What’s in a symbol?

Congress is going to hit the ground running when the new term begins.They’ve given themselves another pay increase.

As Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Gobe points out:


Beginning this week, US representatives and senators will be paid $174,000 a year. That represents an increase of $4,700 and the 10th time since 1998 that congressional pay has been given a boost.

As has become routine, this salary hike is taking place automatically – there were no hearings, no vote, no debate.

And no mention of it during the congressional campaigns just a few months ago.

It’s only symbolism, of course, but maybe that counts for something right around now. It might be fair to say when you’re living the good life in Washington, you lose touch with the real world to the point where you don’t understand what taking more taxpayer cash looks like.

It’s not just Washington, it’s even Washington County, where commissioner’s thought it’s a good time to raise their pay. Shortly before Christmas, the board added a 3.5-percent increase to the commissioners’ salary. They’ll draw on their $52,713 salary starting last week.

Technically, it’s a part-time position, though commissioners say it’s really full-time. Still, the issue of unpaid elected officials doesn’t usually come up during campaigns.

But maybe the symbolism of a tighter salary belt isn’t that important to people. You tell me.

  • Alison

    The tighter salary belt does mean something to me. I would like to see elected officials hold to the same salary when the rest of us either see no increase or a pink slip.

    I’m not a believer in unpaid elected officials for two reasons. First, elected office should not be a priviledge reserved for the independently wealthy. Second, imagine the increased temptation for corruption if elected officials were making any money for their efforts.

  • Anna

    I have to admit to feeling a little petty about an automatic increase of $4700 for our congresspeople – especially since it’s being added to a salary that is already 6 figures. Should they get paid? Yep. Should they get paid a reasonable salary for the work they do? You bet. As Alison said, better to have them get some compensation so that the job is not restricted to the independently wealthy and/or those willing to take cash from places or people they ought not to.

    That said, I have just filed for unemployment insurance due to a layoff. $4700 is more that 3 months of my estimated UI. Seems a bit ridiculous to burden the federal system more when there are so many people in my situation. Better to spend that $4700 helping folks find work, I’d think. But perhaps that’s my personal economic situation talking…

  • http://kgsm.gac.edu/gboone Greg

    I’m always against giving legislators pay raises without the decency of at least a debate and roll-call vote. Pay raises are one more way in which the public can hold their congressional representatives accountable for their (in)action in their districts. We are, after all, their bosses. The least they could do is have the debate so it looks like they care about evaluating their job performance. Best case scenario it would be a referendum initiative. Now that would be interesting…

  • ryan

    I always remember Paul Wellstone’s speech at the Senate, where he said we cannot give ourselves a pay raise, when they won’t give America a raise (speaking on minimum wage). Wellstone then gave his raise entirely to charity when the bill passed.

  • Mark Gisleson
  • MR

    I wonder if the legislature will give itself a pay raise while negotiating a new (and presumably smaller) contract with the state unions.

  • Alison

    OMG! Bob, is Mark’s report of Bill Kling’s compenstion legit?

  • bsimon

    On the one hand, the automatic increase does chafe a bit. On the other, these people do perform a service for which they should be appropriately compensated – and live (at least part time) in a region with a high cost of living. Back on the other hand, the symbolism cannot be overlooked. 435 * 4700 = $2,044,500. Within the federal budget, 2 million ain’t much. But every penny counts, right?

  • Bob

    Count me in the “Hell yes, I care!” category. This pay raise setup, and the fact that Congresspeople are paid such big salaries for getting little or nothing done, is straight out of Bizarro World, the alternate universe in Superman comics. In Bizarro World, logic is turned on its head and nonsense replaces common sense.

  • Elizabeth T

    Hell, Yes I care.

    In my last ‘normal’ job, I only got a pay raise for “performance”. Perhaps the people of Minnesota should be the ones voting on whether our legislators have successfully completed their annual “progress goals”? Each state could then determine whether or not its interests had been served. It might give more incentive to make us happy, rather than just those giving them the obvious cash (i.e., PACs), which they can blithely claim is just for their campaigns.

    $2 million? Think of what that would do to the “minor” or “little” programs, like early childhood education or the national park system.

  • Tonya

    Doing the math, last year they were paid $169,300. An increase of $4,700 means a little less than a 3% wage increase. Considering that is what I was told equates to a “cost of living” raise (the 3%, not the actual dollar amount), I’m not too concerned about this.

    I agree that most people do not recieve this much in pay increases each year, and that saddens me, but that doesn’t mean that people who work as hard as our legislators (or at least as hard as they’re supposed to) shouldn’t recieve this kind of compensation.

    As for using a pay stagnation as a way to reprimand our representatives for not doing what they’re supposed to, that’s what elections are supposed to be for, correct? If we need more control of our politicians, then we should change how long they’re in office, or write them with our concerns, meet them, call them, all kinds of things besides diddling with their pay checks.

  • Krista

    It isn’t the amount ($4700) it is the IDEA of a pay raise. While many people are finding themselves out of work, many more are dealing with wage freezes and no increases in 2009. Any self-respecting politician (eg, Paul Wellstone) would stand in solidarity with his/her constituency.

  • Alison

    Of course the problem with legislators deciding whether or not they did a good job is that in nearly all cases they would say that they did. What you think of that job is another issue entirely. As an example you could argue, that they didn’t get a budget passed by the end of the session in some year. They can, of course, argue back that they felt the budget presented to them was not in the interest of their constituents or the state. Doing their job to the best of their ability required them to prevent passage. The other side was unwilling to negotiate a ‘reasonable’ solution. You can’t pay ‘performance’ in politics because we couldn’t agree on a standard to judge by.

  • tiredboomer

    Right now I’m more interested in Bill Kling’s salary and sources of income. That figure sounds “made-up”. If it’s anywhere near correct I have two observations, 1) There are one or more public radio boards not doing their job. 2) Bill Kling better be an MPR member at or above the $62,817.40/year level.

    Is that public information. If so, where can it be found?

  • Al

    The other news of the day, Pohlad’s death, reminds me that the raises that Congress grants itself are mere peanuts compared to the salaries that state and local goverment shell out to millionaire players and billionaire owners.

    So Bob, are you going to provide some insight into Bill Kling’s salary? If that figure from Mark is correct, just how many days of fund drive is that equivalent to? How many listeners pay for just Mr. Kling?

  • Bob Collins

    I have no more insight into Kling’s finances that anyone else. I can Google — like anyone else — and find that the some charities review organization said his MPR compensation was $354,389 but I don’t know what year that was. I do note that it gives MPR a 4-star rating (out of 4), higher than NPR, FWIW.

    The 990 on Guidestar looks pretty old.

    The Minnesota Attorney General also keeps a more updated charities review database.

  • Mark Gisleson

    John Oslund’s Strib article is here. Sorry, I meant to include that link in the previous post. The Kling information is all the way at the end.

    I don’t pretend to understand how the Klingdom works, but it involves much more than just MPR. I also don’t understand MPR’s relationships with Kling’s other entities.

  • tiredboomer

    Thank for the links and clarifications regarding Mr. Kling’s income. Undoubtedly it will be much too complex for me to identify sources and unravel relationships between sources, but it will give me something to do in my spare time, if I can find any.

  • Elizabeth T

    Tonya-

    I realize that elections are the most opportune time to express our satisfaction for their job performance. But, at least in the case of senators, that’s 6 pay raises away. It’s the fact that they, collectively, decided to grant themselves automatic raises.

    How am I / we supposed to counter this, if we don’t like it as a policy (which I don’t). Elections won’t effect this, unless we somehow manage to unseat the entire legislature, creating a new one, which can still turn around and do it again.

    There is no interim-approval system, esp. for senators.

    Am I supposed to honestly believe that my legislators will seriously take my opinion into account? I know they write back to me with the standard form “thanks for writing, I’m too busy to answer” (which I realize is true). If they’re against my opinion/policy, why should they care about it? I’ve never once heard back from any of them about why they don’t agree with me, or even explain why they’ve taken the position they have.

    In this lovely electronic age, when they all have websites, there is no reason why they can’t post a highly detailed explanation for their choices or at least positions on line.

    I am perhaps too cynical, but politics is “put your money where you mouth is, and people will listen”. The people who get listened to are the ones standing in Senator X’s office (which, yes, hypothetically could be me). Which senator is going to stand up and say “hey, we shouldn’t give ourselves a raise every year?”

    Short of getting 1,212,431 of my best friends to vote with me (just to pick a number out of thin air), I can’t effect who’s sitting in D.C. And I assuredly can’t effect what s/he’s doing. We can only elect 1 at a time, and only the one from Minnesota. How can the 3 million of us here effect the whole of Congress?

    It’s not the dollar value, nor even the % — it’s the fact that they automatically get it every year – not every 6 or even 2 years.

    Bluntly, anything the entire Congress decides to give itself is utterly beyond the reach of us to change. A fact which annoys me.

    It ought to be a lot easier to convince 300,000 MPR members to effect company policy by withholding our memberships. An avenue not exactly open to us with the Federal Government.

  • Mark Gisleson

    Adam Platt on MPR’s financial “transparency”:

    “I’d be more willing to trust MPR and its consultants’ word if it was more of a transparent organization. MPR’s decades-long shielding of how it compensates its executives through webs of side ventures is one example of an organization that is simply not willing to offer the kind of public accountability incumbent on non-profits that solicit and accept public and member funding.”

    FYI, I’m not posting this stuff out of any hatred of MPR. I just don’t like the way the Klingdom operates or how passively Minnesotans keep shoveling money to an organization they don’t really understand. How many six-figure executives does MPR have when you add in ALL the paychecks?

    I believe in paying people for doing their jobs, but I have yet to figure out how anyone under the rank of President of the United States can justify a salary in excess of what the POTUS makes.

  • Bob Collins

    The business the president runs is a disaster, it can’t balance its budget, is hopelessly in debt, and is only accountable to anyone every four years.

    Taking this out of the like-Kling/don’t-like-Kling discussion for a minute, why does everyone always compare salaries to the President of the United States? Is that position REALLY the best example we have of getting the most for our money?

    And, like baseball owners, the real payoff is on the cashout, when they get a pension and book deals that are astronomical.

    Who was it — Babe Ruth, I think — who when asked why his salary was higher than the president’s responded, “I had a better year.”

  • Al

    While salary comparison the president is silly, comparing salary to the average American is not. This is even more true when you are talking about a non-profit that begs for money from average people. The income disparity between the heads of organizations and the average workers has grown astronmically over the past few decades. I would have hoped MPR did not take part in this absurdity.

    There was talk during the campaigns last fall of limiting CEO pay. One suggestion that I will be taking to my respresentaive and senators will be a cap on the pay for people working for non-profits, say $200,000. If an organization wants to pay executives more they can, but they would not be eligible for federal tax breaks and the donors would not be able to deduct their donations.

    I e-mailed Bill Kling the link to this post yesterday. I hope he will find some time to check in at NewsCut and correct any misconseptions or otherwise enlighten us on this issue.

  • Mark Gisleson

    I’ve always favored changing IRS rules so that wages above and beyond the POTUS’s salary would not be tax deductible.

    Bob, you wrote a compelling post about the hard work newspaper carriers do. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable living in a society where newspaper carriers made a few more bucks, and bigwigs made a few bucks less?

    Our current financial crisis didn’t come about because standards were lowered to let more people buy homes; this crisis is the result of lenders lowering their standards so their executives could make short-term bonuses that effectively destroyed the long-term value of their employers.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to limit compensation so everyone would always have incentive to look to the long haul and not next quarter’s bonus? And could anyone tell me why “worker bees” never get bonuses?

    The fact is that if we knew ALL the ins and outs of how Bill Kling gets compensated, it would be a scandal, but then again, I think any salary/compensation in excess of a couple hundred grand a year is a real scandal. Many CEOs are truly talented, but that doesn’t mean they’re worth the huge salaries they’re pulling down. It also doesn’t mean that society accrues any benefits from disproportionate compensation because as we’ve all learned the pie wasn’t being grown even as those on top took ever bigger slices.

    There is a direct relationship between how much the Bill Klings of this world get paid, and how much the Bob Collins get paid. Sorry to get on my soapbox but the lessons of Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush is that yes, you can pay your executives too much, and most companies do, MPR included.

  • Al

    No comment from Bill Kling, apparently. Sad. File this topic under “The rich get richer…”

    I won’t stop financial support of MPR since I use it so heavily. I had been regularly increasing my contribution each year. That will end if MPR seems to have enough money for excessive executive salaries.