effectively exempt from most insider-trading prohibitions for trading stocks, and have profited handsomely.

“If they were in the private sector, they would be doing 20 to 30 years” in prison, Nicholas Bavaro told us; he’s president of Bavaro Benefit Advisors in Modesto, Calif. “This shows how the whole system is dysfunctional. They should have a Citizens Compensation Commission, like we have in California.” Bavaro previously served on the commission, which sets state legislators’ pay and benefits.

Although Bavaro no longer is on the commission, it commendably adjusted legislators’ pay to reflect the suffering in the private sector. In 2009 it cut legislators’ pay 18 percent, to $95,291 a year (plus $142 per diem). And earlier in 2011, it canceled their taxpayer-funded cars. No more fun, fun, fun because Daddy took the T-Bird away. Also the Lexus, the Escalade and the Mercedes.

By contrast, Bavaro pointed out, the pay of members of Congress increases automatically, based on increases in the cost of living, thanks to a 1989 law. However, since 2009 Congress has canceled its pay increases, freezing salary at $174,000. But according to a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, as recently as 1979, congressmen were making $60,663 a year, in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars. And they were making $89,500 in 1987, before the automatic pay increases began.

How many private-sector workers have that kind of a deal?

Bavaro is right. A citizens panel should set the pay of members of Congress. Congress itself would have to vote it into existence. But its job would be to return congressional compensation to something more in line with that of the ordinary Americans whose taxes fund congressional paychecks.