Congressional Pay Has Always Been an Issue

One of the thorny issues set aside during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was the subject of pay for the members of the House and Senate. And, if so, by whom?

Under the Articles of Confederation, the individual states paid the salaries of their representatives sent to the Continental Congress. FYI, after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the Continental Congress changed its name to the Confederation Congress to reflect the country’s governing agreement. Under the Articles of Confederation, the individual states paid their representative. The theory was that if the voters in the state were unhappy with their representative, the state legislature could simply stop paying the individual.

However, when the Constitution was written, it was clear that the framers wanted to reduce the powers of the states. The majority believed the new central government should be legally “superior” to those of the states. One way to do this was to ensure that the salaries of Senators and Representatives would be paid by the Federal government. Hence, the first sentence in Article I, Section 6 states 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.

Culture, precedent, and history played a role in the debate over how much we the people should pay our legislators. Many of the framers of the Constitution thought that members of the Senate would come from the “upper” or wealthier citizens and the members of the House would come from the masses a.k.a. the common people. This was a holdover from the British Parliament which has an upper house, the House of Lords, made up of members of the nobility, and the lower House of Commons, in which any citizen can run for office.

Some members of the Constitutional Convention contended that Senators and Representatives should not be paid. Others like James Madison suggested that Senators should be paid more than Representatives because they had more “responsibilities.” His position was ignored.

One of the first orders of business of the Congress was to set the pay of $6 which is the equivalent of $204.30 in 2023. Amid contentious debates around establishing government departments, cabinet positions, where the government should be located, and creating the Bill of Rights, Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris tried to slip through a bill that would pay Senators $2 more as a condition for approving the $6 salary.

The House rebelled. In an odd compromise, the Senate agreed to $1 more, but it wouldn’t start for six years and would be valid for only that year. As it turned out, Senators did get their dollar, but it was only for a temporary session in 1793 to decide whether to ratify a treaty.

Since 1787, Senators and Representatives have been paid the same salary except for a two-month period in 1983, when members of the House were paid slightly more than their Senate counterparts. It took 187 years, but finally, the House got its revenge.

Image is the spine of the pay and per diem records of the Senate from 1790 to 1881.

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