Per Diem Plan

Congress' latest get-rich-quick scheme


Imagine getting $165 every day you showed up for work. Not bad, eh? Now imagine that's it's tax-free. Even better. Now imagine that it's on top of your current salary of roughly $145,000 a year. That's an incredible deal!

It's also a deal that many in the U.S. House of Representatives are trying to cut for themselves. They claim to be barely getting by on their $145,100 annual salaries (their benefits package, incidentally, is packed with premium perks, too). They want to quickly—and quietly—amend House rules to pay themselves $165 for each day that Congress is in session (around 150 days per annum). The per diem, which would total close to $25,000 a year, will of course be tax free.

"We're just trying to be treated like everybody else," Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) told The Washington Post. "It's a strain on me trying to maintain two households."

Treated like everyone else? A strain trying to maintain two households? Hello? Who gets a $165 a day just for showing up to work? Maybe NBA players, when they are actually on the road. Meeks ought to be thankful he's not a construction stiff: He'd get sent out of town and handed $50 a day to actually cover hotel room, meals, and a six-pack after work.

Consider this: Rep. Meeks' salary already places him and colleagues in the top 10 percent of all income earners. The $25,000 tax-free bump annualizes out to a cool, pre-tax $40,225 in New York, where state taxes top out at 6.85 percent. That pre-tax raise alone is more than what two-thirds of Americans earn each year. As for being like everyone else, Meeks certainly isn't talking about everyone else in his New York District, where the median household income is $36,223.

Maintaining two households is something I know a bit about. The missus and I commute between New Haven, Connecticut, and D.C.; we maintain two households. Here's a suggestion to Meeks: Rent an apartment in either D.C. or your New York district. The median rent is $441 in the former and $515 in the latter. Or if he's really struggling, he could sleep in his office for free. That's what former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) did for his six-year stint in the Capital City.

In case you're wondering, it's not just Meeks–or Democrats– who are into the per diem proposal. According to the Post, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) is also behind the idea. You see, the rent on the conservative congressman's Virginia apartment–$1,000 a month–eats into his take-home pay. For Souder, the tax-free boost from the per diem would be enough for him to buy half a house back home, where the median house value is $56,500. The median rent in his district: $295. I wonder how his average constituents, who somehow support themselves on annual household incomes of $30,859, feel about this all? My guess is that they're likely to respond the way a resident in Rep. John Doolittle's district did. Doolittle, a Republican from California, is also pushing the per diem plan, according to Roll Call, which first broke the story. As one of Doolittle's constituents told me: "What the hell does he need $165 a day for? Is he an idiot?"

So far, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has resisted the pressure to make the change. That's a smart move, considering how outrageous the plan is. But you've got to wonder how the long the former wrestling coach can keep from getting pinned on this one. His colleagues are piling up on this one, and something's going to give.

Legislators, who are trained to argue for anything, no matter how absurd, maintain that they ought to be treated at least as well as, sniff, state legislators. Forty six states provide legislators with per diems. California and New York are particularly generous, topping off annual salaries of, respectively, $99,000 and $79,500 with $121 and $116 per diems. But if Congress is looking to the states for instruction, let them check out the laboratory of democracy known as New Hampshire. Legislators there take a salary of $100 a year–with no daily bonus.

I do have a heart, and in that spirit, allow me to suggest ways that members of Congress can move forward on this without further lightening taxpayer wallets. If money is that important to our national representatives, current members can always quit Congress, run for state assembly, and trade D.C. for Albany or Sacramento (they're both nice towns, really).

Those who complain that they could make more in the private sector can always become lobbyists. That way, they can even spend their days chatting up their former pals in Congress. True, instead of having their butts kissed, they'll be kissing somebody else's butt. But it's a well-understood tradeoff: more money for more demeaning work.

The truly hard-pressed can always send the spouse to work. And if they have school-age kids, they can send them to public, not private schools (about 40 percent of House members with children have their kids in private schools). They might even consider loosening up the child labor laws and forcing the tikes to contribute to the family bottom line.