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Congress Works 2 Days in August; Makes 5 Times Average American

by Wendy Innes, published

In the ever contentious debate about money on Capitol Hill and across the country, much has been made about the salaries of members of Congress. Are they really earning the paychecks they receive?

The truth, according to reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Senate, is that congressional members are paid much more than most Americans, for much less work, on top of a top-notch retirement program and a pile of perks. Not a bad gig, if one can get it.


While members of Congress claim that these long recesses are "district work periods," often times these periods are spent campaigning or doing little real work for Americans, leaving the long nights and weekends to staff members, who, to their credit, work very hard.

And for their lack of effort, federal lawmakers are afforded a very comfortable paycheck of $174,000 per year -- or $3,346 per week, plus full benefits. And. if you are Speaker of the House, that amount increases to $223,500 -- or $4,298 per week.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median household income for a worker with full-time employment was $776 per week during the second quarter of 2013. This was a slight 0.6 percent gain over the previous year, but still less than half of the increase in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), which is part of the reason why many families are struggling to make ends meet.

Historically, Congress received a daily per diem for the first 65 years of our country's existence, paid only for the days when they were in session, except for a 16 month period beginning in December 1815 when they were paid a salary for the first time. Congress saw their pay nearly double in the decade after WWII, but has not received a pay raise since 2009.

Only twice in history have they taken a pay cut: in 1874 in response to the "Long Depression" and then a series of cuts from 1932-1934 in response to the "Great Depression."

While many myths circulate about the retirement benefits available to members of Congress, the truth is that it is in fact better than what most civilian workers get, but contrary to the myth, a member of Congress does not receive their full pay for the rest of their life after serving only one term.

In fact, what they receive is a direct result of what they pay in, how long they serve, and age. The system is in many ways similar to the system currently used by the military in calculating retirement. Since 1989, congressional members have been required to pay into the Social Security system.

There are a mountain of other perks provided to members of Congress that often aren't accounted for when talking about congressional earnings, such as paid travel expenses and a mountain of allowances, even one for furniture -- up to $40,000 payable to the Architect of the Capitol -- that the average American worker will never see.

So, while many congressional members would like their constituents to think that their representative is "one of them," that is a hard case to sell.

Many have called for congressional members to take a pay cut, and in fact, there is a historical precedent for this. In times of severe financial problems, members have taken pay cuts.

However, Congress would have to vote on the cut, and that would mean that everyone would have to agree that the financial crisis is severe enough, something that isn't likely in this Congress.

The case could be made that the country could save a significant amount of money by returning to the per diem system that was used until 1815. At least that way if members weren't in session doing the people's business, the people wouldn't foot the bill.

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