Wednesday, March 21 , 2018, 11:27 pm | Overcast 58º


Harris Sherline: Legislators at Nearly Every Level Are Overpaid

Given the compensation and perks, 'public service' is hardly a sacrifice

If you saw the following classified ad in the help-wanted section of your local newspaper, do you think it would get your attention?

Executive position. High status. No specific educational background, training or work experience required, but must be a fast learner.
Successful applicant is able to think on his or her feet and adapt quickly to challenging situations.
Demonstrated fundraising skills a necessity. Strong networking and PR abilities needed.
Must be capable of working without any direct supervision or accountability.
Able to make commitments that appear to be binding but that can be interpreted more than one way.
Compensation: $174,000 to start, plus liberal benefits. Excellent health-care and retirement plans. 
Office expense budget to $1 million a year, free mail, privileged parking at the airport and many other perks.
Equal opportunity employer.

How does this job sound to you? Interested? Would you like to know where to apply? If you are interested, the line forms on the right. Exactly what is this position, you may ask? Or have you already guessed?

Does it really matter? Anything that pays that well with those kinds of benefits is good enough for me. How about you?

Would it make a difference if you learned that this position is held in very low esteem by the public? Almost as low as used car salesmen and, heaven forbid, lawyers.

If you haven’t guessed already, the ad is for a politician. Except, of course, no one ever advertises to fill those positions.

The job is so desirable that it isn’t necessary to advertise. Applicants abound. Not only that, they are able to compete for them using campaign money to pay for it. If they fail, it costs them nothing, except perhaps their time and energy. If they win, they get generous compensation, benefits and perks — and you get, what?

Exactly what do you get? Some people would say the shaft.

By now, you must have the idea that I don’t think much of politicians. You’re right, I don’t.

Why are politicians and government employees generally referred to as being in “public service,” as if they are making some great sacrifice to work for the government?

From my perspective, what I see in politics are people who, for the most part, make a career of being on a government payroll, while the rest of the population pays the tab. They often talk about the financial and career sacrifices they make, yet the combination of their compensation and benefits are frequently much better than those of many, if not most, of their counterparts in the private sector, without being subjected to comparable market risks.

In fact, most politicians probably couldn’t earn a better living in another field. They justify this with the argument that they are sacrificing to hold office and to “serve the people.” As far as I’m concerned, that is absolute nonsense.

We live in an era of the professional politician. “Public service” has become a career choice, and one that pays far better than most politicians could earn on their own, along with benefits and retirement plans that generally exceed anything the average taxpayer in the private sector receives.

Few people are aware that California legislators earn $95,291 a year, while according to the state’s Franchise Tax Board, the average income of the state’s residents is only about $34,000. People’s Advocate Inc. has reported that “California legislators are now the highest paid state officials in America!”

At the state level, our “public servants” receive an annual salary of $95,291, a free car that they are also permitted to use for personal purposes plus insurance and other perks. On the national level, members of Congress receive $174,000 a year — plus perhaps the best health-care plan available anywhere, plus a very generous retirement plan and other perks.

Perhaps Mark Twain said it best when he observed, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

Legislators at almost every level are overpaid, not underpaid, as many of them would have us believe. This is even more the case when their perks and retirement benefits are factored into the calculations. Perhaps the only exception is city council members in small municipalities.

You may wonder, isn’t their compensation just keeping pace with inflation? To answer that, we can take a brief look at what has happened to the value of our money over the last century.

It takes $2,310.26 today to equal the purchasing power of $100 in 1910. Looking at it another way, $100 in 2010 had only the same purchasing power that $4.54 did in 1910.

So, while our “public servants” have increased their own pay 2,320 percent since 1910, they have also reduced the purchasing power of today’s money to the point that it is worth only 4.54 percent of its 1910 value today.

Is that the kind of track record that justifies the size of the increases in compensation they have given themselves?

As for the argument that unless we pay compensation that is competitive with the private sector it is not possible to attract the most qualified people to public service, I believe that is also a myth. In May 1999, Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, stated in testimony before the House of Representatives that a 1996 Roll Call study found that “all but six of the 73 newly elected House members will receive large pay hikes when they take office, compared with their previous employment. ... During the last 10 years, House members gave themselves five pay raises, senators six. Congressional salaries grew by $42,900 — more than $15,000 above inflation.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median 1998 earnings, meaning half above and half below, of four professions makes the case very effectively: teachers, engineers, lawyers and doctors. The median income for elementary school teachers was $34,709 to $59,825 for secondary; for engineers, it was $39,442 to $127,750, depending on the specialty — that is, chemical, civil, electrical, etc.; for lawyers, $118,000 was the number.

It seems clear that, by any standard, most politicians receive a pay raise when they are elected to Congress.

Our elected representatives were originally supposed to spend only a brief part of their careers in public service, then return home and live thereafter under the same laws they passed while they were in office. Instead, over time, they have made politics their profession, often exempting themselves from the very laws the rest of us must obey.

A case in point is the minimum wage. Congress exempted itself from the federal minimum wage requirement for many years. The reason, of course, was that it was too costly for their budget. Think about the rhetoric we have been subjected to every time the minimum wage is debated in Congress. Ever hear anyone say anything about the fact that they were passing a law they did not have to observe?

As far as I’m concerned, politicians are generally interested primarily in their own careers. Extending their stays in the nation’s capital for as long as possible seems to have become their principal focus.

So, what can be done about all this? Anything?

I haven’t a clue. But I do know one thing: As long as the public remains passive and continues to accept the BS of politicians, nothing will change. Someone has to take the lead. The problem, I think, is that there are just so many outrageous actions constantly confronting the public that we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume. So much outrage, so little reaction.

Another Mark Twain commentary still seems to apply: “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”

Care to volunteer?

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog,

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