Can Congress Represent the Needs of Middle Class Americans?


The ideological battle over the U.S. federal budget has many Americans wondering if members of Congress or the Executive branch fully understand the economic plight of the American middle class. On July 25, 2011, both President Barack Obama and his Republican opposition took their case to the people, speaking on television and endeavoring to garner support from everyday citizens. Skeptics point out that most members of Congress know very little about the financial stresses of many Americans. The base pay of members is $174,000 while some leaders earn much more. The disconnect between congressional compensation and perks and everyday Americans is, however, as old as the nation.

Should Congressmen be Paid a Salary?

According to The Hill (May 14, 2010), former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was worth $35.2 million while current Speaker John Boehner was only worth 2.1 million. The richest man on Capitol Hill, however, was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry who’s net worth topped 167.8 million, followed by California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa at 164.7 million. Rep and presidential candidate Ron Paul, who wants to return to the gold standard, has interests in several mining operations including Goldcorp Inc., based in Vancouver.

In many cases, members of Congress add to their net worth through spousal income, often derived when wives or husbands are given lucrative jobs with lobbyist firms and other special interest groups. Congressional trips – “junkets,” are underwritten by sponsoring organizations, businesses, and foreign governments. As federal employees, members of Congress enjoy excellent health care options and generous pensions.

The issue of congressional compensation began with the Continental Congress, however, and continued into the first year of the new Congress in 1789. George Washington, for example, refused any salary for his eight years as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and would not consent to any compensation as President. His views were shared by Thomas Jefferson and other Southern “gentlemen” serving in the government.

A Virtuous Republic did not Compensate Officeholders

Not everyone agreed with the Cincinnatus-type model Washington presented. John Adams believed that the failure to compensate officeholders would lead toward an “aristocratic despotism” whereby only the wealthiest Americans could participate in government. Both Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox resigned in order to pursue more lucrative private careers.

Although the first Congress finally agreed to compensate members at the rate of $6.00 per day, the issue of salaries continued into the 19th Century. When the nation’s capital was in New York and later Philadelphia, the cost of living often made serving in Congress prohibitive for men of lesser means.

Moving the capital to Washington City (today’s District of Columbia) also presented difficulties. Travel to and from the fledgling capital was costly and few hotels existed. Most members of Congress resided in boarding houses, sharing rooms with other members of their state delegation. It became inevitable that some members used their offices to enrich themselves.

The great orator Daniel Webster, for example, was on retainer with several firms including John Jacob Astor’s fur enterprise in the Oregon Territory. It is not surprising that the settling of the Oregon question by President Polk in 1846, built upon the earlier Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842), would benefit Astor. Historian Gordon Wood writes that, “This competition for office led inevitably to the emergence of politicians whose social position, private happiness, and even wealth came from holding public office…”

Democratic Office Holding Began with the Age of Jackson

By 1825, white males had achieved full political participation whether they owned property or not. But this did not change who the Congressional power brokers were and which man sat in the White House. John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay owned large Southern plantations as did the nabobs of the Deep South that frequently dominated all branches of the federal government. After the “Virginia Dynasty,” presidents Polk and Taylor came from large Southern plantations.

Zachary Taylor, father-in-law of another wealthy Southerner from Mississippi – Jefferson Davis, was one of the largest slave holders in the South. During that century, congressmen that began their careers with limited means often used their offices to increase investments and wealth such as James Blaine of Maine.

There were many notable exceptions. President Abraham Lincoln never departed from his modest background, although his erratic wife incurred staggering debts as First Lady. In later years, obscure and archaic laws disenfranchised “paupers,” an impediment to vote seen throughout the nation during the Great Depression according to historian Alexander Keyssar.

The Costs of Daily Groceries, Gasoline, and Affordable Healthcare

During the 1996 presidential debate between Senator Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton, Dole began his remarks by addressing the everyday American people: “You work harder and harder to make ends meets and put food on the table.” Toward the end of the debate, he stated that, “We want the government to pinch their pennies for a change instead of the people pinching their pennies.”

Yet fifteen years later, Americans are still pinching pennies while, according to the Watson Institute of International Study at Brown University, America’s Middle East wars have cost $4.4 trillion (Global Research, July 11, 2011). This does not mean, however, that politicians supporting the wars have no idea of the cost of food. According to Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone, June 22, 2011), Michele Bachmann was quoted saying, “We have five kids and 23 foster kids that we raise. So I go to the grocery store and buy a lot of food.” Bachmann, like Palin, supports the wars.

Polls conducted by various news groups like MSNBC demonstrate that many Americans want to see a definitive end to the debt ceiling battle in Washington, DC. Letters to the Editor across the nation question whether the insulated Congress can even understand the everyday needs of working Americans and the unemployed. In North Carolina, for example, unemployment percentages have not changed since the start of the so-called Great Recession.

Few political leaders in U.S. history that came from money could actually embrace the plight of the middle class. Teddy Roosevelt was one such exceptional individual. Franklin D. Roosevelt was another. Americans today are anxious to preserve their democracy and Constitution. But only a leader who is courageous enough to stand with millions of hard working Americans can accomplish that goal. This is the lesson of history that began in 1776.