Why isn't Congress's Salary Paid by the States?
July 7, 2011 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone explain to me the reason why the pay for members of the United States Congress is paid by the federal government and not their respective states? Was such a system ever considered and rejected and, if so, why? I recognize that the offices are federal, but their ties to their state is the very reason they are there. Wouldn't state legislatures want that control or were they happy to dump the costs onto the federal government? This seems like something that would have been debated very early in our history yet I can't find any info on it. Thanks.
posted by Jamesonian to Law & Government (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Here's a discussion of the issue.

Relevant excerpt:
"Under the Articles of Confederation ... members of the existing Congress received varying salaries from their individual states. If a state legislature became dissatisfied with one of its representatives in the Continental Congress, it could simply suspend his salary.

Seeking to narrow state powers over the central government, the Constitution’s authors provided that congressional salaries would come from the federal treasury, with Congress setting the actual amount."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:10 AM on July 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Are you looking for the actual, historic reason for pay being structured that way, or post-hoc policy arguments and speculation as to why it should remain that way?
posted by The World Famous at 11:10 AM on July 7, 2011

If each individual state paid their senators and representatives, then the amount of that pay would almost certainly vary from state to state, leading to controversy.

I'd like to point out that the 27th Amendment implies that they're all paid by the Federal Government. It's true that it wasn't ratified until 1992, but it was proposed as part of the Bill of Rights in 1789. (There were originally 12 amendments proposed, of which ten were immediately ratified.)

Those first 12 proposed amendments were originally part of a deal made at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, so it seems as if it was always assumed that representatives and senators would be paid by the federal government.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:36 AM on July 7, 2011

I'd like to point out that the 27th Amendment implies that they're all paid by the Federal Government.

It's explicit in Article I, Section 6, which reads in the relevant part:
The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States.
posted by Jahaza at 11:52 AM on July 7, 2011

IAAH, IANAA (I am a historian, I am not an Americanist).

It sounds like the place to look would be with the federalist and anti-federalist papers, both readily available online. A quick search doesn’t turn up any discussion specifically about members of congress, but Federalist 79 (Hamilton) suggests a general philosophy that they may well have applied to members of congress as well:

“NEXT to permanency in office, nothing can contribute more to the independence of the judges than a fixed provision for their support. The remark made in relation to the President is equally applicable here. In the general course of human nature, A POWER OVER A MAN's SUBSISTENCE AMOUNTS TO A POWER OVER HIS WILL. And we can never hope to see realized in practice, the complete separation of the judicial from the legislative power, in any system which leaves the former dependent for pecuniary resources on the occasional grants of the latter..."

From what little I know about this period, I know that some states were much more wealthy and influential than others, and that corruption and undue influence were chief concerns, as was ensuring that elected officials would put the interests of the nation – the whole nation – above their own personal benefit and/or the limited interest of the one state they represented. I’m guessing the main argument for having the federal government pay congressional salaries was to prevent members of congress – many of whom would presumably be among the most powerful, wealthy, influential people in their states – from using their congressional votes to extract larger salaries from their individual state legislatures. Conversely, I also know that some of the congressional delegates early on didn’t have very much money – setting a standard salary, one sufficient for their living expenses, would reduce the temptation for them to accept bribes.

Again, this is all kind of just semi-educated guesswork – if it were me I would start with the federalist/anti-federalist papers and work from there. Hopefully an Americanist will chime in soon with better info.
posted by amy lecteur at 12:09 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

From the debate in the Virginia Ratifying Convention:
[James Madison:] It was thought improper to leave it to the state legislatures, because it is improper that one government should be dependent on another; and the great inconveniences experienced under the old Confederation show the states would be operated upon by local considerations, as contradistinguished from general and national interests. Experience shows us that they have been governed by such heretofore, and reason instructs us that they would be influenced by them again. This theoretic inconvenience of leaving to Congress the fixing their compensations is more than counterbalanced by this in the Confederation--that the state legislatures had a right to determine the pay of the members of Congress, which enabled the states to destroy the general government.

Confusingly, this actually appears under the discussion of Clause 2, but is clearly referring to Clause 1. There are numerous other sources of relevant discussion here, in a U of Chicago Press publication called The Founders' Constitution.
posted by dhartung at 9:56 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Amy Lecteur, I would do some in-depth research in the Federalist AND the Anti-Federalist papers. Both collections have discussions of nearly every line-item in the Constitution, and perhaps there's a rebuttal argument to Federalist 79 in the Anti-Federalist papers that will give you some context.
posted by firstcity_thirdcoast at 8:50 AM on July 8, 2011

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