Color me unimpressed with politicians who promise not to take their salaries.
That goes for Donald Trump, whose businesses are profiting from his presidency in all sorts of documented ways.
And it goes for Ralph Abraham, the third-term Alto congressman and declared candidate for governor, who made that promise to his constituents while running for his first term but abandoned it in his second.
If politicians can and want to quietly donate their salaries to charity, that’s great. More power to them.
But when they make it a campaign plank — as Abraham did back in 2014 when he told 5th District voters that “YOU Should Not Pay A Penny For Representation,” according to his campaign website — they turn generosity into a self-congratulatory gesture. By donating his $174,000 congressional salary for two years, as his spokesman said he did, Abraham didn’t affect the taxpayers' bottom line. He didn’t further any policy goal, or make government more efficient. What he did was signal his own self-professed virtue.
The problem with all this is obvious is you follow it to its logical conclusion.
Making the case that members who don’t take their pay are superior suggests that candidates who are not wealthy enough to work for free are less worthy of serving. The end result, were this to be a deciding factor in many elections, would be a public sphere disproportionately stacked with people of privilege. People who might, say, exhibit no particular sense of urgency when hundreds of thousands of federal workers are being made to work without pay, because they have no idea what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.
All that said, if a politician decides this is a promise worth making, it certainly is a promise worth keeping.
Abraham's office says he did keep it his first two years, The Advocate’s Tyler Bridges reported last week, but then abandoned it without making nearly so big a deal about his revised decision.
According to spokesperson Cole Avery, the problem was that Abraham didn’t understand during that first campaign that the outside income he could earn practicing medicine was sharply limited.
“Because of the loss of income, it was not a pledge he could continue beyond the first term,” Avery said. “There’s the belief that something should be one way, and then there’s the reality.”
But naivete is a pretty lame excuse. It’s entirely reasonable to expect a candidate for high political office to research these things beforehand. Nobody asked him to forego a salary. It was his idea, and he reaped political benefit from making the pledge.
None of this is to say that members of Congress should pocket their salaries under the type of extraordinary conditions we’re in now. We’re a month into the longest-ever partial government shutdown with no end in sight. About 800,000 federal employees aren’t getting their salaries and don’t know when they will, including some who are on furlough and some who are at work every day. And no, the promise of eventual back pay doesn’t make this OK. Government contractors are out of work and likely won't get back pay. Many citizens who rely on government services are inconvenienced, and others are genuinely suffering.
Funding government is a fundamental congressional responsibility. For members to take their pay while they’re inflicting this utterly unfair hardship on others is an affront, and it should be said here that Abraham is one of the members who has asked that his pay be withheld. The same goes for some but not all of the Louisiana delegation.
As for the shutdown itself, Abraham has loudly trumpeted the Republicans’ refusal to pass a spending bill unless it includes money for the border wall that Congress didn’t see fit to provide during the two years that the party had full control, but that is somehow an emergency now. That, and only that, is what’s costing all those people their livelihoods.
For them, and even for members of Congress, there’s nothing at all wrong with being paid for putting in a hard day’s work.
If only we saw more of that from this bunch.