What would be a fair salary for a member of the Senate? The framers of the U.S. Constitution, in their wisdom, dodged that potentially explosive question. Some believed, however, that because senators would probably come from the well-to-do classes, they should receive no salary at all.
Under the Articles of Confederation—the constitution in effect during the framers’ 1787 deliberations—members of the existing Congress received varying salaries from their individual states. If a state legislature became dissatisfied with one of its representatives in the Continental Congress, it could simply suspend his salary.
Seeking to narrow state powers over the central government, the Constitution’s authors provided that congressional salaries would come from the federal treasury, with Congress setting the actual amount.
As one of its first orders of business, the House of Representatives formed a committee to draft congressional pay legislation. The panel recommended six dollars for each day a member attended a session. But Representative James Madison, the Constitution’s principal architect, irritated his fellow House members by proposing that senators be paid more than representatives because they presumably had greater responsibilities under the Constitution. The House ignored Madison and accepted the six-dollar rate for both chambers.
When the clerk of the House carried the pay bill to the Senate chamber, senators were preoccupied with major legislation establishing cabinet departments, locating the permanent seat of government, and creating the Bill of Rights. Nevertheless they found time for a heated debate on salaries. Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris moved that senators receive two dollars more than House members so that they would not have to live in substandard boarding houses and associate with “improper company.”
On September 14, 1789, in the face of solid House opposition, the Senate agreed to a curious face-saving arrangement. Senators would receive one dollar more than House members, but not for another six years—and the higher rate would remain in effect for one year only.
Six years later, senators did receive the extra dollar, but just for a two-week special session in which only the Senate was convened to consider a treaty.
For the next 187 years, members of both houses received the same rate of pay. Then, in 1983, perhaps as a long-deferred reward for the House’s earlier patience, its members received a higher salary than senators—but only for a few months. Call it even.