Mar 192013

Congress did something that was quite unpopular on March 19, 1816. It changed the way in which it was compensated for its service. When Congress first met in 1789, it set its own pay as necessitated by Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution. Rather than a salary, members decided to take a per diem rate of $6.00 as payment for their effort. That was a sensible solution because Congress did not meet year round. Here are the dates for the first session of Congress and the resulting income for a member who fully attended each session: 

1st: March 4, 1789 – September 29, 1789 = 210 days
2nd: January 4, 1790 – August 12, 1790 = 221 days
3rd: December 6, 1790 – March 3, 1791 = 99 days
Total salary = 530 days x $6.00 per day = $3180.00

As stated before, Congress did not meet year round. It also did not meet for the same number of days each year. The Second Congress only met for 316 days. The Ninth Congress met for a paltry total of 234 days during its two sessions beginning on December 2, 1805 and ending March 3, 1807. 

In 1816, Congress decided to change its pay structure to an annual salary rather than a per diem basis. They set their salary at $1500.00 per year. Given the amount that a member of the First Congress might have received, this salary does not seem exorbitant. Right? Wrong! In order to equalize the amount that was earned with the previous structure, Congress would need to meet for 500 days each session. You might not be surprised to learn that did not happen. The Fourteenth Congress, which was in session when the change occurred, met for a total of 240 days. Needless to say, there was quite an outcry over the dramatic pay raise Congress had given itself. Effective February 6, 1817, Congress returned to the per diem method of payment for services rendered. Senators received $1.00 more per day than the $6.00 rate for members of the House. In January, 1818, Congress voted that both houses would receive $8.00 per day of service. The Thirty-Fourth Congress retuned to an annual salary structure in 1855. Members of both houses were paid $3000.00 annually. They were in session 363 days. That would be a per diem rate of $16.53. 

In addition to the Congressional pay structure, in any form, members were able to accept honoraria until 1991. An honoraria is a one-time payment (monetary or otherwise) for some type of service, achievement, or activity. While some honoraria may be warranted, Congressional honoraria often turned into what we might think of as perks and boondoggles. There was no limit on that amount until 1975. Between that time and 1989, Senators could receive honoraria totaling as much as 40% of their salaries, while members of the Congress could receive as much as 30%. Congressional salaries, on both sides of the aisle, were adjusted after honoraria was prohibited in 1991.

Currently, members of Congress receive a salary of $174,000.00. They may receive “outside earned income” up to a total of 15% of their salary with certain limitations. Although they no longer may receive an honoraria, they do enjoy the benefit of a pension. While FERS, the Federal Employees Retirement System, was reformed in 1984, their pensions continue to be based on the average of their three highest yearly salaries. Although Congress has sometimes made a point of denying itself a cost-of-living adjustment, Federal retirees (as well as entitled surviving family members) do receive such an adjustment. The most recent adjustment began on January 2, 2013. A 1.7 percent increase was given to all those who had received benefits for more than one year. 

Who is the highest salaried federal employee? The highest paid civil servant I could find was Electron Kebebew, M.D. who works at the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Kebebew’s salary is $350,000.00 per year. President Obama is the highest paid elected official with an annual salary of $400,000.00. The President, of course, has quite a few benefits associated with his job. 

As you can see, one important task we have as in our role as “We The People” is that of an oversight committee on our elected officials. We must speak out strongly against injustice and improprieties, and we must take action at the polls to use the power given to us by our Founding Fathers.


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