Opinion: Politics is a full-time profession

Last week, a bipartisan commission of former state lawmakers finished working on and recommended a solution to a long-standing problem: Kansas’s terrible legislative pay scale.

Currently, our state Legislature — which is officially supposed to meet for only about 90 days, but which actually often involves much more work than that, frequently spread throughout the whole year — pays its members a base salary of only $27,000. While the coverage of per diem expenses does allow for some variability, when all the costs of traveling and housing are added up, Kansas lawmakers are some of the worst paid in the whole country.

The former legislators who met to find a solution to this issue were fully aware of the problem. Some had stories of juggling multiple temp jobs to make ends meet when not in session, while others noted how the current system unintentionally biases the Legislature, often limiting those who run for office to those who can afford the pay cut or already have job security, meaning that retired or independently wealthy candidates predominate. And don’t forget the temptation which poorly paid politicians face when well-financed special interests come calling!

The recommendation of the commission to increase the base salary of legislators to $43,000, with a built-in provision for annual salary adjustments, should be applauded and implemented immediately. More than that, it should lead us to reflect upon our expectations for those elected to office, and whether they’re worth paying for.

Across the United States, the notion of a “citizen legislature” has always had a strong hold. Rooted in small-r republican, localist, and agrarian convictions, it is the idea that those who represent voters should be discouraged from developing any serious involvement with their civic role, and should treat government work as a temporary act of public service instead.

Whatever the value of that vision, its perpetuation despite massive changes in economics, technology, and urbanization over the past century and a half is a hindrance to thinking clearly about the political choices which confront voters, where political experience, policy knowledge, and government training need to be balanced with maintaining local, democratic connections.

Many states recognize this, at least when it comes to matters of compensation. Only 14 states (Kansas included) hold to a genuinely “part-time” model in how they define legislative duties; even states with legislatures that meet only once every two years tend to have hybrid systems, recognizing that legislators put in significant hours and deserve to be paid accordingly.

That those we elect need to stay close to and be responsive to those who elect them is a central feature of democratic accountability. But there are ways of thinking about accountability which still acknowledge the specialized skills that good public servants develop, and the steep learning curve they go through to get there. Imagining politics as a permanent entry-level job, idealizing the inexperienced as somehow more “authentic,” is the sort of delusion which may bring voters to wrongly see practical legislative work as an annoying distraction, unworthy of support (even while continuing to unreflectively re-elect incumbents whose name or party or face they trust).

In the end, the truth is that politicians do real, complicated work, and while in office ought to be regarded as engaged in a full-time profession. More realism in how we view our representatives (and how we pay them) would, perhaps, enable us to better assess their performance–and would likely provide us with more diverse alternatives to choose from when elections roll around.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.


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