Cutting Congressional Pay: Pointless Symbolism

Taxpayer "watchdog" groups are urging House Republicans to cut Congressional pay as an act of symbolism. It's symbolism all right, pointless symbolism.

The Hill reports that Speaker-to-be John Boehner is being pressured to propose a cut in Congressional pay as one of the first acts of the new House of Representatives:

Soon-to-be Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) is being pressed by taxpayer groups to slash the salaries of House lawmakers.

Cutting member pay would show voters the new GOP majority in the House is going to lead by example in their efforts to rein in spending and start with their own wallets, say officials with three prominent taxpayer advocacy groups in Washington, D.C.

“There has to be a visible gesture that people can immediately relate to,” said Pete Sepp, the executive vice president of the conservative National Taxpayers Union.

“And cutting pay would be one of the best symbols, because unlike virtually anything else the federal government does, when Congress spends money on its own salaries and benefits, people can make a direct comparison to their own situation,” Sepp said.


Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he supports members taking a pay cut, but when he spoke with Republican leadership aides recently, they were not quick to jump on the idea. However, Norquist said, Republicans might want to unveil the pay cut in a ceremonial fashion and not have their limelight stolen.

“I heard the rumor — and this may be true, but they just aren’t ‘fessing up to it,” he said.

Norquist added, “I talked to people around Boehner and they didn’t say, ‘No we’d never do that.’ They just weren’t saying ‘Yes.’ And if I were them, I would not tell me if they had some plan to do it because they want to announce it themselves.”

Members of Congress froze their salary in 2011 and did so this year as well, as they have on six other occasions since the law requiring lawmakers to vote against a cost-of-living increase was created in 1990, according to the Congressional Research Service. But the last time members of Congress took an actual pay cut was in the midst of the Great Depression on April 1, 1933.

And with more than 450,000 Americans experiencing joblessness, according to the Department of Labor’s latest numbers released Thursday, voters are going to be looking to Republicans for signals and symbols of actual change on Capitol Hill, Sepp said.

Congressional pay amounts to approximately 0.00265% of the total Federal Budget. Cutting what Congressman and Senators are paid amounts to absolutely nothing when it comes to seriously cutting spending and, as Jim Harper notes, if the GOP is serious about cutting spending it would be better to, you know, actually cut spending:

Symbols are great, but they don’t actually do anything. Rather than symbols, it might be better to hear a commitment to substance.

Or even procedure! A commitment to pass the appropriations bills on time would be good, for example, providing the public an opportunity to weigh in on the spending priorities of Congress.

Instead of anything like that, though, the people outside Congress who claim to be looking out for taxpayers are urging Republicans to engage in pointless symbolism. Quite frankly, I don’t care how much Congressmen and Senators are getting paid. What I do care about is whether or not they’re doing their jobs, and whether or not they’re actually taking real, concrete steps to curtail federal spending and reduce the budget deficit. If they do that, then what’s in their paycheck at the end of the week is going to be the least of my concerns.

You see the same sort of pointless symbolism in the GOP’s war on earmarks. In total, earmarked spending accounts for about $ 16 billion out of an annual Federal budget in excess of $ 1 trillion, or since a picture is worth a thousand words:

So, why all the attention paid to such an insignificant parts of the budget ? Personally, I’ve got to believe that there’s no small degree of political opportunism going on here. Earmarking is easy to criticize because it seems like pork-barrel politics at it’s most petty level, and saying that Congressmen and Senators should get a pay cut has populism written all over it. For an up-and-coming Congressman, or a Senator with dreams of moving down Pennsylvania Avenue to a larger, more oval, office,  they are both very easy targets to pick and claim that you’re “fighting government waste.” In reality, of course, you’re not.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Are all symbolic actions pointless or do some have points while others are without them?

  2. Sometimes, yes, symbolism is important. Which is why we didn’t see some kind of massive, expensive victory party from the GOP on Tuesday night — not the right image to send when most Americans feel like we’re still in a recession regardless of what the economy statistics say.

    In this case, though, it seems more like the kind of symbolism one engages in so that you don’t have to actually deal with the tough issues.

  3. just me says:

    I agree it is symbolic, and I am not sure congress members are necessarily over paid. I think means testing might make more sense.

    I saw somewhere yesterday (and can’t remember who now) make the argument that rather than cutting pay that they should reduce staff, which actually makes some sense.

    It won’t really cut into the budget as far as filling some giant hole of missing money, but I know when we start looking at our household budget it is often the smaller expenses that are the easiest to cut and can make a difference when added together. There are some expenses-and those are often the largest-that can’t be changed or cut (housing, insurance, etc).

    So I agree it is symbolic and isn’t going to make much of a difference in the budget, but I don’t know that it is pointless.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    If symbolism is sometimes significant, what is it specifically about this particular symbolic act that makes it pointless? The size of the federal budget and how the big ticket items (Social Security, Medicare, defense) figure in it relegate the act to symbolism.

    Can you give an example of a symbolic act WRT spending that wouldn’t be pointless?

  5. Boyd says:

    Or, more simply, I think you’re dead wrong on the pay cut, Doug. You’re 100% right that Congress needs to engage in substantive budget cutting (although, for the life of me, I have no idea where they’re going to find the hundreds of billions that need to be cut), but turning up your nose at symbolic cuts is merely political tone-deafness.

  6. Boyd,

    When those “symbolic” cuts are all that gets done, then they are indeed pointless.

    Cutting Congressional pay won’t do anything to deal with the budget problem in any significant respect, and honestly if they do it I really won’t be impressed at all

  7. Boyd says:

    You’re missing my point, Doug. Both are necessary. Either without the other would result in failure.

  8. Why is the symbolism necessary at all, especially when it ends up diverting attention from real spending cuts (like the phony war on earmarks has done more than once in the last several years) ?

  9. Boyd says:

    How many people would tell you that their Representative and Senators are worth at least $174,000 each? Against that, how many people would support maintaining (or even increasing) the Pentagon budget, especially since such a large part of that budget is spent on salaries and benefits for the troops? Ask the same question of Medicare and Social Security, and all of the largest components of the federal budget.

    You don’t think like the majority of the electorate, Doug (for that matter, neither do I). But you must recognize what influences people, even if it’s irrational.

  10. So what you seem to be saying is that it will be more politically possible for Congress to make a minor cut in Congressional salaries instead of dealing with the areas of the budget that actually matter.

    I agree, which is why I doubt the GOP will follow through on it’s promises to cut spending.

    I’m prepared to let them surprise me, but I’m not holding out much hope.

  11. Boyd says:

    That’s not quite what I’m saying, Doug.

    You seem to be predicting an either-or situation. Congress, led by the GOP’s newfound fiscal responsibility, will either cut Congressional salaries or cut the budget. You don’t seem to be allowing for them to do both.

    I’m saying they must do both. Just making strong cuts to the budget won’t have much of an impact on the perception of the majority of voters, I believe. But both are steps they must take. One for the health of the US, the other for the health of their reelection.

  12. Boyd,

    My problem is that Congress has a history of dealing with these symbolic issues but never actually getting around to real spending cuts. There’s every reason to believe that they’ll do it again.

  13. just me says:

    Actually if congress wants to make pay cuts for congressmembers they could probably save the most money be eliminating the congressional retirement packages. I think this would discourage career congress members as well.

  14. ratufa says:

    Why pay members of Congress any salary at all? Those members who aren’t already millionaires could be paid through a system of corporate sponsorship, where a company would pay a stipend while they serve in Congress and then hire them when they leave.

    Oh, wait, that’s the way the system works now.

    More seriously: Are we expected to believe that Congress Critters will have more empathy for the average Joe if they cut their pay for their own political advantage? If people in Congress don’t have a retirement package, is it really going to save us any money if it causes even a very very slight increase in corporate give-aways because of the promise of future employment?

    “How many people would tell you that their Representative and Senators are worth at least $174,000 each?”

    Are they worth that much? I think it depends on which members of Congress we’re talking about. Is that too high of a salary, given their responsibilities and the temptations they are subject to? No, I don’t think so.

  15. Boyd says:

    I apologize, I’m apparently being particularly inarticulate today, because no one seems to be getting my point.

    It doesn’t matter what Doug or ratufa or Boyd thinks about cutting Congressional salaries. What matters is what the electorate, in the aggregate, thinks about it. This isn’t about right or wrong or value or corruption or even about the budget. It’s about perception.

    It’s about politics.

  16. ratufa says:


    One of my problems with Congress cutting their salaries is about the perception: I think that the number of people who are impressed by the cuts will be balanced (or more than balanced) by the number of people whose first reaction is, “What sort of suckers do they take us for?”

    I suppose that if Congress announced big salary cuts at the same time they announced big spending cuts, to signal that everyone needs to share the pain, here might be some symbolic value. At least until the media points out how 44% or so of the folks in the House & Senate are millionaires and just how much they still make even after the cuts.

  17. Steve Plunk says:

    I understand Boyd’s point and agree. I agree even more with just me’s point. Do away with legislative retirement packages and enact de facto term limits and back to a citizen legislature.

  18. john personna says:

    It’s definitely symbolism. Whether it is pointless is depends on what they do next.