Did you see Jason Chaffetz’s parting gift to the American people? Just before jumping ship just halfway through his term, the snake oil salesman from Utah suggested that taxpayers provide a housing allowance for members of Congress. (This is immediately following a failed effort to reduce the housing allowance of those in the military, who, presumably, also don’t get to choose where they work and earn a lot less than Chaffet’s $174,000 salary—which he says can’t support his mortgage in Utah, an apartment in DC, and college tuition for his three children, including one at law school at the private and very expensive University of Virginia.) The legislation would provide each member of the House and Senate $2500 (or 3.8 iPhones) per month to pay for the cost of living in the Washington DC area, where rents are the fourth-highest in the nation. That is a quite modest amount and would secure just an average one bedroom apartment, with utilities. It’s almost $7000 more per year than a person working full time in a minimum wage job in DC (which now pays $11.50) earns in a year. So I bet a lot of the poor in DC are really sympathetic to Chaffetz’s argument!
Chaffetz, who has lived in his office for 1500 days of service to Congress, justified the effort by saying that you shouldn’t have to be a millionaire to serve in government. I agree (and, in fact, I think that being a millionaire probably makes it harder to responsive to voters’ needs and concerns because being rich very often makes you unable to attend to other people)—and I think that a housing allowance is preferable to a pay raise because it gives voters a sense of control over our money.
Above, ironworker and army veteran Randy Bryce campaigns against Wisconsin Senator and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Watch it and remember why our nation is best served by people who believe that “[i]f somebody falls behind, we are so much stronger if we carry them with us.” Explains Bryce in the ad, “That’s the way I was raised. You look out for each other.”
He’s right to be concerned. The traditional avenues of serving are extraordinarily expensive. Who can afford an unpaid government internship? Only the children of the wealthy.
Campaigns cost a lot of money, and that cuts regular folks out of the democratic process. The race for the Georgia seat recently set a new record for a House race. And it’s not just seats in Congress: a recent school board race in California cost over almost FIFTEEN MILLION dollars, and, of course, it is these local contests where talent is cultivated for state- and national-level office.
How has this much money been spent on something so many people hate? Unless you are political consultant (and if you are, you should re-evaluate your life choices, because as those billboards say, we’re all gonna die and face God one days), you get nothing but a headache and a deep disgust for your fellow Americans from the constant barrage of marketing during campaign season, which is now year-round.
The risks are high, too—sometimes prohibitively so. In Iowa, the early Democratic challenger to white nationalist Rep. Steve King dropped out of the race in part because she was facing consistent death threats from King supporters and in part because she simply could not afford to leave paid employment (and, in particular, her health care benefits) to run. Even if she won, her leave of absence prior to taking office was unsustainable.
Others of us can’t even afford to vote.
In many states, legislatures work hard to make voting difficult for vulnerable populations: in North Carolina, the state has reduced the number of places where you can secure the ID required to vote and reduced the number of hours polls were open, targeting majority African American areas, in an effort to suppress votes. The consequence is that voters now have to take time off from work to travel greater distances to find a place to get an ID and to vote.
What is the consequence of these barriers? Fewer poor people—which also means fewer people of color—run for office or vote. In a system that designed to weigh white votes heavily than the votes of people of color, people of color need to vote in higher numbers to be heard at all. Fewer people come to office from poor, working, and middle class backgrounds. Few have experienced poverty or economic struggle. They have not worked in jobs that require physical labor, and the few have served in the military. They are not teachers, pastors, nurses, or social workers. They have not worked in jobs where they were helping people but in jobs where they were making money for someone else. Chaffetz, whose background is in multilevel marketing, is a prime example. Just over half of those in Congress are millionaires, and the median wealth of Congress continues to climb.
I’ll believe that members of Congress really intend to widen participation in democracy when I see them support public funding for elections, caps on donations to campaigns, a national holiday on election day, education grants to support students pursuing careers in government, affordable health care that isn’t linked to employment status, and zero barriers to the voting booth. In the meantime, the call to provide housing in order to insure that “we the people” can get into office feels a little disingenuous. .