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March 19, 1816
Salary Storm

Old Ledger Page

Consider having your salary level tied to the market price of wheat.  That was one of the proposals the Constitution's framers considered as they wrestled with the politically explosive issue of how to set pay rates for members of Congress.  In the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, which served as the national legislature at the time the framers were meeting, members were paid at various rates by their individual states.

Deciding only that members should be paid from the U.S. Treasury, the framers left it up to Congress to set the actual amounts.

Soon after Congress convened in 1789, both houses agreed to a constitutional amendment that would delay implementation of any congressional salary changes until after the next election for all House members.  This would allow the voters an indirect voice in this inherently contentious matter.  Unfortunately for members seeking political cover, more than two centuries passed before the necessary number of states ratified this plan as the Constitution’s Twenty-seventh Amendment.

The First Congress decided to play it safe and compensate senators and representatives at the rate paid to the Constitution’s framers—six dollars for every day they attended a session.  Before long, however, senators began to argue that they deserved a higher rate than House members.  They cited the inconvenience of setting aside their customary livelihoods for the six long years of a Senate term and the presumed extra burdens of advising and consenting to treaties and nominations.  The House initially refused to take the Senate proposal seriously, but eventually consented to a seven-dollar Senate rate to take effect five years later and to last only one session.

As the years passed, members became increasingly dissatisfied with their rates of pay.  On March 19, 1816, they voted to abandon the six-dollar daily rate, which had amounted to about $900 a year for those who attended regularly, in favor of a $1,500 annual salary.  Supporters reasoned that this would make Congress more efficient because members would be less likely to prolong sessions to pile up more daily salary.

Members failed to anticipate the firestorm of public outrage.  Georgians hanged their senators in effigy.  An unusually large percentage of incumbent House members lost their elections or chose not to run that fall.  At the next session, Congress repealed the raise and quietly returned to a daily rate.

Forty years would pass before Congress again dared to adopt a fixed annual salary.

Reference Items:

U.S. Congress. Senate. The Senate, 1789-1989, Vol. 2, by Robert C. Byrd. 100th Cong., 1st sess., 1991. S. Doc.100-20.


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