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Posted at 1:01 PM ET, 02/11/2011

Should we pay members of Congress for performance? Can we?

By Ezra Klein

Can we pay members of Congress for being productive?

That's what Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) wants to do. "The real trouble with Congress is that you get what you pay for, and we are paying for the wrong things," he said in a recent speech at Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. "Right now taxpayers are paying for mediocre members of Congress to look good while ducking fundamental issues in order to get reelected. Fixed salaries do much more to perpetuate the terrible status quo than most people realize."

The problem is, how do you measure congressional productivity? Bills passed? Constituents helped? Television hits? Even Cooper doesn't know.

Initially, I wrote his idea off as economic thinking run amok. But an interview today changed my mind, at least a bit. Cooper may not know how to pay congressmen to be more productive -- and he's not for higher pay overall. But he makes a good case that they are currently paid -- or at least rewarded -- for the wrong sorts of productivity.

"If you look at it carefully," he says, "we're already being paid for performance. But it's by special interests. And even here on the Hill, we kind of pay ourselves for a certain type of performance. Party leadership hands out all these perks: Committee assignments, staff privileges, annex offices, pages, even permission to travel. And then there are campaign contributions from the DCCC."

So what to do about it? That's a bit harder. There are crude measures of productivity like attendance at votes, hearings, and issue meetings. But it's not clear where exactly that gets you. It's important for a member of Congress to show up for a vote, but is it really better performance for her to help name a post office in another state than to meet with a constituent or read an issue brief? Another option is to reduce the bad types of performance pay, or at least their appeal, through things like campaign finance reform. But perhaps you folks have some subtler, better ideas for how to do this. Can we pay members of Congress for performance?

By Ezra Klein  | February 11, 2011; 1:01 PM ET
 
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Comments

Government should get revenues at a maximum of 20% of Gross Domestic Product.

Congress can and should get paid for performance by reducing spending below 20% of Gross Domestic Product. Then with whatever remains, they can get a performance bonus proportional to how much spending is reduced below that 20% figure.

No 20%, no bonus.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 11, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Um, relatively low congressional pay DOES create pay for performance:

Serve your 8 terms in the House and do the bidding of a particular lobby or at the very least don't screw them over, then they'll offer you a mid six figure lobbying job! If you're sufficiently disloyal, then no lobbying job!

Posted by: senatorsmith85 | February 11, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I do not have any answer, but this is so true -

"If you look at it carefully," he says, "we're already being paid for performance. But it's by special interests...."

Evan Bayh, that should be sufficient to make the point.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 11, 2011 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Lower their salary to $100K/year. Pay them bonuses of 1-4 times their salary for their rating based on an aggregate of polls of citizens, their fellow senators and maybe a couple other stakeholders or "judges". So you can make somewhere between $100K (worst) to $500K (best). The polls and ratings provided should emphasize statesmanship, service to country, long term positive impact -- not the short term stuff. Highest value goes to citizens and it must be a mixed group of people mostly from their district but also from neighboring states and nationally.

There is already precedent for this in 360 degree type compensation plans which weigh your bonus based on ratings by your colleagues, bosses and subordinates.

Average pay will be $250K (a $75K/year raise) but some must get the minimum, some the maximum. So the whole thing would cost$7.5M/year in additional salary plus overhead. This is the senate so let's say
$50M/year.

No one would ever go for it.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | February 11, 2011 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Performance based pay would only give rich congressmen more power to obstruct.

Posted by: will12 | February 11, 2011 1:52 PM | Report abuse

The problem is that most members of congress don't need their salary since most are already multi millionaires. Their currency is power.
Metrics here are hard. Coming from a software development background I have an idea. We could let the voters create a list of "defects" in the law with a severity on how they impact their districts. When fixes are made they are credits, when the law is overthrown by the judicial branch, its a debit.
Payment is an issue. Maybe everyone starts out with 2 years only and if they create enough benefit, they are allowed to run another term.

Posted by: EducatingTheFools | February 11, 2011 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Why don't we pay congress by the hour. You get compensated for reading a brief, time spent on the house floor or committee meetings, even meeting with a constituent. You don't get paid for fundraisers and campaign events.

Posted by: ideallydc | February 11, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

If you follow this notion to its logical conclusion, more than a few members of Congress would end up with negative compensation -- that is, because they proved themselves so worthless, they would actually end up owing the Treasury for the privilege of serving.

Hey, now -- that's an idea I could support!

Posted by: S1VA | February 11, 2011 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Their pay should be tied to GDP in some way. GDP is not subjective and it benefits everyone and what congress does or does not do has a big effect on GDP.

If it is possible, I am hoping President Obama will choose to stop paying congress' salaries if they do not vote to increase the debt limit. His administration will have to choose somewhere to make cuts, and federal employee salaries was one item I heard mentioned. Why not start cuts where it is the most likely to get a quick resolution on the debt limit?

Posted by: DeanofProgress | February 11, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Until it is illegal for members of Congress to accept *any* money at all from anyone the system won't be workable.
.
Why we allow such blatant conflicts of interest to continue is beyond my comprehension. If an industry gives a million dollars to a Congresspersons campaign fund, why exactly do we not consider that buying a vote? Bribes don't have to be successful to be illegal.

Posted by: rpixley220 | February 11, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse

One way would be to make them have a GPS RFID implanted which would record their hours in their offices or on the voting floor, so they could not be calling for donations (not allowed from Congress) for six or more hours a day instead of working for their constituents. Then let their pay be based on ACCOMPLISHING passed legislation on the top concerns of their constituents. Some adjustment could be made for overseeing government policy development (State, Defense, Transportation, etc.) on issues that need a lot of advanced research -- from their offices and when needed, traveling to see INFORMED people.

Posted by: DonB2 | February 11, 2011 2:20 PM | Report abuse

"Can we pay members of Congress for performance?"

Softball! Answer: no. Next question?

Posted by: ostap666 | February 11, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

what kind of performance would we be paying for the "comatose ones". You know the ones that are there until their 90's with very little still to offer other than more proof that term limits are needed?

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 11, 2011 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I've thought of this before, I agree with DeanofProgress. I don't think they should be paid by being productive as a representative, but their salaries should be tied to aggregate measures of national well-being such as GDP, unemployment, productivity, debt, etc. It would be a complicated formula (and the more complicated the better so that it couldn't be gamed). I also think it's important to make sure the measures are national instead of local. I think these representatives should concentrate on the country, not their jurisdiction.

Posted by: FroggyJ4 | February 11, 2011 2:42 PM | Report abuse

"The problem is that most members of congress don't need their salary since most are already multi millionaires."

A fair point. If you increase Congressional salaries when GDP goes up, but voters are more likely to vote Republican if the GDP falls, I think most Republican Congressmen will go for the votes rather than the higher salary.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | February 11, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Interesting. I think it would need to follow some of the reform proposals for CEO/executive pay: smaller salaries, with bonuses and pensions tied to performance for a certain period of time after bills pass and programs are implemented (more on that a minute).

So you finally build the Congressional dorms on the parking lot next to Cannon, calculate a daily cost of living figure, and let the members expense in the cost of transportation to/from their home districts every 1-2 weeks. This constitutes their base salary.

Then a bonus or pension is calculated using an incredibly complex formula designed to measure the impact and effectiveness of legislative achievements.

Legal provisions and new government programs are all required to have performance metrics indicating the success of the provision, the cost of implementation, the resulting efficiency gains, etc.

The formula should measure the anticipated spending or savings against the actual spending or savings. There would need to be a way to promote savings without providing a disincentive for large and necessary spending.

Bills upon which the member was a cosigner are weighted more heavily than bills the member simply voted for. Ratings also include the measures for programs or bills they voted against.

Now, about the time period after which programs are measured: the measure is the aggregate of measures throughout their terms in office plus 3-4 years after leaving office.

The nice thing about this measure is that it does not share one problem with similar CEO compensation schemes: as one person, voluntarily choosing when to leave, the CEO can set up programs designed to fail after the performance period. But with so many members of Congress--deciding when to leave or being voted out--at different times, it would be impossible to try to game the timeline as a single group.

But this plan risks a couple big things, and probably some others: 1) congressmen try to game the metrics by lowering the metrics so far that all bills "succeed", and 2) the metric currently has no way to measure the success of constituent services, so there would need to be a polling mechanism, but that risks turning the process into a popularity contest.

Then again, the lobbying job, seat on the board, or book deal will always be more important than the bonus or pension, so it would be a huge undertaking for little reward.

Posted by: punditpending | February 11, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

One way would be to make them have a GPS RFID implanted which would record their hours in their offices or on the voting floor, so they could not be calling for donations (not allowed from Congress) for six or more hours a day instead of working for their constituents. Then let their pay be based on ACCOMPLISHING passed legislation on the top concerns of their constituents. Some adjustment could be made for overseeing government policy development (State, Defense, Transportation, etc.) on issues that need a lot of advanced research -- from their offices and when needed, traveling to see INFORMED people.

Posted by: DonB2 | February 11, 2011 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Currently, only corporations pay Congresspeople for performance. I dunno how this could be changed.

Posted by: hope4 | February 11, 2011 3:40 PM | Report abuse

One way would be to make them have a GPS RFID implanted which would record their hours in their offices or on the voting floor, so they could not be calling for donations (not allowed from Congress) for six or more hours a day instead of working for their constituents. Then let their pay be based on ACCOMPLISHING passed legislation on the top concerns of their constituents. Some adjustment could be made for overseeing government policy development (State, Defense, Transportation, etc.) on issues that need a lot of advanced research -- from their offices and when needed, traveling to see INFORMED people.

Posted by: DonB2 | February 11, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I would like to submit that Congressmen and Senators should only be paid a small stipend and incidental expenses , e. g., the AmeriCorps volunteers are serving communities across the U. S. We all know the "System" that Congressmen and Senators are only the " middle men and women " ; the real work is being done by expensive lobbyists on behalf of and paid for by a variety of interest groups and business Corporations. The Congress should consider this proposal as an austerity measure to reduce budget deficit .

Posted by: dmfarooq | February 11, 2011 4:29 PM | Report abuse

First, most Senators are millionaires already, so you’ll need a lot of performance pay to motivate them. Second, the lobbyists and other special interests can pay millions with plum jobs after the congresspeople leave. That’s what you have to compete with. They already offer huge performance pay.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | February 12, 2011 1:24 AM | Report abuse

I would base it on the median (not average) wage of American workers. Just have it a multiple of the median. Each year their salary would be set based on the previous year. I would include the wages of the unemployed (unemployment benefits, social security,e tc) so that would adjust their pay downward if unemployment went up. The median wage approach would reduce the effects of income disparity. And as we've seen with GDP, it can go up while typical family income is static or even decreasing.
There would be no need to vote on it each year as the Median Wage would come form BLS so it its automatic.

Posted by: TomP3 | February 12, 2011 7:13 AM | Report abuse

As I commented on Matt Yglesias' blog, I'd like to see members of Congress receive pay increases tied to the real increase of wages of the bottom quartile of the income distribution. In other words, if the poorest have stagnating wages, so do our members of Congress. You'd have to figure some way to calculate this net of transfers (like the EITC) and taxes, of course

Posted by: weiwentg | February 13, 2011 9:16 AM | Report abuse

If they cannot even get together to pass a fiscal year budget BEFORE the start of the fiscal year, why should they get paid at all?

Posted by: nitcat | February 14, 2011 8:27 AM | Report abuse

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