Initially, from the First Continental Congress, through the early 1800’s, following the War of 1812, being a member of Congress was basically a part-time job. Then, as now, Congress sat in regular session for about six months per year.
Pay for Congressmen at the time was $6 per day they were in session. It is difficult to give a direct comparison in today’s dollars since most colonial Americans still used barter as a primary means to acquire goods. However, an illustration may be drawn, when noting that Americans in the 1770’s and 80’s enjoyed the highest per-capita income in the world, at approximately $500 per capita in today’s dollars. The Congressional income, at an annual rate, would have equaled approximately $2,500.
The Founders gave considerable thought to the dangers of creating elected offices that overly compensated the office-holder. Their concern was that superior compensation would, itself, entice them to seek a position. The Founders, in what has become an almost passé expression, believed in service to the nation as a duty to be exercised when called to do so. Overt office-seeking was frowned upon, and although there were many Founders that had the ambition of leading our nation out of its infancy, most sought office quietly, usually through third parties, such as a friendly agent in the press.
Though ambition and the opportunity to set the standard for their Noble Experiment undoubtedly colored the motivations of many of our Founders, serving honorably was paramount in all of their actions and decisions. In a letter to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams spoke for many in his wish of the men who would lead our young country:
If men of wisdom and knowledge, of moderation and temperance, of patience, fortitude and perseverance, of sobriety and true republican simplicity of manners, of zeal for the honour . . . of the commonwealth; if men possessed of these other excellent qualities are chosen to fill the seats of government, we may expect that our affairs will rest on a solid and permanent foundation.
The greatest example of a Founder exemplifying this, and of the final words of the Declaration of Independence. . . . ”we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred honor”, is General George Washington.
General Washington refused to accept any compensation for his service during the Revolution. Due to his service, and an inability to properly oversee his lands at Mount Vernon, General Washington enjoyed the victory of the Revolution, tempered by his own personal debt. Much of this debt came from his direct financing of supplies and equipment required for his soldiers, and the fact that Congress reneged on its promised reimbursement of his expenses.
Upon being elected President of the United States, Washington again offered to serve without compensation. Congress, however, voted the Office of the President an annual salary of $25,000. In today’s dollars, this would be approximately $550,000, compared to the $400,000 salary, and $50,000 personal allowance the President currently receives.
While the President’s salary and compensation is relatively similar to what the Founders envisioned, that of our other federally elected officials is not. At an annual salary of $174,000, and perks that include cut-rate health clubs and medical care at the US Capitol, our members of Congress are out of touch with the American people. The current salary they enjoy compares to the $58,547 our Founders received, adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars. Ironically, the Founder’s compensation, in today’s dollars relates favorably with the median household income of Americans today, of $49,777. Remember, Congressmen and women are only constitutionally required to serve while Congress is in session, approximately six months each year.
As an example of the level to which Congress has lost touch with the American people, the latest House Budget, that money allocated for the day-to-day running of the US House of Representatives, has budgeted $475,000 for bottled water. With an annual salary three times that of the average American, our Congress is unable to buy their own water? Add this to the additional perk of “franking”, free postage for sitting Representatives and Senators, which effectually gives them a means to campaign at taxpayers’ expense, under the guise of “constituent services”. Until 1984, members of Congress did not contribute to, nor receive benefits from Social Security. Not surprising, since they become vested in a congressional pension after only five years.
Over the years, congressional salaries have risen dramatically higher than those of the very people they ostensibly serve. While Americans pursue happiness in their lives, Congress reaps the rewards of those same Americans’ work. It is often heard, when referring to tax dollars, and the way Congress spends it, that “it isn’t their money”! While cliché, it is accurate. It is the money of the American people, earned by the sweat of their brow that, through taxation, is to provide defense for our nation and only those other powers specified in Section 8, Article I of the Constitution.
Section 6 of the Constitution specifies that The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law. . . . [Sic] Yet in the greatest possible example of a wolf in the henhouse, Congress writes the laws. Through the years, Congress' salary has grown with inflation, though not quite kept up with it. During this same period, median household incomes have grown about ten percent of that of our elected officials. A gulf exists and continues to grow between We the People and our elected representatives.
As stated in Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution of the United States, Senators were elected by their respective state legislatures. This provided an additional check in the check-and-balance form of government that our Founders created. As any schoolchild knows, we have three branches of government: Legislative, Judicial, and Executive. Each branch has specific responsibilities, providing checks upon the others. By providing in the Constitution for the Representatives of the House to be elected by the popular vote of the people, the Senators to be elected by the state legislatures, and the President by the Electoral College, the Founders created an additional means of balancing our federal government.
The 17th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified April 8, 1913, by 36 of the 48 states, changed this bedrock principle enshrined by the Founders. Subsequently, this Amendment was ratified by two other states. Nine failed to ratify it, and Utah remains the lone state to outright reject the 17th Amendment.
The 17th Amendment provides that Senators, like Representatives, will be elected through a popular vote. The reasons given during debates of the time dealt primarily with the rampant corruption which had encroached into our electoral process. The greatest abuses were found in the metropolitan centers of our young country, and in corruption dens such as Tammany Hall.
Regardless of the reasons, the 17th Amendment threw our government off-balance from what the Founders intended. Those states failing to ratify did so as they rightly felt the 17th Amendment took power and authority from the states, thus granting more to the federal government.
The time has come to repeal the 17th Amendment and return our electoral process to what the Founders intended. Men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson recognized that it was easier for the average colonist to approach their local and state officials than members of Congress, several days’ ride away in the nation’s capitol. This was where the “check” on Senators came into play, as each state’s legislature would be answerable to the people of their state, and thus the two Senators sent by the legislature to the Senate, were accountable to the people, through their state’s legislatures.
Our Founding Fathers were arguably the greatest collection of great minds ever assembled. Philosophers, inventors, statesmen-patriots all. Despite their many differences, they were able to bring out the best in one another. To study them today is to see into their collective genius, exponentially greater than any one. What is inspiring to anyone studying them today is their great foresight. A chess grandmaster may see four, five or even six moves ahead. In a forced position, a grandmaster may see as many as ten moves ahead. Our Founders had the foresight, almost a second sight, to see nearly 250 years into the future of our nation. Reading them today, it is nearly incomprehensible how uncannily they predicted the obstacles, hurdles, and challenges that our Noble Experiment would encounter.
With the advent of instantaneous communication, a camera in every phone, and a phone in every pocket, it is much easier to hold our elected officials accountable today. Much easier than even our Founders may have envisioned. By returning the election of United States Senators to the legislatures of their respective states, we will reestablish a level of accountability for our elected officials not experienced in 98 years. We will have the means to rein in their avarice and bring them back in touch with their constituents-We the People.